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Analysis Of Syrian Crisis And America's Role; President Obama Speaks on Syria
Aired August 31, 2013 - 13:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world to our special coverage this hour of the crisis in Syria. President Obama is about to make a major statement when it comes to Syria. We expect him to be in the White House Rose Garden. There you see live pictures from the Rose Garden. In about 15 minutes or so -- we're told the statement will not necessarily suggest an imminent U.S. military strike, but rather an update about his decisions on how to proceed in Syria. He's been meeting all morning with his top national security advisers over at the White House.
All this came earlier in the day, the signals were clearly there, even yesterday, officials started arriving at the White House today to go into the White House situation room, including the vice president, the secretary of defense, Chuck Hagel, the secretary of state, John Kerry. The National Security Adviser to the president. The top military commanders as well.
They've been meeting in the White House. There you see General Martin Dempsey. The chairman of the -- of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. There's a tense calm, we're told, that has fallen across Syria right now as a possible U.S. military strike looms.
ITN's Bill Neely has been in the capital city of Damascus. He's joining us from there.
We expect in a few minutes to hear from the commander-in-chief, the president of the United States, Bill. I assume they're bracing for some sort of U.S. military strike, whether it happens in a few hours or a few days.
BILL NEELY, INTERNATIONAL EDITOR, ITN: Yes, they really are. It's definitely tense here. I wouldn't say there's any sense of panic, but clear apprehension because all the signals are there. The U.N. weapons inspectors left dawn this morning, pretty hastily a day early. They're now in the Hague, in the Netherlands.
America has released its intelligence dossier, the president about to state senators have been briefed. I think people here also can read the signs, read the signals, that could mean, all of that means an attack is imminent.
People have been stockpiling food. I was at a bread shop this afternoon. Government-owned bakeries are going to be open 24 hours a day. And people of course really are worried at the risks involved to them because there could be, no matter how technologically advanced they think America is, there could be a stray missile that would kill someone, there might be a missile that would hit a chemical weapons depot and spread poisoned gasses across this city. So people definitely worried, definitely braced.
BLITZER: Is there a sense of retaliation? Is there any clear indication? Assuming this is a significant military strike, whenever it does happen -- and U.S. officials are making it clear it will happen sooner rather than later. Is there an indication of how the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad and his military commanders as well as their allies in Hezbollah, in Lebanon and the Iranians might respond?
NEELY: Well, the only statement that the government has released from one official said we are expecting an attack at any moment. We are ready to retaliate at any moment. Now there was no elaboration. I certainly didn't see any signs from Syria's army or anyone else that retaliation was imminent.
And remember, there have been a couple of Israeli strikes on Syrian facilities here on convoys of weapons allegedly as far as the Israelis are concerned and there was no direct retaliation from the Syrians for those attacks, so many people including some analysts here are saying they don't expect any retaliation, but of course, on the streets, that's not what you hear people are saying, we will be defiant, we will strike back.
And we know that Syria has allies in Iran, in Hezbollah, that are quite capable of doing something like that.
One interesting point, Wolf, I -- we've had silence from President Assad for the last couple of days, but I did see today an Iranian delegation, which was said to include their security chief here, as well as their ambassador to Syria, and it was said that they had just met President Assad.
Now why were those people meeting President Assad? We don't know and certainly, they weren't telling us.
BLITZER: Bill Neely, I want you to stand by in Damascus.
Bill is one of the few Western journalists in the Syrian capital right now. We're going to touch base with him throughout our special live coverage here on CNN.
Be careful over there, Bill, we'll be joining you shortly.
Once again we will of course want to get Syrian reaction immediately after we hear from President Obama. Once again, he's expected to speak at the White House in about 10 minutes or so. We'll have live coverage as soon as he goes into the Rose Garden. Jim Acosta is over at the White House. He's our chief -- our senior White House correspondent.
It's been a busy morning. The president has been meeting with his top national security advisers, Jim, but it doesn't look like this is what we anticipate as an address to the nation that military action has already started. This is still in advance of that, is that right?
JIM ACOSTA, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right. I did receive word from White House officials that this will not be about what this official called commenced military operations, nor is this going to be about imminent military operations. This is going to be about the way forward for this president and obviously a lot of this is vague and it's going to raise a lot of questions until the president comes out.
And you mentioned, Wolf, that it -- it is not an address to the nation, but with so many people focused on what the president is saying and doing right now, I think it stands to reason that much of the world will be watching what the president does within the next hour. You mentioned some of the meetings that are going on over here at the White House.
Vice President Joe Biden, he was scheduled to be in Wilmington, Delaware, this weekend. Here -- he is here at the White House. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Martin Dempsey, and so all of that giving an indication that perhaps the president is close to making some sort of decision, but because White House officials are saying this is not about imminent or commenced operations, perhaps we may be hearing about something else.
We should also note that this administration was set to start briefing members of the Senate today, members of the House tomorrow, to fully get them up to speed on what is happening in Syria and so it will be interesting to find out whether or not the president's comments have any impact on those briefings at all.
The other thing we should point out, and this is just a small, minor thing to point out, Wolf, is that according to a poll note that was distributed to reporters here at the White House, a teleprompter has been set up in the Rose Garden for the president's address. I only say that, Wolf, because yesterday, his comments were very much off- the-cuff. He had some notes in front of him, but he was not reading from prepared remarks, but this address or this statement indicates that perhaps he will be doing that this afternoon in just a few moments -- Wolf.
BLITZER: And it comes on the heels of about 24 hours or so ago, the secretary of state had a very detailed 20-minute speech that he delivered, outlining the U.S. evidence that the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad did in fact use chemical warfare against its own people, killing more than 1400 civilians. More than 400 of whom were children, according to this U.S. intelligence estimate.
