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Crisis in Syria

Aired August 30, 2013 - 18:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news, our special report, "Crisis in Syria" -- 1,400 people dead, including hundreds of children.

The U.S. intelligence report on Syria's alleged chemical weapons attack is out. Bracing for a U.S. strike, the Bashar al-Assad regime weighing its options while President Obama weighs his. How might Syria respond?

Plus, the dictator's brother suspected of orchestrating a campaign of brutality, what we're learning about Maher Al-Assad.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

President Obama calls it a challenge to the world, but the U.S. commander in chief says he still has not -- not -- decided whether to launch a military strike against Syria for its alleged chemical weapons attack on civilians. As the president huddled today with his national security team in the White House Situation Room, the administration has released details of a declassified U.S. intelligence report which says 1,429 people died in that August 21 horror, including at least 426 children.

And it concludes with this quote, "high confidence" -- the U.S. has -- quote -- "high confidence" the regime of Bashar al-Assad was behind the attack.

The president did offer some details of what a U.S. response would and would not entail.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: 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.


BLITZER: Earlier, the secretary of state, John Kerry, laid out the administration's case for a military strike against targets in Syria. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOHN KERRY, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: 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 and the dangers that will flow from those others who believe that they can do as they will.


BLITZER: Syria's foreign minister, he responded just a short while ago saying, and I'm quoting now Syria's foreign ministry, "What Kerry presented is based on old tales that the terrorists presented more than a week ago. And it's all based on fabrications and lies."

As of now, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and France, they say they're in favor of a U.S. strike on Syria, but there's no indication any of them are ready to provide military backup on behalf of the United States. But critical allies, including the United Kingdom, Germany, they will not go along with the United States militarily. Of course, Russia, China, Iran strongly oppose any U.S. military strike.

We have CNN's global resources working the story. We're joined by our chief international correspondent, Christiane Amanpour. She's in London. Our senior international correspondent, Nick Paton Walsh, he's over at the United Nations. And our senior international correspondent Arwa Damon, she is joining us from Beirut.

Christiane, let me start with you. Here's a clip of the secretary of state warning in very strong words the importance of what the United States now potentially is going to do.


KERRY: This matters also beyond the limits of Syria's borders. It is about whether Iran, which itself has been a victim of chemical weapons attacks, will now feel emboldened in the absence of action to obtain nuclear weapons.

It is about Hezbollah and North Korea and every other terrorist group or dictator that might ever again contemplate the use of weapons of mass destruction. Will they remember that the Assad regime was stopped from those weapons' current or future use? Or will they remember that the world stood aside and created impunity?


BLITZER: Christiane, this imminent military U.S. strike, how important is it for sending this broader signal to other adversaries of the U.S.?

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, incredibly important. I think Secretary Kerry laid out a very powerful case in that regard. It's a case that should have been made years ago, frankly, when this all started or even months ago, when the last time they did, the Syrian government, did use chemical weapons with impunity and were allowed to get away with it. Now it's way over the -- you know, the state of the ability to ignore it. The U.S. saying 1,400 people at least have been killed, civilians.

So I think it's a very strong message. It's one that many people believe should have been acted on, this red line of the president's, the last time it happened. By all sorts of intelligence accounts the Assad regime has used chemical weapons either 10 times, according to British Prime Minister David Cameron already, or 35 times, according to some of the Syrian opposition.

So it's a very, very serious problem. And, of course, chemical weapons, the use of weapons of mass destruction, is a war crime. And it is banned by, you know, the ultimate laws, the ultimate international laws.

BLITZER: Arwa, you have risked your life on several occasions reporting from inside Syria. You have good contacts with the Syrian opposition, the Free Syrian Army and others. What do they want the U.S. to do?

