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CONNECT THE WORLD
Israel Braces For Possible Syrian Retaliation; Damascus Residents Quietly Nervous About U.S. Intervention; Index Awards: Invisible Bike Helmet
Aired August 28, 2013 - 16:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
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UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We are in a state of war right now preparing ourselves for the war scenario.
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JONATHAN MANN, HOST: Syria gets ready for a different kind of war as UN inspectors continue their investigation in the suburbs of Damascus.
Also ahead, we'll ask British politician Tony Benn and French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy is the international community has a duty to intervene in Syria.
And as the world marks 50 years since the march on Washington for jobs and Freedom, we examine the legacy of Martin Luther King.
ANNOUNCER: Live from CNN Center, this is Connect the World.
MANN: Thanks for joining us. We begin with breaking news. In just last hour a military jury recommended the death penalty for convicted Fort Hoot shooter Nidal Hasan. Hasan admitted to killing 13 people and wounding 32 others at the army base in 2009.
Ed Lavandera was inside the courtroom when the verdict was read out. We don't have contact with him now, but I can tell you that the case will go before an army general who has the option of reducing the sentence to life in prison without parole. We'll have more on that story as details come in.
Now to Syria, which says it's preparing for the worst-case scenario as western powers appear to be finalizing details for punishing military strikes. The permanent members of the UN security council met today, but failed to reach a consensus on a resolution drafted by Britain. It blames Syria's government for a chemical weapons attack and authorizes what it calls necessary measures to protect civilians.
The United States announced a short time ago that there's no avenue forward on the resolution, pointing the finger at Russia.
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MARI HARF, U.S. DEPUTY STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESWOMAN: We value the work of the UN. We've long said that we welcome UN action on Syria. This case was no different. But again we cannot be held up and responding by Russia's intransigence, continued intransigence at the United Nations that quite frankly the situation is so serious that it demands a response.
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MANN: Today, UN weapons inspectors return to the site of the alleged chemical attack near Damascus. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says they need at least a few more days to finish gathering evidence.
Syria denies using chemical weapons and says western threats of military action are meant to sabotage the UN mission.
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BASHAR JAAFARI, SYRIAN AMBASSADOR TO UNITED NATIONS: It's not up to the United States or anybody else to agress any nation member of the United Nations on baseless allegations that were not yet -- that are not yet clarified scientifically and politically speaking by the investigation team.
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MANN: U.S. officials are expected to soon release an intelligence report that they say proves the Syrian regime used chemical weapons. But Britain now says it will wait for the UN inspectors report before taking any military action.
The British parliament is due to vote tomorrow on whether the international community should intervene in Syria, but it will hold off on authorizing any military force if deemed necessary until after the UN team announces its findings.
Earlier today, British foreign secretary William Hague spoke about the need for action.
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WILLIAM HAGUE, BRITISH FOREIGN MINISTER: This is the first use of chemical warfare in the 21st Century. It has to be unacceptable. We have to confront something that is a war crime, something that is a crime against humanity. If we don't do so, then we will have to confront even bigger war crimes in the future.
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MANN: From London to Washington to the United Nations, diplomats are furiously working the phones and holding emergency talks on Syria today. CNN world affairs correspondent Jill Dougherty is live at the White House. And senior international correspondent Nick Paton Walsh is reporting from the UN.
Let's start with you, Nick. We expected to see a resolution, a debate and then a Russian veto. It's almost routine. We didn't even get that far. What happened?
NICK PATON WALSH, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, we had a meeting this morning of the permanent five members -- Russia, China, France, the UK and U.S. that seemed to last about a couple of hours. The Russian representative there exiting quite early on. And then everybody else -- Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador here saying that -- her words were, we're done. I have no comment as she left that meeting.
No indication there to meet again.
Let's see, the point of this was to address the UK proposed resolution to discuss the text. After that, they may decide to put it to a vote.
Now at this point, there doesn't appear to be any further meetings about the actual text of the resolution. So a vote might happen, but if you just heard the U.S. State Department there, they see no avenue ahead of them. So potentially that Russian veto and intransigence, to quote the State Department, is likely to head off maybe the process here.
That's one view.
But we have another complication just emerging in the past few hours in the United Kingdom with their parliament. Tomorrow, they will debate a motion, which the UK government has itself tabled which says that before another vote could then proceed authorizing the UK's possible involvement in any military action, they want to hear from the UN inspectors who are currently on the ground inside Syria addressing the UN security council. They want to feel that all avenues at the UN have been exhausted before that secondary vote goes ahead.
So the timetable really here, if the UK is involved in any U.S. action -- and I should point out, too, the U.S. today said they would be dictate by their own timeline, not by anybody else's. That's beginning to slip.
