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No Decision on Syria Action

Aired August 30, 2013 - 15:00   ET


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And, obviously, if and when we make a decision to respond, there are a whole host of considerations that I have to take into account, too, in terms of how effective it is, and given the kinds of options that we're looking at that would be very limited and would not involve a long-term commitment or a major operation.

You know, we are confident that we can provide Congress all the information and get all the input that they need. And we're very mindful of that. And we can have serious conversations with our allies and our friends around the world about this.

But ultimately we don't want the world to be paralyzed. And, frankly, you know, part of the challenge that we end up with here is that a lot of people think something should be done, but nobody wants to do it. And that's not an unusual situation.

And that's part of what allows over time the erosion of these kinds of international prohibitions, unless somebody says, no, when the world says we're not going to use chemical weapons, we mean it. And it would be tempting to leave it to others to do it.

And I think I have shown consistently and said consistently my strong preference for multilateral action whenever possible. But it is not in the national security interest of the United States to ignore clear violations of these kinds of international norms.

And the reason is because there are a whole host of international norms out there that are very important to us. You know, we have currently rules in place dealing with the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

We have international norms that have been violated by certain countries, and the United Nations has put sanctions in place, but if there's a sense that over time nobody's willing actually to enforce them, then people don't take them seriously.

So, you know, I am very clear that the world generally is war-weary. Certainly, the United States has gone through over a decade of war. The American people understandably want us to be focused on the business of rebuilding our economy here and putting people back to work.

And I assure you, nobody ends up being more war-weary than me. But what I also believe is that part of our obligation as a leader in the world is making sure that when you have a regime that is willing to use weapons that are prohibited by international norms on their own people, including children, that they're held to account.

QUESTION: Mr. President...


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: All right. So, that's the end of the question-and-answer session with the president, flanked by the presidents of Estonia and Latvia over at the White House.

The president, in response to that question, you heard him once again say any U.S. military strike, any U.S. military action in Syria would be in his words very limited, not a major operation, no boots on the ground, basically saying it would be very quick.

Let's bring back Christiane Amanpour. Peter Bergen, our national security analyst, is joining us as well.

That kind of -- those kind of words, Christiane, they play well here in the United States. But if they're watching -- and we're being seen live around the world right now, including in Damascus -- if Bashar al-Assad and his top leaders are listening to the president of the United States basically telegraph to them, get ready for some sort of military action, but it will be very limited, not a major operation, no boots on the ground, what does that say to the Syrian regime?


It will be received in a mixed way. And, frankly, this has been the message that has been telegraphed over the last several days of this discussion and public statements, that it would be limited, that it would only go after certain targets, that it wouldn't last very long, that it's not a war like Iraq or Afghanistan.

So we have heard and we even had you speaking to the professor who'd been speaking to contacts inside Syria that some ministries may be, you know, drawing down, may be trying to get rid of certain paperwork, may be moving certain artillery around and getting ready for some kind of limited strike.

I remember being in Bosnia when NATO started to strike finally after the massacre at Srebrenica, the genocide at Srebrenica. I remember the Bosnian Serbs trying to move things around and decoy and try to sort of catch NATO off guard. It didn't work.

But here's the thing. What the president said is absolutely crucial. If you don't do this, it's going to give a signal to go on and on using these prohibited weapons, prohibited under international law. And to be very frank, they have been used many times in Syria in this conflict, not just this last one, but in April and before that, either 10 or 30 times, depending on which intelligence you're looking to.

That is because no action was taken to stop it then. So they keep using it. So this is a very significant issue. I think in terms of retaliation, that's something that one should consider. I have talked to the head of the -- former head of Israeli military intelligence. And he believes that since Assad is being virtually assured that this is not about toppling him, that there won't be a retaliation.

The minute that he thinks it's about toppling him, then who knows what might happen.

BLITZER: Peter Bergen, here's one explanation I have come up with. I want to run it by you, see what you think, why the U.S. is making this case that this will be extremely limited, very short, not designed for regime change, not designed to prolong this -- for the U.S. to get involved in this civil war.

Because if you take a look at the opposition, the rebels in Syria right now, who will be most thrilled by this U.S. military action, presumably, trying to go after some of Bashar al-Assad's troops? That would be the opposition, including some elements aligned with al Qaeda, like Al-Nusra, which seems to be on the uptick right now amongst that opposition. And the U.S. certainly doesn't want to elevate them.


