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THE SITUATION ROOM

Situation Room Special: Crisis in Syria; No More Delays for U.S. to Act on Syrian Chemical Attack; The Contradictions of Syria's First Lady

Aired August 28, 2013 - 18:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, our SITUATION ROOM special report, "Syria in Crisis." With U.S. warships poised to punish Syria's regime for a chemical attack, a top Syrian diplomat says his country is already at war.

We're taking you inside Syria and we are now hearing extensively from President Obama about his plans for Syria. You will hear what the president has just said. That's coming up momentarily.

While the U.S. moves towards a likely missile strike, the full might of America's military will be ready and available. We are going to show you how all of this could play out.

And she's a glamorous former investment banker who once boasted that's the real dictator in her marriage to Syria's brutal strongman. We will have a close look at Syria's first lady.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

The Obama administration today is sounding tougher than ever about the horrific chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians. And the dye may already be cast for punishing U.S. military strike. A top Syrian official says his country is ready for the worst. President Obama says he's not made a final decision about Syria, but he is speaking extensively. We will bring you his comments momentarily.

Our correspondents are deployed in the United States and around the world to bring you the complete coverage that only CNN can deliver.

We begin inside Syria with CNN's Fred Pleitgen. He's live in Damascus.

Fred, first of all, what's the mood there?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, people certainly are very worried here on the ground, Wolf. There was talk earlier today about some sort of exodus of people trying to make a break for the Lebanese border. So far, we haven't seen that.

But we have seen people who are very, very concerned and just very unsure about what the next couple of days, the next couple of hours beginning with these American airstrikes looming. Let's have a look.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

PLEITGEN (voice-over): Even with U.S. warships ready to strike off Syria's coast and Washington saying it's certain the Assad regime used chemical weapons on its people, 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. airstrikes. "This is my country," he says. "I believe we're winning."

Others are counting on help from above. "This doesn't scare 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 since 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): It's quite a strange mood here in Damascus. People really seem unsure as to what the future will bring with those American airstrikes 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.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

PLEITGEN: And, Wolf, the rumor mill is, of course, flying as well. Syria's ambassador to the U.N. was asked today whether senior Syrian military units have abandoned their positions.

One of the things that we can say is we can't deny or confirm that. However, it does seem very quiet here in Damascus tonight. Normally you would be hearing a lot of artillery pounding at this time of night. Right now, it's fairly silent -- Wolf.

BLITZER: In other words, maybe some military loyal to Bashar al- Assad, they might be getting nervous that the U.S. is poised to launch airstrikes and they may, we don't know for sure -- they may be abandoning their positions, is that what you're suggesting, Fred?

PLEITGEN: There's a report on media saying that that could perhaps be the case, that perhaps some senior leadership might have given up some of the position, some of the headquarters of the air force and of the army a as well might at least have less staff than before in fear of airstrikes. Again, we don't know that. We can't confirm or deny that. But it certainly does seem as though for the picture that we're getting -- normally behind me I would be seeing plumes of smoke and I would be hearing artillery. Right now, that isn't the case. It may be the case something is going on. We really can't confirm that at this point. But it is almost an eerie silence here over Damascus tonight, Wolf.

BLITZER: Stand by. We will get back to you, Fred Pleitgen, one of the only Western journalists reporting live from Damascus. We will get back to you momentarily. Stand by.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: And the breaking news is this. The president has just completed an interview with PBS weighing in on a potential military strike against Syria. He spoke with Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff of PBS. Watch this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JUDY WOODRUFF, PBS: Mr. President, you have just come from making a speech at -- celebrating a nonviolent event, the March on Washington, Martin Luther King's speech 50 years ago.

We're going to get to that in just a moment, but first we want to ask you about a place where there's been too much violence, Syria. How close are you to authorizing a military strike? And can you assure the American people that, by doing so, given Iraq and Afghanistan, that the United States will not get bogged down in yet another war halfway around the world?

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, first of all, I have not made a decision.

