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Strike On Syria In Hands Of Congress; Obama Seeks Congressional Approval on Syria; Syria and Obama's Legacy; Pentagon Reacts to Obama Decision on Syria; Syria Anxious Over Possible U.S. Strike

Aired August 31, 2013 - 17:00   ET


JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: You're in the CNN NEWSROOM. I'm John Berman. We want to welcome in our viewers in the United States and all around the world right now.

The big story this hour: huge developments in the Syria story. Let's bring you up to speed. It's the option that many did not see coming. President Obama is telling the world that a military strike on Syria will not happen unless Congress gives its approval.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: 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. That's why I've made a second decision, I will seek authorization for the use of force from the American peoples 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.


BERMAN: And for the last several minutes we've been hearing more from members of Congress, Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, Republicans, they released a joint statement saying while they do believe that Syria's President Bashar al-Assad needs to be punished for unleashing chemical weapons on his own people, they, quote, "cannot in good conscience support isolated military strikes in Syria that are not part of an overall strategy that can change the momentum on the battlefield, achieve the President's stated goal of Assad's removal from power, and bring an end to this conflict."

Democratic House member Eliot Engel of New York saying, it isn't enough to just have a vote, they need to have one now, he says. He's calling for the recess was just to wrap up until September 9th to be cut short, come back, vote now, he says. The President's plan to hit Syria with military action clearly facing some real hurdles here in the United States. Congress could decide to push back the vote until the United Nations releases the results of its fact-finding mission which we just learned could take as long as three weeks to complete.

Meanwhile, President Obama's decision to pursue authorization from Congress before striking Syria is getting reaction all around the world. We want to get some perspective on today's developments from CNN reporters who have covered this conflict traveling in and out of Syria really from the beginning, over the last two-and-a-half years.

Our Nick Paton Walsh is here with me in New York. CNN's Fred Pleitgen is in Beirut. Ivan Watson on the Turkish/Syrian border and CNN's Ben Wedeman standing by in Aman, Jordan. Fred Pleitgen, you have seen some of the worst of this war. You were in Syria, Damascus, days ago. You were also there for some of the earliest reports of possible chemical weapons use.

As the president abruptly delays his response to the apparent use of the chemical weapons, what's the early reaction, Fred, that you're hearing from Syria and also in the region?

FREDERICK PLEITGEN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's interesting, you know, because it usually depends on the front line John if you will about you're on. Clearly in the Syrian capital and the part that's government controlled, the people are very happy because a lot of them were obviously very nervous about what would happen, how intense the strikes would be if these strikes would destabilize the regime. We have to keep in mind, that Bashar al-Assad as unpopular as he is among the majority of Syrians, he does still have a core of support by many people, especially in the Damascus areas.

So, people they were very wary. On the other hand, of course, people on other side of the equation, people for instance in the areas that were allegedly hit by this chemical weapons are saying that they're very disappointed. They're not only disappointed in that but they felt that the air strikes themselves would have been too little anyway because they believe that Assad would might have been emboldened by this very limited action to then hit them even harder. It really depends on which side of the equation you're on.

And if you look at the surrounding countries especially the ones against that are against the Assad regime, a lot of them were saying it was too little to begin with and now of course, they're quite disappointed in the fact that it's going to take even longer to make that possible action happen, John.

BERMAN: Too little to begin with, they say. Let's pick up on that. Because we just heard senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham saying that they can't support an action that is limited in scope, that isn't strong enough to achieve the President's stated goal of removing Assad from power. Ivan Watson, you were on the Turkish border with Syria. And that is a sentiment that has been expressed by leaders in Turkey.

IVAN WATSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. The Turkish government, the Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, he came out just last night and said, listen, a one- two-day American military operation just isn't going to cut it. With need something bigger on the scale of the 1998 U.S.-led operation in Kosovo that drove the Serbian military out of that district. We need something bigger, that will weaken the Assad regime. And of course, I think many of the rank and file Syrian rebels that I have spoken to, they were very enthusiastic, probably for the first time in more than a year about the U.S. -- the statements that were coming out of Washington, usually these rebels were criticizing the Obama administration for what they claimed was neglecting the Syrian conflict. They were very excited that perhaps their number one enemy, Bashar al-Assad, would get hit by the U.S. military.

