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Crisis in Syria; Options in Syria; Dissecting Chemical Weapons

Aired August 29, 2013 - 12:30   ET



DAVID CAMERON, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER: We know there are the 14 uses of chemical weapons on a smaller scale, at least 14, and now we have this much larger use, and this does seem to me and to President Obama and to President Hollande and to many others an appropriate moment to ask whether it is time to do something and stand up for the prohibition against the use of chemical weapons.

There are pictures of bodies with symptoms of nerve agent exposure, including muscle spasms and foaming at the nose and mouth.

Mr. Speaker, anyone in this chamber who has not seen these videos, I believe, should force themselves to watch them. You can never forget the sight of children's bodies stored in ice, young men and women gasping for air and suffering the most agonizing deaths, and all inflicted by weapons outlawed for nearly a century.

I am not standing here and saying there's some piece or some pieces of intelligence that I have seen or the (inaudible) seen, that the world won't see that convinces me that I am right and anyone who disagrees with me is wrong.

I am saying this is a judgment. We all have to reach a judgment about what happened and who was responsible, but I would put it to you, that from all of the evidence we have, the fact that opposition don't have chemical weapons, the fact the regime do, the fact they have used it, the fact they were attacking air at the time and that intelligence I reported, that is enough to conclude that the regime is responsible and should be held accountable.

The fact the Syrian government has and has used chemical weapons is beyond doubt. The fact that the most recent attack took place is not seriously doubted. The Syrian government has said it took place, even the Iranian president said it took place and the evidence that the Syrian regime has used these weapons in the early hours of the 21st of August is right in front of our eyes.


SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN CO-ANCHOR: It is such a hot debate now, Richard. We have all seen those very, very disturbing pictures, but still there are a lot of people who are wondering whether or not this is the appropriate time and appropriate action to strike militarily. And Americans, they really don't have much interest in getting involved in Syria that is, if you believe these polls. A poll taken earlier this summer asked is it in the national interest for the U.S. to be involved in the Syrian conflict? Only 27 percent said yes. Now, 61 percent said no.

Now that poll was taken long before we actually heard about the latest chemical attack. And when the question was asked, should the U.S. drones or cruise missiles be used to attack Syrian government targets, 49 percent said the U.S. should get involved and 39 percent said the U.S. should not.

So, of course, it will be very interesting to see the latest polls after seeing those very disturbing pictures. Does that, in fact, change people's minds?

RICHARD QUEST, CNN CO-ANCHOR: As the prime minister says, the U.K. prime minister, once you have seen the pictures, does your view change on what needs to take place and what needs to happen?

MALVEAUX: The White House is getting ready to brief key members of Congress on the Syria crisis. There is a conference call scheduled for 6:00 tonight.

Many lawmakers say that this briefing is not going to be enough. More than 100 members of the House, they have signed a letter calling for the president to get congressional approval for any military action. Some are adamantly opposed to launching a strike.

QUEST: Joining us from Washington, Robin Wright, a Middle East analyst for the Woodrow Wilson Center, and you have covered the Middle East as a journalist for decades, and you say quick strikes rarely achieve enduring political goals.

It is always about what happens afterwards, isn't it?


It is really important the administration spend just as much time and arguably more looking at what happens next, how do they convert a military operation into something that might help resolve one of the deadliest conflicts in the Middle East today?

And there are extraordinary risks involved in this operation if it carries it out, whether it is the unintended consequences, whether it is the danger of legitimizing foreign intervention by other parties, notably Russia, and Iran, and even backfiring.

MALVEAUX: Robin, the president stated goal is not regime changes, as we know, but getting Assad back to the negotiating table for a political settlement with the Syrian opposition, and is there any scenario that you see or that you can imagine where Assad could be enticed to negotiate with the opposition and whether it is protecting the Alawites or getting them to a safe country, anything else shy of a military strike? WRIGHT: Well, I suspect the administration will roll out a plan that says we are engaging in some kind of military strike but that is going to be complimented by a diplomatic effort to get the various parties together at whether it is a Geneva conference or a meeting somewhere around the world that co-sponsored by the Russians and maybe even allowing the Iranians and some of Syria's allies to be there, so that it is comprehensive and that everyone feels an incentive to get there.

The problem is there are so many different parties. This is not just a two-way conflict in Syria anymore. You have the opposition divided among 1,200 different militias and differences over what the goal is.

Is it to see Assad step down immediately? Is it to engage in a prolonged transition that allows the Alawites to still have a role in power? There are extraordinary challenges in getting that diplomatic effort and military strike may make it harder.

QUEST: When we look at the role in this of China and of Russia, two countries that would veto the Security Council, and yet at the same time they have to be brought on board in some shape or some form of -- they have to be neutralized if you like in terms of preventing something from happening.

So what do they want out of this process?

WRIGHT: Well, I think there are a couple of bigger issues for both countries, and one of them is that they don't want to set a precedent as happened in Libya, where the international community can decide that a leader is unpopular and, therefore, that justifies the world community to engage in military action to oust them.