I have gotten options from our military, had extensive discussions with my national security team. So, let me talk about what's at stake here. I think we all understand terrible things have been happening in Syria for quite some time, that the Assad regime there has been killing its own people by the tens of thousands, that there are sectarian arguments that have spilled over into bloodshed and have escalated over the last couple of years.

And although what's happened there is tragic, and although I have called for Assad to leave and make sure that we have got a transitional government that could be inclusive in Syria, what I have also concluded is that direct military engagement, involvement in a civil war in Syria wouldn't help the situation on the ground.

And so we have been very restrained, although, diplomatically, we have been very active. And we have been providing a lot of humanitarian aid to people who have been displaced by the war. But what I also said was that, if the Assad regime used chemical weapons on his own people, that that would change some of our calculations.

And the reason has to do with not only international norms, but also America's core self-interests. We have got a situation in which you have got a well-established international norm against the use of chemical weapons. Syria has one of the largest stockpiles in the world of chemical weapons. This is a volatile country in a very volatile region.

We have got allies bordering Syria. Turkey is a NATO ally, Jordan a close friend that we work with a lot. Israel is very close by. We have got bases throughout the region. We cannot see a breach of the nonproliferation norm that allows, potentially, chemical weapons to fall into the hands of all kinds of folks.

So what I have said is that we have not yet made a decision, but the international norm against the use of chemical weapons needs to be kept in place. And nobody disputes -- or hardly anybody disputes that chemical weapons were used on a large scale in Syria against civilian populations.

We have looked at all the evidence, and we do not believe the opposition possessed nuclear weapons of that -- or chemical weapons of that sort. We do not believe that, given the delivery system, using rockets, that the opposition could have carried out these attacks.

We have concluded that the Syrian government in fact carried these out. And if that's so, then there need to be international consequences. So, we are consulting with our allies. We are consulting with the international community.

And, you know, I have no interest in any kind of open-ended conflict in Syria, but we do have to make sure that, when countries break international norms on weapons like chemical weapons that could threaten us, that they are held accountable.

WOODRUFF: But, Mr. President, with all due respect, what does it accomplish? The signals the American people are getting is that this would be a limited strike over a limited duration. If it's not going to do that much harm to the Assad regime, what have you accomplished? What's happened? What's changed?

OBAMA: Again, I have not made a decision, but I think it's important that if, in fact, we make a choice to have repercussions for the use of chemical weapons, then the Assad regime, which is involved in a civil war trying to protect itself, will have received a pretty strong signal that, in fact, it better not do it again.

And that doesn't solve all the problems inside of Syria. And, you know, it doesn't, obviously, end the death of innocent civilians inside of Syria. And we hope that, in fact, ultimately, a political transition can take place inside of Syria. And we're prepared to work with anybody, the Russians and others, to try to bring the parties together to resolve the conflict.

But we want the Assad regime to understand that by using chemical weapons on a large scale against your own people, against women, against infants, against children, that you are not only breaking international norms and standards of decency, but you're also creating a situation where U.S. national interests are affected. And that needs to stop.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: The president of the United States in an interview he just granted to PBS, to Judy Woodruff and Gwen Ifill.

Let's get some analysis right now.

Joining us, our chief international correspondent, Christiane Amanpour, the host of "AMANPOUR" on CNN International, also Nick Paton Walsh. He's over at the United Nations, Fred Pleitgen, one of the few journalists, Western journalists in Damascus.

Christiane, what do you think what we just heard from the president? Obviously, he remains very cautious, at least publicly, right now.

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, clearly saying that they have the evidence and they are not mincing any words that a chemical attack happened and that it was the Assad regime, but also very clearly saying that it would be a limited response once he takes the decision.

I have spoken today to the former head of Israeli military intelligence, General Amos Yadlin, who says that -- they did have the evidence, if Israel had it, they would have given to it the United States and they want to see a robust enough response that really significantly degrades Syria's military capabilities.

They fully know it will not be a ground invasion or anything of that manner, but it has to be something robust and the Israelis say they don't feel that they will be retaliated against despite the rhetoric in the region as long as Assad doesn't feel that he's going to be tossed out of power. Clearly the United States is not planning on a regime change kind of game changing military action.