One other thing we've just heard, Jonathan, too is that a source at the UN here saying that before those UN inspectors can actually put their report together, or address the UN security council, they have to send some samples taken inside Syria to laboratories.
Now, in the past that has potentially taken as long as a week for results to come back.
So, a very murky timetable here. We know the U.S. feel the clock is ticking. They want to act fast, be seen to be decisive. We know that Vladimir Putin is going to be welcoming Barack Obama in St. Petersburg in the middle of next week. So obviously they want to be on the same podium while the U.S. missiles are raining down on Syria, Moscow's staunch ally here. So there's a lot -- a few day window really here once inspectors leave. And that doesn't also look like it's going to fit with the UK's timetable here, Jonathan.
MANN: Nick, I'm going to ask you to stand by.
Jill Dougherty is with us from the white House. And Jill, two impediments now to quick action -- quick military action. The UK government is wanting to slow things down a little bit. And the United Nations resolution authorizing military action won't be there. Is Washington now prepared to wait?
JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: No. They aren't. In fact, Marie Harf who is the spokesperson for the State Department made that very clear, that they feel that -- as she put it -- we cannot allow diplomatic paralysis to be -- be a shield for the perpetrators of these crimes. And so they feel that they're blocked by the Russians, which they have been quite a lot. And now this movement by the British if -- they do say that the United Nations is important, but in the same breath they say they're not going to be stopped by it, because it really is in a sense useless. They will be blocked. And no action will be possible. So they will move ahead, they say, with consultations and with action according to their own schedule.
MANN: According to the schedule we're hearing about, there's also something else that's going to come into the mix and that is this U.S. intelligence report on what happened. Can you tell us about that and how it fits into the puzzle?
DOUGHERTY: Right. You know, that was one that we expected earlier this week to be released to the public. It certainly has been released behind the scenes to officials in a classified forum. And they have to talk with congress as well about it.
But for the public, we've got a couple of days, because when the White House was talking about it at the briefing yesterday, they said it will be this week. So two more days for that.
And what's in that, Jonathan, could be very interesting if it's as we expect one diplomat telling CNN that it is intercepts of communications among the top -- some of the top military of the Syrian army. And they were discussing -- this diplomat says -- communications -- they were discussing the movement of chemical weapons that preceded that attack. So if that is the case that could be something that would be very important to know.
But we don't have it yet. We expect to get it this week.
MANN: Nick Paton Walsh at the United Nations, all of this will remind some people about the debate that proceeded the adoption of the resolution allowing the no-fly zone in Libya. That resolution was explicitly, as this one seems to be, to help protect civilians. But it led to something more, it led to regime change. How much is that experience coloring the debate now underway at the UN?
WALSH: I think there's a Russian bitterness and memories of Libya. They obviously didn't like the outcome of that. But there's a broader Russian issue here, strategically Syria has been a stalwart ally in the Middle East. They have historically been uncomfortable with what they feel to be their geopolitical position being eroded. Vladimir Putin, a former KGB man himself described the fall of the Soviet Union as the greatest global geopolitical catastrophe of all time. So he's certainly a man who I think feels almost to a degree paranoid about how he sees their global position being eroded.
That is often behind the Russian position here.
They're essentially constantly pragmatic, though, in many ways. They're not going to go to the wall themselves to save Bashar al-Assad, but they'll certainly make this process as uncomfortable as possible. And of course the U.S. now saying that their veto power here at the UN effectively renders this institution, in their minds, to a degree pointless, because they can't get anything through they would like to see -- Jonathan.
MANN: Nick Paton Walsh live at the United Nations, Jill Dougherty live at the White House for us. Thank you both very much.
Well, the latest inside Syria in a moment. And as the UN continues to look for evidence of last week's alleged gas attack, we'll debate whether or not there is already a case for intervention in Syria.
Also ahead, we'll look at the Syrian crisis from the eyes of its neighbors. How other countries are getting ready for anything.
Plus, a speech that changed America. 50 years after Martin Luther King Jr. proclaimed I have a dream, we look at his legacy.
All that and much more when Connect the World continues.
MANN: You're watching CNN. And this is Connect the World. I'm Jonathan Mann. Welcome back.
As world powers consider action against Syria, allies of Damascus are pushing back. Iran is among those warning the west against any attack. Its foreign minister likened an international strike to a return to the Middle Ages. And Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei issued these stern comments, "starting this fire will be like a spark in a large store of gunpowder with unclear and unspecified outcomes and consequences. The U.S. threats and possible intervention in Syria is a disaster for the region. And if such an act is done, certainly the Americans will sustain damage like when they interfered in Iraq and Afghanistan."
