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CNN NEWSROOM

Crisis in Syria

Aired August 30, 2013 - 15:30   ET

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


MAJOR GENERAL JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS, U.S. ARMY (RET.): We have to assume Assad is a thinking enemy and, in fact, is doing everything he can to avoid damage. I would think that cruise missiles would go in first and go after his command-and-control and his integrated air defense capabilities. We would then assess what the -- damage has been done.

We would measure that damage, and if it's sufficiently degraded his integrated air defense, it's not inconceivable that the United States would launch fixed-wing aircraft with fuel-air explosives or thermo- baric capabilities, which are bombs -- they don't come off of cruise missiles; they come off of fixed wings -- to go after chemical weapon inventories.

That would minimize the downwind hazard in terms of how those explosives are utilized.

It's a bit pedantic, but it can be done, and I know it's on the table for discussion.

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: And these cruise missiles as you pointed out last hour are incredibly precise.

General Marks, thank you very much.

Coming up in our special CNN coverage here of the "Crisis in Syria" continues, will President Obama confer with Congress? Will they debate if he wants to launch these limited surgical strikes against Syria? And will he even need to speak with Congress?

We'll debate that.

Plus, you will hear from the U.S. secretary of state, John Kerry. He just made some powerful remarks, lying out the evidence the U.S. has against Syria and this chemical weapons attack back on August 21st, this unclassified report we now have our hands on.

You will hear more about that, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BALDWIN: Welcome back to CNN's special coverage of this ongoing crisis in Syria. I'm Brooke Baldwin.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry says, yes, he is tired of war. Yes, he knows, many Americans are sick and tired of war as well, but that is not a reason to avoid action in Syria.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOHN KERRY, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: It matters because if we choose to live in a world where a thug and a murderer like Bashar al-Assad can gas thousands of his own people with impunity, even after the United States and our allies said no, and then the world does nothing about it, there will be no end to the test of our resolve.

The American intelligence community has high confidence -- high confidence. This is common sense. This is evidence. These are facts.

So the primary question is really no longer, what do we know? The question is what do we, we collectively, what are we in the world going to do about it?

We will continue talking to the Congress, talking to our allies, ad most importantly, talking to the American people.

President Obama will ensure that the United States of America makes our own decisions, on our own timelines, based on our values and our interests.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BALDWIN: Let's go straight to Washington to our chief congressional correspondent, Dana Bash, for more on what members of Congress -- and I know it's quiet in some parts of Washington because many members of Congress are still away on recess.

We know that they were briefed via teleconference in that unsecure line, so it wasn't classified, per se, last night.

They've been speaking, I'm sure, with the administration today.

What are you hearing?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's exactly right.

I think a lot of what is going on, as we speak, is box-checking by the administration, making sure that they speak to the key committees.

Last night what happened was Secretary Kerry, Hagel and others spoke to the chair and ranking members as well as the leadership in both bodies of Congress.

Right now, maybe even as we speak, there is a series of calls going from the national security council to the actual rank and file members of some of those key committees.

So they are effectively, you know, sort of, for lack of a better way to say, giving them a little love, which members of Congress always want from any administration, but especially as we've heard very loudly from some of them on the eve of what looks like military strikes. Whether or not there needs to be an authorizing resolution, that is debatable, but no matter what, no matter where these members of Congress sit on their view of Syria and in their party, almost all of them say that it is critical for the administration to consult with congress.

And that's why you heard both the president and Kerry, both former senators, by the way, say they get it, they understand it, that's why they're at least trying to -- my words, not theirs -- check that box.

BALDWIN: Check the box. Dana Bash, thank you.

I want to talk a little more about the political implications, of course, as it pertains to Syria here at home in the United States.

I want to bring in CNN political commentator Maria Cardona, Democratic strategist, and Republican strategist Liz Mair.

So, ladies, let me just begin with this as we hear from the president, as we hear from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and the proof and the numbers, the deaths of that chemical weapons attack, more than 1,400 killed, of that, more than 400 children, here's my question to both of you.

And, Liz, I'll start with you. What about inaction? What if after all these days of buildup, the president, the administration, decides to hang tight and do nothing?

Liz, how would that be responded to?

LIZ MAIR, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Certainly there are going to be some people who are going to knock him for inaction, and, frankly, for having built this up into such a big deal where action was expected.

And then, you know, there will be people who say that he looks very weak and that he sort of fluffed it at the end of it.

My concern would be far less than and far more to do with what that is saying in terms of his message to the international community and what impact that might have on diplomacy and relations going forward.

BALDWIN: Which is what? What would that message be, do you think?

