Return to Transcripts main page
President Barack Obama to Delay Military Action Against Syria
Aired August 31, 2013 - 20:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: He'll stick around. You can stick around with us, right? Fouad Ajami can stick around as well as the rest of my panel.
So, let's get to it, shall we. It's the top of the hour, everyone.
I'm Don Lemon. You're in the CNN NEWSROOM. Thank you for joining us. This is our special coverage of the possible military action in Syria.
What seemed like an all but certain U.S. military strike against Syria has been delayed. President Barack Obama today announcing he will hold off on his stated desire to hold the Syrian regime, in his words, accountable for its use of chemical weapons. Instead, he is going to allow Congress to debate and vote on his proposal after it returns from recess on September 9th. He is asking for official authorization to take military action against Syria, but in his remarks he made it clear he believes America must act.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: 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.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
LEMON: We have heard strong reaction from some politicians in Congress today. So, let's bring in chief correspondent Dana Bash.
Dana, let's start with how long could it take to get a decision in Congress? You have heard from Senate majority leader Harry Reid, and he is actually giving a timeline, correct?
DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right. Well, Congress is not scheduled to come back until September 9th, so, a week from Monday. And the headline at this hour is that we're not going to see a vote in the Senate or the house before that week, the week after next.
What the Senate majority leader, who determines the schedule in the Senate, did decide and released in a statement a short while ago is that he wants the Senate to use the next week, this coming week, for public hearings, particularly in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. They're going to call Obama administration officials to come and tell members of the Senate committee and the American public exactly what the plans are and explain the case for using what they insist will be a limited military strike against Bashar Al Assad. And then the vote in the Senate won't happen the following week. So any time after the week of September 9th.
The house is the same, same story. Republicans run the house there. The house speaker said already earlier today that he wants the next week to be used for never mind people still being back in their districts, but also to have classified briefings, to try to seek information. And, in fact, I should tell you that is going to start tomorrow on Sunday of Labor Day weekend, members of the Obama administration will go up to Capitol Hill and give anybody who is in town secure classified briefings on exactly what they are seeing inside Syria.
LEMON: Noon tomorrow that they're going to start that? I have read some of it online. I'm not sure about the time.
BASH: 2:00 p.m.
LEMON: 2:00 p.m. OK. Let's talk about it. Public hearings, Dana?
BASH: Yes, public hearings. And you know, I think this is a good time to take a step back and ask a question that I'm guessing a lot of people at home are asking which is, why wait? We are not talking about something that is generally decided in such a public way and with such a lengthy timeline which is military strikes.
And that is a question I'm told by several senators on conference call briefings today with administration officials that they ask. They said, you know, we think that the idea of coming to Congress and asking for authorization is a fine thing, but why are we waiting to come back? Why don't you bring us back this coming week if this is such a threat?
The answer, I am told by a couple of senators, from the chairman of the joint chiefs, was I can't tell you on this open non-secure line, but trust us, we feel comfortable that the targets will still be there. But I was told a lot of senators said that, you know, wait a minute, if I'm Bashar Al Assad and know this is potentially coming in two weeks, I cannot only move the sources around but also make it more deadly for these military strikes. Maybe bring, God forbid, civilians in and around these target areas. So there certainly is a lot of head scratching on Capitol Hill and I'm guessing in military circles as well.
LEMON: And, Dana, as you reported earlier, to the president drafted his letter and presented it, I presume, to members of Congress about why he wants to take this military action and what they should consider while they are voting and while they are pondering this.
BASH: Right. And the letter really was just to send them this piece of paper, and it really is practically just a piece of paper. Very short, one page and a couple of paragraphs, and it is a draft, the draft legislative language that he would like Congress to vote on which does, in fact, just give him authorization for a limited military strike, really focused on chemical weapons.
Again, the whole idea of the way he wrote this was to try to assuage concerns of many members of Congress, particularly those in his own party, about going into a situation where there's a civil war and not having -- and having an open-ended military situation. That certainly the way he wrote this.
We will see if this is the language that comes out. If it does pass, comes out of the Senate and house. Of course, that's a big if we didn't talk about, but that cannot underscore that enough. We don't know if the votes are there either in the Senate or house.
LEMON: And I don't think he does either. And that is one reason he said we need to appear to the rest of the world we are not a divided nation, that we are all on the same page. He made that point a number of times in his speech, at least once, at least twice in his speech.
Stand by, Dana Bash. I'm going to get back to you because joining me here in New York, I want to add another person to this panel, is Princeton University political historian Julian Zelizer. I got that right.