The president has got one other issue on his agenda this coming week. A trip to Sweden, and then St. Petersburg, Russia, Jim, for the G-20 summit. He's supposed to be there, when, Thursday and Friday? How does that fit in to a timeline for military action?
ACOSTA: Well, you know, there was a lot of guessing going on over here at the White House. And maybe not all of it educated that because the U.N. weapons inspectors were leaving today that a window of opportunity had opened up for this president between now and when he leaves for the G-20 in his trip to Sweden early part of next week, we believe Tuesday evening.
And so -- there was a lot of presuming going on that perhaps that was his window of opportunity, Wolf. We'll have to find out whether or not the president sheds any light on that, but obviously, there are some big implications for that G-20 trip. It is hosted by Russia, hosted by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The White House had a background call with reporters yesterday explaining that the president will not be having any kind of bilateral meeting with President Putin. Another indication once again of the strained relations between President Obama and President Putin. As we know, the White House, the State Department, have all complained out loud this week, not hiding their frustrations whatsoever, that they believe that Vladimir Putin really stymied them at the United Nations Security Council, blocked the United States from getting any kind of U.N. mandate for military action in Syria.
And so all of that is going to be a part of the action, you might say, this week, Wolf, when the president goes to Russia. You have to think at some point he'll be face-to-face with Putin when they all pose for those pictures and that sort of thing. But all of this making this a complicated decision for the president.
BLITZER: All right. Jim, stand by. Within five minutes, if the president's on time, he'll be walking down those stairs from the Oval Office into the Rose Garden to make this address and as you point out, a carefully calibrated address indeed.
Barbara Starr is over at the Pentagon.
Barbara, once that so-called execute order is signed by the commander- in-chief, mainly the president of the United States, it won't take very long for U.S. destroyers, U.S. warships in the eastern Mediterranean and submarines presumably, as well, to launch Tomahawk cruise missiles, will it?
BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: It will not, Wolf. I've gotten a bit of an update in the last few minutes from military officials familiar with the planning. They say they are ready to strike as soon as the president signs that execute order, it will come over to the Pentagon, it will go out to the fleet, but the reality, the bottom line reality is those five warships have their targets, once approved, once ordered. They can fire very quickly.
And these are of course precision missiles. They are guided to their targets by GPS coordinates. Very important because, of course, the U.S. wants to avoid civilian casualties. Always a major concern and that is why we've all believed that if this strike were to happen, it would happen in the overnight hours in Syria, less people out on the street, less chance of civilians being hurt.
That is going to be a major issue for the president. He is not going to want to be seen as a military commander who has caused another round of civilian casualties in the Middle East. So, Tomahawk missiles, really truly in this case, the weapon of choice, but of course, very limited in what they can do. This is not going to be regime change. This is not likely by the administration's own account, to change Assad -- the Assad regime's behavior. It's going to send a message. We'll see if that works.
BLITZER: The Syrians, thanks to the Russians, Barbara, they have a pretty robust air defense capability, so I take it the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Navy, not necessarily inclined to start flying over Syrian air space with F-16s or F-15s or other jet fighters that could endanger U.S. pilots. I assume that's the case, but you know better than I do.
STARR: Well, no, Wolf -- you're absolutely right, of course. And again, this is why you're seeing Tomahawk cruise missiles. Very precision thousand-pound warhead. But no pilot because, of course, the risk -- and the Pentagon has been very firmed on this for months now, the risk of being shot down, of a U.S. pilot being shot down is a risk that the U.S. is not willing to take in this case.
So, you know, you might ask, we've seen several Israeli airstrikes into Syria to stop their weapons from being transferred to Hezbollah, for example. Manned Israeli aircraft. The Israelis have quite a different view in this region. They believe stopping Syria, stopping Hezbollah -- Lebanese Hezbollah is a matter of national survival for them.
The U.S. has a different construct. The strategic interest in this strike will be to send a message, a military message to the Syrians to not use chemical weapons and to send a military message to the rest of the world, countries like North Korea, that the use of gas weapons will not be tolerated, but again, it's a message and there is a lot of doubt on Capitol Hill and in other places whether this is really going to be a game changer. Very doubtful.
BLITZER: All right, Barbara, stand by. We're only about two minutes or so away from the president assuming he's on schedule. We'll of course have live coverage once he's in the Rose Garden. But in the meantime I want to go to the United Nations. Nick Paton Walsh is standing by.
Nick, once again just in the past few minutes, we heard from the spokesman for Ban Ki-Moon, the secretary-general of the United States (sic), another strong appeal to the United States, directly to President Obama, do not use military force unless there's authorization from the United Nations Security Council and as you well know there is none.
NICK PATON WALSH, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. I mean, when pressed on Ban Ki-Moon, the secretary-general's position on whether or not to strike without a resolution would be legal, the spokesman simply said that the secretary-general considers the U.N. charter to be paramount and that should be upheld. Kind of inferring that's the case but no direct response to that effect.
Let me break down for you, though, what we did hear in that briefing because potentially, given this address we're about to hear, the White House is unlikely to announce imminent military action. The process happening here at the United Nations perhaps with inspectors becomes suddenly much more relevant as the timing of a U.S. strike.
Now Martin Nesirky did say that the inspectors had gathered adequate material from inside Syria. They were, as we know, now heading to the Hague in the Netherlands where testing will most likely begin tomorrow. He said they were collating their samples. He also refers to how a number of interviews needed to be translated from witnesses and survivors and that all of that would then be collated into a report handed to the secretary-general.
He kept reassuring people asking him that the secretary general was doing all he could to make sure this process was expedited as quickly as possible because, of course, all eyes are on whether these results show chemical weapons were used inside Syria. But most importantly he would not give a timetable. We simply don't know how long this could take. Now we've asked one separate expert who works in the field of chemical warfare and their belief is that you're probably looking at about a week because these samples from the field contain dirt, they have to be broken down. You have to measure and identify separate atoms within that sample. And that takes a machine called spectrometers.