Meanwhile, Israel says the chances of a retaliatory attack on its soil are low, but it is taking extra precautions nonetheless. It is distributing gas masks. And the prime minister is meeting with his defense chiefs.
CNN's Jim Clancy has been following the story from Jerusalem. A warning to our viewers, first some of the images you're about to see may be graphic.
JIM CLANCY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Israeli officials say they are ready if the country is targeted with missiles by Syria or its pro-Iranian ally Hezbollah.
The military is on a state of alert, reserves have been called up, Israel's own Iron Dome system of missile interceptors, as well as other systems have been put in place.
Iran's Fares News Agency (ph) quoted a senior Syrian military official saying this, "if Syria is attacked, Israel will also be set on fire."
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER (through translator): We are not part of the civil war in Syria, but if we identify any attempt whatsoever to harm us we will respond and we will respond in strength.
CLANCY: Most Israeli officials and regional experts say threats to attack Israel if the Americans hit Syria over its alleged use of chemical agents are a bluff.
PROF. MOSHE MAOZ, HEBREW UNIVERSITY: I think it's just empty, hollow threats. They're not going to do it, because Syria knows very well that Israel will retaliate very heavily against targets in Syria, and which will cause the downfall of the regime.
CLANCY: The public isn't taking any chances. In Tel Aviv, thousands took advantage of free government gas masks available at their local post offices. One government official estimated 70 percent of the Israeli public was now equipped. In the occupied territories, Palestinians are on their own.
Israel is keen to see Bashar al-Assad punished for any use of chemical agents. The prime minister has warned Syria is a testing ground. And Iran is watching closely to gauge international response. A punishing strike that might degrade Assad's military strength, would be welcomed here for sending a message to Damascus and Tehran.
(on camera): Israelis expect a sharp response from the Americans, just that kind of message. But Palestinian experts say this intervention, when and if it comes, will not signal a sudden shift in Washington's policy on Syria. And it will not change the sad reality on the ground.
DR. MAHDI ABDUL HADI, PALESTINIAN ACADEMIC SOCIETY FOR THE STUDY OF INTL. AFFAIRS: Syria has been already divided, fragmented, destroyed by the regime itself. It's bleeding, it's fragmented, and whether a hit today -- it's already done. You created the public opinion all over the world that you are hitting it. It's already done. The day after what?
CLANCY (voice-over): Sadly, it will almost certainly be a return to the grinding civil war that has already killed more than 100,000 people and driven millions more into headlong flight.
Jim Clancy, CNN, Jerusalem.
MANN: Our Frederik Pleitgen is one of the only western TV corespondents currently in Damascus. He's been gauging reaction in the Syrian capital.
FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: At first glance, Damascus doesn't appear to be on the edge.
This man is with the police force and says he's not afraid of U.S. air strikes.
"This is my country," he says. "I believe we're winning."
Others are counting on help from above.
"This doesn't scar me," she says. "I believe in god so much that I know the USA can't do anything."
The war is never far away in Damascus with plumes of smoke from artillery strikes constantly rising up over the outskirts of the capital.
At Damascus University many students remain loyal to Bashar al-Assad and say they don't believe the military used nerve gas against civilians.
"I believe that chemical weapons were used in some way in certain areas," he says. "But I don't think the government did it, because they know what the results would be."
But dig down, and you find a sense of unease. The historic market in the old town is far emptier than usual. Syria's economy is in a state of crisis due to the conflict and now many fear things could get worse.
(on camera): Quite a strange mood here in Damascus. People really seem unsure as to what the future will bring with those American air strikes looming. Very few people will talk about it openly, but there are some who have bought additional food stocks, things like canned foods, just in case.
(voice-over): People are reluctant to talk about their worries on camera, but many in the Syrian capital fear the effects increased U.S. intervention could bring.
MANN: And Frederik Pleitgen joins us now live from Damascus.
Nervous people, how about the leaders of Syria. There's some question about whether the attacks will come sooner or later. There's been some measure towards delay here. What are you hearing in Damascus?
PLEITGEN: Well, certainly the leadership here in Damascus really realizes how dire the situation is at this point, Jonathan. I was in an interview with the information minister yesterday and he says that he believes that the United States is using all of this as a pretext to try and attack Syria.
I want to listen to some of the interview conducted with Omran al- Zoubi yesterday.
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PLEITGEN: It seems at this stage in the game as though it's only a matter of time before the United States and other countries intervene militarily here in Syria. Your government says it will retaliate.
OMRAN AL-ZOUBI, SYRIAN INFORMATION MINISTER (through translator): It's a bit incomprehensible what's happening. The United States was planning to conduct this war. They don't have a convincing argument to wage this aggression on Syria. The story they are using is that a chemical weapon has been used by the Syrian army. And this is untrue. They do not have proof of this statement. The question here is which role the American state is playing in solving the crisis. The American administration was supposed to push the opposition and convince it to go back to the negotiation table, or at the table in Geneva. But instead it seems that some parts inside the opposition have driven President Obama into war instead of him driving them to the negotiation table.
