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Crisis in Syria; Kerry to Speak on Syria

Aired August 30, 2013 - 12:30   ET


RICHARD QUEST, CNN CO-ANCHOR: We'll bring you his comments as and when they happen.

Kerry is expected to talk about a declassified intelligence report on the chemical attack on the chemical attack on the Damascus suburb last week. And officials tell us it will show Bashar al-Assad forces carried out the deadly strike.

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN CO-ANCHOR: And there's major movements on other fronts as well.

Right now on the ground in Syria, U.N. inspectors are wrapping up their investigation. And the U.S.'s staunchest ally, Great Britain, is telling the United States it's not going to be taking part in any military action inside of Syria.

QUEST: Let's factor all this together. The U.K is now out. Other countries would be in. The U.S. is deciding what to do next.

What's the downside and who would be involved? Why would they not be involved in U.S. military action in Syria?

MALVEAUX: Some say it's just not a good idea in the wake of long- running wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Reason" magazine editor-in-chief Matt Welch is a big opponent. He's blogged about it. You can read about it. He joins us from Washington.

And, Matt, first of all, just 10 minutes ago, we saw this video out of northern Syria that was so incredibly disturbing, very graphic of people who had burns, suffered burns all over their bodies because of what certainly seemed to be a chemical attack.

How do you not do something?

MATT WELCH, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, "REASON" MAGAZINE: It was totally horrific and heartbreaking to look at that.

And if anyone's been following the news from Syria for the last two years, as you were mentioning earlier on the show, a hundred thousand people have died. There's just been butchery. It's been awful. No human being can fail to have their heart cry out.

What to do about that is another question entirely, and also whether seeing a video can tell us were they actually burned by chemical weapons, who deployed them. These are questions we don't have satisfactory answers for.

The government, once again, is telling us that they feel like they have slam dunk evidence that the Assad regime used chemical weapons. Well, there's people who sit on the relevant congressional intelligence committees who are not satisfied with the level of intelligence that they've got to confirm that, so --

MALVEAUX: Certainly, if you believe -- I'm sorry, but if you believe what we've heard from Josh Earnest from the White House yesterday, you've got NGOs on the ground, you've got independent journalists as well as intelligence, all pointing to the fact that, A, it's chemical weapons and, B, that it's the Assad regime.

WELCH: Again, some people who are on the relevant congressional committees don't necessarily think that's an open-and-shut case, and certainly it's the kind of thing that you can maybe prove a little bit more.

And, more importantly, go to Congress. It's really striking that we're sitting here a day after this kind of remarkable democratic moment in the monarchy where we fought a revolution to separate ourselves from, but we're not even going to ask Congress whether to authorize war.

QUEST: Matt, let's be blunt about this then. In this scenario, what do you want them to do besides go do Congress? What would you be in favor of doing?

WELCH: First of all, go to Congress. The problem is, you know, what would you be in favor of doing in Hungary in 1956. I know a lot of Hungarians -- no, this is an important thing. We can't solve all of the world's problems and we certainly can't do it unilaterally, which is a method on which Barack Obama ran against, let's remember, in 2007 and 2008.

It's heartbreaking. It's horrifying. And every time you see something happening like that you want to reach through the camera and --

QUEST: You would throw the doctrine of humane intervention out of window?

WELCH: It's a doctrine that doesn't have any basis in international law right now currently. And, you know, yes, you can't intervene into a sovereign country that's doing who are horrible things to its own citizens.

It is a tragedy that political science has been grappling with for hundreds of years, and it's very frustrating for anyone who hates to see human tragedy.

However, when you intervene into other people's civil wars, bad things happen, and we've seen this repeatedly the last 12 years.

QUEST: Matt Welch, thank you for a robust discussion. We appreciate it.

WELCH: Thank you. MALVEAUX: And President Obama is making the case for a strike on Syria, but does he have, as was mentioned, the question before that Matt brought up, a legal basis to use force?

We're going to talk to a lawyer about that very topic when we return.


QUEST: We gave you a hint of the legal difficulties in our last interview, the legal justification for the United States to use any force in Syria, and President Obama's call, if it comes, for air strikes without breaking any international or domestic laws in the U.S.

MALVEAUX: So David Kay is joining us. He's a former U.S. State Department attorney and international law professor.

And, David, first of all, we have heard from the president before justifying the use of force in Syria. Let's listen.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We want the Assad regime to understand that by using chemical weapons on a large scale against your own people, against women, children, infants, that you are not only breaking standards but you're also creating a situation where U.S. national interests are affected.


