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A Look at the Crisis in Syria

Aired August 30, 2013 - 12:00   ET



RICHARD QUEST, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Richard Quest, in for Michael Holmes this week.

MALVEAUX: We have reached a critical point in the debate over whether or not the U.S. should attack Syria. This hour, the U.S. is expected to lay out its case to the American people on who is responsible for a suspected chemical weapons attack and what should be done about it.

QUEST: So, this hour is crucial because in 30 minutes or so, give or take, the secretary of state, John Kerry, is scheduled to speak at the State Department. Of course, we'll bring that to you live.

Secretary Kerry is expected to talk about a declassified intelligence report on Syria's suspected chemical weapons attack. It's the document everybody's been waiting for. The report will be released. Officials will tell us that it will show - or expect them to tell us it will show Bashar al-Assad's forces carried out that deadly strike.

MALVEAUX: There is major movement as well on other fronts as well. Right now, on the ground in Syria, U.N. weapons inspectors are wrapping up their investigation.

And the U.S.'s staunchest ally, Great Britain, is telling the U.S. it will not be taking part in any military action in Syria.

It is a rapidly developing story. Correspondents, anchors covering it from all angles. Wolf Blitzer, Gloria Borger, they are in Washington. Jill Dougherty is at the State Department. Barbara Starr's at the Pentagon. Atika Shubert is in London.

First, though, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel delivered a strong response after the British vote rejecting military action in Syria. I want you to listen to this.


CHUCK HAGEL, DEFENSE SECRETARY: Every nation has a responsibility to make their own decisions. And we respect that of any nation. We are continuing to consult with the British, as we are with all of our allies and partners. And that consultation includes ways forward together on a response to this chemical weapons attack in Syria.

(END VIDEO CLIP) QUEST: There is no doubt that the British decision not to go along with any activity has completely changed, if you like, the way this is viewed.


QUEST: Not having the British on board, at least from the international community.

MALVEAUX: It is a game changer.

I want to bring in Wolf and start off with you, Wolf.

There are reports that the declassified, redacted intelligence report from the DNI will reveal that it was Assad's brother, potentially, who ordered the chemical attack. Now, if - if that is true, Wolf, would that qualify as the Syrian regime being directly responsible for this attack and possibly be that smoking gun that people are looking for?

WOLF BLITZER, ANCHOR, CNN'S "THE SITUATION ROOM": Yes, I'm sure if they had that kind of hard evidence, and if they're willing to release it - I'm not sure they are willing to go that far and actually release the audio conversation that may or may not have been intercepted between Maher al-Assad, the brother, whose a powerful - a powerful guy in the Bashar al-Assad regime, if they're willing to release that kind of audio tape and willing to release it in the Arabic so the whole world could hear him discussion what this allegation suggests, that there was an order to go ahead and use chemical weapons to kill hundreds of fellow Syrians, to injure thousands of others fellow Syrians. If they have that kind of audio tape that they intercepted and they're willing to release it, that would be powerful evidence against the Bashar al-Assad regime.

I suspect, though, Suzanne, they're not going to release that kind of audio tape. That may speak about those kinds of things in a declassified version. Remember, what they don't want to do is release anything that could undermine what the intelligence community describes as sources and methods, how the U.S., how the friendly countries in that part of the world collect this kind of information. They don't want to undermine that capability.

MALVEAUX: Sure. And, Wolf, the majority of Americans are not supporting this strike. Want to see the latest poll here. This is according to an NBC News poll, a new one that was done. And 79 percent of Americans want congressional approval of any U.S. action in Syria. And right now there's also a lot of opposition we're seeing in Congress. Do you think Secretary Kerry, coming forward at this hour, at this moment, is some way will help shore up support for a possible military move?

BLITZER: Well, he's not going to get the congressional approval he wants because Congress isn't even in session right now. They're in recess for at least another week or 10 days, Congress, and there's no indication the leadership in the House and the Senate wants to come back to Washington. There's no indication that the Obama White House is asking them to come back into session. So, formal congressional authorization is not going to happen.