And of course, there's great disappointment being expressed by Syrian opposition members, and as far as the Turkish government, they've been much more careful in their public statements. One of them actually interpreting this as a firm expression of U.S. determination to act, but of course, with consultation within the U.S. Congressional system, as well -- John.

BERMAN: Ben, one of the constant concerns over the last week, actually the last two years, has been the idea of a wider war in the region. Syria with its allies in Iran, with its allies in Hezbollah over the border in Lebanon right now. You know, Hezbollah, you know, if you're Assad, you know, if you're the leader of Hezbollah in Lebanon right now, how you see this action from the President? Might you use this as an opportunity to heighten your own battle?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, certainly that's one theory, John, but many within Lebanon, Hezbollah included, are worried about the consequences if they become directly involved in a shooting war, for instance, with Israel. They've threatened some members of Hezbollah to fire weapons, missiles into Israel in the event that Syria is hit by the United States. But that would really bring them down into a dark road in which they could very well suffer heavy casualties.

Hezbollah's very concerned about the situation in Syria because that is their strategic depth. Their weapons come through there. They transport their men in and out of Syria to Iran for training, for instance. So, if Hezbollah loses that Syrian hinter land, they are really out on the limb. So, they've got a lot at stake here. But their options are really very limited, we've seen that Hezbollah fighters have taken part in the fighting alongside Syrian government forces against the rebels and certainly, but they are taking a lot of heat in Lebanon for that, as well. Lebanon itself is a real powder keg. And they realize they have a lot at stake. So the possibility of them actually becoming actively involved in some sort of wider regional war probably would not end well for Hezbollah -- John.

Let me bring it back to New York, now, if I can, Nick Paton Walsh. Nick, you've been at the United Nations all day today. And we've had officials speaking there all day making crystal clear they really weren't in support of an eminent U.S. action. Do you think they will be pleased by this delay?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I think in many ways the U.N. isn't that which kind of adjudicate when its appropriate statement as a reaction is down for charter in the Security Council. And what we've heard today clearly was a wanted to underscore the importance of the U.N. charter which simply says, you need a resolution if you're going take military action.

BERMAN: And there isn't a resolution.

WALSH: And there isn't a resolution. And there won't be one because we've faced the same problem the Russians will be -- anything the Americans put forward and vice versa.

BERMAN: A fascinating aspect about this delay, about President Obama calling on Congress to act which will not happen for ten days now. Is this not impossible that we might learn the findings from the U.N. weapons inspectors, what they saw on the ground in Syria.

WALSH: Absolutely. I mean, it's incumbent upon them I think to deliver these results as quickly as possible. They said today repeatedly, they will be expediting this as quickly as possible. Then you actually -- what is the timeline of that? Nine of 12 inspectors work for one organization called the prohibition of chemical weapons and they've stated it could take as long as three weeks. Other experts saying possibly a week. So, you have the potential before Congress sits down to debate this you may get a definitive yes or no to what the chemical weapons were used in Syria.

BERMAN: You've been bringing up chemical weapons here, remind me if I'm wrong, we're talking about here is an alleged horrific attack where the United States says more than 1,000 people died, more than 400 of them were women and children.

Fred Pleitgen, you've done a great deal of reporting on chemical weapons in Syria. I want to take a look at some of your reporting.


PLEITGEN: The government says, at its troops were pushing forward, rebels unleashed chemicals on them. This soldier who I spoke to as the battle was still raging says, he was there and tells me several of his comrades couldn't breathe after the incident. The Syrian operation denies the claims but Syrian state media has been airing video of what it says shows a rebel chemical weapons stash. Syria's government and the opposition have been blaming each other for allegedly using chemical agents on the battlefield. Rebels holding the Assad regime responsible for the deaths of more than 1300 civilians in a massive chemical weapons attack and accusing the international community of an action, especially the U.S.


