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Britain Shares Chemical Attack Intel; U.S. has Direct Interests in Syria; Nerves on Edge on Syrian Streets; Crisis in Syria

Aired August 29, 2013 - 12:00   ET


RICHARD QUEST, CNN ANCHOR: "The New York Times" reports American officials say there's no smoking gun that directly links Bashar al- Assad to the horrific attacks. President Obama says there's no doubt the Syrian government carried out a chemical attack. The president's expected to hold a conference call today to brief high ranking members of Congress about his plans for Syria.

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN ANCHOR: Meantime, military hardware is now on the move. Britain is deploying a half dozen war planes to Cyprus, that is just off Syria's coast, and Russia is moving two war ships into the Mediterranean.

Add to that the British government has now made its case for launching a strike on Syria. Britain says it can attack without authorization from the United Nations, justifying the use of force based on humanitarian grounds.

QUEST: Atika Shubert joins us now from London.

When we look at the frankly relatively brief document, a page and a half from the British government, it's quite clear, isn't it, it doesn't need further authorization, other than by parliament, to go into the fighting.

ATIKA SHUBERT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, other than by parliament is a big caveat. I mean a number of members of the opposition, but also within David Cameron's own conservative party, have said they want to wait for more evidence. And this is why, while they're debating it today, it will take a second vote to actually authorize military action. Many members of parliament still want to hear the evidence of what intelligence there actually is.

Now, the government did put out an intelligence assessment earlier today and one of the key phrases in that is what we have in the first graph saying, quote, it said at least 350 people died in that August 21st attack and saying, "it is not possible for the opposition to have carried out a chemical weapons attack on this scale. The regime has used chemical weapons on a smaller scale on at least 14 occasions in the past. And there is some intelligence to suggest regime culpability in the attack. This makes it highly likely that the Syrian regime was responsible."

Now, that sounds like something strong, but that report doesn't actually detail what exactly the intelligence and the evidence is. And without that, members of parliament here say they're not willing to authorize any sort of military action just yet.

MALVEAUX: And, Atika, what do we think is the timetable here because we know President Obama is going to be headed to the G-20 Summit in St. Petersburg, Russia. We know that Cameron as well would be involved in those kinds of meetings, those discussions. Is there a definitive timetable where they see a window to strike or could this be put off for weeks perhaps?

SHUBERT: Well, there's no definitive timetable, but what we do know is that for many lawmakers here it's dependent on what the U.N. inspectors say. And they will be leaving on Saturday. Now, does that mean we're going to have a definitive answer on Saturday? Really - it's up to the U.N. inspectors, what evidence they have gathered and when they're ready to present that evidence. That's what it really hinges on, at least in terms of Britain's involvement.

MALVEAUX: All right, Atika Shubert, thank you so much.

Richard, interestingly enough, it was the former prime minister, Tony Blair, who got a lot of flack, as you know, for supporting the Iraq War, President Bush -- being called Bush's poodle. I imagine that there is some public opinion that fits into all of this as well.

QUEST: Oh, huge.

MALVEAUX: How does he come out on top of all of this?

QUEST: In fact, time and again, there was huge discussion, listening to today to the debate in parliament, in Westminster, very much the skepticism - and we'll be talking about this later in the hour -- the skepticism that exists over any form of call for action based on supposed reports which people haven't seen.

MALVEAUX: It's all about the intelligence. And one thing is clear, the British prime minister, David Cameron, he is on the same page now with President Obama regarding Syria. The British leader, he is also emphasizing that, he says, this is not another Iraq, but he touched on both of those points during his speech to parliament. You can see there is a certain defensiveness about this.


DAVID CAMERON, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER: Barack Obama is a man who opposed the action in Iraq. No one could in any way describe him as a president who wants to involve America in more wars in the Middle East. But he profoundly believes that an important red line has been crossed in an appalling way and that is why he supports action in this case.


MALVEAUX: So, again, Iraq coming into the fourfold and the U.S. has direct interest in, of course, what happens in Syria and what happens there affects the price of oil, also military involvement, hitting military families already stretched thin from more than a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. And what is done in Syria could hurt or help U.S. enemies and the allies in the region.

Want to bring in Barbara Starr who joins us from the Pentagon, Elise Labott joining us from the State Department, and Maribel Aber, she's at the New York Stock Exchange.

Barbara, let's start off with you here.

The president, he promises in what he says is limited tailored approach, a clear and very limit way of sending a shot across the bow saying "stop doing this." Can the military afford another mission, even a limited one?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think there's no question that they can. And I don't think it's really going to affect military families at all. This is going to be, if it is ordered, a cruise missile strike, no U.S. troops on the ground, Navy ships out in the eastern Mediterranean that would be on deployment anyhow. So the capability is there. The money is there. Because what we're talking about is something that will last, we are told, just potentially a couple of days.

The president making very clear he is not interested in an ongoing military action. This will be very focused. This will be aimed, they hope, at deterring Syria from using its chemical weapons. The big question is, will it work? There are a lot of skepticism about whether such a limited strike would deter Assad from doing anything.