PLEITGEN: So what happens if they strike?
AL-ZOUBI (through translator): Syria has the right to defend itself. And this is a right that is found in international law. All people have the right to defend themselves. How we will defend ourself will remain a matter of military secret. And we will not tell you about that. But the sentiment on the streets of Syria is that America is making a big mistake.
PLEITGEN: The U.S., however, says it has clear evidence that the Syrian military is behind what happened here on Wednesday.
AL-ZOUBI (through translator): If the United States administration has proof that we used chemical weapons, then they should present this proof to the rest of the world. If they don't have this proof or evidence, then how are they going to stand up to American public opinion and world public opinion and explain why they are attacking Syria.
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PLEITGEN: So there you have Syria's information minister. Of course he also says that Syria will, in fact, defend itself. However, one of the things that he didn't say, Jonathan, is how exactly Syria plans to do that. We're going to have to wait and see what's going to happen in the next couple of days -- Jonathan.
MANN: Fred Pleitgen live from Damascus, thanks very much.
So there is still heavy debate over whether a strike on Syria is the right thing. Still to come tonight, we'll hear from two prominent voices on military intervention. Their arguments for and against.
And we pedal off in a different direction. We know it's safer. Many cyclists though still don't want to wear their helmets. A new invention might make some people reconsider. That story too next.
MANN: Welcome back.
We want to bring you now as we get these very images. The first video we have, remarks by the British foreign secretary William Hague about Syria. Let's listen in.
WILLIAM HAGUE, BRITISH FOREIGN SECRETARY: ...as well.
And so it brings all of those things together. And I hope that on that basis the House of Commons tomorrow, parliament as a whole tomorrow, can express its strong support to maintain a prohibition on chemical weapons in the world, but do so -- but be prepared to take action on the basis of the maximum consent that could be achieved.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: In short, you blinked when you saw Labor's amendment.
HAGUE: Well, it's important, as I say, to proceed on a consensual basis. This is democratic country. It is a democratic parliament. And people throughout the world understand that. And we are trying to take decisions on these matters in a way in which everybody's opinions are taken fully into account.
We had a meeting of the national security council today, which brings together the intelligence chiefs, the chief of defense staff, the ministers, in a meeting where all evidence is considered together. This is one of the lessons of the last decade.
MANN: British Foreign Secretary William Hague speaking to reporters about the decision on behalf of the British government to wait for the UN inspectors in Syria to complete their work before pushing ahead with any kind of military intervention.
Well, all this week CNN is highlighting ingenious solutions to serious challenges we face across the globe. In Sweden, two recipients of the Index Design Award have invented a device that could revolutionize road safety -- for cyclists anyway.
Diana Magnay took an innovative helmet for a test cycle around Malmo, Sweden.
DIANA MAGNAY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: A first glance it looks like high fashion -- quirky, stylish, and a good way of keeping your neck warm.
This revolutionary innovation is actually a bicycle helmet with an invisible airbag.
(on camera): So if I am involved in an accident this collar would inflate, then, in a tenth of a second.
Let's get it on.
Here we go.
And when I press this button it activates the sensors in here. And I'm ready to go.
(voice-over): Anna Haupt and Terese Alstin designed the device in 2005 after Sweden introduced a law making it compulsory for children to wear helmets when cycling.
TERESE ALSTIN, DESIGNER: That triggered a great debate in Sweden and in the media on whether or not that law should be extended to adult cyclists as well.
ANNA HAUPT, DESIGNER: We went out in the cities asking people why they didn't use the traditional helmets. And they said they want -- they felt geeky. They destroyed their hair. They felt stupid and the cap could fit underneath. And they wanted something that was very discrete and invisible if possible.
MAGNAY: The hood is made with ultrastrong nylon fabric. It absorbs shock and covers a much larger area than a traditional cycle helmet.
HAUPT: We wanted to make something that was more commuting friendly, more daily life, more fashionable in a way, but at the same time also safe, of course.
MAGNAY: Anna and Terese reenacted thousands of cycling smashes using stunt riders and crash test dummies.
ALSTIN: We have been developing the trigger mechanism for many years in order to develop an algorithm or a mathematical method that can distinguish accidents, movements within the cyclists, from normal cycling.
MAGNAY: (inaudible) as its called, is on track to become a commercial success. And it's also already won the pair many accolades, including an Index Award in 2011.
HAUPT: It had felt like we had won the Nobel Prize in design.