And that can take a substantial amount of time. So we are looking at a much lengthier process potentially here if it is the case that we are waiting for the results from the U.N. inspectors to perhaps ease international opinion to the point where Barack Obama wants to make his decision.
Another key point, though, that Martin Nesirky did make, the U.N. spokesman, while speaking is that he says, look, we still have 1,000 plus U.N. staff on the ground inside Syria working for the World Food Program, UNICEF, the children's part of the U.N., so he made an appeal again that their lives should be respected and no bombings should take place also -- Wolf.
BLITZER: You know, it's also one other interesting point that I think potentially very significant out there, Nick Paton Walsh over at the United Nations, as we await the president momentarily, he'll be in the White House Rose Garden to make a statement on the situation in Syria. The -- basically, the U.S. officials, the secretary of state pretty bluntly yesterday, Nick he dismissed this U.N. report saying, you know what, whenever they come up with we already know the answer, chemical weapons were used.
And since the U.N. inspectors do not have a mandate to determine who actually launched those weapons, who cares what these guys think? That was basically -- and I'm obviously paraphrasing -- what the secretary of state had to say, but he basically dismissed their report as meaningless right now since the U.S. has already concluded with, quote, "high confidence," that chemical weapons were used.
WALSH: And they have concluded way more than the U.N. inspectors will even have in their mandate to determine. I'll quote him, he said there was an incapacity of the U.N. for further action simply because of the Russian veto here.
Now I'm not suggesting necessarily that U.N. inspectors will dictate U.S. policy at all, but it does appear to be a slowing in the U.S. timeline if the speech we're about to hear is not to announce some sort of military action and that presumably is because of both U.S. domestic and international public opinion, a desire, perhaps, to have a greater burden of evidence or certainly a greater explanation as to how the U.S. came to its decision.
So it may be the part of that is simply to allow the U.N. inspectors to complete their work. I do know that's what some senior Democrats have been saying they wanted the United States and perhaps that's something weighing on Barack Obama at the moment and perhaps, too, he doesn't want to attend the G-20 when he's taking this decision. So many other members of the G-20 saying they would like to hear what the U.N. inspectors have to say.
Bear in mind, that was in fact the key contingent of the U.K.'s position, who are very much advocating military action until that parliament voted against any kind of involvement in that -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Yes. So the British clearly not going to participate militarily together with their closest ally, the United States, on this effort. Still let's see what some of those other NATO allies, including France, what they have decided to actually do and certainly I'll be anxious to see what some of the Arab and Muslim friends of the United States, whether Turkey or Saudi Arabia or United Arab Emirates, will they militarily be involved or will they simply be cheering the U.S. on from the sidelines.
Important questions to ask CNN's Fred Pleitgen. He's joining us from Beirut right now, monitoring the situation. He was just there for several days in Damascus.
Do they totally feel isolated? The regime of President Bashar al- Assad other than Hezbollah and Iran? Maybe some support from the Iraqi government of Nuri al-Maliki? But do they otherwise feel pretty much isolated in Damascus -- Fred?
FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I don't think they feel isolated. I mean, one partner that they still have they say and that they say is a very important relationship is obviously Russia.
And it seems as though at this point in time, Wolf, Russia still seems to be having Assad's back, if you will, when it comes to the U.N. Security Council, for instance when it comes to Vladimir Putin's public statements where he's saying that the -- that the evidence that the United States put forward, that Secretary of State Kerry put forward were appalling, that they didn't amount to any evidence at all.
So it still seems as though the Russians really are the partner that the -- that the Syrian government is relying on at this point in time.
I go back to a speech of Walid Muallem, the foreign minister of Russia, gave only a couple of days ago where he said that the relations between Russia and Syria were ones that were very strong, very tight and we're really helping the Syrians at this point in time, so they don't feel totally isolated, but of course at the same time, they do have large parts of the international community against them.
And if you look in this region, for instance, and especially the neighboring countries, you have Jordan, which is of course a key ally of the U.S. You have Turkey, which has been calling for regime change for a very long time, is also allowing rebels to go back and forth through its borders that are fighting the Assad regime, and has come out very strong in the picture of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister there, condemning these alleged chemical weapons attacks, saying that they believe Assad is responsible for them, and calling for an even more robust response from the United States than the one that is actually on the table.
They want a lot more than these limited military strikes. The Saudis have come out and done the same. The big question of course is going to be, are any of these countries going to be at the side of the U.S. militarily? It doesn't look as though that is the case.
It's also very difficult for many of them to actually take military action at the side of the U.S., but certainly, publicly, the statements that we're getting from the Saudis, from the Turks, especially Erdogan, that wholeheartedly support U.S. action, and in fact want that action to be a lot stronger than what the president said it's going to be, but at the same time, Assad is relying and is being held alive by key allies that he has.
The Russians are very, very key to that. A lot more than many people think. The Iranians, of course, are very key where we've heard that there's been meetings just from Bill Neely, with the -- with the Iranian military advisers there on the ground. They've seen the Assad regime apparently today, so that's very, very key also as far as weapons delivery are concerned.
And then of course you have Hezbollah that's provided thousands of fighters on the ground that have really, in many places in Syria, if you look at Homs, turned the tide on the battlefield, where they took back key cities and they put their fighters on the ground who, of course, have a lot of knowledge as far as urban combat is concerned, and that's certainly what's going on in many places in Syria right now -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Excellent point, Fred Pleitgen. I'm going to get back to you. Just one tiny correction. Walid Muallem, the foreign minister of Syria, not Russia, you briefly misspoke for a second. Walid Muallem, someone who is well-known here in Washington. He was the former Syrian ambassador to the United States. Obviously someone who fully appreciates what's going on in Washington. The top adviser to the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad.
