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Obama: No Decision Yet On Syria; Continuing Discussion of Syria Situation

Aired August 30, 2013 - 14:30   ET

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


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WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: We're awaiting comments from President Obama in the oval office. He's meeting with the leaders of Estonia and Latvia right now. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. We want to welcome our viewers here in the United States and around the world.

The president has already spoken. There are TV cameras inside. A pool team is inside. They will be emerging from the oval office momentarily. We'll roll the tape. We'll let you know what the president has to say. But we're getting reports from our pool of reporters who are inside the oval office, and they're telling us the president has now just said once again, he has not yet made a final decision on military action against Syrian targets as a result of the August 21st chemical attack on civilians in Syria.

An attack the Obama administration directly blames the regime of Bashar Al-Assad in Damascus for this kind of offense is a challenge to the world, the president has just said. Once again, we'll be getting a videotape of the president with those remarks momentarily. We'll roll it. We'll feed it. You'll hear what the president specifically has to say.

Important words, especially coming on the heels of what the Secretary of State John Kerry said just in the last couple of hours or so when he made it clear the U.S. would, in fact, respond even, even without formal United Nations support. Even without formal, formal votes from the NATO allies or the Arab League. The U.S. will not be deterred. That is what the secretary of state basically said.

Exactly when the U.S. might launch Tomahawk cruise missiles or air strikes against various targets in Syria designed to send a message to the Bashar Al-Assad regime that these kinds of chemical attacks will not be tolerated, that remains up in the air. Although my own sense is based on what we heard from the secretary of state, it will be a lot sooner than it will be later.

Gloria Borger has been watching all of this. Gloria, as we await the videotape of the president in the oval office. Let's discuss what's going on. David Lesh, a professor of Middle East history from Trinity University is also standing by. But Gloria, first to you, these are critical hours right now. The president has to make a major decision.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes. And I don't think Secretary of State John Kerry could have been any more clear than he was. I mean, he said, Wolf, that the U.N. investigators cannot tell us anything we don't already know about the use of chemical weapons there. He made the case to the American people, we know you're tired of war, but he said fatigue does not absolve of us of our responsibility.

He said, whatever decision we make in Syria, it will have no resemblance to Iraq, Afghanistan or Libya. No boots on the ground. Not open ended. We want no responsibility for a civil war under way. So I think he was outlining to the American people the limits of this military intervention.

If no formal decision has been made, the president may well be deciding what option to use that has been laid out before him. But it sure seems to me, listening to the secretary of state, that the United States is poised to do something in Syria.

BLITZER: Yes. I wouldn't be surprised if it happens over this weekend. But we will soon learn, obviously, what's going on. We're getting another pool report from inside the oval office. The videotape will be coming out soon. The president saying he and his team are looking at a wide range of options. Once again, reiterating what we just heard from the secretary of state. No boots on the ground. No long-term commitment.

This will be a limited act if, in fact, it takes place, the president in the oval office right now with the leaders of Estonia and Latvia. David Lesh is a real expert on the Bashar Al-Assad regime, quick question, because, David, you've been to Syria. You've met with Bashar Al-Assad. How is he likely to react to what is clearly going to be a limited U.S. military strike?

DAVID LESCH, AUTHOR, "THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF ASSAD": Well, he's thinking about two things right now. First, in the immediate sense, is getting things out of the way where they think the U.S. is going to strike. Secondly, how do we respond? I don't think he'll do so in a meaningful fashion. There's enough evidence accumulated over the last five, six years when there were numerous Israeli strikes, when there were U.S. military incursions across the border from Iraq. The Syrian regime did not react in any sort of dramatic fashion at all or doing anything, quite frankly.

And so he's thinking right now, how do I turn this into our advantage? How do I fit the attack into the narrative they've uttered from the very beginning, that the uprising was the result of foreign conspiracies perpetrated by their foreign enemies. How can I seem to be the victim of the American/Israeli project that brought him such street credibility in the past?