To me, design is about improving people's lives.
MAGNAY: Well, I've enjoyed my ride, minus the helmet hair. And nobody could argue with the device if it saves lives. But at roughly 10 times the cost of a regular bike helmet, it does seem quite a high price for vanity.
Diana Magnay, CNN, Malmo, Sweden.
MANN: The latest world news headlines just ahead.
Plus, keeping the dream alive. U.S. President Obama addresses his nation on the 50th anniversary of a landmark speech. We'll discuss Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy.
And the case for intervention in Syria. Arguments for and against.
MANN: This is CONNECT THE WORLD, I'm Jonathan Mann. The top stories this hour. Britain says it will wait until UN weapons inspectors have finished gathering evidence in Syria before authorizing any military action against the al-Assad regime. Today, inspectors returned to the scene of an alleged chemical attack near Damascus. The West accuses the Syrian government of gassing its own people, a charge it denies.
A military jury today recommended the death penalty for convicted Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hassan. Hassan admitted to killing 13 people and wounding 32 others at the army base in 2009. Ed Lavandera was there when the jury's recommendation was read out.
ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Jon, inside the courtroom as the death sentence verdict was read, family members in the audience of the victims and survivors held onto one another, comforting each other, some wiped away tears. They sat there and listened quietly as Nidal Hassan was sentenced to death.
Nidal Hassan had no reaction, just stoically looking at the soldier that was reading the verdict to him inside that courtroom. But Nidal Hassan has now been sentenced to death for the murders -- the premeditated murders of 13 soldiers here at Fort Hood back in November of 2009.
The day started with emotional testimony and words from the prosecutors who gave their closing arguments by giving poignant snapshots of each of the 13 victims, talking about each individual soldier, the struggles that their families have been through in the four years since the massacre. It was a powerful ending to this trial.
And if there was any question -- there had been so much talk about Nidal Hassan wanting to be viewed as a martyr for carrying out this massacre. The prosecutor ended telling the jury that Nidal Hassan would never be considered a martyr because he has nothing to give.
He is a criminal, a cold-blooded murder. And then went on to say he is not giving his life, we are taking his life. And it took the jury, Jon, just two and a half hours to reach that verdict. Jon, back to you.
MANN: A series of explosions in and around Baghdad have killed at least 49 people and wounded more than 180. The strikes involved as many as 16 car bombs and a suicide attack on a restaurant. The attackers struck during the morning rush hour.
US president Barack Obama spoke in Washington marking the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s iconic "I Have a Dream" speech. King's 1963 address on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial has come to represent a call for equality and civil rights in the US and around the world.
We return now to Syria. Western nations are weighing their military options. The United States, UK, and France already have assets in the region that could be critical to a strike against Syria. The US has four guided missile destroyers in the Mediterranean Sea, as well as aircraft carriers in the Red Sea and North Arabian Sea.
There are also US warplanes positioned very close to Syria at bases in Jordan and Turkey. The United Kingdom has four warships in the area, including a helicopter carrier and its flagship HMS Bulwark. France has warplanes capable of reaching Syria from their base in the United Arab Emirates.
CNN's Nic Robertson is in Cyprus for us this evening and joins us now. Nic, it looks very clear that Western allies are planning something. What do you think we're likely to see when the time comes.
NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, and so much of it seems to be in the way of naval firepower or naval vessels that are capable of delivering Tomahawk cruise missile firepower into Syria.
And perhaps one of the reasons for that, Jonathan, is because of the sensitivities of regional countries. Cyprus, where I am right now, and the Akrotiri Air Base used by the British military not far behind me, here, is one example of that where there is an apparent buildup of military action.
The British government said, no surprise really, that preparations, if you will, or at least contingency planning should be underway at such bases as this. But the sensitivity is that Cyprus, Jordan, Lebanon, all within striking distance of Bashar al-Assad's missile system.
So, a concern that if there is sort of land-based assaults, if you will, on Syria, then the countries where those assaults might come from might suffer direct targeting. So at the moment, it seems that most likely the scenario would be for Tomahawk cruise missiles from those naval vessels if strikes are called for, but not limited to that.
And of course, support aircraft surveillance, refueling aircraft, fighter aircraft, for different eventualities of whatever may precipitate all being beefed up, it appears, within the region at the same time, Jonathan.
MANN: Now, all of this is about chemicals -- Syria's, rather, alleged use of chemical weapons. And if the decision is made to punish, deter, and degrade Syria's ability to use chemical weapons, presumably they would be targeting chemical weapons. Except what would happen if chemical weapons were really hit? Would it set off much worse damage, casualties to civilians?
ROBERTSON: That does seem to be the concern of experts, chemical weapons experts, who've expressed their opinions publicly that if you do hit these stockpiles then the consequences are sort of unknown.