ARWA DAMON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, at this junction, Wolf, they're basically saying that given the plan that the U.S. is putting forward in the sense that this is not a potential strike that is going to bring down the regime or dramatically change the dynamics of the battlefield, a lot of them do believe that they would actually prefer not to see this take place, quite simply because people are absolutely terrified -- and rightfully so -- that the regime is then going to turn around and retaliate against opposition strongholds, and they say it's not as if America has a plan in place to continue to protect the civilian population.

It is going to hurt them much more than it is actually going to hurt the regime. Some of the activists that we have been speaking to also pointing out that while this strike might, yes, ever so slightly potentially decrease the regime's capabilities, slightly perhaps, even out on the battlefield , this is a battlefield where at the forefront of the rebel fighting force are these Islamist extremist groups, many of whom do have ties to al Qaeda, and a lot of the other more mainstream rebels and activists are concerned that this is then going to allow them to become even more powerful than they are.

And a lot of them also, again, saying where has America been for the last two years? We have had 100,000 dead and counting. They really view this as being more in America's own interests and in its own political interests than out of a genuine care for the welfare and the protection of the Syrian population, Wolf.

BLITZER: Fascinating analysis.

Let's go to Nick Paton Walsh over at the United Nations.

The secretary had some strong words, today, the secretary of state, Nick, about the United Nations and its role. Listen to this.


KERRY: By the definition of their own mandate, the U.N. can't tell us anything that we haven't shared with you this afternoon or that we don't already know. And because of the guaranteed Russian obstructionism of any action through the U.N. Security Council, the U.N. cannot galvanize the world to act, as it should.


BLITZER: As you know, Nick, Ban Ki-Moon, the U.N. secretary- general, he has made it repeatedly clear in recent days he doesn't want the U.S. to strike. He wants this to play out diplomatically at the U.N. and elsewhere. What's the latest over at the U.N.?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We're anticipating perhaps a busy 24 hours ahead of us. It is clear that Ban Ki-Moon will receive a briefing from Angela Kane, who led the weapons inspectors, the chemical weapons inspectors to Damascus.

That briefing will happen tomorrow. What I am hearing though from a Western diplomat is a slight change in the sequencing we were expecting. Now, Ban Ki-Moon himself did come out and say that once he'd had that briefing, he would then brief the U.N. Security Council of what he had in fact heard.

I'm hearing from a Western diplomat today that some briefing had been occurring this afternoon, but none of it pertained to any of the results. Ban Ki-Moon simply met with the permanent five members of the Security Council, explained logistics and timing of the inspectors and their work to them, but didn't go into results, because he wasn't at that stage briefed by Angela Kane.

So the suggestion now is that he will be briefed tomorrow. And then we may have to wait potentially weeks, certainly days, until the inspectors get back from the laboratories across Europe the results from testing the samples they took in the sites across Syria, and then they will compile their final report, which will then be presented to Ban Ki-Moon to then pass on to the Security Council.

A much lengthier timeline here which pretty much precludes what many thought could be the case, that we'd get some initial indication from inspectors at the weekend. But, Wolf, as you say, they are simply establishing whether chemical weapons were used inside Syria. Their mandate does not extend to who was to blame for that -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Christiane, if you hear the White House, they say the president spoke with the French president, Hollande, today, the president spoke with the British prime minister, David Cameron, today. Two U.S. allies, probably two very different kinds of conversations. Take us inside. What do you think was discussed?

AMANPOUR: Well, clearly what is happening in both countries and in both capitals. It has been a real international shock, what happened in Great Britain. The Parliament decided that there would be no vote of confidence for the prime minister to take part in any of these kind of military strikes and therefore the British have said they will not take part in military action. And, honestly, you know, you cannot overstate what a shock that is, because for the last 30 years at least, the British have been side-by-side with the Americans every time there's been either a major or even a limited strike in this regard.

So this is a big shock, particularly after the prime minister and his own foreign secretary, William Hague, were very, very vocal about the need to punish this, that the world cannot stand by. Even that morning when they were being voted down, just before, there was very strong tweeting coming out of the prime minister's office to the extent that they should go ahead and do something.