BLITZER: So basically you don't necessarily anticipate that he would retaliate directly for what would be a limited punishing U.S. cruise missile strike or air strike? He wouldn't encourage his Hezbollah allies in Lebanon, for example, to launch rockets or missiles against northern Israel, the Iranians wouldn't undertake some sort of cyber attack in retaliation? Because those are some of the fears I've heard from U.S. military personnel. LESCH: Cyber attacks are a possibility. The Syrian Electronic Army has already shown a capability of carrying those things out. Any sort of military strike by Syria or Hezbollah, I don't see it. Their hands are full right now. You know, they don't have the resources to escalate this any more than it already is because it's already clear that it's going to be a limited strike. And it won't really make much of a difference on the battlefield on the ground in Syria.

BLITZER: You know, one thing that's been -- if you listen to the secretary of state, if you read the declassified intelligence assessment, it never says specifically that Bashar Al Assad personally gave the order to use chemical weapons. It does talk about some conversations that the U.S. picked up with intelligence means between high ranking Syrian officials, unnamed at least in the unclassified version and commanders on the ground. But based on your knowledge of Syria, your knowledge of the role that Bashar Al-Assad plays, would he directly have to give an order along these lines to kill 1,000 civilians, if you will, if not a whole lot more?

LESCH: Well, if -- if the Syrian regime did, in fact, do this, I find it inconceivable that Bashar Al-Assad didn't know about it or at least direct it. The only thing -- the only excuse that they might be able to give at this point, perhaps, is that it was a much larger attack than was authorized or it had a much more devastating effect than was authorized. But they're in survival mode. So I think they very much look at this as pulling out all the stops and the end justifies the means.

BLITZER: One of the things that a lot of officials have been at least expressing concern to me about is that any continued delay, the attack that has been alleged August 21st, it's now, what, nine days later, and the Syrian military, they're getting ready for some sort of attack. They're moving equipment around, troops around to try to make it potentially less punishing for the regime. They have pretty sophisticated capabilities in disbursing some of their equipment, troops, some of their command and control. Is that right?

LESCH: Yes. I think so. I mean, I think this is the most announced military attack in history or let's give the administration the benefit of the doubt in that, you know, this is all somewhat intended. Because the administration really does not want to see the precipitous fall of the regime. This is why it's a limited strike because if the regime collapses, Syria will collapse. And you'll have this free for all in the aftermath of this, a very chaotic situation where this mismatched and fragmented opposition group, many undesirables from the U.S. point of view, will be fighting for power.

BLITZER: One of the lines, I'm going to just read it to you, Professor, in this declassified U.S. government intelligence assessment. It says, we intercepted communications involving a senior Syrian official intimately familiar with the offensive who confirmed that chemical weapons were used by the regime on August 21st and was concerned with the U.N. inspectors obtaining evidence. How likely is that to be convincing to people in the Middle East, to people in Syria? LESCH: Not very convincing at all. As we all know, the U.S. credibility on such intelligence issues is not very high based on what happened in Iraq. So I suspect that many people in the Middle East who -- who very much believe that the United States cooks up situations well beyond our actual ability to do so is cooking this up as well.

BLITZER: Let me bring Gloria Borger into this conversation. Gloria, the audience that the president has, like the secretary of state, is a domestic audience, the American people. Obviously Congress, which is in recess right now, will be in recess for another week or ten days or so, but internationally the president is trying to build a coalition. So far over the past nine days, not much of a coalition has been built.

BORGER: No. Not much of a coalition at all, Wolf, particularly the disappointment over Great Britain. Look, I think the president and the administration have a difficult job. And you saw John Kerry try and do that today. To the point of whether you can establish the chain of custody directly to Assad, there was a conference call that senior administration officials had with reporters that I just got off the phone.

That question was asked, Wolf, and the answer was that Assad is the decision maker. He is ultimately in charge of the deployment of these chemical weapons. The overall program is firmly under his control. Then they have to make the leap, Wolf, and tell the American public while they want to punish him for the use of these chemical weapons, why they don't want to decapitate him. Why they don't want to take him out of power.

Because what would be left would be a civil war that then we would have to get involved in, which we do not want to do. And, by the way, we're not sure that the rebels aren't full of al Qaeda. So it's a very nuanced argument here. The administration has to make. I'm not sure they've made it yet to the satisfaction of the American public. If you look at the polls, the public is very weary of war and wary of this, but they're starting to make their case.