BERMAN: So, Fred, as you can see from that report, the regime has been pointing the finger at the rebels. The rebels pointing the finger at the regime. And now the United States firmly coming down on the side of the rebels saying that they solidly believe that this most recent attack last week was a regime attack on the rebels right there. In fact, saying they saw evidence three days before the attack of weapons being moved around and chemical weapons officials kind of in the planning stages of that attack. Are the rebels, you know, you've been saying that the rebels are calling for more action right now. Ten-day delay. Any chance that they will -- they could be put on the defensive more over this next ten days?

PLEITGEN: Oh, absolutely. I mean, it seemed to us when we were on the ground in Syria over the past week. Of course we didn't get out until Thursday that the rebels were definitely on the defensive in those days that we were there. The regime has really stepped up its attacks on those areas. I mean, they're shelling the area, the entire time. They started pushes toward that area. That unit I was with in that report right there, they said they were trying to go get in that area. They were trying to go and launch an offensive to take back a couple of houses. Very difficult though. It's urban combat.

They're doing house-to-house combat. And it's just very difficult for the government to advance there. And that's one of the reasons why they keep using these heavy weapons, John, to try and get in there. And it's really unclear obviously still when you talk to people on the ground whether or not the government did it or the rebels did it. But one thing that I think has become clear and we sent someone in to film video on the rebels side at ground zero where all of this allegedly happened, it's clear that something terrible happened there and it's clear that it involved some sort of toxic agent there because the pictures that we got back from our people were absolutely clear on that --John.

BERMAN: And the President, one of the things he's saying is look at the videos. He's telling the American people and people around the world, look at the videos that come out from there.

PLEITGEN: Exactly.

BERMAN: Use your common sense. Judge for yourself. We're going to talk more about this right after the break.


BERMAN: As we bring you the latest on President Obama's decision to delay what some thought was an inevitable military action in Syria we're getting perspective on this conflict from a terrific group of CNN reporters who have been reporting from that region for years.

Nick Paton Walsh is here with me in New York. Also joining us, CNN's Fred Pleitgen in Beirut. He was just in Syria. Ivan Watson is in Turkish-Syrian border. And Ben Wedeman is standing by in Jordan.

Nick, I want to start with you right now because you spent a good deal of time reporting from Russia. Vladimir Putin has been dead set against any U.S. intervention in Syria. And frankly, the Russians have been quite supportive of the Syrian regime here. How big of an obstacle has the Russian leader been to U.S. intention there?

WALSH: Well, he's completely stymied all resolutions of the U.N. Security Council. That veto has been used three times to ensure that any moves to condemn Bashar al-Assad has been doing in Syria, never really get passed the U.N. Security Council. He's been militarily providing support. The Russians say, they're just fulfilling old arms contracts rather than bringing new ones in and on the international stage, even today he was saying that claims Assad could use chemical weapons were utter nonsense. So, he's very vocal about this. And there were two real reasons.

Firstly I think in many ways, as a hostility still in his mind against the United States, he is an old cold war warrior in many ways from the KGB. Until the fall of the -- is the greatest catastrophe of his 20th century in his words. But also there's the fact that Syria has been in the Arab world Russia's stalwart ally and they see this as the erosion of their geophysical influence, their ability to dictate matters in Middle East and also another way in which perhaps if the U.S. were to launch strikes, that kind of eroding at Russia's ability to project its power around the world.

BERMAN: Ben Wedeman, you've been around conflicts and world leaders for years. The G-20 is coming up this coming week in Russia. A lot of the world leaders will be sitting around that room. A lot of these world leaders have taken position on Syria and now there is this delay. It's going to be happening in sort of this interim period between when the president said the U.S. Should strike and when Congress will decide whether it agrees. How do you think that might hang over the G-20?

WEDEMAN: Well, certainly, that will probably be the biggest issue they will be dealing with. And we see there are divisions within among the leaders meeting there and that, for instance, you look at the case of the UK and the U.S., there are profound divisions between the leaders and the parliament, the Congress, and the public in both the U.K. and the U.S. There's very low support for this kind of military action. So they're pulled in many different directions. And it's going to be -- it would be interesting to be a fly on the wall during that G-20 meeting, to hear how they're going to try to come out with any sort of public statement about Syria because there just is not any agreement on that issue. And no sign that they're going to get anything out of it as well -- John.