By contrast, presumably, the president had a slightly different conversation with his French counterpart, Francois Hollande, who has said that he will stand by, France will stand by and will take part in whatever military action is deemed -- that the president of the United States decides to go ahead. And they will do it. And that, of course, is -- you know, to Americans, I'm sure that sounds rather sort of backwards because everybody remembers over the Iraq war the French were pilloried for not marching in lockstep with the United States.

Remember, Congress decided to call french fries freedom fries and all sorts of really intelligent people were pouring French wine down the drain hole because they were so mad about the French. So now the French are standing in lockstep with the United States. And they have been very close allies for the last many years, for instance, in Afghanistan. For instance, the French went into Mali and tried to sort that out. Eventually, the United States helped them with logistics and that kind of thing. But they have been strong allies in the post-Iraq war scenario.

BLITZER: Well, let's see if they actually help militarily, as opposed to just speaking out in favor.

AMANPOUR: They have said they will.

BLITZER: Well, let's see if they do.

AMANPOUR: They have said they will.

BLITZER: Well, let's see. Actions speak louder than words.

AMANPOUR: Well, they took the lead -- they took the lead in Libya, Wolf.

BLITZER: In Libya, the U.S. was directly involved. So were the French, so were others. Let's see if the Syrians actually use their military power, their air force, their missiles to help the United States launch strikes in Syria. I will be curious to see if President Hollande backs up the words with actual deeds. We will know very soon, maybe as soon as this weekend. Christiane Amanpour, Nick Paton Walsh, Arwa Damon, three of the best in the business, thanks very much.

Up next, the Syrian crisis certainly has Israel on edge right now. It's within striking distance of the regime's conventional and unconventional weapons. We're going live to Tel Aviv.

And as the U.S. weighs its options, so is Syria. We're taking a closer look at the possible response to a U.S. strike.

You're watching a THE SITUATION ROOM special report, "Crisis in Syria."


BLITZER: It's the Jewish state right in the heart of the Arab world. And right now the crisis in Syria has Israel very much on edge. It's well within striking distance of Syria's chemical arsenal and in danger of being swept up in a regional conflict that could result from a U.S. strike on Syria.

Let's get some analysis from Ronen Bergman. He's a senior military and political analyst for the Israeli newspaper "Yedioth Ahronoth," a contributing writer to "The New York Times" magazine. And he's joining us via Skype. And Aviv Frenkel, he's a special correspondent for Israel's Channel 10. They're both joining us from Tel Aviv.

Aviv, how concerned are Israelis right now? I know they have been distributing gas masks. There's been a modest mobilization of reserve units. So, what's going on?

AVIV FRENKEL, CHANNEL 10 SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, people are a bit nervous.

We saw some queues outside the centers where they give gas masks in Tel Aviv, in Haifa and other places in Israel, in Jerusalem as well. But let me tell you one thing. As an Israeli, as a Jew, when we first saw the photos and the videos from Syria, the first flashback we had is from the Holocaust, because we were Jews and we were gassed over there in Germany 70 years ago.

And this really is disturbing, very disturbing for us as Jews. But in terms of being nervous because of this situation, I think we're confident. We're a bit nervous, but we are confident that this thing will go and Assad will not strike with chemical weapons here in Tel Aviv.

BLITZER: Ronen, you have covered the Israeli military and the Israeli intelligence community, and you well know over the past year or two the Israelis have -- at least by my account, they have bombed various targets in Syria at least four times, usually weapons depots, stockpiles moving from Syria towards Hezbollah units in Lebanon.

As far as I can tell, the Syrians never retaliated against Israel for those airstrikes. What's your assessment what is about to happen assuming the U.S. goes forward over the next few hours or days with an airstrike?

RONEN BERGMAN, "YEDIOTH AHRONOTH": Yes, Wolf, of course, the natural immediate comparison comes to mind would be the situation with Operation Desert Storm in the Gulf in 1991, when Saddam Hussein threatened and then struck Israel with missiles in order to get Israel involved in the war in a plan to disassemble the coalition, the very touchy and delicate coalition that the United States assembled at that time.