MAIR: I think, ultimately, one of the things that's very important when you're dealing with a diplomatic situation like this and the prospect of ending up going to war or doing surgical strikes or whatever it may be, people need to be very clear in what you are saying that you will do and under what conditions and setting expectations and adhering to them.

Otherwise you end up with everything being a jumble. There is no predictability. That's going to make it very hard to actually go in and get people to do what you actually want them to do because their assumption is going to be that there may be a lot of crying wolf going on. I think that is probably the bigger concern here. BALDWIN: Sure. And I think the issue would be it's not just sending a message if the United States were not to do anything. It would send messages to other countries, i.e., Iran, bark and no bite.

But still, Maria, the question stands. And I hear people coming on and they say you're damned if you do, and you're damned if you don't.

But what if the president does nothing?

MARIA CARDONA, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think that would be one of the worst options of what is right now, Brooke, a list of just bad options.

You know, again, he said he has made no decision, but I can't imagine at this point with, like you said, all of the buildup, with all of the intelligence information that Secretary Kerry has said publicly, with everything that they are looking to do to frankly talk about why this is necessary, I can't imagine that, at the end of the day, the administration is going to do nothing.

From a personal standpoint, I don't think that would be politically savvy. I don't think it's acceptable from an international standpoint, but there's no question that these are all bad options.

The majority of the American people don't want us to take any option -- they don't want us to take any action there.

But from a credibility standpoint, and, in fact, you know, everybody has talked about on this network how this is a flagrant act against the international community, the utmost going against international law. Something has got to be done.

BALDWIN: Right, the use of chemical weapons, atrocious.

CARDONA: Absolutely.

BALDWIN: And in violation.

That said, you look at the pictures. We were watching British parliament yesterday, the fiery debate, ultimately voting down any kind of military campaign when it comes to Syria.

As you watch this and you see that everyone's able still to come together for a day, and here in the U.S. there are these calls. You know, I talked to Barbara Lee yesterday, congresswoman out of California, calling, one of these signing and writing letters that Congress should debate this before the president, for lack of a better word, decides to push the button on this limited strike.

Liz, do you think that Congress should handle this, or is this already the most announced military attack in history and the U.S. should just go?

MAIR: The issue isn't whether it's announced or not. The issue is legalities and whether we're actually complying with constitutional law and public law that's on the books. And in my personal opinion, clearly if you're talking about a surgical strike, that does play differently in people's minds when they're looking at legalities than if you're talking about launching the Iraq war or something like that.

But at the end of the day, I think most people's conception, certainly based on what John Kerry said earlier, I think his conception is that we are doing something that constitutes an act of war.

And in view of that, in my personal view, I do think, for both political and legal reasons, it is important to get Congress to vote on this.

Ultimately, I'm sure that there are many members of Congress that do not want to break up their vacations. I'm sure that there are political considerations that play into this on both sides.

The Obama administration is probably concerned that if they bring Congress back and ask them to vote on this, they may not get a resounding vote of support that they really want. Personally, I think they probably would get it through and it would be fine.

You know, you probably also have certain Republicans and certain people in leadership who don't necessarily want to be in a position where their members are put on a record -- on the record about this. Depending on how it ultimately goes, that may be a political liability for them.

But, you know, the constitution and public law are not put together with politicians' self-interest in mind, and I think it's important they take a vote on this, not merely get consulted.

BALDWIN: Maria? Just in.

CARDONA: I think the important thing here is -- sure. The important thing here is and what the law says is that the president has got to consult closely with Congress. That's why you heard him and you heard Secretary Kerry underscore the fact that they are doing just that and they're going to continue to do just that.

And, frankly --

MAIR: But that is not what the Constitution says.

CARDONA: What the War Powers Act says -

MAIR: That is not what the Constitution says.

CARDONA: -- is that within 60 days Congress has got to vote on this.

If this happens, this will last nowhere near 60 days. It will be done.

And from a strategic standpoint, Brooke, to your point about this being the most announced military strike ever, in my view, if the president is going to go, he should do it now. And then after that, if we assume that there's going to be additional action taken -- let's remember, there are no boots on the ground. This is not going to be a long process of engagement, the way it was in Iraq.

If that changes, then he does have to come back, consult and have a vote with Congress.

BALDWIN: Maria Cardona and Liz Mair, thank you both.

CARDONA: Thanks, Brooke.

MAIR: Thank you.

BALDWIN: Coming up next, we will take you inside the mind of this leader in Syria, including his mood swings and his temperament and how he might react to an American strike.

Hear from someone who has met with Bashar al-Assad multiple times.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BALDWIN: You are watching CNN's special coverage of the crisis in Syria. Here on CNN, will Damascus retaliate? Should the United States launch air strikes?