The use of chemical weapons is something of a variable. The time of day, the wind direction, the -- whether the sun is going up or coming down. All these sorts of things affect the dispersal of how quickly the agents degrade and such like. So, yes, experts do express concerns about that.
The language that we're hearing being drafted for the British government to consider is language that talks about protecting the civilian population. This sort of language gives the impression, here, that maybe it won't be the chemical weapons themselves that are targeted.
That potentially the brigade headquarters, the brigades that are in charge of those chemical weapons that control them, and the artillery pieces used to fire those weapons may become the targets.
And the context for this, of course, is that the reason to strike would be to equalize the balance between Bashar al-Assad's forces and the rebels as the international alliance is doing to support the rebels in training to take on Assad's forces so that they would both go to peace talks in Geneva, feeling that neither could win on the battlefield. So, strategically hitting military targets, not the chemicals, would play into that as well, Jonathan.
MANN: Nic Robertson live in Cyprus. Thanks very much.
Live from the CNN Center, you're watching CONNECT THE WORLD. Still to come, the US says the Assad regime is to blame for the suffering in these pictures, but is that enough to make a case for a military strike? We debate the issue up next.
Plus, 50 years on, thousands gather in Washington on the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech.
MANN: Welcome back. We may be on the brink of international intervention in the Syrian civil war, but debate about whether or not it is the right path continues to rage. Let's bring in two guests now to flesh out some of the arguments about a military strike that may be only days away.
Joining us from Paris, French author and philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy, who played a key role in persuading former president Nicolas Sarkozy to intervene in the Libyan conflict two years ago. And from our London studios, former British member of parliament Tony Benn, who's also president of the Stop the War Coalition.
Gentlemen, thank you both for being with us. Tony Benn, I wonder if we could start with you. The president of the United States wants to see Syria punished and deterred for using chemical weapons, the prime minister of Britain wants to see it, the Syrian opposition wants to see it. Why isn't it the right thing to do?
TONY BENN, PRESIDENT, STOP THE WAR COALITION: Well, it is a war that is being discussed. Seventy-five years ago, coming home in a troop ship from the Middle East as an RAF pilot, I heard the charter of the United Nations, and the words opened in this way.
It said, "We the people of the United Nations, determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war which twice in our lifetime has caused untold suffering to mankind." The UN is about peace, and how you can find peace. And to try and use the UN to make war over this question is very, very dangerous and, I think, illegal.
MANN: Well, the UN may be an important institution, but in this context, it's not really what the conversation is about. It's about chemical weapons in Syria. Bernard-Henri Levy, does the world have a moral obligation to intervene?
BENN: Well, I think if the United Nations --
BERNARD-HENRI LEVY, AUTHOR, "WHO KILLED DANIEL PEARL?": Of course, a moral -- a moral and a legal obligation. Since 2005, there is a duty to intervene, a duty to protect, which has been voted by the United Nations.
But moreover, what is at stake today is the credibility of America. President Obama said that there is a red line which should not be crossed. It has been crossed. Now, two solutions. If really the word of Barack Obama has still a sense, and I do believe it has a sense, I regret that for him, there is an obligation of punishment. If nothing happens --
BENN: Well, you --
LEVY: -- then North Korea, Iran, al-Qaeda, all the enemies of the free world will deduce, will conclude that America has lost its credibility.
MANN: I can hear Tony Benn trying to break in from London. What were you hoping to say?
BENN: Well, I don't think this is a war to justify President Obama's credibility or Prime Minister Cameron's credibility. It is a war that these countries want because they want to intervene in the Syrian civil war, and this is the excuse they're using.
But I don't believe that the United Nations Charter --
LEVY: It is a war to save -- it is a war to save civilian lives. First of all, it is a war to stop use of gas. Second thing, do you say yes or do you say no to use of gas? This is a moral question of today. Are we in favor of gas or do we think that gas is a shame? This is a dividing line of today.
MANN: Tony Benn?
BENN: Well, a million civilians have already become refugees from the Syrian war, and although chemical weapons are a terrible weapon and have been denounced by international bodies, you mustn't pretend that this is about protecting life, because life has been lost on a huge scale because of the existing use of ordinary weapons --
LEVY: Yes, but --
MANN: I want to jump in with another question because --
LEVY: -- it is late for --
MANN: -- forgive me, gentlemen --
LEVY: -- but never too late.
MANN: -- if the idea here is to protect civilian lives, then the war has to be brought to an end, and Bernard-Henri Levy, I don't think that's the plan. The plan as stated is not to try to end the war, it's to punish the use of these weapons. The war could drag on and take a great many lives even if this limited intervention goes ahead, and even if it succeeds in its modest goals.