But we are talking about a very difficult situation now. I don't see any clear interest to President Assad to strike Israel. Israel is quite strong. President Assad knows that. He had some very ample proof and examples in the strikes that you mentioned, a few of them in the last six months, how much Israel knows about what is happening in Syria and what Israel is capable to do.

He wouldn't like to open another front in addition to the U.S. campaign that is assumed would be ran against him. So I think the chances of Israel being involved in the current confrontation between the United States and Syria are extremely slim. As Aviv mentioned, yes, people are scared, but I think with no reason. I think that Israel would not be involved.

However, in such a confrontation, things might slip, might get out of hand. If, for example, Hezbollah in Lebanon would initiate some sort of a retaliation against Israel trying to align with Syria, possibly with Iran, Israel would -- forced to retaliate. But I do not see President Assad take the chance and getting Israel involved in this kind of war.

BLITZER: The prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, saying this week that, if that were to happen, if Israel were attacked, Israel he says would respond ferociously to any such attack.

All right, guys, thanks very much, Aviv Frenkel joining us from Tel Aviv and Ronen Bergman joining us as well.

Up next, every day the world talks about a strike on Syria, the Bashar al-Assad regime is preparing for it and possibly planning its response.

Plus, the man suspected of orchestrating some of the worst atrocities, we're digging deeper on Bashar al-Assad's brother.

You're watching a SITUATION ROOM special report, "Crisis in Syria."


BLITZER: Happening now: the breaking news we're watching, growing concerns about the potential fallout or blowback from a U.S. military strike against targets in Syria.

Plus, Bashar al-Assad's younger brother often by his side, always in the shadows.

And Syria's wounded, some of them now being treated in Israel's hospitals.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. This is a SITUATION ROOM special report, "Crisis in Syria."

A U.S. Navy amphibious ship with 300 Marines on board now in the Eastern Mediterranean. The USS San Antonio was on a routine deployment, but will remain in the Eastern Mediterranean for what a defense official calls prudent planning in case of a strike on Syria.

Meantime, there are growing concerns about the fallout or the blowback, shall we say, from a U.S. strike.

Our senior international correspondent, Nick Paton Walsh, is over at the United Nations. He's watching what's going on.

What are you seeing, Nick, and hearing?

WALSH: Well, Wolf, in Barack Obama's own words, it's likely that the decision he takes to launch a strike would involve something that's limited and narrow. So many are saying, if you're not looking to change the balance on the ground and simply send a message, is that really going to disturb the situation in the region so badly that the major thing you will see is significant blowback towards the U.S. and its allies in that part of the world?


WALSH: The question isn't can America strike Syria, but how hard?

CHRISTOPHER HARMER, INSTITUTE FOR THE STUDY OF WAR: The Syrian Air Force is on the verge of collapse, in my opinion. We could destroy the Syrian air force in its entirety in 30 minutes.

WALSH: Ex-Navy planner Chris Harmer drew up on paper a light missile strike plan similar to what President Obama may do. But now Harmer and other analysts think it would be a bad idea, unless part of a wider military strategy.

HARMER: If we start punishing him, if we do punishment strikes without a consequential impact, those chemical weapons are likely to be transferred to Hezbollah. As you know, Hezbollah is a foreign terrorist organization. The worst possible outcome for the United States and the West in general is for these chemical weapons to transfer from Assad to Hezbollah.

MATT LEVITT, WASHINGTON INSTITUTE FOR NEAR EAST POLICY: My fear is that if there's only a very, very limited attack and there's no follow-on, that the Assad regime could come out of this thinking, OK, so as long as I no longer use chemical weapons anymore, I can do anything else I want.