By almost any standard, the most effective fighting force in Syria now is al Qaeda. They call themselves something different. But they are effectively an arm of al Qaeda. They are regarded as uncorrupt by the population. They don't loot. A lot of them have battlefield experience in other conflicts such as the Iraq war.

They're well-organized. They're prepared to die in the struggle. And they're doing well on the battlefield. So the administration is in an interesting quandary, because in the long term they'd like to see Assad to go. But in the short term, they certainly don't want to see al Qaeda and groups like it take over much of Syria. On the other hand, they also want to punish Assad, as Christiane points out, for this use, which is not just one-time use. It's a multiple use of chemical weapons.

They want to make it more than a slap on the wrist. It's calibrating an attack that falls somewhere in between those goals of getting rid of him in the long term and being more like a slap on the wrist. The fact we're talking about this publicly, we live in an open society. You know, that's one of the prices of living in an open society, that there is a public discussion and a public debate about what we're planning to do.

President Obama has to bring along the American public to the degree possible and hopefully as much of Congress as is feasible.

BLITZER: Christiane, let me bring you back into this conversation as well. I want to get your thoughts on this and Peter as well, because it's an extremely sensitive issue I'm about to raise.

The president and the secretary of state, as well as this document that I have, this unclassified intelligence assessment of what happened on August 21 in Syria outside of Damascus, the U.S. government assessment determined that 1,429 people were killed in the chemical weapons attack, including at least 426 children. But then it goes on a few pages, Christiane. And it then says this. "In the three days prior to the attack, we collected streams of human signals and geospatial intelligence that reveal regime activities that we assess were associated with preparations for a chemical weapons attack."

If in those three days before the attack the U.S. was collecting all this information about a looming attack involving chemical weapons, why weren't those people notified, warned, told to leave, given gas masks, issues along those lines?

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Look, it's hard to tell. I just don't know why. It's possible that they were receiving that not in real-time. I just don't know.

But, look, Wolf, we have been discussing and there are these endless public debates about was there a chemical attack? Who did it? It's clear. It's clear as day. And it is a violation of the most serious international law. And that is about weapons of mass destruction.

This requires, under law, a response. And because of all the politics over Iraq, because of all sorts of other things, it is very difficult to go ahead in a unified manner. But I remember back in Kosovo, although this is a different issue, I remember back in Kosovo when Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia was attacking the population there, the United States has to go with NATO allies around the United Nations and do what it had to do.

You saw President Clinton went around all his allies, NATO or the U.N., after Osama bin Laden blew up those East Africa embassies in 1998. There's been very limited alliances hitting Saddam Hussein over various years during the late '90s. There is precedent for this.

BLITZER: Jimmy Carter and his Carter Center in Atlanta, Peter, they put out a statement earlier today before the secretary of state's comments, before the intelligence assessment was released, certainly before the president just spoke at the White House.

And among other things, the Jimmy Carter Center said this. "A punitive military response without a U.N. Security 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."

What do you make of that, Peter?

BERGEN: You know, something can be illegal under international law, but still be a legitimate use of force, which may seem like a paradox. But certainly there is going to be no U.N. resolution. There will not be it looks like a NATO kind of collective security Article 5 type thing where, you know, you can make the argument that one of the allies has been attacked.

There would be an Arab League justification for military action. You can sort of tick through the list of the possible kind of international bodies that might authorize it. We're not seeing that. That said, you know, it -- I think there are obviously lawyers at the White House working right now at creating a document that kind of gives this some kind of legitimacy in international law.

There will, of course, be probably at least one major European ally, France. But, nonetheless, from an international law perspective in terms of what we have seen previously, this is going to be an operation without a great deal of international legal cover, which is not to say, of course, that international law doesn't evolve over time. That's an argument I think you will hear the White House making.

BLITZER: And Ban Ki-Moon, the U.N. secretary-general, has repeatedly said over the past few days, including as recently through a spokesman today, that they are urging the U.S. not to launch any military strikes. In the words of his spokesman today, give peace a chance.

Let's back to the White House.

Jim Acosta is getting some more information on what's going on.