MALVEAUX: So, David, the president has said that Assad's actions break international norms. Is that enough to justify, legally, using force?


So the president is essentially making a case that I would call a political case for the use of force, but as a matter of international law, unless we're operating in self-defense or we're operating under the authorization of the U.N. Security Council, there's simply now law, no international law that would support us using force against Syria at this time.

MALVEAUX: And you've written just that point, that no international law supports a U.S. attack on Syria, even in the face of mass killings by internationally prohibited weapons here.

Are there exceptions?

KAYE: There aren't exceptions. This is really a situation where, unless you have self-defense or the Security Council behind you, that international law does provide a rule.

Now that's different from saying that senior policy makers from the president and his national security team decide that it's the right thing to do, that given the nature of the attacks that allegedly Assad has committed against civilians, that it's something that has to be done.

But they shouldn't be under the misimpression it's legal and they should take into account that there could be legal consequences to using force in this kind of situation.

QUEST: But there have been numerous occasions where force has been used to attack another country where there was no imminent risk of self-defense or of attack, and that has been, if not justified under international norms, it has been accepted.

KAYE: That's absolutely true that there have cases in the past, and probably the best example and one that the president and his advisors are definitely studying is the war on Kosovo, 14 years ago in 1999, in which case, the Russians were playing the same game that they are today.

In a sense, they were blocking all action in the face of a humanitarian disaster that was unfolding in Kosovo at the time, just as the Russians are doing today. And the United States along with NATO took action in Kosovo.

The difference, and there are significant differences here, is that the United Nations, the Security Council, had been engaged in Kosovo, had been condemning violence for quite a long time leading up to the use of force.

And we don't have that same kind of predicate now. We don't have the same kind of Security Council engagement, and so in the case of Kosovo, you also a regional security organization, NATO, that was behind it. You don't have that here.

MALVEAUX: Let's talk about U.S. law here, if we could The Constitution, Article I, Section VIII, gives Congress the power to declare war, but also declares the president the commander-in-chief, and so many presidents have skirted Congress, ordering military force.

As Richard had mentioned, there are many, many examples when you think about Grenada in '83, or sending troops to Somalia in '92, the NATO- backed bombing in Yugoslavia, as you mentioned, in '99, and of course, recent bombing campaigns, the air strike two years ago in Libya.

Under the War Powers Act, the president has to inform Congress, and there are limits to this. What does the president need to do here? It seems like he's saying that this is going to be a limited strike and that he's at least willing to go before and inform members of Congress, brief them at what's about to take place.

KAYE: Right. This is case perhaps at the exception of the Somalia example that you mentioned where we don't have a self-defense excuse, and it's widely understood that the president has the authority as the commander-in-chief to use force to protect Americans, to protect the United States , whether it's the territory or American property overseas, that that's available.

And even in those situations, the president has to report to Congress under the War Powers Resolution. Here we have a completely different situation where there's no real colorable claim that would be acting in self-defense, and given that situation and given the authority under the Constitution for Congress really to be engaged in the war-making decisions, it seems that under law that he should be getting congressional authorization to use force in this situation.

MALVEAUX: David Kaye, thank you so much. We've got to wrap it there.

Up next, live remarks from Secretary of State John Kerry, expected to talk about the newly declassified intelligence report on Syria's suspected chemical weapons attack, we're going to bring that to you, AROUND THE WORLD.


QUEST: In the crisis in Syria, events are moving and they are moving quite fast. We now know that U.N. weapons inspectors have finished their business in Syria and will be leaving the country. They will then be reporting to the U.N. secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon on whether or not -- or their best judgment and assessment, whether or not chemical weapons were used in Syria. And, if so, can blame be attributed.

MALVEAUX: We're also watching live pictures from the State Department. We are expecting Secretary of State John Kerry to go before the podium and to make a statement, perhaps take some questions from reporters, but essentially lay out the case from the Obama administration on what has taken place inside of Syria, what kind of evidence they have of a chemical weapons attack, and what would be the plan, the strategy, for the United States' response in light of the fact that so many have decided that they will not be supporting such an effort.

I want to bring in our Wolf Blitzer, who's covering the story from Washington and your angle.

Hey, Wolf.

WOLF BLITZER, ANCHOR: Thanks very much, guys.

There's no doubt this is going to be very, very important, what the secretary of state says, what kind of intelligence the U.S. is willing to release in terms of trying not only to generate international support for a potential U.S. military strike, but congressional support as well.

Our chief - our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta, has been watching what's going on.