WALSH (on camera): That a U.S. strike will cause catastrophe in the region has long been the calling cry of Assad's supporters here at the United Nations. But with so many of Syria's neighbors edging towards the precipice after over a year of savage civil war, there is a real risk that U.S. intervention could unleash a host of unintended consequences.

(voice-over): Syria's regime may be too overstretched to pick another fight. Their backers Iran or Lebanese militant group Hezbollah may instead. It depends on how threatened they feel by the strike.

LEVITT: If it's a limited attack, I think the likelihood of Hezbollah responding is much, much less. But if Hezbollah interests are hit, if key regime interests are hit and Hezbollah believes that this is really affecting the Assad regime's ability to stay in power, you could see Hezbollah doing any one of a number of things. They could fire some rockets at Israel. They may do that anyway.

They could engage in asymmetrical warfare, terrorist attacks abroad. And, theoretically, if they're severe attacks and if Hezbollah is really threatened, theoretically, they could decide to target Western interests, most likely in the region.

HARMER: So we're at a point now where, no matter what we do, there's going to be negative blowback against the United States. There's really no perfect option here. There's just a lot of bad options, and we have got to choose the least bad one.

WALSH: After two years of not intervening until the unconscionable moral outrage of chemical warfare, the U.S. looks forced to choose when there are no good choices left.


WALSH: Now, many analysts suggest -- actually all forces involved in that conflict already too overstretched to pick another fight.

But some also say we're not talking about rational actors here. The Assad regime using chemical weapons on that scale, knowing it could invite an international response, may also act in an unpredictable fashion if struck by the U.S.

Also, bear in mind, Wolf, there are so many other potential groups, armed factions in that region who might take the opportunity of a U.S. intervention, the most polarizing, potentially, group or issue in that whole region to somehow try and widen the conflict, Wolf.

BLITZER: Nick Paton Walsh at the United Nations. Good report. Thank you.

The Obama administration continued today to make its case for a strike on Syria by releasing a declassified intelligence report on the alleged chemical attack, which it blames with high confidence -- "high confidence" -- on the Bashar al-Assad regime.

Let's get some analysis from Jeremy Bash. He's a former chief of staff for Leon Panetta, CIA at the Pentagon. Also joining us our CNN political commentator David Frum. He's a contributing editor for "Newsweek" and "The Daily Beast" and our CNN national security analyst Fran Townsend. She's the former homeland security advisor to George W. Bush, currently serves on both the CIA and Department of Homeland Security external advisory boards.

There was something very disturbing in this intelligence report, the declassified version that came up today. And it says this about that August 21st chemical attack that killed more than 1,400 people: "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 the U.S. knew for three days about what was going to happen, why didn't they warn the people there? Why didn't they provide gas masks? Why didn't they tell the Bashar al-Assad regime, "If you do this all bets are off"?

FRAN TOWNSEND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, it is, I think, the most troubling piece to the report. But it's not clear. The way it's worded, Wolf, it's not clear they understood the import, the strategic import of that at the time they collected it, right? You've got all these different sources of intelligence that have to be quickly integrated and understood.

In order to make that effort, you know, just yesterday Josh Rogin reported that the administration refused to provide gas masks to the rebels, to the Free Syrian Army. These are -- these are questions that the administration is going to have to grapple with.

But right now we're focused on the intelligence. And I must say to you, when you look at the intelligence report as a whole, it lays out a pretty compelling case about why the president feels he's got to act.

BLITZER: You work both at the CIA and the Defense Department, even if there were just indications that this was about to happen, wasn't there a moral responsibility to try to prevent it from happening?

JEREMY BASH, FORMER DEFENSE DEPARTMENT AND CIA CHIEF OF STAFF: And we may have done some things, Wolf, that we're not aware of or privy to, but I think Fran's last point is the important one.