BERMAN: Ivan, you were on the Turkish-Syria's border right now, Ivan Watson. And I was here with you just a couple of weeks ago. And you were telling me the horror that you really saw on the ground inside Syria. The horrific things being done to the population there. There are some 100,000 people have died. Is that fair to say that John Kerry said that U.S. action in Syria is really about our credibility in the region? U.S. credibility in the region? How do you think the region and the rest of the world looks at this pause that President Obama just took on? Do they understand the need, his need apparently to get Congressional approval?

WATSON: Well, here's the problem, is that President Obama, the Obama administration has come out very forcefully on the potential use of chemical weapons within the last two weeks. But has not nearly been as forceful about previous uses of chemical weapons on the Syrian battlefield and one thing that many Syrians point out, this is not a new war in Syria. It's been going on for two-and-a-half years. We have seen warplanes. We have seen surface-to-surface missiles being fired at Syrian cities and towns. We've seen unspeakable atrocities in the beginning phases of this, largely carried out by the Syrian government forces.

And later on, the Syrian rebels started carrying out their own atrocities. So, there has been colossal loss of life. Enormous suffering by -- for the civilian population. And only now after two- and-a-half years, we are hearing that the Obama administration wants to use military force in response to one type of atrocious weapon on the battlefield. And that is one reason why some people are saying, the U.S. simply has no moral authority here after having basically stood by and watched the slaughter continue in Syria for such a long time.

BERMAN: Ivan, I think we just saw some fireworks going off behind you. I should say, there's no military action as far as we know happening behind. Ivan Watson on the Turkish-Syrian border. Fred, just last question to you. One of the issues has been refugees. People flowing over the borders to Turkey, also to Lebanon and other countries. Any sign that's picked up or waned over the last couple of days?

PLEITGEN: Well, I mean, the refuge stream has been immense over the past, really year-and-a-half. And a lot of it has gone to actually where Ivan is right now, across the Turkish border, a lot of it actually also into Kurdistan, and to Iraq. I got out of Syria in the early morning hours of Thursday. And we went towards the border. We have to go up by road because the international airport road is too dangerous to travel to the city of Damascus airport. And it seemed to us as though there were more people trying to get out.

There were also a lot of cars with suitcases on them, and you know, car just packed with people. You can see that it was whole families getting out. It didn't seem to me as though at least on the border between Syria and Lebanon that it was a mass exodus. It was a lot of people going, more people than usual but it wasn't a mass exodus thing. And it seems to us also, as though, a lot of them are going the try and take their families out of the country for a month, maybe for a couple of weeks. But they do intend to come back. And that's also what I'm getting from people in Damascus on the ground.

They're very uncertain what all of this could bring. Some of them are contemplating leaving for a while but most of them certainly at least in the government controlled area say, they do want to return, they do want to stay there because they also don't believe that all of this will make such a difference on the battlefield that they are going to actually have to leave their country for good. That's sort of the sense that we're getting. But of course, all of that is going to depend on how this military action actually plays out and of course also what it happens.

Causing a lot of uncertainty but it hasn't caused that mass exodus just yet, at least from the Damascus area, from the government- controlled areas. However, of course, from the places where Ivan is right now, there is gigantic exodus and also where Ben is into Jordan. I mean, we just see those horrible pictures from that gigantic refugee camp that just keeps growing and growing and growing where people are just living under appalling conditions there -- John.

BERMAN: OK, guys, we're going to continue this conversation and the really surprising decision to many that President Obama has decided to take any military action, take it to Congress and have them decide. We'll be right back.


BERMAN: President Obama is taking a risk on Syria, declaring his support for military action but announcing in the Rose Garden just a few hours ago that he will first seek authorization from Congress. We're talking with a terrific group of CNN reporters who report from the Syrian war zone and have for the last two years.

Nick Paton Walsh here with me in New York, CNN's Fred Pleitgen in Beirut, just out of Damascus. Ivan Watson is at the Turkish-Syrian border and we also have CNN's Ben Wedeman here with us.