BENN: Well, it is a war and we are being asked to go to war. And this war will have consequences of a very profound nature in the Middle East. What will Iran do, what will Egypt do? This could lead to a really, really serious international crisis. And the fact that we said we were doing it to protect life will not carry any weight with world public opinion.
MANN: You have any thoughts about that question, Bernard-Henri Levy?
LEVY: The question today is -- the question today is do we accept that Bashar al-Assad kills tomorrow with gas or without gas new others, hundreds of people? Do we accept that? Or do we decide to stop the bloodbath.
And if we stop the bloodbath, it will weaken the enemies of the peoples in this area. It will weaken Iran. It will weaken Hezbollah. It will weaken all the forces which are against democracy and the peoples.
Therefore, it is not a war to make war, it is a war to create more peace in this area and in this country, which is really torn out and destroyed in a savage way since two years and a half.
MANN: So you are saying --
LEVY: And these --
MANN: Bernard-Henri Levy, you are saying that the West must topple the Assad regime?
BENN: No, what I'm saying is --
LEVY: Of course. Of course --
BENN: -- that the United --
LEVY: -- when a dictator -- when a dictator has decided to gas his own people, when he has already killed 120 of his citizens, when one million refugees are abroad, then there is a moral duty to topple the dictator, or at least to leave him without any exit possible, but he has lost any right to govern his people.
MANN: Tony Benn?
BENN: Well, that is a case for intervening in the civil war in Syria, and that is a much wider argument than the question --
LEVY: It is not a civil war, it is a war -- no, no. No, no, no. It is not a civil war, Mr. Benn. It is a war against the civilians, which is very different. A war against the civilians, a war waged by Bashar al- Assad, his army, and Hezbollah against innocent civilians. This is what has to be stopped. This is the real red line.
MANN: Tony Benn?
BENN: Well, in that case, you are giving the argument truthfully, you are saying this a decision to intervene in the civil war in Syria because of the loss of life and the behavior of the Syrian government, and I think that is not the right solution.
The right solution is to bring about talks between the two sides, to bring pressure upon both sides to listen to each other and to try and try and end the bloodshed.
LEVY: It has been tried. The talks -- no, no, dialogue has been tried, and Bashar al-Assad refused dialogue, and the godfather of Bashar al-Assad, who is Mr. Putin, encourages Bashar al-Assad until today to refuse dialogue.
So, when all the solutions have been tried and failed, unfortunately, remains only the last one, which is to strike the strikers.
MANN: Bernard-Henri Levy, arguing for something more than even Western governments are thinking of, and Tony Benn arguing against what they are considering. The intervention in Syria. We thank you both for being with us.
What do you think about all of this? The team at CONNECT THE WORLD wants to hear from you, facebook.com/connect (sic). Have your say. And tweet us. You can reach me and Becky Anderson @BeckyCNN. Your thoughts, please, @BeckyCNN.
Coming up right after this on CONNECT THE WORLD, 50 years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King called for an end to racial injustice in the United States. Now, as Washington marks the anniversary, we'll talk about what's changed and what hasn't.
MANN: Welcome back. Fifty years ago today, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his landmark "I Have a Dream" speech, demanding the passage of civil rights legislation. He spoke to a crowd of a quarter of a million people taking part in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
In 1963, racial segregation was commonplace across America, particularly in the southern states. It was a cruel time in this country. In a rousing speech, Reverend King called for an end to that injustice.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR., CIVIL RIGHTS ACTIVIST: I have a dream that one day --
KING: -- even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice --
KING: Sweltering with the heat of oppression, be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream --
KING: -- my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream, today --
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MANN: Today on the anniversary of that remarkable, remarkable speech, President Barack Obama, America's first African-American president, spoke at a ceremony at the same Lincoln Memorial in Washington where King spoke 50 years ago.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: America changed. Because they marched, the Civil Rights law was passed. Because they marched, a voting rights law was signed. Because they marched, doors of opportunity and education swung open so their daughters and sons could finally imagine a life for themselves beyond washing somebody else's laundry or shining somebody else's shoes.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MANN: Dr. Cornel West is a professor of philosophy and Christian practice at the Union Theological Seminary, joining us now live from Princeton, New Jersey. Thanks so much for being with us. How does this day resonate for you?
CORNEL WEST, PROFESSOR OF PHILOSOPHY AND CHRISTIAN PRACTICE, UNION THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY: Well, I think that Martin Luther King, Jr. came -- he comes out of the black freedom movement, and his dream is not the American dream. It was the American dream minus militarism. Minus poverty. Minus materialism. Minus xenophobia.