MALVEAUX: Want to bring in Elise.

Let's talk about the potential proxy war in the region. Now, if the U.S. strikes Syria, is it possible that we simply shake the hornet's nest, that Syria's allies become emboldened by U.S. action and Syria turns to Iran, for instance, for more financial and military support and U.S. allies being weakened, the possibility that Syria will retaliate against Israel?

ELISE LABOTT, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think, Suzanne, that was the reluctance all along by this administration not to get involved in Syria. I think right now Syrian forces are pretty occupied with the civil war going on in the country, but certainly Iran could retaliate, not just against Israel but U.S. Gulf allies in the region where allies - where ties are very strained, and also against U.S. citizens in the region. The U.S. calls Iran one of the biggest state sponsors of terrorism.

And then I think there's also a concern that if there's more chaos in Syria, the extremist groups like al Nusrafont (ph) will exploit this and use it as a safe haven for terrorism. And then there is a concern that there could draw the U.S. into a larger conflict with Israel. And so when you say hornet's nest, Suzanne, I think that's exactly what it is, which has been the reluctance all along.

QUEST: There are those who say it's all about oil and the economy. Maribel Aber is joining us.

I'm looking over and I can see the Dow Jones Industrials up 80 points. So besides the wobble earlier in the week, the Dow has recovered most of it -- or a large part of its losses, which suggests what, Maribel?

MARIBEL ABER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, it suggests, Richard, that, you know, we're still in the green and possibly Syria -- the impact of Syria and not jumping in is really not having an impact in the markets. But I want to be clear, Richard, it can have an impact on your money. The situation there has been driving up the cost of oil all week. Crude rising to its highest level in two years on fears that the unrest in Syria could ripple to its big oil producing neighbors like Iraq, like Iran, and Saudi Arabia.

But I think the better question might be, will that trickle down to the gas pump. And the good news is that any rise in gas prices could actually be temporary. Experts say the longer term trend is down, the turmoil is happening at the time of year when the end of summer vacations means fewer Americans driving and also, too, refiners are switching to cheaper winter blends. So any rise that you see is not expected to last long.

And it's not just oil. Syria -- again let's turn back to stocks, look at the market early this week. As we were saying here, Richard, Wall Street hates uncertainty. Stocks did sell off on worries about if and when U.S. military would take action. On Monday and Tuesday alone, the Dow lost 235 points. But again, that may have been just a temporary bite in your 401(k) because stocks are still way up.

Suzanne and Richard.

QUEST: Maribel, Elise and Barbara, thank you.

MALVEAUX: And President Obama says he has not yet made a final decision on using military action against Syria, but he is convinced that the Assad regime gassed its own people and should pay.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: 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 weapon that is could threaten us, that they are held accountable.


QUEST: Here's more of what we're working on in this hour around the world.

Reports of people in Syria bracing for air strikes. The government ordering evacuations. We went inside the country to find out how civilians feel about the possibility of U.S. military intervention.

MALVEAUX: Plus, thousands of people in Israel lining up for something in these boxes. It has to do with the crisis in Syria. We'll tell you what's in them, up next.


MALVEAUX: Talk of a possible U.S. strike in Syria putting people on edge through the Middle East, and inside Syria concern now on the street is growing. But as Frederik Pleitgen reports, those fears are often not seen or heard.


FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Even with U.S. warships ready to strike off Syria's coast, and Washington saying it's certainly 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. air strikes.

"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 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.

PLEITGEN (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 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.


QUEST: Frederik Pleitgen joins us now from Beirut in Lebanon.

Fred, when you - when you talk to the Syrian people, are they more concerned about the possibility of the strike or what would follow after any strike might have taken place?

PLEITGEN: Yes, that's really the thing that I found the most remarkable is that people aren't really too worried about the strikes themselves. They say they don't believe that the strikes will affect them or, they say, they believe that any strikes would target the military. Of course, on the face of it, many of those people also will tell you they don't think that the U.S. could do anything to Syria. They think that Bashar al-Assad will protect them. But, by and large, they don't seem to believe that the strikes themselves are the problem. The problem could be the aftermath, especially if the regime is destabilized, Richard. We have to keep in mind that I was, of course, on the government controlled side of Damascus where people are sympathetic to the regime. And also, when you're on that side, you can lead quite a normal life there until now, so many of these people fear that could go away, Richard.

MALVEAUX: And are they -- what are they doing to prepare for the possibility that there might be a strike that is imminent?

PLEITGEN: Well, you know, first of all, there's a lot of chatter right now. there's a lot of people who are not really sure what to do, who are talking amongst each other asking, should we go somewhere else? Should we try to go to the coastal areas that are - that are big in the hand of Assad? Should we try to go to another country? Should we go to Lebanon?

I was driving out this morning and there was a long queue at the border. Not an exodus, but more people than you would normally see. And then there's other people who are stocking up on things like canned food, who are trying to make sure they're as autonomous as possible. There is just that grade of uncertainty. People just don't know what this sort of intervention could bring.

QUEST: Fred Pleitgen in Beirut, thank you.