We expect the secretary to walk out to that microphone momentarily, Jim, but what do we expect to hear, what are you hearing?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we expect to hear the secretary of state talk about this intelligence report that the administration has put together about that chemical weapons attack that occurred last week in Syria. We expect that intelligence report -- which is going to be released to the public, we should mention, later today -- will lay out the administration's case. They believe there is no doubt that the Assad regime is responsible for that chemical weapons attack.

And, Wolf, you'll recall earlier this week it was the secretary of state who made that very passionate statement over at the State Department, talking about how the weapons attack in Syria affected him deeply, personally. So we'll have to look for those kinds of comments as well. The secretary was ore here at the White House earlier this morning as the president held another national security briefing with his top advisors. We believe that that is obviously over with now that that the secretary is about to come out over at the State Department.

And then, Wolf, in about an hour and a half from now, the president will be making some publicly available comments, along with the presidents of Estonia and Latvia. They're having a previously scheduled meeting here at the White House, but those comments from the president will be available at that point. And we're going to be waiting to see whether or not he makes a comment about Syria then. That is a possibility, Wolf.

BLITZER: As the nation's top diplomat, the secretary of state, Jim, he's got an awfully important responsibility. The attack - the alleged attack - we know there was an attack allegedly by the Syrian regime, occurred nine days ago on August 21st. Since then, the Obama administration has tried to put together an international collision that would support military actions. But we know there's no U.N. vote, no Security Council vote because of a Russian veto, no formal NATO vote in support of military action. The United Kingdom, Britain yesterday, the parliament, voted against it. Congress hasn't been brought into session. So there's been a lack of coalition support, if you will, at home and abroad. How embarrassing is this to the Obama administration, Jim?

ACOSTA: Well, the administration officials that I've talked to all along maintain that they never said that there would be this broad, international coalition. Having said that, a week ago, when the president spoke to CNN's Chris Cuomo, he did talk about how international law would require some sort of international cooperation.

It's interesting that you mention that, Wolf, because within the last hour, Vice President Joe Biden was asked a question by the pool reporters who were with him about whether or not the French might be onboard. He did not answer that question directly. He said only, quote, "I know everybody's on board." That, obviously, is not the case because of what happened at British parliament yesterday.

But it is worth noting, Wolf, that the French president, Hollande, did make some comments to the French newspaper that he believes France should be on board for some sort of military mission. That he believes Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian leader, should be punished for that chemical weapons attack. So we're waiting to find out whether or not there might be some sort of French military involvement with what we expect to take place, although the White House says no final decision has been made by this president. And, you know, getting back to that international cooperation, you know, we did start to hear yesterday afternoon, yesterday evening, Wolf, from senior U.S. officials here at the White House and within the administration that the president may have to act unilaterally. It will be interesting to see by the end of the day, Wolf, whether or not that is still the case, if it's still a unilateral situation or whether the president might have some other partners on board.

BLITZER: A coalition of one some of its critics are already dubbing it.

And it's interesting that you refer to that interview he granted our Chris Cuomo last week. I'm just looking at the transcript of that interview and he was very specific, President Obama. He said, "as far as Syria is concerned, there are rules of international law." And then he went on and said this, "you know, if the U.S. goes in an attacks another country without a U.N. mandate and without clear evidence that can be presented, then there are questions in terms of whether international law supports it. Do we have a coalition to make it work? And, you know, those are considerations that we have to take into account."

So the president, a week - more than a week ago saying that he needs international support, he needs a coalition, he needs U.N. support. So far, he hasn't been able to achieve that. But we'll see what the secretary of state is about to announce.

Let's bring in Fred Pleitgen. He's just out of Damascus. He's now in Beirut watching what's going on.

Fred, as far as those U.N. weapons inspectors, they're supposed to leave tomorrow, fly back to New York and brief the U.N. secretary- general, Ban Ki-moon. Is that right?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf, and we've gotten some more details as to how exactly that is going to happen. Apparently Angela Kane, the high representative for disarmament, is going to fly back to New York and she is going to brief Ban Ki-moon, whereas Aka Selstrum (ph), who's the actual chief inspector on the ground, he's going to remain in Europe and he's going to overlook the evaluation of those samples that were taken.

The latest that we've gotten from the U.N., and this is really just a couple of seconds ago, the latest that we've gotten from them is that they've finished now taking samples. Those samples are going to be evaluated. They have said they want to expedite the process of evaluating those samples. However, they do have to maintain scientifically. So they say that they can expedite to a point, but they have to make sure that everything is done the proper way.