They're worried about that kind of operation ending up affecting their own sovereignty, playing out at home, and secondly, they're very concerned because these are two countries with major Muslim populations about what happens in their countries in terms of the spill over, the affect and what precedence it sets for Muslim communities.

QUEST: Robin Wright, thank you.

MALVEAUX: And could Syria become another Iraq? Many people are worried that it could.

We're going to tell you what the U.S. and its allies are saying about that.


MALVEAUX: It's actually the Iraq war that is on the minds of many in the United States and its allies because they are considering, the U.S., considering a possible military strike against Syria, and there are a lot of parallels and a lot of skepticism about the intelligence behind this.

So much so that President Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron, they are speaking out about this very issue. QUEST: Mr. Obama says this will not in his words be a repetition of Iraq, and in parliament today, David Cameron offered a blunt assurance to the British parliament.


CAMERON: I am deeply mindful of the lessons of previous conflicts and in particular the deep concerns in the country caused by what went wrong with the Iraq conflict in 2003.

But this is not like Iraq. The case for ultimately supporting action is not based on a specific piece or pieces of intelligence.

The fact the Syrian government has and has use the chemical weapons is beyond doubt.


MALVEAUX: Want to bring in our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger.

So, Gloria, let's take you back to a moment here that we all remember. This is February 5, 2003, when then Secretary of State Colin Powell appeared before the U.N. Security Council, presents evidence that the U.S. basically said proved that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

Watch this.


COLIN POWELL, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: Indeed the facts and Iraq's behavior show that Saddam Hussein and his regime are concealing efforts to produce more weapons of mass destruction.


MALVEAUX: So, Gloria, we know this has to be on the administration's mind today as they roll out and make their case.

What kind of things are they thinking about not to fall into this kind of pitfall if you will?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: I notice in that picture that you just showed, Suzanne, the former CIA director, George Tenet, was behind Colin Powell.

Remember, he was the one that said the evident was a quote, "slam dunk," right? And it turned out not to be such a slam dunk.

I spoke with someone in the administration who said to me, look, this is very different from Iraq because in Iraq we were looking for Saddam's hidden secrets and, in this case, as you just saw with David Cameron, these are not hidden.

What we have to establish they understand is the chain of custody of these chemical weapons and that is exactly what Congress is looking for. Now, I spoke with Chris Van Hollen, who's a senior Democrat on Capitol Hill. Listen to what he said to me about how important this is.


REPRESENTATIVE CHRIS VAN HOLLEN (D), MARYLAND: I think it is important for the president and secretary of state to lay out for the public the clear evidence that the Syrian regime was involved in the chemical weapons attack.

It seems pretty clear that chemical weapons were used, but I think they should come forward with additional evidence linking the regime to that use of chemical weapons.

After all, in Iraq there were claims made that Saddam Hussein had stockpiles of chemical weapons. We went to war. Turned out not to be the case.


BORGER: So, again, it is the question of the chain of custody of these weapons.

Cameron, Secretary of State Kerry, Vice President Biden, all seem to be convinced that these were indeed Assad's weapons and so that is the kind of evidence, I think, that members of Congress are going to want to hear when they are briefed later today.

QUEST: It is worth pointing out, isn't it, Gloria, that there are definitely an opposing point of view in all of this?

BORGER: Oh, yeah.

QUEST: The White House perhaps has gotten ahead of itself maybe in the same way as maybe David Cameron has in starting the process of laying out their argument, but there is a very much a diametrically opposed view.

BORGER: And that's really where the hangover for Iraq comes because people say, OK, maybe we are actually assuming that these are Assad's chemical weapons.

The argument this time is not so much about the stockpiles, because the evidence is there, the argument really is do we to want get involved in the quagmire, having just tried to extricate ourselves from a couple of wars.

The American public as you pointed out in the polls you showed earlier is not particularly enthusiastic about any more military involvement in a place like Syria.

The American public is saying why do we want to get embroiled in this, and there is this question as Robin Wright point out of unintended consequences.

So those are the questions that you saw the House speaker ask yesterday. These are the requests that members of Congress are asking.

So it even goes beyond the question of the chain of custody of the chemical weapons. It actually goes to the point of what happens if we lob these cruise missiles and Assad retaliates and what are the repercussions in the rest of the world?

QUEST: Gloria, thank you.


QUEST: Now a sense of obligation in Syria.

As the fighting rages on, we'll look at five U.S. interests in the country.


SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN ANCHOR: There are a few reasons why the U.S. government might feel obliged to get involved in Syria.

QUEST: Tom Foreman joins us from Washington with a list - the top five, perhaps, of those reasons.

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, they're not iron clad. They could be wrong. But this is one of the things - you know, are some of the things that are being considered here in Washington.