Nick, I want to start with you, most because you're sitting next to me here in New York and it's polite. Military action, the president makes clear again today that he thinks the U.S. should strike but he thinks it should be limited. What would be the likely effect on the ground?

WALSH: Limited and narrow, you risk potentially not sending a strong enough signal to Assad that he can't use chemical weapons and he gives basically license to continue as he wanted. Too hard, you degrade the regime too much and then you give the people most likely to take advantage of that and the rebel rank, which is the Islamist extremists, a big window to increase their control on the country. There is a strong argument that really the time for that intervention in this limited narrow way has passed.

And if you did it a year ago when the rebel was moving into Aleppo and there was still kind of secular and liberal in many ways, and the al- Qaeda affiliated extremists hasn't risen into ranks, that could have really turned things on the battlefield. Now, effectively what we're saying instead, it's just the U.S. saying we need a bit of a punishment strike here to set another red line and then, OK, carry on as normal.

BERMAN: And that's what it passes. It might not. Congress might say no. So, Ivan Watson on the Turkish-Syrian border right there, what if Congress does say no? How will that be looked upon by the rest of the world?

WATSON: It's a really good question. I mean, I guess it will be an example of an American democracy at work. And probably a striking observation, a striking example for a lot of the regimes in this part of the world that, let's face it, don't exactly have democratic credentials. And also, it will probably be seen as some of the Syrian opposition voices we're seeing in social networking and media. Basically many of them are denouncing Obama calling him a coward, saying he's using this a way to get out of having to take action in Syria.

It's very important, John, by the way, the point that Nick just made about the rebels and makeup of the rebels is very important. The so- called free Syrian army, the Syrian opposition that we saw growing up two years ago when this whole uprising and conflict began, I don't even recognize it anymore. The rebels we see today, there are defector Syrian government soldiers who joined the opposition who were too scared to leave from Turkey and go back into Syria because the Islamist extremist groups particularly in the north of the country have gotten so strong, some of these are directly linked to al-Qaeda, directly linked to the Islamic state of Iraq and Syria.

I know some former young, very naive, idealistic activists who, over the course of these traumatic two-and-a-half years and the killing that they've seen, some of them have really embraced this hard line Islamist ideology. I saw one guy I used to sit with singing songs pants to Osama Bin Laden and the 9/11 terror attacks. There's been a radical change in a lot of the makeup of the armed opposition which just doesn't look like the peaceful protests that we saw two-and-a- half years ago starting, calling for democracy and freedom after 40 years of dictatorships from the Assad leadership -- John.

BERMAN: The question is, where does that leave then the Assad regime right now. Fred Pleitgen, just a short time ago, Bob Barry (ph) told us, he's a former CIA analyst with extensive work in that region and with resources still on the ground there. He was speaking to members in the regime who told him, they were relieved by this delay, that President Obama has put the brakes on at least for ten days asking Congress for a vote. The Syrian regime, he says, relieved and perhaps even planning a new offensive to squeeze in there over the next several days. Before you left, what did you see in terms of movement in the regime's assets and what have you heard over the last several days?

PLEITGEN: The regime has been stepping up its effort, especially in the Damascus area over the past couple of days. And the interesting thing was, it really coincided with that alleged chemical weapons attack. Many people on the ground were talking to us were saying that they started firing a lot of ammunition on the morning of last Wednesday when this attack happened and then they just increased and continuously pounded the outskirts with artillery. They've been trying to take that area back for a very long time.

This has been the main focus for the regime. The outskirts of Damascus called the Ulta (ph) region which is a sort of suburban, somewhat even rural area. But it really is a large territory. It's really interesting because we had someone go in there and film for us and a person said it was surprised how much territory the rebels actually still hold there, how big that area is. And so the government's been trying to get that back for a very long time. They know it's absolutely strategically important to them before they can focus on any other places to get that in order.