So that Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream, Barack Obama has drones. Martin Luther King, Jr. had prophetic mission, Barack Obama has deadly missiles he's about to use again in Syria as was the case in Libya.
So that I felt an unbelievable sense of dissonance, the sense that the great Martin Luther King, Jr. and Fannie Lou Hamer, and so many others, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, talking about peace and justice.
And here the president comes from the White House after deliberation about war, gives a pretty speech. His actions undermine it. Goes back to talk about war. Talk about inequality, but he's thinking about Larry Summers as his head of Federal Reserve who argued inequality is indispensable for markets.
He talked about racial profiling, he's considering Ray Kelly, New York City head of Stop and Frisk, many of us went to jail under Ray Kelly, he's the poster child of racial profiling, but the president talks against racial profiling. So you get bait and switch, words going one way --
MANN: Well, OK, clearly, I think it's fair to say you're not a fan of the president --
WEST: -- actions going another way, he's a man of action.
MANN: You're not a fan of the president's, but --
WEST: You say --
MANN: What do you think Martin Luther King would say if he saw America today? Would he be moved by all of the progress, or would he be dismayed by the inequality which endures, not just for African-Americans, but for people of other minority groups? The handicapped and the gay and lesbian community.
WEST: Well, Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Christian, looked at the world through the lens of the cross. The cross is about unarmed truth and unconditional love, suffering connected to truth, justice connected to love.
He would begin with the poor. He would begin with the prisons. The new Jim Crow. The prison industrial complex, workers with wages stagnating. He would have critiques of Wall Street domination in government, and Wall Street criminality unpunished under this government.
Martin Luther King, Jr. would revel in the symbolic presence of black people and brown people, but he would always say, don't judge a president, a governor, a government with the color of the skin of those running it, judge it by the content, the moral content, of their policies.
MANN: Well, I'm not very fond --
WEST: There's a chill for the four --
MANN: -- I'm not very fond -- I want to interrupt and ask you about the moral content of his policies, because how different would America have been, how different would it be today if it weren't for Martin Luther King's philosophy of non-violence? His insistence that the resistance to white oppression had to be peaceful?
And others in his movement who insisted that they would work to the conscience of America and its court system and they wouldn't resort to violence. How different would America have been without those people and that vision?
WEST: Oh, I think without Martin King and the others, America would have been a full-fledged authoritarian state. It would have been a police state.
But at the same time, we've got massive surveillance, we've got national security spying on American citizens, spying on non-citizens at the same time so that Martin would say, I resist all forms of authoritarianism, including those with a black face, even in the States.
MANN: I'm startled, because you don't sound like you're celebrating the day or the legacy at all, to be honest. Am I misreading your remarks?
WEST: No, I'm celebrating the legacy in terms of what he stood for, but I'm deeply upset because what he stood for has been recast and domesticated in order to reinforce the very things that actually killed him.
You know, Martin Luther King, Jr. was going to the United Nations with Malcolm X in 1964 to put the US on trial for the violation of human rights. We see that. The FBI files, June 27th, 1964, that's the Martin Luther King, Jr. that I'm talking about.
That's not the one who's been domesticated and turned into Santa Claus and everybody celebrating him as if he was an old man with a smile. He was on fire for justice. So, I celebrate the breakthrough.
But as Malcolm said, you don't stab folk in the back nine inches and pull it out six inches and just celebrate the progress. You've got to tell the truth about the president, about Wall Street, about prison industrial complex, and about war crimes.
MANN: I want to ask you about war --
WEST: Drones --
MANN: And on that very thought, I want to ask you about war, because Martin Luther King, Jr. was a man whose vision extended to US intervention in Vietnam at the time --
WEST: That's right.
MANN: -- and now people are talking about intervention in Syria. What do you think he would say about a moral dilemma like that? The terrible use of weapons of mass destruction against a civilian population - - an innocent civilian population -- and the prospect now that the most powerful militaries on Earth might intervene in war. What do you think he'd say?
WEST: Well, Martin Luther King, Jr. said America was the greatest purveyor of violence in the world. He would cry when he hears about the 221 innocent children who have already been killed by US drones in Pakistan and Somalia and Yemen. He would say, I see more bloodshed, more innocent persons.
He believed a life of a precious brother and sister in Syria or Somalia or Pakistan or New York has exactly the same value. You're right, he had a global, international perspective, and therefore he would be highly critical of this Obama administration even though he would symbolically revel in the fact that it's a black president.
But he's concerned with the moral content and the ethical substance of the policy. That's the kind of brother Martin Luther King, Jr. was.
MANN: Cornel West of Union Theological Seminary, thanks so much for being with us.
WEST: Thank you so much.
MANN: And in tonight's Parting Shots, we leave you with some of the iconic images from the March on Washington all those years ago.