BLITZER: Nick Paton Walsh is over at the United Nations.

I take it, Nick, that the prospect of a Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force is nil right now, is negligible, if you will, because of a Russian and China veto.

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. And that has always really been the case.

But there was a theme I think today that the U.K. wanted to introduce a text to have it discussed amongst the permanent five, Russia, China, France, U.S. and U.K. That meeting didn't last very long, some very tense faces emerging. And then U.S. State Department saying they believe there's "no avenue" to further pursue at the United Nations.

So not many believe here there's likely to be further meetings on this particular issue. But then as you just heard Barack Obama talking there about the need to consult with their allies, well, one perhaps potentially the most important certainly military partners, the U.K., wavering a bit today, facing its own complications. There will be a government motion put to the U.K. Parliament tomorrow which if passed would require the U.N. inspectors currently on the ground in Syria to deliver some kind of a report to the U.N. Security Council before a further vote is then taken again by the U.K. Parliament that could authorize military action.

That puts a day, if not week's delay. We spoke to the source here at the U.N. saying that, look, when these inspectors come back, they are going to have give samples to laboratories from the ground where sites were allegedly exposed to chemical weapons before they can speak to the U.N. Security Council. Historically, that has taken upwards of a week.

No certainty on the timetable here. We know the U.S. has said they will pursue "their own timeline" today, but if they do that they may have to go without the allies they clearly want here because the United Kingdom's timetable seems to be slipping substantially, Wolf.

BLITZER: Fred Pleitgen is in Damascus for us.

Fred, this program is being seen live around the world right now, including in Syria. I assume top Syrian officials were watching the president of the United States and this PBS interview that we just aired. What's their likely reaction?

PLEITGEN: Well, I think that the Syrians are starting to realize that all of this might have bean a miscalculation, if indeed this was done by the Syrian military.

One of the things is that we're hearing a lot less bold rhetoric from Syrian officials than we have before. The deputy foreign minister came out today and he essentially said that the rebels had conducted some chemical attacks of their own and he was now demanding that the U.N. weapon inspectors check those out as well.

It really seems as though they are trying buy time in many ways. I was interviewing the information minister of this country yesterday and he also said we really need to give the weapons inspectors time to finish their mission, we need to get them out to all these places, we need to get them to sample things, and then we need to wait for their report.

But clearly that report just because of the mandate they have will not create very much in the way of certainty. The only thing the weapons inspectors will find out is whether or not chemical weapons were indeed employed and maybe they will find out what sort of chemical weapons were e employed, and maybe there will be some conclusions from that.

But it's unclear whether or not that will actually bring clarity as to who exactly did all that. That's not what the weapons inspectors are there to do. But clearly the Syrian officials are now saying it's better to wait for them because they do understand that the United States is very serious about the use of force here in this country, Wolf. BLITZER: Christiane, a lot of us remember that interview you did with Bashar al-Assad not that long ago when you were in Damascus. You got a little taste of this guy.

Give us your flavor. Does he really appreciate -- personally, does he understand what's going on?

AMANPOUR: Well, probably yes and he's obviously in survival mode.

You know, some people for so many years, even those of us who interviewed him when he first came into power, believed that he was somehow different, that he presented some kind of new face of reform. That's truly been swept by the by in the last 2.5 years of this brutal civil war, because everybody says he's fully in charge, that this is not a question of his more ruthless younger brother or his powerful uncle or whoever might be controlling him.

No, this is President Assad in charge. And all his friends, people who have defected, people who we have interviewed have said don't make any mistake about it. He's in charge. The king of Jordan told me that not so long ago. He's in charge. He's now focused entirely on survival and he will do what it takes to survive.

And to that end, I was saying the Israelis don't believe that if he's not threatened with regime change, which right now he's not threatened with regime change, that he will not retaliate and Hezbollah and other such allies won't retaliate. But the real question, as Judy Woodruff asked the president, is, what is the point, what is the aim if you're going to take such minimal, limited punitive strikes? What do you hope to achieve? And that truly is the real question going forward.