Let's bring Gloria Borger in, our chief political analyst, as we await the president. He's going to be walking out of the Oval Office, that's to the left of the screen. Walk down those stairs. I assume you will see behind him some of his top national security advisers, including the vice president, probably the secretary of state, the secretary of defense, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
They've all been in the situation room at the White House reviewing various military options, Gloria. But even as he's coming under pressure from United Nations not to launch a military strike, some allies in Europe and elsewhere, there's a lot of pressure coming from Congress as well. Don't do it so quickly yet, Mr. President. Not just from some Republicans, but also from some leading Democrats.
GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: When you look at this, Wolf, there is some exquisite irony here. When you look at this entire team. President Obama, Joe Biden, Kerry, Hagel, these are all people who in the United States Senate, rose to some prominence, particularly the president himself, by saying don't go it alone. You need the American public with you. You need the United Nations with you. And of course, the president's cynicism about -- and skepticism about the Iraq war was part of his political calculation as he became president of the United States.
So imagine this national security team and again a lot of them are new to this job. Kerry, new, Hagel, new, for example. Sitting there and deciding whether they in fact are going to go it alone without the Security Council and without great Britain, without the allies they would like to have, and you know, a president at this time, Wolf, has to seem resolute, absolutely sure of what he is about to do.
And it seems to me, in watching them over this past week, they've been spending an awful lot of time sort of talking about, I understand how you're war weary, I understand your concerns because, of course, they've been there, but if the president comes out today and gives the American people an update on where we are, I think he has to seem resolute and assured in what he's about to do.
BLITZER: What he could do now, and I have no idea if he's going to do this, but just based on previous experience, Gloria. What he could do potentially is go out there and say, I'm addressing the Syrian leadership right now. The Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. We're ready to launch military strikes, but you have one more chance to do the right thing.
Now he could then lay out a series of steps he would demand from the Syrian regime before the U.S. were to do that. That's what George W. Bush did before launching the invasion of Iraq and Saddam Hussein gave him one last chance to do the right thing, which Saddam Hussein refused to do at the time and as a result the war in Iraq started.
BORGER: He could.
BLITZER: Presumably he could give Bashar al-Assad one more chance to avert U.S. military action.
BORGER: He could and Secretary of State Kerry in his statement the other day also spoke of the possibility at some point of some kind of negotiated settlement and this may be the president's sort of last moment where he says it's either now or never, and he could in fact be doing that right now publicly before he decides to take any kind of military action.
BLITZER: Because yesterday pointedly, as secretary of state, John Kerry, he didn't issue any formal demand to Bashar al-Assad. He laid out all the U.S. evidence. Why the U.S. has concluded with, quote, "high confidence," that the Iraqi government used chemical weapons to kill more than 1400 people and wound thousands of others, but he didn't say directly to the regime in Damascus, here's what you must do to calm this situation down.
BORGER: Right. And what John Kerry did say is the question is no longer what we know. He said the question is what are we collectively in the world going to do about it. And I think that's the question. The answer to that question is what the American people at some point need to hear from the president.
BLITZER: All right. So he's running a few minutes late, the president, which is not a surprise. This is a critically important speech that the president will be delivering. He knows he will not only be addressing the American public, but he's addressing the entire world and he also knows that the leadership including Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, they will be watching as well.
If they're watching CNN International, they're watching us right now. Pretty soon, they'll see the president behind that microphone. Let's see if he does deliver a direct message to the Syrian government. We know that the secretary of state, John Kerry, did phone Walid Muallem, the foreign minister of Syria, last week. That conversation obviously not a very good one.
All right, so we should be getting a two-minute warning fairly soon. We see an aide to the president getting ready. Maybe bringing some water over there or whatever, but in the meantime let's go to CNN's senior international correspondent, Ivan Watson. He's in Turkey on the border with Syria.
Ivan, is there any indication turkey is ready to join the U.S. potentially in military action and not just cheer from the sideline, but get involved militarily in punishing the Syrian regime?
IVAN WATSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, the Turkish government certainly wants an intervention. It's made that very clear, led by the U.S. and if anything, the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, last night was quoted by Turkish journalists saying that he doesn't want just a one to two-day U.S.-led military operation, he wants something bigger on the scale of the U.S.-led operation in Kosovo in the late '90s that drove the Serbian military out of there.
And that of course is something we haven't been hearing from the Obama administration, which has been making clear it does not want boots on the ground in Syria.
Now Turkish officials telling me that they have offered things like Turkish air space, perhaps refueling or assistance, but at this point, the U.S. has not accepted any of those offers coming from the Turks. Turkey, of course, being a NATO ally. And also having very long border with Syria.
The Turks are the biggest opponents right now. Some of the most vocal opponents of the Turkish government of the Syrian President Bashar al- Assad over the course of the last two years. And also some of the most overt supporters of the Syrian rebels. And some of these rank- and-file rebels that I've been talking to, who shuttled back and forth across the border between Syria and Turkey every day, they were telling me today, Wolf, they want the U.S. to attack Bashar al-Assad, though some of them are concerned that he may try to take this opportunity to also attack some al Qaeda linked rebels who have grown in size and in scope and in numbers, particularly in opposition held northern Syria -- Wolf.
BLITZER: And this is a huge dilemma for the U.S. right now, Ivan. They know that if they punish the regime of Bashar al-Assad, his military, one of the benefit -- one of the winners potentially could be some of those al Qaeda supporters among the opposition. The rebels. The al-Nusra and some of those Islamist groups that the U.S. has identified as al Qaeda terrorists for all practical purposes.
Not the Free Syrian Army, which is obviously much more acceptable to the U.S. and to Turkey and to others, but that al Qaeda element. How significant, based on all of your reporting, Ivan, is that al Qaeda element among the opposition to Bashar al-Assad?