And even they were to come back, there's no guarantee in the House of Representatives, for example, they would get a vote of confidence in the administration going ahead and launching military strikes whether Tomahawk cruise missiles or other air strikes against various targets in Syria. There's significant skepticism right now about this whole thing. Let's see how powerful this intelligence report within the next few minutes they're going to be releasing because that could - that could influence some of the people out there in Congress. But, right now, there are a lot of people who are saying, just hold off.

QUEST: Gloria Borger is with us.

Congress is not in session until September the 9th. They've been active already. Some members of Congress briefed on a White House conference call. More than 140 House members signing a bipartisan petition to hold a special session on Syria. Congress wants a debate. They want the president to seek authorization and they ain't going to get it, are they?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: No, they're not. I mean if the president called back Congress, there's always a possibility that they would, in fact, vote against him, right, Richard? So I don't think he's very much interested in doing that.

But I think all of this, it's so much the overhang from the involvement in Iraq. I think there's a feel, not necessarily about whether the United States can prove that Assad has these chemical weapons. I think it's pretty clear that they feel very strongly, that they've established this chain of custody that leads to Assad's people.

I think the sense in Congress is not so much whether the evidence is there, but the questions in Congress really revolve around, what is the mission that the United States is trying to accomplish and whether sending some cruise missiles over there would effectively work or whether we would get involved in a quagmire. Something that would keep us involved down the road, which really nobody has the appetite for. By the way, the president of the United States doesn't have the appetite for that either.


BORGER: But there's a question about whether one thing would lead to the other.

MALVEAUX: Jill, I want to bring you into this conversation, at the State Department.

The president is looking more isolated than ever because of its greatest ally, Great Britain, no longer on board. And also, when you take a look at the U.N., failing to get a resolution here for a military strike. So, is the Obama administration ready to go alone? Is that what we're expecting to hear from Secretary Kerry?

JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, I don't know whether Secretary Kerry will go that far, but the administration certainly says that they are prepared. They've made it very clear that they -- other countries, you just heard it from Hagel, other counties have to do what they want to do. The United States will do what it thinks is in its own interest. So you're likely to hear that type of statement from Secretary Kerry.

Remember, he is the person who kind of, at the beginning of the week, was laying out the argument already, calling this -- the attack of moral obscenity and kind of laying the basis for some type of response. Now, again, he'll get a little bit into that intelligence report, but also talk about the efforts for build the support for whatever type of response there is going to be.

QUEST: Jill Dougherty at the State Department.

Let's go to the Pentagon where we have Barbara Starr.

The defense secretary, Chuck Hagel, on a trip to the Philippians, has already talked about Syria -- we heard a little bit about it a second ago -- and the U.S. desire to have an international backing. We need to hear a bit more.


CHUCK HAGEL, DEFENSE SECRETARY: It is the goal of President Obama and our government to, whatever decision is taken, that it be an international collaboration and effort.


QUEST: An international collaboration and effort of whom?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Yes. You know, Richard, the secretary there said it was a goal. He didn't say it was a necessity. So where are we right now? There are still five U.S. Navy warships off the coast of Syria at some distance with dozens and dozens of Tomahawk cruise missiles on board, a target list, we are told, of something less than 50 targets or so that is this limited strike option. If ordered by the president, they would be ready to go very quickly. They would go against command and control centers, chemical weapons delivery systems. Very importantly, not chemical weapons themselves. That's not a target you want to hit. You could cause a greater disaster.

And what is the military goal here? Very limited. Deter any further use of chemical weapons by Syria and send a message to the world that this kind of atrocity will not be tolerated.


MALVEAUX: Want to bring in Atika Shubert in London, where lawmakers voted down that proposal for military action. It really was a crushing defeat for the prime minister before parliament. I want you to listen, however, to how he explained this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) DAVID CAMERON, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER: I strongly believe in the need for a tough response to the use of chemical weapons, but I also believe in respecting the will of this House of Commons. It is very clear tonight that while the house has not passed a motion, it is clear to me that the British parliament, reflecting the views of the British people, does not want to see British military action. I get that and the government will act accordingly.


MALVEAUX: So, Atika, is Great Britain, are they offering any kind of other assistance if the United States strikes?