BLITZER: Christiane Amanpour joining us, Nick Paton Walsh, Fred Pleitgen.

We're going to continue our special coverage. Guys, thanks very much.

Up next on our special report, a U.S. strike against Syria may be limited to cruise missiles, but the full might of the U.S. military would be on call. We will show you how this could play out.

Also coming up, we have the video of last week's chemical attack in Syria. It's shocking. It's disturbing. Is it also the proof that the world is looking for?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: A U.S. official says the scope of any U.S. military action has yet to be decided. A limited military missile strike now looks though very likely.

CNN's Tom Foreman is joining us now, along with CNN military analyst retired Major General James "Spider" Marks.

Walk us through, Tom, what's going on.

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We don't know, Wolf, if there will actually be a strike. What we do know is that the process is well under way that could lead up to it.

Phase one, the preparation, that planning, that's been going on for days now talking about how this might happen. In fact, we're already into phase two, which is the staging. In military terms, if you are talking about a possible strike on Syria, what does staging mean?

BRIG. GEN. JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Tom, what that means is the United States will take advantage of its strategic presence. It's already in the region in places like Italy, it's in Turkey and it's in Qatar.

They will increase their munition stockpiles, their fuel, their medical capabilities, their ability to rescue downed pilots so it will decrease the amount of time that the U.S. needs to strike.

FOREMAN: They are building up these faraway assets.

Let's move the map in here a little bit closer so we get a better look at all this. Let's talk about the close-up activity when you talk about Syria here. We have these ships that have moved into the Mediterranean closer to the shore. What's that all about?

MARKS: They just came from the Sixth Fleet. They are in the Eastern Mediterranean. They are over the horizon from Syria.

FOREMAN: Meaning they can't be seen from shore. They're quite a distance away.

MARKS: Exactly. They are in a protected position but they can strike to any target that we would choose in Syria.

FOREMAN: There would also be submarines out there. There's also this. Quite interesting. This is called a ROZ, these cones of airplanes, essentially, that are brought in. You believe a couple of them would be set up.

MARKS: Probably.

FOREMAN: These planes circling just outside of Syrian airspace. What is this all about?

MARKS: This restricted operation zone allows aircraft to loiter in a very restricted area, so they can refuel and they can be prepared to be employed very, very quickly again against targets as they are designated.

FOREMAN: Just outside of Syrian airspace. All of this is in preparation for phase three if it comes. We don't know that it will but the execution phase is when -- let me get rid of the airplanes here so you can see it a little bit -- is when we would but have these cruise missiles start launching into this country.

Some may come from ships. Some may come from submarines, some may come from airplanes. How many are we talking about?

(CROSSTALK) MARKS: We could see maybe 200. That's clearly an estimate. We saw 275 when we went to war in Iraq in '03, 161 just two years ago in Libya. They would be launched very, very quickly.

The flash to bang time is instantaneous.

FOREMAN: From the time the president decides to the time we would launch them.

MARKS: You got it.

FOREMAN: Very specific targets in mind here, Wolf. We have talked about them a lot, command-and-control. Why does this matter?

MARKS: We want to blind Assad. We want to deny him the ability to see us and even to assess his own capabilities.

FOREMAN: We would like to take out his missiles. Why do we care about them so much?

MARKS: The purpose of this ask is to deny and degrade his apparently to launch chemical weapons. Those missiles are the primary means of launching those against his own people.

FOREMAN: There could be attacks against airfields and aircraft in the Syrian military. This is not so much though about the chemical weapons, it's about something else.

MARKS: It's about retaliation.

We don't want to have Assad strike against our capabilities as we are preparing and as we are executing these tasks. So we will go after those. They will be in the target list towards the top.

FOREMAN: That's roughly the battle plan, all of it aimed at reaching ultimately phase four in all this, which is stability. You make a very clear point that for all of this happening, if it comes to pass that the goal is not stability for Syria in the end, there would still be a civil war. This is a different type of stability.

MARKS: Yes, the carnage of civil war will continue. Stability we're talking about is we're not striking them and they are no longer striking us.