WATSON: These hard line Islamists groups like the Jabhat al-Nusra, the Nusra Front, and the Islamic State of Iraq in Syria, they have really grown dramatically, Wolf, from what -- were small groups a year, a year and a half ago, to now being of such size and scope that in some cases in some areas, they have completely eclipsed what we thought was the Free Syrian Army, the FSA, a year and a year and a half ago.
It's gotten to such an extreme that there are former Syrian government soldiers who defected in the early days of this uprising and who joined the opposition, who are now too afraid, if you can imagine, to go back into Syria, telling me that they are afraid of these al Qaeda linked and al Qaeda inspired groups.
Of course, there are some people who defend these hard line Islamist groups, saying that they're the only ones with the military prowess and the determination and the organization and the money and the guns to really stand up to Bashar al-Assad's army, so it is quite a dilemma right now and certainly journalists like myself cannot travel as freely inside northern Syria, opposition held Syria, as we even could have done six months ago because the kidnapping has gotten so bad from some of these opposition groups, from some of these al Qaeda linked groups.
So this armed opposition, particularly in the north of Syria, has really evolved and changed into something very different within the last year alone here. Many secular opposition activists will argue it's because the Western governments did not intervene, did not support them, that the Islamists and the radical Islamists have gotten so powerful and strong in opposition held Syria -- Wolf.
BLITZER: That's why a lot of those opposition -- those opposition leaders are so disappointed in the United States. They tend to blame the U.S. for not doing enough over the past two and a half years. Giving time to the al-Nusra Front and other Islamists pro al Qaeda elements to gain that strength in the opposition.
We're going to get back to Ivan Watson on the border with Syria. Here's in Turkey right now. But I want to bring in Atika Shubert. Atika is in London.
Atika, let me just reset the scene at the bottom of the hour right now. We're waiting for the president of the United States all morning, he's been in the White House situation room. He's been meeting with his top National Security advisers, including the vice president, the secretaries of State and Defense, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the National Security adviser, all of others, they've been going through various military options, diplomatic options.
And now the president is going to be walking into the Rose Garden. He was supposed to come in about 15 minutes or so ago. He's running a few minutes late, which is totally understandable given the stakes involve.
I know, Atika, there is huge disappointment here in Washington within the Obama administration that David Cameron, the British prime minister, could not get the House of Commons, could not get parliament on board to support the U.S. as far as a military strike was concerned.
What's been the reaction in London, in Great Britain, over these past 48 hours since David Cameron suffered that truly embarrassing setback in parliament?
ATIKA SHUBERT, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, there's been a lot of soul searching. In fact, all of the headlines in all of the papers have said, you know, what happened to the special relationship between Britain and the United States? Well, that vote was really unprecedented.
As far back as anybody can remember, Britain has really stood side by side with the United States in terms of military action, so this was not only a humiliating defeat for Cameron, but really a complete change of policy in many ways for Britain. So a lot of soul searching in the papers here, asking did Britain turn its back on Syria, or as an alternative, was there simply not enough evidence to justify military action.
And this is what a lot of labor lawmakers, opposition lawmakers are saying, that the case simply had not been made. That there was not enough evidence. They wanted to wait to hear from those U.N. inspectors that have left today about what exactly the evidence was and they wanted to hear from Cameron, what would happen after a military strike? How would this change the situation on the ground?
And because many lawmakers felt that they did not get those answers, they did not decide -- they decided not to have military action. They voted against David Cameron. It was a -- humiliating defeat, but also a resounding -- a resounding vote from the House of Commons. There was no doubt that Britain does not want to take part in any military action. BLITZER: So how politically damaged is David Cameron as the prime minister? Could he face a political setback in terms of losing control of his government?
SHUBERT: Well, it's a tremendous setback and he certainly has to reassert control within his own party. An estimated 30 members of his own party voted against him on this. So, first, he needs to try and figure out what's happening within his own party members.
It was a devastating blow but probably not one that will shake the coalition. There was one call for him to resign in the midst of that very emotional vote. However, it doesn't seem to be the case that it's shaken the coalition that badly, but he does have a lot of rebuilding to do. Not just domestically but also in his relationship with President Obama.
BLITZER: Atika Shubert in London for us. Atika, we're going to be standing by.
Once again we're awaiting the president of the United States. He's about to come into Rose Garden to make a statement on Syria, on what U.S. options may be in Syria. I'm personally very curious to see if he offers some sort of last ditch, 11th hour opportunity for the Syrian president to do or say something that could avert a U.S. military strike which certainly does appear to be imminent.
Nick Paton Walsh is one of our top international correspondents. He's at the United Nations watching all of this go down.
Nick, they were pretty defiant at the U.N. -- at the United Nations today. The press secretary, the spokesman for U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, he's making it clear that unless there's a United Nations mandate, unless there's a United Nations Security Council authorizing the use of force, potentially, as far as the U.N. is concerned, as far as Ban Ki-Moon is concerned, the U.S. could be violating international law. But go ahead and explain how they -- how they justify that.
WALSH: Well, when asked the question whether the secretary-general thought a military action without a resolution would be legal in some way, we didn't get a clear response to that. Martin Nesirky simply said, look, the secretary underscores the importance of the U.N. charter. Now you can interpret that as you wish, but it just pretty much hints towards the need for a U.N. resolution.
But that is what it says on the books here at the United Nations. You need to get something from the Security Council under Chapter Seven in order to have an intervention like this with all the necessary measures, to quote the exact phrasing.
That's what the British tried earlier on this week. A surprise to many. Many thought they were just going through the motions simply because it's pretty -- it's open secret here. The Russians will veto absolutely anything the British or the French or the Americans have tried to put through in regards to Syria, but nonetheless, they went through that. And then of course after parliament defeat of David Cameron, you've just been talking to Atika about that resolution that's has disappeared, frankly, and focus now is really on the U.N. inspectors and their work here.