ATIKA SHUBERT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, they're certainly offering any political and diplomatic assistance they can. They'll be bringing the case to the United Nations and they'll be making the case to - that for -- against the Assad regime. But they will not be helping in any military way. This has been made very clear.

And it was a humiliating defeat for Prime Minister Cameron. And the simple fact is, for many, opposition lawmakers, there was not enough evidence to justify a military strike and no answers as to what a strike would actually achieve. And those were the two key questions that lawmakers were hoping to get an answer to.

MALVEAUX: All right, Atika Shubert, appreciate that. Jill, Wolf, everybody, as well as Gloria.

Now, former President George W. Bush, he is also weighing in on the possible military action against Syria. He admits, this is a tough choice for President Obama, but he also adds he's been no fan of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad.


GEORGE W. BUSH, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: I can comment about this. The president's got a tough choice to make. And if he decides to use our military, he'll have the greatest military ever backing him up. But --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What has Syria been like for the U.S. in the eight years that you served? Would you say that - I mean the feeling that they had in supporting the insurgency, there was no doubt about that, am I correct?

BUSH: I was not a fan of Mr. Assad. He's an ally of Iran. And he's made mischief.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Made mischief and, for a long time, he felt impervious to America.

BUSH: Yes. And the president's going to have to make a tough decision.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And what about the rest of the world turning (ph) or saying, well, they weren't really too sure. We're going to wait for the U.N. Have you -- you've been through that before. BUSH: The president has to make a tough call, Brian. I know you're trying to subtly rope me into the issues of the day. I refuse to be roped in.


QUEST: The Assad making mischief, as the president - former president put it.

Another former president is also weighing in. Jimmy Carter says the U.S. should not take unilateral action against Syria. In statement, former President Carter said, "a punitive military response without a U.N. Security Council mandate or broad support from NATO and the Arab League would be illegal under international law and unlikely to alter the course of the war."

And, of course, there's more of what we're working on in this hour.

MALVEAUX: The flat out rejection from Washington's closest ally. So, who is left now that Britain says it will not take part in military action in Syria. We're going to take a look at where each country stands on military intervention.

And we'll also bring you live remarks from Secretary of State John Kerry this hour in AROUND THE WORLD.


MALVEAUX: Welcome to our viewers here and AROUND THE WORLD.

I want to warn you here. We're getting new video in. It's so hard to watch. It's horrible. It's another alleged chemical attack in Syria.

Opposition groups are claiming that this attack hit civilians. This is in northern Syria, and it happened earlier in the week.

QUEST: Now we do need to warn you before you show you this video. It appears to show people suffering from burns, and it is very difficult to watch.

Arwa Damon joins us live from Beirut. Arwa, what does this video show and when?

ARWA DAMON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, before we start showing that video, let's once again stress that these are incredibly difficult and disturbing images to look at.

This attack, according to the local coordination committees took place on the 26th of August. The videos were up loaded by opposition activists at the same time on the 26th of August as well.

In the videos you see a number of victims with burns covering large portions of their bodies. Those burns appear to have creams applied to them by medics on site. There are no other visible external wounds.

A doctor, or a woman who identified herself as a doctor, rather, appearing in one of these YouTube videos saying that she believed that this was an attack that was perhaps chemical in nature, although no one knows exactly what it was.

A lot of the victims in this attack were students. According to one such victim, a young teenage student, he said that they were in math class. They heard an explosion appearing to be a strike that was hitting a building nearby. The student, teachers all ran outside. They could see aircraft overhead.

They then decided to run back inside for cover when, all of a sudden. she says that they did not hear any sounds, but all of a sudden, she felt a burning sensation. She said everyone around her was burning. People were burning. They did not know what to do with themselves.

Another doctor who was also seen treating some of these patients was saying that he didn't know exactly what had taken place, that the injuries were way beyond their own chemical abilities, severe burn injuries. A lot of people burned to such a degree that they were unable to save them. Other victims sent to Turkey as well.

Even more disturbing images showing children, a lot of them seeming to be around the age of teens on the ground, screaming, talking about a burning sensation covering their body, imploring the doctors to help them, to help them stop the pain.