FOREMAN: That would be the culmination of these four steps if they come to pass, Wolf. This is the classic military approach to this and that's what military forces in the U.S. and among allies in the region are getting ready for if it leads to that -- Wolf.

BLITZER: As we heard, the president says he has not yet made a final decision.

Tom Foreman, Spider Marks, guys, thanks very much.

Just ahead on our special report, did a leaked letter from America's top general to a congressman encourage Syria to use chemical weapons? (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Happening now: the House speaker, John Boehner, demanding answering from President Obama before any potential military strike against Syria. But does the president need approval from Congress to act?

Plus, foaming from the nose, twitching of the eyes, the mouth. We're talking a closer look at the terrific and lethal effects of poison gas. And she consoles the families of the dead while standing by her husband's side. Just ahead, an up-close look at the woman who "Vogue" magazine once called a rose in the desert, the first lady of Syria.

Once again, we want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. This is a special edition of THE SITUATION ROOM, "Crisis in Syria."

All that coming up, but first more of the president's interview that he just granted to PBS, to Judy Woodruff and Gwen Ifill.

They asked him to defend a decision to strike targets in Syria. How would he defend such a decision to the American public?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: And if, in fact, we can take limited tailored approaches, not getting drawn into a long conflict, not a repetition of, you know, Iraq which I know a lot of people are worried about, but if we are saying in a clear and decisive but very limited way that we send a shot across the bow saying "stop doing this," that can have a positive impact on our national security over the long term and may have a positive impact one the sense that chemical weapons are not used again on innocent civilians.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Those are big ifs the president is laying out in his case for potentially using military action against Syrian targets. Here's a question. Is the United States prepared to go it alone in punishing Syria, for all practical purposes? We have some new information coming into THE SITUATION ROOM right now. Our foreign affairs reporter, Elise Labott, is standing by.

Elise, what are your learning?

ELISE LABOTT, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, there's been a lot of talk today about whether the U.S. would seek a U.N. mandate. You know there were efforts at the United Nations Security Council to talk about a draft authorizing the U.N. to take all measures to protect civilians in Syria, prevent chemical weapons from happening again. That was what did not go through because of what the U.S. calls Russian intransigence.

Now they say they're not going to wait for a U.N. report by inspectors. They are also not willing to wait for British Parliament to make all these requests such as looking for this U.N. report, looking for more deliberations from the Security Council.

What I was told by senior U.S. officials tonight is the U.S. will act on its own timeline. Doesn't need a U.N. report to tell us what they say they already know, that Syrian regime used chemical weapons. They want to get this done, Wolf. They want to offer a swift response to the Assad regime that they can't do this again.

BLITZER: And complicating all of this for the president -- I assume it's complicating, Elise -- is the president is supposed to next week go to Russia to St. Petersburg for the G-20 summit, Russia a key ally of the Syrian regime. Is it possible there could be U.S. military action, based on what your reporting is telling you, before the president leaves for St. Petersburg?

LABOTT: I think that's the preference. We had been hearing earlier in the week that this could happen Wednesday or as early as Wednesday or Thursday. Now the U.S. is looking to put out its intelligence assessment, offering what they say is an undeniable case that the Syrian regime was involved. And I think you can see some action pretty quickly after that.

The U.S. officials have said they would like to get this done before the president goes to Russia. He's going to be in Russia. And you know those relations are already strained over the Edward Snowden affair. He will not be having a private meeting with President -- with President Putin.

So I think the preference is to do this as quickly as possible. They also have the Egypt crisis on the burner. They don't want -- they want to get this Syria attack behind them. As you know, this is not going to be a drawn-out attack. A very limited strike to show President Assad to answer for those chemical weapons.

BLITZER: Elise Labott is our foreign affairs reporter. Thanks for that reporting, Elise.

Let's get back to our chief international correspondent, Christiane Amanpour, and CNN's Fred Pleitgen. He's in the Syrian capital of Damascus.

So it looks, Christiane, like this could happen within the next day or two or three before the president heads off to Sweden and then St. Petersburg for the G-20 summit. It could make things sort awkward, though, at that G-20 summit. What do you think?