BLITZER: We're getting another pool report from a reporter inside the oval office. Once again, we're awaiting the president of the United States. The videotape should be coming out of the oval office momentarily. We'll play it for you. The president has been meeting with the leaders of Estonia and Latvia.

Also speaking out to the pool, the media inside the oval office about the situation in Syria, one pool reporter telling us that the president said that a limited, narrow act, referring to a military act, is under consideration. The president saying, we're not considering any open-ended commitment. We're not considering any boots on the ground approach. He emphasized, according to this pool report, I have not made any decisions about what actions the United States will take. We have consulted with allies, the president said. We have consulted with Congress.

Nick Paton Walsh is joining us from the United Nations right now. Nick, those U.N. weapons inspectors, they're a bit -- I don't know if they've left yet or they're about to leave. But they're heading back to New York to brief the U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon on what they found out when they went to this area outside of Damascus as far as this chemical attack was concerned. But you heard the secretary of state say they're just going to confirm that there was a chemical attack. They're not going to tell us who did it.

LESCH: Absolutely. That has always been a mandate just to assess whether chemical weapons were used. I think as you've already heard John Kerry there no doubt in Washington that the regime did it. So in many ways, the results we expect to be seeing in the next 48 hours are frankly inconsequential for, it seems, the U.S. government's opinion on this.

But they will have a huge impact, I would imagine, on world opinion, too. Certainly if you have Russia and China here always wanting to wield their veto, mostly in Syria's favor here so we have a complex few days ahead of us. It's possible they'll be in New York by late tonight. Coming back from Damascus this morning. Some of the team will remain, it seems, until tomorrow morning. That will be very late Friday night here New York time.

Then the briefings will start. She will brief Ban Ki-Moon, the U.N. secretary general here in New York tomorrow. Then they have to start compiling their report. Another leader of the inspector team is actually going, instead, to Europe to supervise the samples being taken, that were taken from the ground inside Syria. Those samples being taken to laboratories of countries that are not in the permanent five on the Security Council so considered objective for testing to occur.

When those results are through, and that could take a week plus, when they're through, a report will then be compiled. And that will be the weapons inspectors report to the secretary general. What we could see tomorrow, Ban Ki-Moon said once he heard from the inspectors, is some information coming from Angela Cane by Ban Ki-Moon to the U.N. Security Council members. That's a possibility. Always the possibility of more diplomatic maneuvering here because Russia and China are very keen --

BLITZER: Hold on a second. Hold on. Here is the president with the leaders of Estonia and Latvia.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: Well, obviously I'm very grateful to have my fellow presidents here as well as the vice president. Before I begin, I want to say a few words about the situation with Syria. As you've seen, today we've released our unclassified assessment detailing the high confidence that the Syrian regime carried out a chemical weapons attack that killed well over 1,000 people, including hundreds of children. This follows the horrific images that shocked us all.

This kind of attack is a challenge to the world. We cannot accept a world where women and children and innocent civilians are gassed on a terrible scale. This kind of attack threatens our national security interests by violating well established international norms against the use of chemical weapons. By further threatening friends and allies of ours in the region like Israel and Turkey and Jordan.

And it increases the risk that chemical weapons will be used in the future and fall into the hands of terrorists who might use them against us. So I have said before, and I meant what I said, that the world has an obligation to make sure that we maintain the norm against the use of chemical weapons. Now, I have not made a final decision about various actions that might be taken to help enforce that norm.

But, as I've already said, I have had my military and our team look at a wide range of options. We have consulted with allies, we've consulted with Congress. We've been in conversations with all the interested parties. And in no event are we considering any kind of military action that would involve boots on the ground. That would involve a long-term campaign.

But we are looking at the possibility of a limited, narrow act that would help make sure that not only Syria, but others around the world, understand that the international community cares about maintaining this chemical weapons ban and norm. Again, I repeat, we're not considering any open-ended commitment. We're not considering any boots on the ground approach.