QUEST: And, Arwa, it's difficult after looking at those pictures and hearing your description to know what to ask next, other than is there any indication of who is responsible?

DAMON: Well, according to the testimonies that are coming out in these videos up loaded to YouTube, and we must caveat that with we cannot independently verify them, the victims and doctors are all blaming the regime.

This village lies along the Aleppo-Idlib highway. It's a very main highway. It's been under rebel control for quite some time.

This village has been targeted in the past. It has been the scene of clashes, but nothing like what we saw taking place in this instance.

Again, a lot of people really wondering why it is that they have to suffer so much, and this, yet again, another act of inexplicable violence that we're seeing taking place in Syria, Richard.

QUEST: Arwa Damon, monitoring events for us in Beirut in Lebanon, thank you.

MALVEAUX: This is why we're having this debate, a hundred thousand people killed over a two-year period in this civil war and now you see something like this, these chemical attacks.

After the British parliament voted no to military action, who can the U.S. count on for help? We're going to take a look at a map and explain that, up next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) QUEST: So let's put this into context.

Now the U.K is out of military activity. It's made quite clear they won't be involved. Look at the map and determine who is likely to join any military activity by the United States if such should come along.

First of all, who can we rule out? Well, obviously, Russia is absolutely against any form of military activity. The U.K has now ruled itself out as well. Germany, what we're seeing, Germany's response is typical of lots of countries. Yes we're against the chemical -- alleged chemical weapons attack, but no, they won't be involved in any military activity.

We can write off, of course, Egypt, in turmoil. Saudi Arabia, no, they might provide money and they might take up any slack, but they wouldn't be. Iraq, obviously not. Iran, still waiting to see what's happening there with the new president.

So you're left with a few countries that could and would become involved, and the big one in Europe, of course, is France. In France, President Francois Hollande has now gone on the record as saying, despite the U.K, every country is sovereign, and therefore, France would be in favor of being involved. I'm paraphrasing what he said, obviously, that France would be in favor of being engaged along with the United States.

And, of course, Israel, now Israel wouldn't get directly involved, but as the Israeli prime minister said yesterday, if Israel was in any shape or form attacked or was involved there would be the greatest show of force, is the way Netanyahu put it.

And, finally, back to Turkey, of course, now this is fascinating. Turkey is taking a lot of refugees from across the border, is very much one of those frontline countries that would be involved. It has come out against the alleged chemical weapons attack.

But, again, it's having missiles being lobbed into Turkey from Syria, but again, would not be one of those.

So you see, Suzanne, when you actually start to analyze who would be a part of any coalition of nations that would be militarily involved, the numbers start to become very small indeed.

MALVEAUX: And, Richard, I imagine, too, when you take a look at that map, the Mediterranean Sea, very important as well, that's where we have a lot of those carriers and that's where, if there was a potential strike, it would happen very, very close to a lot of those countries that you're talking about.

QUEST: Well, yeah, and this is the fascinating part about what's taking place because we now know that the U.S. has moved its ships into the area. We know the Russians are moving ships into the area, too.

But just look at this well of instability that exists here. Egypt, which has got, currently, incredible instability as the Morsy, anti- Morsy protests continue. Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, the entire area is in ferment at the moment. And that's the geopolitical, geostrategic reason why the president is so concerned.

MALVEAUX: And, up next, live remarks from Secretary of State John Kerry, he's expected to talk about a newly declassified intelligence report on Syria's chemical suspected weapons attack.

You're seeing live pictures there from the State Department. We're going to bring it to you, up next, AROUND THE WORLD.


MALVEAUX: Welcome back to this special hour on the "Crisis in Syria." We'd like to welcome our viewers here as well as AROUND THE WORLD.

Any minute now, Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to tell the American people and the world where the U.S. stands on the suspected chemical weapons attack inside of Syria and what the U.S. response should be.

QUEST: Now the secretary of state was scheduled to be at around now. I think he may be a moment or two late which wouldn't be unusual in these circumstances, but be assured of one thing. We'll bring you his comments as and when they happen.