And so they've been using all means to try and get in there. And that only increased while we were there. I've been there several times. I've never seen so much ammunition dropped on that place. You could see the artillery plumes coming up, plumes of smoke from artillery coming up pretty much 24/7. So, yes. And it is to be believed that that is going to continue. And indications I get from people that I'm talking to on the ground since I've left the country which is about 72 hours ago, is that they are making that move. They are trying to go in and they are trying to go in with ground forces and not just artillery at this point. BERMAN: That would be a great concern over the next few days.

Ben Wedeman, I'll give you the last word here. Over the last several decades, any time the United States has been talking about military action in the Middle East or involvement, Great Britain has been involved. How big of a blow was it to the United States in that region to have that vote in the House of Commons earlier this week?

WEDEMAN: It was a huge blow. I mean, they're going back looking at Iraq and what not, and we saw that the U.K. was always by the side of the U.S. They were always the first ones to join and whatever U.S. Military action was being taken. And suddenly, they are no longer there. You have the utter irony that, in fact, the French have said that they are willing to take part in this military attack. So -- this planned or proposed military attack on Syria.

So certainly, this development out of the British parliament shocked a lot of people. And certainly, here in the Middle East, where, of course, let's keep in mind that Britain was a colonial imperial power for decades and decades, and suddenly it has become -- it's not even the junior partner of the United States. It's out of the equation for this proposed military attack. And the French have now taken their place. So certainly, it was -- and the point has been made, this is the first time that the British parliament does not support the prime minister in this regard since 1782. That is a huge change.

BERMAN: All right. Ben Wedeman, Nick Paton Walsh, Fred Pleitgen, Ivan Watson. Meanwhile, history is at play here. Whatever President Obama does about Syria's alleged use of chemical weapons, if it finally is time to back up his red line, how might it impact his legacy?


BERMAN: The results the world has been waiting for, whether there was a chemical weapons attack by the Syrian regime. But CNN has just learned it could be three weeks before anyone gets the findings from the United Nations weapons inspectors. This news, adding to the uncertainty about if and when the United States will launch a military attack.

President Obama telling the world today that a strike on Syria will not happen unless Congress approves. Minutes after his statement, Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham said they could not support the president's current plans to strike militarily, not if they're limited. They want much wider action, while Texas Senator Ted Cruz responding with this.


SEN. TED CRUZ, (R), TEXAS: I am very glad that President Obama has listened to the bipartisan calls for him to go to Congress and seek congressional authorization before any possible use of force in Syria. That was the right thing to do. And in making that decision, it seems he agrees that there is no eminent threat requiring action before Congress can consider the issues and make the decision. (END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: Democratic House member, Elliott Angle, of New York, says it is time to get the House back immediately to act.

We're going to talk more about this statement from the Rose Garden today. The president said Syria's use of chemical weapons against its own people has other dangerous implication. He says it's important that the U.S. act with force this time or there will be a next time, if not in Syria, then somewhere else.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES -- the system that we built if a prohibition on the use of chemical weapons that has been agreed to by the governments of 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 won't enforce accountability in the face of this heinous act, what does it say about our resolve to stand up to others who flaunt other international rules, for of these who choose to build nuclear weapons, to terrorists who spread biological weapons, to armies who carry out genocide?


BERMAN: We have a little panel to talk about the president's speech, but first I want to go to Jim Acosta at the White House.

Jim, since the president had no trouble using the military in Libya without going to Congress, why does he say this time is different?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That is a very good question, John. And we should note that the administration is going to be making a full court press for its case for a military action against Syria starting tomorrow morning. I guess you could say he started today with the president's remarks in the Rose Garden but tomorrow morning Secretary of State John Kerry will be doing all the Sunday morning talk shows so they will be get that full court press under way tomorrow morning.

But as for your question about Libya, this did come up with a briefing with reporters that was held by senior administration officials, John, and they were asked this question: What's the difference between now and then, two years ago, when the president decided to get the U.S. involved in NATO air strikes against Libyan targets? And what they said was that, at that time, there was an unfolding humanitarian crisis that was about to take place and that they felt the time was of the essence, that they had to intervene, and that that is why the president, at that point, did not seek congressional authorization.