I've sat through hundreds of intelligence briefings on Capitol Hill, and I've read hundreds of intelligence reports. None are this definitive, this airtight, if you will. And none are this harrowing and horrifying to read. I mean, the graphic detail about the numbers, the specificity, the signals intelligence, the intercepts about people making claims, this is very strong stuff, Wolf. And I think it makes a compelling case that we've got to do something. As Secretary Kerry said, the risks of inaction probably are very, very great here.

BLITZER: Here's what the president said back in August of 2012, a year ago, about that red line.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.

BLITZER: All right. Now, looking back, was that a blunder on his part to raise that red line?

DAVID FRUM, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, he didn't have a backup plan. The president is now talking about firing a shot across the bow. The reason a shot across the bow works is the people on the bow have reason to fear that the next shot will be shot in the hull. If you tell them it's a shot across the bow and that's it, they say, "We can survive that."

And what the president has been doing and the thing that I think really calls for real thought at this point, the United States has been stepping up its involvement in Syria. It has been supplying various kinds of assistance to these rebels. We read that in newspapers. People with access to classified information will know more about that.

The United States has begun to make a commitment, but without a vision for how this war ends and who it would like to see in power. And if you decide that the alternatives are as bad or worse than the governing regime and you are putting pieces on the board and committing increasing amounts of credibility, then in the end you're going to war, not because you have a vision but because you want to protect yourself from looking weak.

BLITZER: Fran, a lot of people have said there are bad options and even worse options. There are no really good options right now.

TOWNSEND: Well, but, Wolf, I think we need to understand, I agree with David. The problem here is a missile strike, a very narrow missile strike may poke the hornet's nest but not have a strategic effect.

Let's remember after the East Africa embassy bombings in 1998, President Clinton did a similar sort of narrow strike into the camps in Afghanistan. It didn't prevent 9/11.

And my point is you must have strategic objectives. And these military interventions have got to be linked to meeting those strategic objectives. We haven't heard that yet from the president. This is just sort of punitive for the use of chemical weapons.

I agree with Jeremy. We have to act. We can't let that pass. But I think most importantly, we need military operations tied to strategic objectives.

BLITZER: Fran Townsend, thanks very much.

Jeremy Bash, thanks to you. David Frum, good to have you back.

Coming up, has the Bashar al-Assad regime hidden its most valuable military assets? What would happen after a U.S. strike?

Plus, we have new details of Bashar al-Assad's brother, why some say he's the most brutal one of all.

You're watching a SITUATION ROOM special report, "Crisis in Syria."


BLITZER: The Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad's, little brother, known as the muscle in the family and considered even more brutal. That's next. This is THE SITUATION ROOM special report "Crisis in Syria."


BLITZER: With U.S. warnings of potential military action in Syria, they are getting louder by the hour. Chances are the Syrian government is also carefully weighing its response.

CNN's Tom Foreman is over in our virtual studio along with our military analyst, retired U.S. General James "Spider" Marks. Go ahead, Tom, tell us what you see.

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, you're exactly right. Every hour every day as this goes forward, and no action is taken, whether action will be taken, is also time in which Syria can get ready. Up until a week or so ago there were no doubt many signals, computer signals, cone (ph) signals, radar, coming up from government and military facilities out there, but, General, what would you expect now?

MAJ. GEN. JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS (RET.), U.S. ARMY: Assad may be a monster, but he's very clever. I would guarantee you that he is turning all these systems off. He's going to shut down everything that emanates a signal and intentionally go to black. It makes it more difficult for us to find him.

FOREMAN: Now, that said, we probably would know where these facilities are already even if they've gone dark now. So say we're talking about something like a radar facility or some kind of command and control structure out there. Would we hit it anyway? And what would be the result?

MARKS: Tom, we would. All of these fixed facilities are in the target list. They will be attacked. But until we put a human in there and open a door, we don't know what's inside. So Assad probably has packaged up all the contents and dispersed those throughout the country.

FOREMAN: So hour by hour that's spreading out. What about things like rockets and missiles? MARKS: If a weapons system is not being used, it goes to a garrison facility. In this case, Assad, a thinking opponent, has moved those capabilities to locations where they are operationally ineffective and where we wouldn't look for them.