The legality, of course, is something that I'm sure Barack Obama has had plenty of legal advice about to determine what he needs to do. Certainly in the United Kingdom, there were suggestions that an exhausted process here had to be gone through until that decision to intervene militarily can finally be taken. But the real -- the real issue, of course, comes down to the timing of when this happens.
The cerography we got yesterday, Wolf, from John Kerry and Barack Obama made it pretty clear they were going to act. You're suggesting perhaps we might see an ultimatum from the commander-in-chief of the United States in the coming minutes. It's difficult to see quite exactly what he could ask the Assad regime to do.
An inspector-related pros process from the U.N. involving them giving chemical weapons, that would take months and be incredibly hard to be sure about the verification of. Is he going to ask them to launch negotiations with the rebel side? That's complicated, too, because the rebels have made it clear themselves that they don't really want to be party to talks since that chemical weapons attack and frankly you have to also ask are the rebels able to speak with one coherent enough voice that's so fractured between secular and Islamist over this lengthy, brutal war.
Are they coherent enough to actually be able to enter into talks in a meaningful way. So his options are certainly limited but as you say, I think there's a court of international public opinion, too, which may be addressing in these Commons -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Yes, I'm sure the president would like the world to believe the U.S. has gone through everything trying to avoid a military strike and may be ready to give Bashar al-Assad one last chance. We'll see if there's any direct message to the Syrian leader once the president comes into the Rose Garden and makes a statement.
Nick, stand by for a moment. Jim Acosta is our senior White House correspondent. He's over there, he's getting ready to hear the president, all of us are right now.
It's a real dilemma, the president faces, Jim. On the one hand, he wants to exhaust all peaceful means. There's nothing more important for a commander-in-chief or a president of the United States to do than launch U.S. military power, to use military force in a hostile environment, so he wants to make sure that all options to avert that have been exhausted.
On the other hand, if he delays and delays and delays, potentially, he sends a signal of weakness, especially since it was almost exactly one year ago when he said if the Syrians use chemical weapons, that is a red line which the U.S. will not accept.
ACOSTA: That's right, Wolf, and you get the sense from the world, even from members of Congress, that it's President Obama's red line. He's going to have to enforce it. And so I think what we're going to be hearing from the president is really another step in that process to getting to that point.
And just to give you a little bit of color, Wolf, as to what we're hearing here at the White House, the pool reporters who are going to be allowed to observe the president's remarks in the Rose Garden have reported out to White House press corps that the president was seen in the Oval Office on the phone within the last 10 to 15 minutes with Vice President Joe Biden. No word, of course, who he was talking to on the phone or what he and the vice president were talking about.
But obviously some last-minute discussions going on before the president delivers these remarks and I don't know if you can hear what's going on over my shoulder, Wolf. There's a fairly large -- I don't want to say it's too large, but it's a fairly large antiwar protest that's going on outside the gates of the White House.
People chanting, "Obama, don't attack Syria." And we're hearing from the White House pool of reporters in the Rose Garden that those chants can be heard inside the Rose Garden, so presumably, the president when he's delivering these remarks may be able to hear those protesters -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Do you have any idea how many protesters are out this on Pennsylvania Avenue, right outside the White House?
ACOSTA: They've been out here all week, Wolf. This is a larger contingent than I've seen all week. Probably about 100 in front of the gates on the north side of the White House in front of the North Lawn of the White House, but in the park on the other side of Pennsylvania Avenue, there are dozens more.
But loud enough where you can hear where we're standing right now and in the Rose Garden, according to those pool reporters who will be watching the president in person deliver these remarks momentarily.
BLITZER: There are some picture of the protesters outside the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue. There's no traffic ever since the Oklahoma City bombing back in the '90s. That part of Pennsylvania Avenue has been closed to traffic, but protesters, people can walk up and down right outside the gates of the White House.
Jim, any explanation being given why the president, they said 1:15. That's almost a half hour or so ago. Any indication what's going on? Why he's running late?
ACOSTA: No. No, we haven't gotten any indication just yet, Wolf, unless one has just hit my phone in the last several minutes. But, you know, we've been checking obviously. But getting back to what you were saying about consultations with Congress, getting congressional authorization, seeking international approval, Wolf, you and I and others have been talking about this over the last several days.
Candidate Obama, when he was running for president in 2007 told the Boston Globe that he did not think unilateral action unless an imminent strike was about to occur against the United States was even legal, unless he had authorization from the Congress and just the last week or so when he sat down with Chris Cuomo with CNN, he said that international law would only be supported by some kind of international cooperation and United Nations support of some sort.
And so, you know, this does put the president in a pickle because recent events, as Atika Shubert and others were talking about, you know, that vote at the -- at the British parliament, events at the United Nations, they basically put the president in a situation where he is almost all alone in having to make this decision and having to launch these strikes if that's the decision that he makes here in the next several days.
And so it will be interesting to watch what the president says as far as the next few steps in this process. The White House has said, as we've been saying all along in the last hour or so, Wolf, he's not going to be talking about an imminent strike, he's not going to be talking about any commenced strikes, but just a way forward.
BLITZER: Yes. We'll see what he says. We're all obviously awaiting the president to walk out of the Oval Office, walk on those stairs into the Rose Garden and address not only the American people but the entire world including the leadership in Damascus who will be watching -- presumably they're watching us on CNN International right now.
Gloria Borger is with us, our chief political analyst, as we await the president.
Gloria, you know, he mentioned -- Jim Acosta -- the interview that the president a little bit more than a week ago gave our own Chris Cuomo when he was in upstate New York. In -- and I have the transcript right here. Because he's clearly a reluctant warrior, this president. And he made that clear a week ago when he said if the U.S. goes in and attacks another county without a U.N. mandate and without clear evidence that can be presented, then there are questions in terms of whether international law supports it.