AMANPOUR: Well, I don't think anything can get more awkward between the United States and Russia than it is already. I mean, there just is such a bad relationship between the two countries. And it does stem, Elise said, most recently from the NSA/Snowden affair but also over the last two years because precisely Syria and also some other issues.

The Russians, along with the Chinese, have simply thwarted every attempt at the United Nations to have a stronger response to Syria. But the truth of the matter is also that there's very little appetite in the United States to having a major battle against Syria. We're not talking about boots on the ground in any formal fashion but even a prolonged air campaign to severely degrade president Assad's military capabilities and to prevent him not just from using chemical weapons which is as you know a war crime not just using those but from using all the other weapons, his aircraft, his missiles and all the rest that are responsible for killing 100,000 people by the U.N.'s estimate. That is not in the cards. A slap on the wrist, if that, is apparently in the cards. We'll wait to see when, in fact, that happens.

Now, Wolf, there was a huge amount of activity here in Europe where I am earlier today. There was a sense and there was tweeting out to Prime Minister David Cameron in England, his office saying this is unacceptable, this use by Assad of chemical weapons; the world cannot stand by. They really went for broke by laying out this draft resolution at the U.N. that authorized all necessary measures, that's about the more critical and crucial kind of wording that would authorize military intervention. That of course, came up, you know, was swatted away by the Russians, as many people expected.

And so now much less action perhaps from the Brits at least at the moment. The French, on the other hand, have said they stand ready to punish anybody who took this, quote, "vile decision" to use chemical weapons -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks, Christiane.

Let's go to Damascus. Fred Pleitgen is one of the few western journalists on the ground there in the Syrian capital.

Fred, I don't know if officials in Damascus where you are fully appreciate the drive that's apparently underway right now, led by U.S. officials and others in Europe to have the International Criminal Court in the Hague begin the war crimes tribunals, in effect, going against the Syrian leadership; not only the president but top generals, because of this use of chemical warfare.

Do you get a sense that they appreciate that they could be charged with war crimes, crimes against humanity, if you will, and could be wanted by the international community in the weeks and months to come?

PLEITGEN: No, Wolf. I don't think they appreciate that at all. In fact, I think what they're trying to do is they're trying to keep up their business as usual, at least on the face of it.

It's really interesting to see how, when you go and you pose these questions to senior Syrian officials, like for instance, the information minister I talked to a bit; the foreign minister, and I kept telling them, "Do you understand that the United States is serious about this, that the United States is going to most probably conduct air strikes in retaliation for the fact that they believe that your government used these chemical weapons?"

And they'll tell you about how it would be a mistake, how there would be a lot of civilian casualties. And the one point they always make is that, if the U.S. strikes Syria, they say, that the U.S. would be strengthening al Qaeda and its offshoot, Jabhat al-Nusra, which of course, is also fighting against the Syrian regime, alongside the rebels in northern Syria, but also here on the outskirts of Damascus.

So it's -- what they're trying to do is they're trying to mix up two points, really. Because you tell them the air strikes that are probably going to be happening are going to be in relation to using chemical weapons. They have nothing to do with the civil war in Syria, and that's something where they say you really cannot pull the two apart. If you do weaken the Syrian military, then you are going to be strengthening the Islamist groups that are fighting against the Syrian military. That's the point they're trying to make.

But clearly, I don't think that they've really woken up to the fact yet how far along the process all of this is. How serious the United States is about all this, other countries are about all of this, and what dire straits the regime is at this point in time. So it will be interesting to see. I think they're sort of waking up to it at that point, but they clearly haven't moved along there yet, and they're trying to go about or at least put a face on of being as business as usual, Wolf.

BLITZER: Fred Pleitgen in Damascus for us. Christiane Amanpour reporting from France. We're going to be, obviously, in close touch with both of you. Thanks -- thanks once again.

Up ahead in our special report, a British-born former banker standing by the side of a dictator. Will Syria's glamorous first lady stick it out to the bitter end?