What we will do is consider options that meet the narrow concern around chemical weapons. Understanding that there's not going to be a solely military solution to the underlying conflict and tragedy that's taking place in Syria and I will continue to consult closely with Congress, in addition to the release of the unclassified document. We are providing a classified briefing to congressional staff today.

And will offer that same classified briefing to members of Congress as well as our international partners. And I will continue to provide updates to the American people as we get more information. With that, I want to welcome Presidents Ilvis, President Grabos Skicha and President Berzich to the White House, these countries that they represent all share very deep ties --

BLITZER: All right, so there you heard the president of the United States making it clear he is actively considering some sort of limited military option. He's got his military commanders getting him varied options, but repeating twice, no boots on the ground. No long-term involvement militarily in this civil war in Syria. But clearly indicating as Secretary of State John Kerry did earlier in the day that the U.S. will, in fact, do something.

And in my assessment, will do it fairly soon. The president is supposed to leave in the middle of next week for the G-20 summit in Russia. My suspicion is he wants to get this done with before he leaves for this G-20 summit in Russia. Russia being a key ally of Syria and he'll probably run into President Putin in St. Petersburg, Russia, while he's there.

So they presumably want to send this message to the Syrian regime sooner rather than later. Let's bring in senior White House correspondent Jim Acosta. You were inside that room. You were one of the pool reporters when the president spoke. JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. You really did touch on the highlights there. The president saying he hasn't made a decision yet about military action, about Syria, that it will be a limited, narrow operation, that there will be no boots on the ground if and when he makes that decision to strike.

But he left really no -- you know, no mystery as to what his decision is going to be. He said Syria's use of chemical weapons against their people were what he called a challenge to the world, and he said it's a challenge that he's going to meet. He was asked by a reporter after he wrapped up his remarks and heard from the Baltic leaders there as well as Vice President Joe Biden in the room about this notion of taking unilateral action.

Why is he moving forward without partners around the world and without the authorization of Congress? To go through those two things separately, the president said he was hoping to have more international cooperation. He was hoping to have the United Nations go along with hip and make a strong stand against Syria. But the president hinting as we all know that he's been stymied by Russia throughout all of this.

They have a permanent seat on the Security Council at the United Nations and the president alluded to that. As for congressional authorization, he said that he continues to consult with Congress and that he's been trying to do that throughout this entire process. But you do get the sense, Wolf, you talked about the timetable before he goes to the G-20 summit that's happening next week.

If he were really hell bent on getting authorization from Congress he would have to probably wait for several days and he would not be able to go to that G-20 summit. So it is more likely than not, Wolf, based on his comments that he's going to be acting soon. But no final decision yet from the president.

BLITZER: That's what he keeps saying. No final decision, until there is a final decision, could be a few hours from now, could be a few days from now, certainly could be a few weeks from now. My suspicion is it will be sooner rather than later. Once the president gives that order as commander in chief, the Pentagon, U.S. military they will be in place therefore.

Eventually there will be five destroyers in the Mediterranean with submarines with Tomahawk cruise missiles that will be launch and go after some targets in Syria. Gloria Borger is with us. Gloria, there's no indication Congress wants to come back from its recess. There's no indication the president is telling them to come back. They're not supposed to be back, what, until September 9th or so. That would be the earliest that they could take up some sort of resolution.

BORGER: Right. And it's clear that the White House isn't asking them back because they're not sure if they ask them back and if Congress called for a vote that they would actually win that vote. So I think that they're probably just as pleased to have Congress out of town to brief the people they need to brief on a secure basis and the rest on a declassified basis.

You know, Wolf, what strikes me about this president is what a reluctant warrior he is. You know, if you look at his history, this is somebody who came to political prominence as an anti-war activist, who called for the use of the war powers act to reauthorize the war in Iraq, if you'll recall. And here he is today, sitting, talking to the American public from the White House and saying, you know, I haven't made a decision.

But I need to tell you that it is a threat to our national security when international norms are violated. And, however, he also felt the need to say to the American public, look, I've thought about this. I'm not rushing into this. No boots on the ground, something very narrow. We've got to show Assad that these things are unacceptable. They are war crimes.