One of them is this. It's beyond Syria. This is about the Middle East. The overall question of the stability of the Middle East and the safety of the old ally Israel over there. We already know that millions of refugees are spilling across the borders from this conflict. We know that there are problems with various groups in the insurgency that might be considered terrorist groups. We know that there's concern about it becoming a widening war. That's one of the reasons the U.S. may feel obliged to get involved.

Here's another one. There's a question of Russia and China. A lot of people see this as a proxy war between these other great powers and western powers for control of this oil rich region, this important region in the world. So there may be a sense of the U.S. feeling that it needs to show that it's not afraid to do what it thinks is right, even if Russia and China do not agree. And they do not agree. We know that simply to be the case.

What else beyond that? Let's look at the next one here, Syrian stability. This is interesting because this may have nothing to do with why we should get involved, but it does matter. The simple truth is, right now, the Assad regime is a regime that the U.S. government would like to see toppled but not at this moment because they feel that the other groups there may be actually more dangerous. So that's just one of the concerns here is, how do they thread the needle here of punishing the Assad regime for doing something that they feel is very wrong in humanitarian terms, in terms of international law, and yet without toppling it?

Beyond that, here's another one to consider, stopping Iran. There's very much the sense that because Iran is a supporter, an ally and a sponsor of Syria, that if Syria is allowed to use chemical weapons with no punishment, that this sends a message to Iran that the U.S. is not really willing to step up and do things against this sort of action, which relates to what? Iran's nuclear program, which we've been talking about for a long time right now. The idea here is you send a message.

And the last one is, President Obama and the red line. This speaks to a very basic word here, credibility. A lot of voters, as you pointed out earlier in the show, are not really very keen on the idea of us getting involved there. But there are geopolitical reasons why the White House may feel pressure to do something because they may simply say the president implied he would do something and, as bad as it is to enter into a conflict, you can argue that in the long-term it's also very bad for any president of a great and powerful nation to threaten actions and then not follow through because that can embolden all sorts of enemies to say, they don't have the heart, they don't have the political will, they just won't do it no matter what they say, and that can make for a very dangerous circumstance in the future.

There are, as you have noted in your show, also a lot of reasons out there right now not to stage this attack. But this is a review of some of those as to why it might take place.

MALVEAUX: All right, Tom, thank you. Appreciate it. We've been talking about chemical weapons in Syria. We've been seeing these pictures here, really horrifying pictures. But what is this all about? What are we watching? What are we seeing? What are these chemicals that they're even talking about? And what makes the nerve gas so potent? How does it even break down the body? We're going to take a look at the medical side of chemical weapons.


MALVEAUX: Both the U.S. and Great Britain feel certain that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons against its own people. Hundreds are dead. Many more were sickened.

QUEST: What exactly is involved in chemical weapons and how do they work? Our senior medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen joins us.

And we've seen the pictures.


So the way that it works is that we all, our glands and our muscles, have an off switch. They're not always on. And a nerve gas like sarin turns off the off switch and it makes your glands and your muscles constantly working. That's not good. They actually get tired and that's why you get paralysis, that's why you get death. So that's the mechanism of it. It can happen very quickly with a high enough dose.

MALVEAUX: We've seen so many pictures - they're just heartbreaking -- of these young children who died, and some people who have survived. What makes the difference here between those who are able to survive this kind of chemical weapons attack and those who are able to live and get through it?

COHEN: To a large extent it's about the amount that you were exposed to. So by the time it got to you, let's say it came through the air, had it sort of dissipated or were you getting a big dose all at one time? And also the length of time, the amount of time that you're sitting there getting exposed to this gas. So some people might be able to run away quickly and get to a place where there isn't much of it and then they are going to be in much better shape than someone who is stuck breathing the stuff in.

QUEST: There are so many questions to ask. If a bomb falls on a building and you're not on the building, there's a very good chance you won't be affected.

COHEN: Right.

QUEST: But with the silent killing nature of sarin gas, or any of these things, you just don't know what's coming your way.

COHEN: You don't. You have no idea. With a bomb you see it coming or you hear something, and that's exactly one of the reasons why this is so dangerous is, you don't know. You don't know. You don't smell it. You don't taste it. You don't hear anything. And you don't know that you've been exposed until you get sick. That's the problem. And by then it's often too late to do anything.

MALVEAUX: Is there a possible antidote for those who have actually been exposed to something like this?

COHEN: There is. There's an injection. Most of the time it's something called atropine. And so you can inject it. And it does - really does work quite well, and maybe that's also why we're seeing some people survive better than others because they got their atropine quickly. If they could get the atropine. And so if you - but you do have to take it quickly. It doesn't work if you take it after a certain period of time. But if you get it quickly, it can work quite well.

MALVEAUX: All right, Elizabeth Cohen, thank you.

COHEN: Thanks.

MALVEAUX: It's such a deadly, horrible situation.

COHEN: Horrible.

MALVEAUX: Thank you. We appreciate that.

QUEST: Thank you.

And that's it for me for watching AROUND THE WORLD. I'm Richard Quest.

MALVEAUX: CNN NEWSROOM continues right after this.