OK. So, is this -- a lot of people have been comparing this back to, you know, when George W. Bush made his case for the war in Iraq. Saying this is very similar to, you know, they're both very similar. Do you agree? I mean, is this an historic moment in the same sense for President Barack Obama as it was for George W. Bush then?
PROFESSOR JULIAN ZELIZER, POLITICAL HISTORIAN, PRINCETON UNIVERSITY: Well, it's a very different context. Obviously, President Bush did this after 9/11 and people were still thinking about that. The connection was still part of a debate that was taking place.
President Obama does this as Iraq and the memories of that war loom large. And that's part of the challenge that he faces some of the questions that are emerging. So, they face it in very different political contexts and I think that's some of the challenge that the president currently faces.
LEMON: And perhaps we won't know how this moment plays out in history until there's a decision to either take military action against Syria or in Syria or not?
ZELIZER: And until it starts. Limited wars are limited in the idea at the beginning and the question isn't that. The question is how do they unfold and what pressures the president faces to increase the involvement after it starts. That's the unknown.
LEMON: My question is, are presidents keenly aware of what they're doing and their moment in history or their moments in history? And I would say, yes, they are, but then I'm of two minds when I think about the mission accomplished George W. Bush on the aircraft carrier, maybe they're not. Do you think Barack Obama is, President Obama is keenly aware of where this, how he may look in history from this day in the Rose Garden on?
ZELIZER: In the first question, presidents are often aware of that, and they're thinking about that. President Johnson thought about this as the war in Vietnam escalated. It didn't go in a good direction for him. I'm sure President Obama is thinking of this. In part, because of who he is and how he ran in 2008 and the argument that he made about when hen and how the country should get into military wars.
LEMON: All right. Stand by, panel. We will talk about this in just a little bit because I want to get to Washington now and get information from our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta.
Jim, you have new behind the scenes information about how the president decided to pursue Congressional authorization.
JIM ACOSTA, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Don. I mean, this was a really stunning turn of events for this White House which really had been building momentum all week long toward some sort of imminent military action against Syria that a lot of people were expecting to come this weekend, but very late in the game.
Yesterday evening, the president had a change in plans, and let me walk you through some of this, Don, because I think it's important for people to understand just how this played out. And this is all based on a briefing that was given to reporters earlier this afternoon by senior administration officials.
They say all this started happening at 6:00 p.m. Friday evening. So you had secretary of state John Kerry's statements earlier in the day. You had the president's statement in the afternoon sitting with the leaders of the Baltic nations. And then at 6:00 p.m., President Obama decides to seek Congressional approval. He goes on a walk with his White House chief of staff, Dennis McDonough, to hash this out. According to senior administration officials, this was just sort of kicking around inside the president's head all week. He was not really talking about this with his advisers.
And then after that, after this walk with Dennis McDonough, the White House chief of staff, he goes back to the White House, calls his national security advisers including Susan Rice into the oval office and they have a discussion and this discussion sparks a heated debate among his national security staff.
Now, we are not getting a sense from administration officials who was on what side of this debate. They won't reveal that. But needless to say, they say this was a big debate. And then, the president got on the phone, called vice president, called the secretary of state, called Chuck Hagel, his defense secretary, to let them know what was happening and then everybody reconvened back at the White House at -- we're not really sure what the time was, but earlier this morning to go over and finalize this decision. And then president came out and made news at the Rose Garden.
And I can tell you, Don, after talking to a variety of officials in the administration, talked to a senior U.S. official just within the last hour, who said, now, wait a minute, just so we don't get confused here over, you know, as to what was on which side of this debate, this senior U.S. official is telling me, Don, Chuck Hagel the defense secretary was very much on the president's side on this. That it was not difficult for Chuck Hagel to be on the president's side because of his history as a Vietnam War veteran.
Talked to another senior administration official who said John Kerry, secretary of state, did not have concerns with this issue. So we are starting to move people out of the mix in terms of who was involved in this debate and we are starting to narrowing it down, you start to get to certain people inside White House that may have had trouble by this decision by the president. But they say now, they are all behind the president on this.
LEMON: Can I jump in here? Because I don't want you to gloss over this because I think it's important because John Kerry, I mean, sort of went out on a limb yesterday, right?
ACOSTA: That's right.
LEMON: And made a very strong appeal to the American public saying, you know, listen, here's the evidence. Here's the evidence. If we do decide this. Making the case it would appear to go to war. And now you're saying, he doesn't have an issue with it because he served time as a lawmaker and he understands, he understands how people may want to get involved. Is that what you're saying?