We do -- do we have the coalition to make it work? And you know, those are considerations that we have to take into account. So he doesn't have a U.N. mandate. He doesn't have much of a coalition. The British government is not even on board and he doesn't have formal authorization from the House of Representatives or the Senate.
This is not something this president wanted to do when he was a candidate for president of the United States. This is something he doesn't believe in.
BORGER: He must feel like he's looking through the looking glass. Right? What they do feel they have, Wolf, is the evidence. OK? I mean, you heard John Kerry. They -- we all got the briefing yesterday. They believe that -- with certainty that they can establish a chain of custody to the Assad regime for the use of these chemical weapons.
What we also have is a president who drew a red line. Verbally. This is his red line. And the complaints that he's getting quite frankly from members of Congress is we don't want to do something because your credibility is on the line. We want to do what we believe we should do for this country and there's a lot of skepticism and again there's an irony to all of this, that he can take some kind of surgical strike and accomplish anything that's worth accomplishing.
If he slaps Assad on the wrist, the Republicans and some Democrats I've spoken with this week, they say if you slap Assad on the wrist, what does that get us? What does that get us with Iran? What's lesson for Iran there? What's the lesson for Assad there?
So I think that, you know, this is -- nobody could accuse this president, Wolf, of rushing into this. But what we have seen over the last week or so are a couple of rollouts that suddenly seem to stop. The first rollout stopped after the -- after the vote in Great Britain. And now we've had this real sort of head of steam building and suddenly all of these calls with members of Congress and we'll see what the president has to say right now, as he updates the American people about what his thoughts are.
BLITZER: President was supposed to be in the Rose Garden about 30 minutes or so ago. He's running a bit late. We're of course standing by to hear what the president has to say. For viewers who are just tuning in right now, he's been meeting all morning with his top national security adviser, including the vice president, Joe Biden, the secretaries of State and Defense, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the director of the CIA and others, going through all of the various options, going through all of the information.
And we'll get an update from the president, but I want to bring in our chief congressional correspondent Dana Bash right now.
Dana, there's a series of briefings that are being laid out by the administration for members of Congress, declassified briefings over the phone. And classified briefings tomorrow for those members who are in Washington. Say most members are back in their districts or traveling or someplace else during this labor day weekend, Congress is not in session.
Do we anticipate many members coming back to Washington tomorrow to have access to that classified information?
DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I believe that that is entirely possible, but before we talk about the briefings, Wolf, I wanted to just give you a little bit of news and that is, you know, we've seen a series of statements from members of Congress on their view on what the president should and shouldn't do.
We just got a statement from Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, who's the number two Republican in the United States Senate who is now calling on the president to bring Congress back into session and ask for a vote on authorization to use force before any military action is taken in Syria.
Now we've seen calls like this from many members of Congress, even over 100 Democrats and Republicans, but by my counter observation this is the highest ranking Republican to do so. Now, obviously, you know, I'm not questioning his motivation, but we should always remember the context of what happens in politics. That he is somebody who's up for re-election.
There might be lots of reasons why he's doing this, but you know what, even people who we are hearing more and more, who actually fundamentally believe in the idea of holding Bashar al-Assad accountable are now feeling more pressure to make sure that Congress has a say.
You saw a poll yesterday that showed a vast majority of Americans want Congress to have a say before any military action is used and maybe this is the most prominent example.
BLITZER: And even the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Carl Levin, of Michigan, a Democrat, even he issued a statement saying, bring Congress back. Let Congress get fully briefed. Let Congress pass some sort of resolution before there is action. It's one thing for a Republican critic of the president like John Cornyn, who's very influential, obviously very important, but when you get Carl Levin saying something very similar, bring Congress back, let there be a vote.
There you see an aide bringing the president's statement out there. The president's going to be walking out, we're told, within the next few seconds from the Oval Office and he'll be making his statement.
Lots of things we should focus on. How detailed will the president be? Will he review all of the intelligence that the Secretary of State John Kerry laid out yesterday? Will he go into more detail? Will he talk about congressional authorization, a significant issue. Will he talk about the United Nations mandate, a U.N. Security Council resolution which the Russians have repeatedly threatened to veto? Clearly no security council resolution.
Is there some new language that could avert a Russian veto? Will the president go into any specifics on that? Will he talk about the lack of support from Britain that the British parliament refused to endorse David Cameron's vote resolution authorizing Britain to join the United States in some sort of coalition against the Syrian regime and perhaps most intriguing from my perspective, will he offer the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad one last chance to do from his perspective, from the U.S. perspective the right thing and end this conflict in this civil war in Syria perhaps give him the chance to leave or step down or enter into negotiations.
Will he have a direct message to the Syrian leader in these remarks that he's about to deliver? I'm sure these remarks are very, very carefully calibrated, very carefully thought through. They've been reviewing them at the White House. The president knows literally right now the whole world will be listening and watching and wondering if the U.S. launches a military strike against Syria.
And even if it's limited, even if it's short term, could that cause unintended consequences and draw the United States into a much more prolonged conflict? I know that the neighbors of Syria are watching in Jordan and Turkey, certainly in Israel they're watching very carefully in recent days.
The Israelis have started distributing gas masks, especially to folks in the northern part of Israel. They fear retaliation not just from Syria but from some Syrian allies including Hezbollah, maybe even Iran.
And the prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, has directly warned the Syrians, if you try something, Israel will retaliate with enormity.
Here comes the president of the United States with the vice president, Joe Biden.
(BEGIN LIVE COVERAGE OF PRESIDENTIAL SPEECH)
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Good afternoon, everybody.
Ten days ago, the world watched in horror as men, women and children were massacred in Syria in the worst chemical weapons attack of the 21st century. Yesterday the United States presented a powerful case that the Syrian government was responsible for this attack on its own people. Our intelligence shows that the Assad regime and its forces preparing to use chemical weapons, launching rockets in the highly populated suburbs of Damascus, and acknowledging that a chemical weapons attack took place.