My colleague Wolf Blitzer talked about that with Bashar al-Assad's biographer, a man who has met him several times.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DAVID LESCH, AUTHOR, "THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF ASSAD": I don't think he'll do so in a meaningful fashion. There's enough evidence accumulated the last five, six years when there were numerous Israeli strikes, U.S. military incursions across the border from Iraq.

The Syrian regime did not react in any sort of dramatic fashion at all, or, you know, 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?

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR, "THE SITUATION ROOM": And 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. They've already -- you know, 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.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BALDWIN: That was biographer David Lesch talking to Wolf.

Also noting, I talked to CNN analyst Bob Baer, former CIA operative last hour. He told me today, he picked up the phone, had some contacts in Damascus.

He told me that they told him that the Syrian regime is, his word, panicking, panicking at the prospect of strikes by the U.S. military.

The U.S. lays out its case that the Syrian government is using chemical weapons against its own people, this today as Russia makes a resounding statement against the United States.

That's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BALDWIN: As President Obama gets ready to make a decision on Syria, and we heard him last hour say specifically he has not made a decision yet, former president, George W. Bush is weighing in.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: 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.

I was not a fan of Mr. Assad. He's an ally of Iran, and he's made mischief.

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.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BALDWIN: The former president there, saying he refuses to be roped in on the subject of Syria, nonetheless on the record talking about it just a little bit this morning.

Chief political analyst Gloria Borger joins me from Washington. And, Gloria, you listened to Secretary of State John Kerry today. You heard the president there, reporters trying to ask questions of him.

It seems to me it's not a matter now of what do we -- we being the United States -- but what do we do about it?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: I think if you listened to the secretary of state, it was very clear that he believed he didn't need to wait for information from the weapons inspectors, from the United Nations.

He said very clearly that a U.N. investigators can't tell us anything we don't already know.

And between the secretary of state and a background call that senior administration officials had with journalists, it's very clear they believe the chain of custody goes through Mr. Assad and that they believe that this is a matter of great national interest that we let it be known that chemical weapons cannot be used, that it is indeed a war crime and that it affects our national interests all over the world, sends a message to Iran and others.

So there's no doubt in my mind that this president intends to do something. He said he hasn't made a firm decision. Maybe he's still considering options, but they're going to do something.

BALDWIN: In terms of the something, though, a lot of members of Congress want to be involved in that something, want to debate that something before anything concretely happens.

You have sources on both sides of the aisle.

BORGER: They're not going to do that.

BALDWIN: What are they telling you?

BORGER: Look, the president's not going to call the Congress back. If he was going to do that, he would have done it already. And by the way, he probably doesn't want a vote in Congress because it's not at all clear he would win any kind of a vote in Congress.

It was very interesting to me that the president went out of his way, as well as the secretary of state, to say that this threatens our national security.

If you look at the War Powers Act, you know, the president can act unilaterally when it is a matter of national security, so they are clearly making that case.

At the same time, though, they are also making the case to the American people that this is a circumscribed attack, that it would be very narrowly targeted, that it would be kind of in and out and that this is not going to be Iraq or Afghanistan.

The president himself made that point because, don't forget, his rise to power came out of an anti-war activism against the war in Iraq and now the skepticism that he faces is the same skepticism he had years ago about George W. Bush.

BALDWIN: As you have said, you look at the poll, we are a war-weary nation and, to quote Christiane Amanpour, we have case of "Iraq-itis." Gloria Borger -

BORGER: We do.

BALDWIN: -- thank you very much.

Quick break. Back with special coverage of this "Crisis in Syria" after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NEWT GINGRICH, CNN HOST, "CROSSFIRE": One of the issues "CROSSFIRE" has always covered and will cover in the future is national security, and there are some big life-and-death questions.

Here's a good example, former secretary of defense Robert McNamara and about-to-be Vice President Dan Quayle, debating America's strength and what we need to do to be safe in the last days of the Soviet Union.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DAN QUAYLE, FORMER VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We always get in this thing of debunking the capability of the military of the Soviet Union. Let me tell you something. They are very proud of their military. They've invested a lot of money and you know what, it works.

ROBERT MCNAMARA, FORMER SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: May I just interrupt one second? We shouldn't debunk the U.S. military. There isn't one single senior U.S. military commander who believes the ABM system around Moscow is anything other than a pile of junk. There isn't any one of them that thinks --

PAT BUCHANAN, FORMER "CROSSFIRE" HOST: Why, Mr. Secretary, do they put $200 billion in charge-particle weapons, in laser weapons, in testing space weapons, all the things that --

MCNAMARA: They haven't. They haven't. They put it in air defense that isn't worth a damn and our bombers can penetrate it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BALDWIN: I'm Brooke Baldwin.

"THE LEAD" with John Berman starts right now.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)