And lawmakers are divided over what, if anything, the U.S. should do to punish Syria. We're going to hear from a top Democrat who says the U.S. should act and act quickly.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Some members of Congress are demanding a say on what happens next with Syria. Congressman Eliot Engel is the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Here's here in THE SITUATION ROOM right now.

Congressman, thanks very much for coming in.

REP. ELIOT ENGEL (D), HOUSE FOREIGN AFFAIRS COMMITTEE: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: How imminent is a U.S. strike?

ENGEL: Well, we assume it's fairly imminent.

BLITZER: What does that mean, fairly imminent?

ENGEL: Within the next few days. We don't know for sure. The president has said he hasn't made a decision yet, but the scuttlebutt is that it comes soon. BLITZER: You support that?

ENGEL: I do.

BLITZER: You do without any congressional authorization?

ENGEL: Well, you know, the same people who are clamoring authorization, when President Reagan went into Grenada, President Bush went into Panama, President Clinton went into Kosovo and President Obama went into Libya. The War Powers Act to me says that the Congress has to be notified, there has to be robust discussion and the president has 60 days with which to call upon...

BLITZER: So there's no vote in the House or the Senate, no vote at the United Nations Security Council, no vote among the NATO allies, no vote from the Arab League. For all practical purposes, the president is going to do this alone?

ENGEL: Well, I think the president makes that decision, then I support him. I think it's the right decision to make.

BLITZER: You trust this president.

ENGEL: I do trust this president.

BLITZER: If it was President Bush making this decision would you trust him as much?

ENGEL: I would trust any American president, but I certainly trust this president. I've seen the horrific pictures, as you have, of children being gassed, and I think the world has to show its revulsion, and this is a way of doing it.

BLITZER: If this bolsters, though, the al Qaeda elements in the opposition and they were to come to power, you wouldn't be happy about that.

ENGEL: Well, I would hope that we would aid the Free Syria Army.

BLITZER: That would mean a long term U.S. involvement in nation building in Syria. Do you want that?

ENGEL: Well, I think the president doesn't want that. And I think that's why...

BLITZER: Do you want that?

ENGEL: Do I want that? I would like to see us help to tip the balance in favor of the rebels. I want to bolster...

BLITZER: The American public, after Iraq, after Afghanistan they don't want ten years of U.S. military involvement in another Middle Eastern country.

ENGEL: Nor do I. Nor do I. But I think the alternative -- you know, for all intents and purposes, Assad is -- is the proxy of Iran. Hezbollah, terrorist organization, has entered Syria on the side of Assad tipping the balance.

When we are saying to Iran "We won't let you have a nuclear weapon," Iran is watching us very carefully to see what kind of a resolve we have in Syria. I don't want boots on the ground.

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BLITZER: You don't want that. But if U.S. were to strike, you don't know the unintended consequences. We spoke to General Zinni, Anthony Zinni, the former commander of the Central Command in the last hour. He said, "You know what? The U.S. military can get sucked in, into a long term quagmire in Syria just as it did in Iraq, Afghanistan, earlier in Vietnam.

ENGEL: Wolf, there are a lot of bad choices in Syria. There are no good choices; they're all bad choices. But in my opinion, the worst choice we can make is to do nothing.

BLITZER: Because you know the old Colin Powell supposed comment, "If you break it, you own it." The Pottery Barn rule, if you will. If the U.S. goes into Syria, even on a limited basis right now, you don't know how the Syrian regime will act. You don't know how the Iranians will react, Hezbollah, if they'll attack Israel, for example. Some reservists in Israel were called up today. They're handing out gas masks in Israel. You don't know what the consequences of a U.S. limited air strike will be.

ENGEL: Well, I do know the consequences of doing nothing. And that means that Assad can continue to gas his own people, including children. It means there will be despots in the world who can continue to do that. It's really a war crime to do that. And by our action, we're saying...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: But why does the United States always have to do it? Why can't the Europeans? The Arabs? Why can't they do it? Why does the United States always need to get involved in these kinds of situations?

ENGEL: Well, that's a good question, and it's difficult to answer that question.