FOREMAN: So like underneath overpasses, things where you wouldn't expect them at all?

MARKS: Correct.

FOREMAN: Airfields cannot be moved. They're incredibly important, but aircraft can. What would you expect there?

MARKS: No doubt Assad has flown his aircraft out of the country, probably to Iran. However, think about this. Saddam Hussein, when we liberated Iraq, buried his aircraft in the dirt. Most unbelievable thing I've seen.

FOREMAN: So with enough preparation time, the whole point is that there are many things which can be done, and there has been a lot of preparation time here after a limited attack. Many of these assets could be brought back together and put back into service. And this is a very fundamental -- fundamentally different approach than what we've seen from Israel in recent years.

MARKS: The Israelis do not give up the element of surprise. They don't spend time building a coalition.

For example, in September 2007, the Israelis struck a nuclear facility in eastern Syria and destroyed it. And just last July, July of this year, just six weeks ago, they attacked Latakia, which is where Syria had anti-ship cruise missiles and destroyed those, as well.

FOREMAN: And in both case, when did we find out about the attacks?

MARKS: When the attacks were finished.

FOREMAN: That's very different approach, Wolf, very different, indeed, than what's happening right now in where Syria clearly has a lot of time to think about this attack and to get ready for it, if it's going to come, just as the U.S. is thinking about the same thing.

BLITZER: And there was no real Syrian retaliation against Israel after those various Israeli air strikes against targets in Syria.

Guys, thanks very much.

Coming up next in our special report, he's known as the knee- capper of the Syrian regime. We're taking a little closer look at Bashar al-Assad's younger brother.

And the startling story of Syria's badly wounded. Some of them are being treated right now in hospitals in Israel.


BLITZER: Bashar al-Assad's little brother, often by his side, always operating in the shadows. That's next as our SITUATION ROOM special report, "Crisis in Syria," continues.


BLITZER: Bashar al-Assad may be the face of the Syrian regime, but behind the scenes, one of his siblings may be directing some of the most brutal atrocities. CNN's Brian Todd is here and he's been taking a closer look at the younger brother.

What do we know about Maher al-Assad?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we know he's a key player in some of the most vicious fighting in this civil war. We know he's got a crucial role in advising his brother and we know that, between the two of them, Maher is not the one you'd want to come across in a dark alley.

We want to alert you: some images in this story may be disturbing to some viewers.


TODD (voice-over): many decisions on the use of brute force inside the Syrian regime are connected not only to President Bashar al-Assad but also to a man a couple of years younger, often by the president's side, always in the shadows, his brother Maher.

PROF. JOSHUA LANDIS, UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA: Maher is the knee- caper. He is in charge of securing, keeping the regime in power.

TODD: Considered more brutal than his brother, the muscle in the family, Maher al-Assad commands the 4th Division and the Republican Guard, elite Syrian military units composed of mostly minority Alawite Muslims, the same sect of the Assad clan. But he's got something else in his portfolio.

ANDREW TABLER, WASHINGTON INSTITUTE FOR NEAR EAST POLICY: Maher, as well as his cousins, have come to control the Ghosts there: Alawite paramilitary forces.

TODD: Forces that analysts say have carried out massacres of Syrian villagers. Maher's actions once led Turkey's prime minister to publicly slam him, saying he's, quote, "chasing after savagery."

Ted Kattouf is a former U.S. ambassador to Syria who's met with the Assad family.

(on camera): What is the real influence he personally has over his brother?

TED KATTOUF, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO SYRIA: I think his brother has to be wary of him, because he's a hothead. And he's known to be a hothead and he's known not to have particularly great judgment. But, you know, when you're a head of a mafia-like regime, you depend upon enforcers.

TODD (voice-over): A role Maher's relished, experts say, for many years. There's one legendary account of the time his sister was set to marry someone who wasn't exactly up to the family's standards.