Now, you can go back in time and use the Google and find that he was hit by a number of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, editorial pages, you name it. This time around, there is not an eminent attack that they know of, that they're talking about that the Assad government is planning to carry out against people inside of Syria. So they feel like they have some time to play with here. But no question about it, it does raise lots of questions.

BERMAN: All right. Jim Acosta at the White House. Thank you so much.

There is no question that this is a big moment for President Obama in terms of his legacy. Really, two-fold here. There's the idea of that red line in presidential credibility, and there's also the idea of going to Congress to get the authority for military action.

I want to talk about this with an esteemed panel right now. Joining me here is Princeton political historian, Julian Zelizer; in Washington, David Frum, a former speech writer for President George W. Bush David Frum; and by phone, Bill Nelson of Florida.

Mr. Nelson, Senator Nelson, I want to start with you.

You say you do support the president here. You do support a limited military strike, but you say you would rather we strike right now. Why not wait for congressional approval?

SEN. BILL NELSON, (R), FLORIDA (voice-over): I've seen the evidence. And it is so conclusive. And the question is, as commander in chief, do you have a responsibility in the civilized world to draw that line and say that an actor cannot use a weapon of mass destruction, chemical, biological, or nuclear, without consequences. As the president said today, he believes he has the authority of what he is reaching out is to get that additional backup from the legislative branch. I don't think that's necessary, but I'm certainly going to vote for the authorization.

BERMAN: David Frum, we have you with us right now. This seems like a big moment that, in some ways, the President Obama seems to reset power here in terms of using military forces. We didn't go to Congress in Libya. It's not something that some leaders have done in the past. For Kosovo waited until after President Clinton did, granted President Bush got it for Iraq. What do you think President Obama is trying to do here, especially in terms of his legacy?

DAVID FRUM, FORMER SPEECH WRITER FOR GEORGE W. BUSH: Well, he may be trying to escape responsibility. But here's the dilemma that not only the president or the country faces. When the president says -- draws a red line that is not an expression of personal opinion. He speaks for the nation. He has put the nation's credibility on the line with that commitment. Now the time has come, tragically, to make good on that commitment. Maybe -- I'm one of those who thinks it should not have been made, but it's time to make good. And he has put responsibility into the hands of a Congress that is notoriously paralyzed and dysfunctional. Not only put the responsibility into the hands of the Congress but put it in the hands of the Congress in not immediately but when they come back from holiday, without calling them back early. That this also suggests a lack of urgency, suggests a passing of the buck. It is a baffling, baffling outcome, and it weakens the power of the presidency enormously.

BERMAN: Is it -- just to be clear here, quickly, you don't think he should have asked Congress? FRUM: I don't think he should be intervening in Syria. But if the president is going to intervene in Syria, then he must intervene in Syria, and he mustn't ask somebody else for permission when he has pretty good reason to believe that that somebody else is going to say no. He has committed the nation and now he is going to set himself up and set the country up for a potentially very humiliating outcome.

BERMAN: Professor Zelizer, talk to me about this issue about credibility and presidential legacy here. What do you think President Obama is trying to do?

JULIAN ZELIZER, PRINCETON POLITICAL HISTORIAN: I think he has two challenges. One is strategic, and it's what David was talking about. He set this line. The line was crossed. And now it creates something of a strategic blunder if he doesn't act effectively.

But there's another part of this. He ran as the candidate in 2008 who believed in the importance of Congress to making military decisions, who criticized President George W. Bush for the way he conducted war without legislative authority and he's in a bit of a bind because he's about to do some of the things that he ran on, some of the things that he stood for.

So in terms of his legacy, in terms of how historians look at him, I think he is very aware of some of the contradictions of what he might end up doing.

BERMAN: All right, Professor Zelizer, David Frum, Senator Bill Nelson, thank you for being with us. Appreciate it.

Tomorrow, Secretary of State John Kerry will join Candy Crowley on CNN's "State of the Union." The secretary of state will talk about the administration's new plans to go to Congress. That is Sunday morning at 9:00 a.m. eastern. Sure to be interesting.