And they also said, and I think this is very interesting, that there's not going to be any preliminary reports. There's only going to be a final report, Wolf. Because one of the things that happened is that the foreign minister of Syria called Ban Ki-moon, the U.N. secretary- general, and complained and said that any sort of preliminary report would not be accepted by the Syrian government. So the U.N. clearly reacting to that.

Today they were on the ground -- and this is very interesting -- for the first time going to a government installation. They were on the government controlled part of Damascus in a military hospital known as 601 -- I've actually been around that area -- talking to soldiers who were in that hospital who allegedly were subject to a chemical attack from the rebels. You'll recall, Wolf, that the Syrian government came out and complained and said that the rebels had used chemicals against Syrian forces and they wanted the U.N. to check that out as well. And today they did. They went out there. And that was their final mission of going out and investigating on the ground in Damascus and now they are planning on heading out, all of them, on Saturday morning.


BLITZER: And we'll see what happens.

We know the United Nation's secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, has already said he does not want the United States to launch a unilateral military strike. He says that would be inappropriate. He wants, in the words of his press secretary, he wants to give peace a chance for diplomacy to work and so he's strongly urging the Obama administration against any unilateral military strike. We'll see if the - if that has a huge impact.

I'm curious to see what the secretary of state is about to say, how much intelligence the U.S. government is about to release. What kind of specific allegations do they have that could be backed up? Will they release audio tapes, for example, of high-ranking Syrian military officers discussing the use of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians -- men, women and children -- just outside of Damascus. How far will they go?

This is a serious, serious problem, Jim Acosta, as we await the secretary of state. It's a serious problem because when you release this kind of information, sometimes intelligence officers, they're deeply concerned that it undermines their future capability to collect this kind of information.

ACOSTA: Right.

BLITZER: So there's always a delicate line they have to walk.

ACOSTA: That's right. And they were saying that over here at the White House yesterday, Wolf, that they don't want to jeopardize what they call sources and methods and so this intelligence report that's going to be coming from the administration later on today. It will be unclassified. It will be essentially what is briefed to key members of Congress last night. That report that went to key members of Congress last night, and that will go to the public later today, is different than the one that, say, went to the Intelligence Committee chairman in the Senate, Dianne Feinstein, the vice chair, Saxby Chambliss, the Republican.

Both of those lawmakers, the White House pointed out yesterday, got a difference intelligence briefing and they have both concluded, based on that briefing, that Bashar al-Assad's government is responsible for those chemical weapons attacks. And so, yes, the intelligence briefing will be different that what key members of the - Congress and of the administration already have in their possession, Wolf.

BLITZER: And as you note, Jim, two former U.S. presidents, they weighed in today on what's going on. A very discreet statement coming from former President George W. Bush, basically saying it's a tough decision for the president to make. He doesn't want to interfere in his decision making process. But another statement coming from the Jimmy Carter Center in Atlanta basically saying this, and I'll read it to you. "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."

Here is the secretary of state.


JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: President Obama has spent many days now consulting with Congress and talking with leaders around the world about the situation in Syria. And last night the president asked all of us on his national security team to consult with the leaders of Congress as well, including the leadership of the congressional national security committees. And he asked us to consult about what we know regarding the horrific chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburbs last week.

I will tell you that as someone who spent nearly three decades in the United States Congress, I know that that consultation is the right way for a president to approach a decision of when and how and if to use military force. And it's important to ask the tough questions and get the tough answers before taking action, not just afterwards. And I believe, as President Obama does, that it is also important to discuss this directly with the American people. That's our responsibility, to talk with the citizens who have entrusted all of us, in the administration and the Congress, with responsibility for their security.

That's why this morning's release of our government's unclassified estimate of what took place in Syria is so important. Its findings are as clear as they are compelling. I'm not asking you to take my word for it. Read for yourself, everyone, those listening, all of you, read for yourselves, the evidence from thousands of sources, evidence that is already publicly available. And read for yourselves the verdict reached by our intelligence community about the chemical weapons attack the Assad regime inflicted on the opposition and on opposition controlled or contested neighbors in the Damascus suburbs on the early morning of August 21st.

Our intelligence community has carefully reviewed and re-reviewed information regarding this attack. And I will tell you, it has done so more than mindful of the Iraq experience. We will not repeat that moment. Accordingly, we have taken unprecedented steps to declassify and make facts available to people who can judge for themselves. But, still, in order to protect sources and methods, some of what we know will only be released to members of Congress, the representatives of the American people. That means that some things we do know we can't talk about publicly.

So, what do we really know that we can talk about? Well, we know that the Assad regime has the largest chemical weapons program in the entire Middle East. We know that the regime has used those weapons multiple times this year.