LANDIS: He is said to have shot his brother-in-law in the stomach in the early days before the brother-in-law was his brother- in-law but was trying to marry Bushra. And the father did not approve of the marriage, thought he was low, and Maher was already the enforcer before the father died.

TODD: The brother-in-law was killed in a rebel bomb attack on the Syrian cabinet a year ago. Maher was believed to have been wounded in that attack and hasn't been seen since.

LANDIS: We don't even know. There's rumors that his leg was blown off, he was badly wounded. This could be true. We don't know exactly what condition he's in today.


TODD: If Maher al-Assad is still alive and still helping his brother, he's following a menacing family tradition. Their late father, dictator Hafez al-Assad, placed his own brother, Rifaat, as head of key Syrian security units.

Rifaat al-Assad was reported a key figure behind the 1982 crackdown in the city of Hama, in which tens of thousands of Syrian civilians were massacred.

Wolf, I know you know that incident, that whole month-long series of massacres, very well.

BLITZER: In the early '80s. All right. Thanks very much. Brian Todd reporting.

Just ahead in our special report, two countries still in a state of war, but Israeli doctors and nurses, they are putting politics aside right now to treat some of Syria's badly wounded civilians, including children.


BLITZER: A growing number of Syria's wounded now getting some unprecedented help from an unlikely source, Israel. This is THE SITUATION ROOM special report, "Crisis in Syria."


BLITZER: We're seeing a sharp and increasing number of Syrians wounded in the civil war being taken into Israel for medical care, even though the two countries are officially in a state of war.

CNN's Jim Clancy reports some of those most surprised by the unprecedented cross-border help are the patients themselves.


JIM CLANCY, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): At 15 years of age her eyes have seen what no child should ever have to see.

"I don't know what happened," she tells us. "I woke up and saw my wounded uncle screaming. I could not bear what I saw. I was in pain. I threw myself outside. My father saw me and wrapped me up."

To help protect her identity, we'll call her Laila. Two months ago in Daraa, Syria, an artillery shell crashed into her home. Her right leg is gone. Her left leg severely damaged. Shrapnel pierced her body.

But she's alive, her mother at her side, in Sieff Hospital in Israel. No one will say how more than 120 badly wounded Syrians have come here or where they will go after treatment.

Many of them are young man who deny they are fighters, but it's impossible to know. A military guard does stand outside their door. Doctors leave politics aside.

DR. SHOUKRI KASSIS, ORTHOPEDIC SURGEON: When you see small kids like this, you hear her doing her story, you cry, too.

CLANCY: Laila says she wants to go home, but she can't envision when. "I don't think the situation is getting better; it's getting worse," she says. "There's not one single safe place in all of Daraa to retreat."

Some of the young men say they never thought in their wildest dreams that they would be treated inside Israel. They praise the hospital staff, saying they were being shown kindness.

The injured mother of an 8-year-old Syrian girl, badly wounded herself, said she had no qualms about coming here. "Honestly, I was not afraid," she says. "I was happy we were coming here to be treated."

But who will pay for this expensive specialized care?

DR. OSCAR EMBON, DIRECTOR, SIEFF HOSPITAL: We already spend about $3 million treating them and probably the sum will increase. But right now nobody's paying the bill.

CLANCY: Doctors say they're more focused on ensuring their youngest patients will be able to walk again.

Laila, who hasn't been able to go to school for two years, is bitter about the conflict. "They already destroyed my future, since I'm a little girl," she told us. "And the world should know," she said. "I wish they would help us so we can end this violence and get better and the country can go back to where it was."

But for now, there's a sharp increase in the number of patients like Laila. Half of the available beds in the intensive care unit here are filled with Syrian wounded, brought in the last week alone. Jim Clancy, CNN, Sieff Hospital in northern Israel.


BLITZER: I suspect more will be on the way very, very soon.

That's it for our special report. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. Thanks very much for watching.

For our North American viewers, "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.