The president now says he is willing to wait for Congress, but with a go-ahead, what would a limited military operation against the Assad regime actually look like? We're going to go to the Pentagon next for an answer.


BERMAN: Welcome back, everyone.

United Nations weapons inspectors have left Syria with bags of evidence and stories from witnesses about the alleged chemical attacks carried by the Assad regime. As the world waits to hear what they found, President Obama said today that he will ask Congress to approve some kind of limited strike. Speaking in the Rose Garden, the president said that he will get Congress' approval first. He wants it, saying military action will be just as effective now, next week, or next month. Meanwhile, the Assad regime says it is ready for whatever the United States might dish out. Israel could be a target, they say, for retaliation.

I want to go right to the Pentagon and our Barbara Starr. Barbara, you've got new information from the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Fresh reaction coming in, John, because military action still is on the table but there is an issue for the Joint Chiefs and that is targeting. A spokesman for the Joint Chiefs tells CNN, quote, "We continue to refine our targeting based on the most recent intelligence. And the chairman assured the president that we would have appropriate targeting options ready when he called for them."

What are we talking about here, John? The tomahawk missiles are programmed with GPS satellite coordinates to go to a precise target. U.S. intelligence has been seeing the Assad regime move around over the last several days, its troops, its weapons, its equipment. As this delay, whatever it is, is happening, the chairman has assured the president the missiles could be retargeted, they will be ready, they will be up to date.

But make no mistake, the U.S. Intelligence is going to have to keep a very close eye with satellites on all of this around the clock over the coming days because when the president orders action, if he orders action, they're going to have to be ready to go with those new GPA targeting coordinates -- John?

BERMAN: It will be a busy 10 days.

I want to bring in our chief congressional correspondent, Dana Bash.

Dana, you have new information, as well.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: We've been talking about the fact that Senators McCain, John McCain and Lindsey Graham released a statement, pretty hard-hitting statement, saying that they're very concerned about action being limited, as Barbara was just talking about. I just got off the phone with Senator Graham to try to clarify if this means that he would actually vote against authorization if it would just authorize limited military force.

What he told me is that they would only get his vote if -- never mind how the authorization resolution was written, but if they -- in addition to that, gave him and other members of Congress very a clear timeline, explanation of what they plan to do afterwards. And, again, he and Senator McCain have been focused on trying to train and arm rebels who are trustworthy in that area. He wants to have very clear information about that and if he doesn't, it will be hard for him to vote yes.

Why is this important? Because he and McCain have been perhaps the most aggressive on saying there needs to be action on Syria. He votes against authorization in Syria, it would be hard to see how this happens.

Another thing I want to tell you, he told me, in a conference call that happened this afternoon with senior members of the administration, he asked General Dempsey, the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, if Assad, after these strikes, would still have the military power to continue to terrorize people in his country for a year and a year and a half, and Dempsey replied yes. He said he almost fell off his chair when he heard that.

BERMAN: The president has to sell not just members of his own party but Republicans who support action but who might say the president's actions are not enough.

All right. Chief congressional correspondent, Dana Bash, thank you so much.

Syrians are used to anxiety. They felt even more as they wait for a possible strike from the United States. We'll go inside Syria just ahead.


BERMAN: Welcome back.

Inside Syria, the president's decision means there's something now of an interim period. Until Congress gives the approval the president says he wants, no tomahawk missiles will be launched from American warships.

Bill Neely is an international editor for ITN, and he has more on the anxiety in Syria.


BILL NEELY, INTERNATIONAL EDITOR, ITN: 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. Inspectors left at dawn this morning, pretty hastily, a day earlier. They're now in The Hague in the Netherlands. America has released its intelligence dossier. So 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 will be open 24 hours 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 poison gases across this city. So people definitely worried, definitely braced.


BERMAN: Our thanks to Bill Neely for that update.

We'll be right back.


BERMAN: Tomorrow morning -- you will not want to miss it -- Secretary of State John Kerry will join Gloria Borger on CNN's "State of the Union. That's Sunday morning at 9:00 eastern time.

I'm John Berman. That does it for me this afternoon. Our special coverage continues with Don Lemon right after this.