And all of this corroborates what the world can plainly see. Hospitals overflowing with victims, terrible images of the dead, all told, well over 1,000 people were murdered. Several hundred of them were children. Young girls and boys gassed to death by their own government.
This attack is an assault on human dignity. It also presents a serious danger to our national security. It risks making a mockery of the global prohibition on the use of chemical weapons. It endangers our friends and our partners along Syria's borders, including Israel, Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq.
It could lead to escalating use of chemical weapons or their proliferation to terrorist groups who would do our people harm. In a world with many dangers, this menace must be confronted.
After careful deliberation, I have decided that the United States should take military action against Syrian regime targets. This would not be an open-ended intervention. We would not put boots on the ground. Instead our action would be designed to be limited in duration and scope. But I'm confident we can hold the Assad regime accountable for their use of chemical weapons, deter this kind of behavior and degrade their capacity to carry it out.
Our military has positioned assets in the region. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs has informed me that we are prepared to strike whenever we choose. Moreover, the chairman has indicated to me that our capacity to execute this mission is not time sensitive. It will be effective tomorrow or next week or one month from now. And I'm prepared to give that order.
But having made my decision as commander-in-chief based on what I am convinced is our national security interests, I'm also mindful that I'm the president of the world's oldest constitutional democracy. I've long believed that our power is rooted not just in our military might but in our example as a government of the people, by the people and for the people.
And that's why I've made a second decision. I will seek authorization for the use of force from the American people's representatives in Congress. For the last several days, we've heard from members of Congress who want their voices to be heard. I absolutely agree. So this morning I spoke with all four congressional leaders and they've agreed to schedule a debate and then a vote as soon as Congress come back into session.
In the coming days, my administration stands ready to provide every member with the information they need to understand what happened in Syria and why it has such profound implications for America's national security. And all of us should be accountable as we move forward and that can only be accomplished with a vote.
I'm confident in the case our government has made without waiting for U.N. inspectors. I'm comfortable going forward without the approval of a United Nations Security Council that so far has been completely paralyzed and unwilling to hold Assad accountable.
As a consequence, many people have advised against taking this decision to Congress. And undoubtedly they were impacted by what we saw happen in the United Kingdom this week when the parliament of our closest ally failed to pass a resolution with a similar goal, even as the prime minister supported taking action.
Yet while I believe I have the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization, I know that the country will be stronger if we take this course and our actions will be even more effective. We should have this debate. Because the issues are too big for business as usual.
And this morning, John Boehner, Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell agreed that this is the right thing to do for our democracy. A country faces few decisions as grave as using military force, even when that force is limited. I respect the views of those who call for caution, particularly as our country emerges from a time of war that I was elected in part to end.
But if we really do want to turn away from taking appropriate action in the face of such an unspeakable outrage, then we must acknowledge the costs of doing nothing.
Here's my question for every member of Congress and every member of the global community. What message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children to death in plain sight and pay no price? What's the purpose of the international system that we've built if a prohibition on the use of chemical weapons that has been agreed to by the governments and 98 percent of the world's people and approved overwhelmingly by the Congress of the United States is not enforced?
Make no mistake, this has implications beyond chemical warfare. If we want to enforce accountability in the face of this heinous act, what does it say about our resolve to stand up to others who flog international rules, to governments who would choose to build nuclear arms, to terrorists who would spread biological weapons, to armies who carry out genocide?
We cannot raise our children in a world where we will not follow through on the things we say, the accords we sign, the values that define us. So just as I will take this case to Congress, I will also deliver this message to the world. While the U.N. investigation has some time to report on its findings, we will insist that an atrocity committed with chemical weapons is not simply investigated, it must be confronted.
I don't expect every nation to agree with the decision we have made. Privately, we have heard many expressions of support from our friends, but I will ask those who care about the writ of the international community to stand publicly behind our action.
And finally, let me say this to the American people.
I know well that we are weary of war. We've ended one war in Iraq, we're ending another in Afghanistan, and the American people have the good sense to know we cannot resolve the underlying conflict in Syria with our military. In that part of the world, there are ancient sectarian differences, and the hopes of the Arab spring have unleashed forces of change that are going to take many years to resolve.
That's why we're not contemplating putting our troops in the middle of someone else's war. Instead we'll continue to support the Syrian people through our pressure on the Assad regime, our commitment to the opposition, our care for the displaced and our pursuit of a political resolution that achieves a government that respects the dignity of its people.
But we are the United States of America. We cannot and must not turn a blind eye to what happened in Damascus. Out of the ashes of world war, we built an international order and enforced the rules that gave it meaning. And we did so because we believe that the rights of individuals to live in peace and dignity depends on the responsibilities of nations.
We are perfect, but this nation more than any other has been willing to meet those responsibilities. So to all members of Congress, of both parties, I ask you to take this vote for our national security. I am looking forward to the debate. In doing so, I ask you, members of Congress, to consider that some things are more important than partisan differences or the politics of the moment.
Ultimately, this is not about who occupies this office at any given time. It's about who we are as a country. I believe that the people's representatives must be invested in what America does abroad. And now is the time to show the world that America keeps our commitments. We do what we say. And we lead with the belief that right makes might. Not the other way around.
We all know there are no easy options, but I wasn't elected to avoid hard decisions and neither were the members of the House and the Senate. I've told you what I believe, that our security and our values demand that we cannot turn away from the massacre of countless civilians with chemical weapons. And our democracy is stronger when the president and the people's representatives stand together.
I'm ready to act in the face of this outrage. Today I'm asking Congress to send a message to the world that we are ready to move forward together as one nation.
Thanks very much.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Will you forego a strike if Congress disapproves?
(BEGIN LIVE COVERAGE OF PRESIDENTIAL SPEECH)