These are critical moments right now. I assume the president is also on the phone with some world leaders, hasn't gotten a whole lot of support militarily for a U.S. operation, although he is getting some rhetorical support.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. And it's good that you mention that, because we stopped playing that tape just as the rest of the reporters in the room tried to ask other questions. I tried to ask a question about whether he's concerned about leaving Bashar al-Assad in power and whether he believes he can sufficiently degrade that country's chemical weapons capabilities.

But another reporter who was right next to me asked the president about the president of France, Mr. Hollande, and his words of support for the president and whether that will translate into some sort of military cooperation. The president actually did very, very briefly respond to that question and said that he had seen the French president's statement, but then nothing more than that. That's sort of a wait and see. We will have to wait and see about that one.

But, Wolf, one thing we can also tell you is that there seems to be a process that is under way. You heard the president do a couple of interviews, one with CNN, one with PBS. And then earlier this week, officials here at the White House were saying we're going to brief members of Congress on this intelligence assessment. Then it's going to be released to the public.

They were indicating there was going to be some sort of statement from the president and then some kind of decision on whether he is going to take a course of action against Syria. Now, you have had a lot of people talking about this president dithering, how he's the reluctant warrior, the unhappy warrior. But this process, this program that's been in place all week long that's been laid out by administration officials, while perhaps it's been frustrating at times to members of Congress and people around the world, he has been sort of taking that step by step.

Obviously he did not anticipate what was going to happen over in Great Britain. But as you heard the president say, as much as he would like to leave it to the rest of the world to deal with this, he feels like that's not a thing -- that's not a decision that can be made, at least not by this president.

BLITZER: Yes, this president and his secretary of state are making it clear even if they don't get that kind of robust international support, they're prepared to move, the United States by itself, to punish the regime of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, to send a message to him, to Iran, to others that if you engage in this kind of illegal chemical warfare, you will pay a price.

Stand by. Everyone, stand by. We have much more coverage of the breaking news, the crisis in Syria, coming up.

We're also just getting in some new video of another alleged chemical attack. This is very dramatic, very chilling video. We will share it with you when we come back.


BLITZER: Welcome back to the breaking news here in Washington, President Obama making it clear, as his secretary of state, John Kerry, did over the past few hours, the U.S. right now is poised potentially to launch a military strike or strikes against various targets in Syria as a result of Syria's alleged chemical weapons attack against Syrian civilians on August 21, an attack, the U.S. says, now killed more than 1,400 civilians, more than 400 of whom children.

Very dramatic comments we just heard from the president a little while ago, earlier from the secretary of state. At the same time, the U.S. has released a detailed declassified intelligence estimate of what they say is a deliberate Bashar al-Assad regime attack, a deliberate attack on civilians outside of Damascus, the Syrian capital, an attack that was resulting from frustration because the regular Syrian military using regular conventional weapons couldn't get the job done.

We're also learning of another, a second alleged chemical attack in Syria this week. And we have some horrifying pictures. If you need to turn away, do so now. I really want to stress this. The video you are about to see is extremely difficult to watch. The attack reportedly happened Monday at a school in northern Syria as U.N. inspectors arrived in Damascus.

Opposition groups are claiming government forces, forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad, unleashed the toxic gas on civilians. Seven people were killed. Dozens and dozens were injured.

To talk us through this horrifying new video, we have our senior international correspondent, Arwa Damon. She's standing by in Beirut.

Arwa, it's really hard to look at these pictures. Almost looks like napalm for those of us who remember the use of napalm during Vietnam. But what's your latest information?

ARWA DAMON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, according to the activists that uploaded those videos to YouTube -- and they are incredibly difficult to watch, Wolf. I mean, how many times have we said that when it comes to Syria?

But, according to them, these victims, and this is what we see in these images, there were burns covering large portions of their bodies. You see the doctors really struggling to treat them. They're putting cream on them. And there are no other visible external wounds, at least not in the clips that we can see.

That video, the child on the ground there, the doctors as far as what we can make out from what's being said, they're trying to get him to lie down and he's screaming, "I can't, I can't." And he's imploring them to stop the burning, to stop the pain.

Another survivor, also a girl, she said that she's 18 years old, describes how the attack happened. She said there was an initial strike outside of the school at a building next door. People ran outside. They could see planes hovering overhead. They then ran back inside. And she says that she did not hear any explosion, but that suddenly she felt this burning sensation that she says, I was burning. My friends were burning. We were all burning. And we did not know what happened.