But I think as the United States we stand for something in the United States. We stand for democracy. We stand for human rights. We stand for not allowing innocent civilians, including children, to be gassed.

There has to be some decency. In the 21st century, allowing these things to happen, I think, is something that should not -- not ever be allowed.

In the United States, we have principles, and I'm proud of being an American and proud of being a U.S. congressman. These are difficult decisions. We don't do it with glee. We don't do it lightly. No boots on the ground, but Assad has got to pay a price for gassing children. BLITZER: Eliot Engel is the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Congressman, thanks for coming in.

ENGEL: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Up next on our special report, we'll have a close look at Syria's first lady.

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BLITZER: She's appeared in "Vogue" magazine and was once an investment banker and not what you might expect from the wife of Syria's strongman. Brian Todd has details.

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BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): She's photographed consoling the families of deceased soldiers, the pictures posted on the president's Facebook page. She visits victims of the war her husband fights so ruthlessly.

In a glowing profile, "Vogue" magazine called her a rose in the desert, the abruptly pulled the piece off the Web. These are the contradictions of Asma al-Assad, married for about a dozen years to Syria's embattled dictator.

(on camera): How does she rationalize this and why does she do that?

ANDREW TABLER, WASHINGTON INSTITUTE FOR NEAR EAST POLICY: I don't think -- I think it would be very hard for her to do that. I think she's standing by her man. She -- she threw her lot in with Bashar a long time ago.

TODD (voice-over): Analyst Andrew Tabler knows Asma al-Assad, worked with her at a charity in Syria. He believes the Syrian first lady clearly understands the gravity of what's going on there.

In an interview with CNN two years before the Syrian uprising started, Asma al-Assad spoke about the condition of Palestinians in Gaza.

ASMA AL-ASSAD, SYRIAN FIRST LADY: I think about when you put your children to bed at night. This is something I think about on a daily basis. You put your children to bed at night, and you expect to see them in the morning. That's a luxury that people don't have. What would it be like for you having -- living under those circumstances?

TODD: Before Syrian children found themselves under those circumstances, Asma al-Assad was all about helping them. She established charities, worked on literacy programs. Since the war started she's not been seen as much in public.

(on camera): How much influence does she have over him?

TABLER: I think she has some influence in terms of pointing out some of the basic problems in the country and particularly these issues about reform but politically, she's -- she's not accepted by the Alawites around the regime's core.

TODD: Asma al-Assad is Sunni, daughter of a Syrian cardiologist. Born in London and raised in this home, educated at the best schools in England, her projectory was impressive. She worked for two investment banks after graduating, closed some lucrative deals.

But since marrying Bashar al Assad. her knack for showing her sense of style has led to some brush-back.

(on camera): Last year some private hacked e-mails between the Assads and their inner circle were released and obtained by CNN, "The Guardian" and other outlets. The e-mails revealed that, at one point, as her country was being torn apart by civil war, Asma al-Assad ordered $16,000 worth of candlesticks, tables and chandeliers from Paris.

(voice-over): In one e-mail she boasted that she was the, quote, "real dictator" in her marriage. I asked Tabler what may be going through her mind right now.

TABLER: I think that she's torn, but she's made her decision. And the fact is that -- that she has made her life around the Assad regime itself. She's, I think, a divided person, very much like her husband, between wanting to reform and carry out good works in the country and being the first lady of Syria. And those two things, particularly with this regime, are incompatible.

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TODD: There's been speculation since the war started that Asma al- Assad might at some point leave Syria. Tabler thinks she'll stay until the bitter end. Fleeing the country, he says, would mean leaving her husband and possibly even her three young children behind -- Wolf.

BLITZER: No indications at all, Brian, from everything you've seen, that she's planning on doing anything along those lines even to get her kids out of there?

TODD: No. No indication. I mean, earlier in the war there was some speculation that maybe she'd already left, that maybe he'd sent her abroad, at least temporarily. But it does not appear that that is -- has happened or will happen anytime soon, Wolf.

BLITZER: Brian Todd reporting for us. Thanks very much.

To our viewers thank you very much. That's all the time we have. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Stay with CNN. "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right after this.

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