But when you sit back and you think of Barack Obama and you think of this situation he is now in, not only doing this, but defending the use of drones, defending NSA surveillance, he must think at some times that he's looking through the looking glass, don't you think?

BLITZER: Yes. If somebody would have said when he was running for the presidency back in 2007 and 2008 that he would authorize military force without congressional approval, without a united nations security council resolution, without a formal vote from the NATO allies, without a formal vote from the Arab League, he probably would have said, that's never going to happen. I'm an internationalist.

I need this international coalition to go into a military situation like this. But right now we appear to be on the verge of the United States doing exactly that in an Obama administration. Gloria, hold on for a moment. Christiane Amanpour, our chief international correspondent is joining the conversation.

Christiane, you hear what the secretary of state said a little while ago. Now what the president says. The mystery is gone. The U.S. will do something. The only question is will it be in the next few hours or the next few days?

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Indeed, I think this mystery was absolutely cleared up over the last several days. Today the principals have made it even more clear. Obviously you've been talking about the politics around this. But when it comes to the substance and the legality of it, there is no question, Wolf. This is a violation of the highest standards of international law, chemical weapons or weapons of mass destruction.

There is an international mandate to respond to that. There are internationals who have signed on to the 1925 convention that prohibits the use of chemical weapons, including Syria. Therefore, there is legal basis for going after him, just as there is for going after genocide. What if there'd been a nuclear attack somewhere?

One has to respond to these kinds of things. And I think everybody has been massively surprised by the British vote in parliament, given that it was after the First World War when thousands of British soldiers were gassed to death during the First World War. That Britain and franc and others were amongst the first to come up with this 1925 convention, protocol against chemical weapons. I think there is no question that this has to be met. No matter the politics around it.

BLITZER: So why, Christiane, has the Obama administration so far over these past nine days since the August 21st attack that killed more than 1,400 people according to the U.S. and killed more than 400 children, why has the Obama administration been so far unsuccessful in putting together the international legal authority, united nations security council resolution, or even amongst the allies, the NATO allies in going forward with a specific targeted, limited military strike?

AMANPOUR: Well, look, Wolf. Everybody is being dragged into this kicking and screaming. As you've just been discussing with Gloria, the president does not want to go to a military attack. He is the president who's come in to end wars. Look at drawing down forces, drawing out forces from Iraq, drawing down and drawing out forces from Afghanistan. Everyone has a major case of Iraqitis. I would say that is extremely significant here in England.

Who knew that here in Great Britain, they had a worst case of Iraq fear than they do in the United States. It was a shock to see this vote in the U.K. parliament. It is the first time in, perhaps, 30 years that the U.K. will not be shoulder to shoulder with the United States in a military offensive, limited or otherwise.

And this is a really big deal. Now we're going to see France is standing very firm still, will back the United States. Iraq is a big problem for the -- for the west and for the U.N., but also in terms of U.N. consensus, it was never going to happen. The Russians and the Chinese have made it clear for the last 2-1/2 years of this war, even before the idea of chemical weapons, that they were not going to agree to any kind of sanction of Assad.

And this has simply emboldened President Assad over the last 2-1/2 years. That he's been able to gradually -- if you look at every attempt he's made to gradually ratchet up what he's done, using fixed wing aircraft.

BLITZER: Hold on, Christiane. The president is about to answer a reporter's question.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: -- are still in the planning processes. And obviously consultations with congress as well as the international community are very important. And, you know, my preference obviously would have been that the international community already acted forcefully. But what we have seen so far, at least, is a incapacity at this point for the security council to move forward in the face of a clear violation of international norms.

And, you know, I recognize that all of us here in the United States, in Great Britain, in many parts of the world, there's a certain weariness given Afghanistan. There's a certain suspicion of any military action post-Iraq. And I very much appreciate that. On the other hand, it's important for us to recognize that when over 1,000 people are killed, including hundreds of innocent children, through the use of a weapon that 98 percent or 99 percent of humanity says should not be used, even in war, and there is no action, then we're sending a signal that that international norm doesn't mean much. And that is a danger to our national security.