A doctor, a woman who identifies herself as being a doctor on the scene, saying that she does believe that it was some sort of chemical attack, that it looked like it was napalm, perhaps some sort of incendiary weapon. We do not know at this stage. We cannot independently verify what took place, but, once again, Wolf, coming out of Syria, horrific images of yet another attack once again claiming civilian lives and really devastating the population there.

But it's also, you know -- in this whole debate that's going on about this U.S. potential missile strike that's happening, Wolf, what's interesting in all of this is that a lot of opposition activists we have been talking to, a lot of the rebel fighters do say that because of the limited scale that the U.S. plans on employing and targeting just specific sites, they believe that it is going to do -- or that it's going to harm them more than it's going to harm the regime, because they say the regime is going to continue to retaliate against the civilian population, Wolf.

BLITZER: Just when you think it can't get much worse, it does get much worse. Arwa, we're going to stay in close touch with you. Arwa Damon is in Beirut for us.

Coming up, we will have more on the breaking news, including word that more U.S. warships are right now moving into the Eastern Mediterranean. They are armed with these cruise missiles. We're talking to CNN's military analyst retired General James "Spider" Marks about what options the U.S. has right now if, still an if, not much of an if, but if President Obama decides to launch a strike against Syria.

This is CNN's special coverage.


You are watching CNN special coverage. Welcoming all of your viewers, of course, in the United States and all around the world. You heard from the president this last hour.

He made it clear he has not made a decision on what the U.S. will do as it pertains to Syria. But he and his military team, they have been meeting. They have been looking at a wide range of options. Secretary of State John Kerry earlier laid out America's case for responding to Syria's likely chemical weapons attack on its own people, more than 1,400 people killed according to this declassified report, this intel report, this evidence.

We're going to go deeper into today's developments starting with this. Syria now is staring down the barrel of five, five U.S. warships. Yesterday, it was four. Today, it is five in the Eastern Mediterranean. Plus, the U.S. is believed to have submarines out there as well. All those vessels can carry cruise missiles able to strike targets more than 1,000 miles away with pinpoint accuracy.

Retired General James "Spider" Marks joins me from Washington. He is a CNN military analyst.

General, let me just begin with some of the key phrases I heard from the president speaking at the White House this hour. He said, not considering any military action involving boots on the ground, not considering a long-term campaign. We are looking at a limited, narrow act.

When you hear that, what does that entail? What could that accomplish militarily?

BRIG. GEN. JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, the accomplishment in terms of a military objective would be -- as the president indicated, would be very narrow, very limited, very precise.

You would want to think that it would fit within a larger tragic construct, kind of a picture of what this end state looks like. What Secretary Kerry did say is that the strikes, if and when they're approved, will do nothing and will not involve the United States in the ongoing civil war in Syria.

So what we're going to see in Syria is more of what we have seen over the course of the last three years. But, ideally, the president wants to be able to strike at Assad's chemical weapons delivery capability so that those horrible images that we saw are eliminated and they go away. So this is really a tactical engagement, Brooke.

And it's not as though -- again, as the president said, it's not part of a campaign. We are not going to war. We're going to try to punish -- a punitive expedition against Assad and his chemical delivering capability. Very narrow.

BALDWIN: I want to ask you about the targets, because we heard from Secretary Kerry laying out the fact that in Syria they have the greatest amount of chemical weapons, a stockpile, biggest in all of the Middle East. That said, I think there's an important difference. You said that the U.S. would potentially strike and target, perhaps, perhaps Air Force, perhaps the way in which they transfer these chemical weapons, not specifically the chemical weapons themselves. Is that correct?

MARKS: That's exactly correct.

However, it certainly remains an option for the United States to go after the inventories if, in fact, the inventories that we know about in fixed facilities, those chemical weapons are still there. We have already telegraphed to Assad that the United States intends to do something, even if it acts alone.

So I would have to assume that Assad is probably dispersing all his capabilities. He might have already dispersed his aircraft to Iran. It's not inconceivable that that's what he's done. His chemical weapons may be gone someplace else. His delivery means could be under overpasses and hidden away in different locations.