Now to Westminster in the heart of London where British lawmakers are debating the motion for military action against Syria.


GEORGE GALLOWAY, BRITISH MEMBER OF PARLIAMENT: The Syrian rebels have got plenty of access to sarin. It's not rocket science, Mr. Speaker.

A group of Shinto obscurantists in Japan, living on Mount Fuji, poisoned the Tokyo underground with sarin gas less than 20 years ago.

You don't have to be Einstein to have your hands on sarin gas or the means to distribute it.

Russia and China say no to war. So do I and most people in this country.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. Andrew Mitchell?



QUEST: You are hearing George Galloway, who is one of the most maverick British lawmakers, being a thorn in the side of governments of both sides and it is not -- we join him there indeed and, as we were listening, Suzanne, it is not surprising to hear him absolutely vehemently against any form of military activity.

But parliament, this is what -- when parliament is at its most febrile. This is when they are debating the big issues of the day, and I am told and I heard earlier the speaker say, more than 90 members to want speak today.

MALVEAUX: And it's amazing to see this because what is happening today behind closed doors is you're going to have a U.S. official briefing members of Congress.

You don't see this kind of open debate if you will with the president, but clearly the president trying to make sure that members of Congress are on his side, and there is a big debate about whether or not it needs to be authorized before the U.S. decides to strike.

QUEST: Which, of course, if there was an authorization as we saw in previous wars, you would end up with exactly the same sort of debate, basically an all-out fistfight on both sides.

MALVEAUX: Yeah, we're going to be keeping a close eye on the British parliament, a very interesting process as they make their way through this debate.

But the mood also tense in countries that neighbor Syria, including Israel, the government there preparing for the possibility that Israel could be attacked by Syria if the U.S. stages a strike.

QUEST: Israelis are stocking up, in this case on gas masks.

Jim Clancy went to a gas mask distribution center in Jerusalem and found a panicky crowd waiting outside.


JIM CLANCY, ANCHOR, CNN INTERNATIONAL: The police had to be called in as thousands of Israelis turned out to collect free gas masks.

That looming strike against Syria has produced some very real public threats against Israel and, while officials here say they think the risks are very, very low, the people who have gathered here would rather not take that risk.

They would rather have this.

Back to you.


MALVEAUX: She has appeared in "Vogue" magazine, was once an investment banker, not what you might expect from the wife of Syria's president.

We're going to take a look at Asma al-Assad, who once said she was the real dictators in her marriage.


QUEST: Without a doubt, it is a challenge to get to the heart of what's happening in Syria.

As journalists we strive to go beyond the p.r. campaigns, of course, but how to make sense of a leader like Syria's Bashar al-Assad?

MALVEAUX: Bashar al-Assad and his wife, Asma, have been portrayed as representing the new Syria. Well, not anymore.

Our Brian Todd spoke to someone who once worked for the Syrian first lady.


BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: She is photographed consoling 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," then 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.

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 that she is standing by her man. She threw her lot in with Bashar a long time ago.

TODD: Analyst Andrew Tabler knows Asma al-Assad, worked with her at a charity Syria. He believes she 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, WIFE OF SYRIAN PRESIDENT: 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 people in Gaza do not have.

So what would it be like for you having and 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 has not been seen as much in public.

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 is not accepted by the Alawites around the regime's core.

TODD: Asma al-Assad is Sunni, the daughter of a Syrian cardiologist, born in London and raised in this home, educated at the best schools in England. Her trajectory 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 brush back.

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 the country was being torn apart by civil war, Asma al-Assad ordered $16,000 worth of candlesticks, tables and chandeliers from Paris.

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 now.

TABLER: I think she is torn, but she's made her decision. The fact is that she has made her life around the Assad regime itself.

She's, I think, a divided person and very much like her husband, and 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.

TODD: There has speculation since the war started that Asma al-Assad may at some point leave.

Tabler thinks she will stay to the bitter end. Fleeing the country would mean leaving her husband and possibly even her three young children behind.

Brian Todd, CNN, Washington.


QUEST: The potential risks of a strike on Syria are a big concern for many people.

Hear what they could be and why some are saying they're not worth taking those risks, in a moment.


MALVEAUX: We're back with our special hour on the crisis in Syria.

We would like to welcome viewers here in the United States as well as AROUND THE WORLD.

U.N. weapons inspectors are back out now collecting evidence from one of the neighborhoods where perhaps more than a thousand people were massacred.

The "New York Times" reports that American officials say there is no smoking gun that directly linked Bashar al-Assad to that horrific attack.

But President Obama says there is no doubt the Syrian government carried out a chemical attack.

The president is expected to hold a conference call later today to brief high-ranking members of Congress about his plan for Syria.

In the meantime Britain is deploying a half dozen warplanes to Cyprus just off Syria's coast, and Russia is moving two war ships into the Mediterranean.

QUEST: It was a somber and defiant British Prime Minister David Cameron who addressed the House of Commons a short while ago.

The house had been recalled from its summer vacation so it could discuss and vote on a motion on Syria.