ACOSTA: That's what I'm hearing from a senior administration official that the secretary Kerry because of his long history in the United States Senate understood the president's decision here.
Now, you can read between the lines in some of these statements that we're getting from these officials and conclude, that hey, this might have been a surprise to some of these people. But, and certainly, that is the case according to senior administration officials that I have spoken with.
This was not expected. This was not even among their range of options as they were talking about it all week long, Don. But this is the president's course of action. And talking to some officials earlier this afternoon, they are very upfront about this. They know this does come with risks. They don't know what could happen in the Congress. If a vote happens and it doesn't go their way, obviously that could be an issue.
But I did speak with another senior administration official earlier this evening who reemphasized, Don, no matter what happens in the Congress, the president reserves the right to take military action. They still feel like that is the legal standing of this president inside this White House. So we are going to see a very interesting debate over the next couple of weeks, Don.
LEMON: All right. So the clock is ticking now, ticking forward to see what happens when Congress gets back.
Jim Acosta standing on the lawn of the White House. Jim, thank you very much.
Coming up, we're going to talk more about Syria. Of course, the reaction to President Obama's speech, our panel is going to weigh in.
Plus, could Syria, the regime there, be preparing to launch an attack? My next guest says yes, next.
LEMON: While President Obama seeks Congressional support for military action in Syria, a recent poll shows Americans split on this issue. An NBC poll conducted a few days ago found this, 42 percent support U.S. military action in Syria, 50 percent are opposed. People took to the streets today in several U.S. cities and around the world to make their voices heard.
(VIDEO CLIP PLAYING)
LEMON: Dozens rallied outside the White House a stone's throw from President Obama's living quarters demanding the U.S. stay out of Syria.
And thousands of miles away in Australia, people gathered in Sydney to oppose intervention in Syria.
Meantime, supporters of American involvement in Syria a gathering in Houston asking the Obama administration to take action in Syria to end the bloodshed.
When the president was talking to the world earlier today in the Rose Garden, Syrian state TV broadcast his speech live to the people of Syria. And as they wait and wonder what's going to happen and when, our Ivan Watson is on the border between Syria and Turkey with more on the Syria regime and what this regime is saying.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
IVAN WATSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Members of the Syrian opposition have expressed great disappointment with the announcement made by the U.S. president that he would seek Congressional approval for the use of force against the government in Syria. Of course, many members of the armed rebellion and the political opposition groups were very much looking forward to the chance to strike some blows against the number one adversary of this Syrian opposition movement, and quite disappointed what seemed to be an imminent attack would now be delayed at least a week, possibly two weeks, possibly even more.
A spokesman for the Syrian national coalition based out of Doha, Qatar, he said he was taken by surprise by Obama's announcement and, quote "our fear now is that the lack of action could embolden the regime." And some social media statements we have seen with some opposition activists in Syria basically calling President Obama a coward for not using force against their number one enemy, Bashar Al Assad.
Here in Turkey, the Turkish government was also very much lobbying hard for the U.S. to take a strong military role and operation against the Assad regime. Turkish government officials telling CNN that the Obama statement was, quote "a firm expression of U.S. determination to act" and basically the Turkish government would respect the Democratic process in the U.S. to seek approval for the use of force.
Meanwhile, the refugee situation continues here. There are more than 200,000 Syrian refugees living in a network of camps in Turkey. Many more living outside of the camps. And there was a trickle of refugee families coming into Turkey in recent days. Some of them fearing that they could get caught up in any potential imminent U.S. military operation, one that clearly seems to have been at the very least delayed.
Ivan Watson, CNN, Turkey.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
LEMON: All right, Ivan, appreciate that.
Much of the world now asking after President Obama's comments today showing his desire for U.S. involvement in Syria, how will the Assad regime react? And the United States giving too much away? Our Nick Paton Walsh talked about that a short time ago.
I want to bring back CNN intelligence and security analyst, Bob Baer is on CNN just a little bit earlier. Our senior international correspondent, Nick Paton Walsh. And Fouad Ajami, a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. Of course, Princeton University political historian, Julian Zelizer.
Before I get to Bob, I want to go back to Nick Paton Walsh. These are good questions because you asked how is the Assad regime going to react to this. That is a big question.
NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: We don't know but it's possible given the fact he was irrational enough to use chemical weapons and probably provoke this international response. If he see one that he will retaliate somehow. He may try and just say, look, survival in this is victory. If I get through and come out of the rubble with my arm in the air, that's enough. But it is entirely possible given just how volatile and messed up that whole region is that he may do something which could impact allies like Israel, could take a country like Lebanon that's so close to the edge anyway and push it further toward disaster.
So, a lot could potentially come in the blowback from this, which may actually be significantly more of an impact that the America strikes in the first place.
LEMON: Fouad, you are --
FOUAD AJAMI, SENIOR FELLOW, STANFORD UNIVERSITY'S HOOVER INSTITUTION: Footnote for this. I think we should not really in a way overestimate the options open to Bashar. Israel has hit Syria time and time again, and Bashar did nothing. He avert to this instrument and looked the other way. LEMON: OK. Bob Baer, you said the Syrian regime may be set to launch a new offensive. Explain that.
BOB BAER, CNN INTELLIGENCE AND SECURITY ANALYST: Don, let me put it in context. And I'm hearing this from inside the regime from Damascus. People come out, they can Skype me from Lebanon. These are Alawites.
They're obviously taking sides in this conflict. So, we have to take it with a grain of salt. But they said you have to put the 21st of August attack, gas attack in context. And they believe it was in retaliation for the massacre of Alawites around (INAUDIBLE). They told me they have seen pictures. Men, women and children were eviscerated. It was a terrible -- it was horrible, according to them. And not only that, but that rebels, Salafists, have gotten close to the hometown of Bashar Al Assad. It panicked him.
And number two is, there's some question whether parts of the army are not disintegrating more than they have in the past. In the Kandahar (ph) area, there was a senior commander that defected to the rebels, and it's worried the regime. It's made Bashar Al Assad irrational, or whoever fired those chemical weapons. And right after the president's speech, I got in touch with them and they said, look, this is going to be on opportunity for us to go after the main Salafi group up there. And that's what they expect to happen. And they certainly look at this as a relief that there's not going to be an attack now, and it's an opportunity to strike back at these people, and I'm not saying with chemical weapons again, but hit them hard while they have time.
LEMON: Yes. I'm glad you have -- a lot of knowledge of the region. A lot of people at home are going, they don't know specifics of that region as much as you do.
Nick Paton Walsh, is this possible?
WALSH: The thing Bob is pointing out there, is that this has just been the most unbelievably savage two years of warfare.
LEMON: Has it?
WALSH: Looking at it now because we're hearing of chemical weapons. That was the red line Barack Obama drew a year ago. And he is going to have to respond at some point. But he is pointing out massacres of the regime (INAUDIBLE) in some villages. I mean, we have been seeing videos coming out of this country now for years. They are unbelievable to watch. They involve one rebel eating the organs, allegedly, of a regime loyalist. They involve the massacre of children on a regular basis. A 4 -year-old girl was shot in the face when we were there entirely indiscriminately. We have seen pictures of regime loyalist massacred by these extremists he was referring to.
It is unbelievably savage. So, many Syrians are saying well, 100,000 have died so far. And now you're paying attention. For them, hell is every single day, frankly. So, it is in some ways morally entirely accurate that Barack Obama takes a stands right now, but he has to calculate why and has to all collate the extent to which military intervention is going to help.
LEMON: I may be way off, but when you're talking here and you guys are saying this, sir, it's reminding me of, remember Clinton had that moment, President Clinton about Rwanda and he said one thing that he thought he failed as president, he would have done something differently about Rwanda at the time and he didn't. Is that reminiscent, do you think, in this case?
ZELIZER: Yes. And that resonates with a lot of advisers who surround President Obama at this time, and that's a memory they still have --
LEMON: Is that what you were thinking of when you were telling me you wanted to jump in?
ZELIZER: Yes, I think that draw him. But then it comes to the question of politically what's the mission? Because given all this is true, then President Obama makes a case, we go in and out and we leave this guy in power. There's going to be questions in Congress about exactly what we're doing. And so those are going to face the president and the media in Congress and he's going to have to deal with it where he's going to have a very messy political situation, not just a strategic challenge here at home.
LEMON: All right. A lot more of this conversation. And you can be a part of the conversation as well. You can go on social media. Send us your questions if you have them. And I'll get them on the air. It is @donlemonCNN.
And you guys, stick around. Just a reminder for you tomorrow, secretary of state John Kerry is going to be on CNN's "STATE OF THE UNION" with our Candy Crowley. That is Sunday morning 9:00 eastern. You don't want to miss that or any of CNN's continuing coverage of the crisis on Syria. Of course, all eyes on Syria. The international community watches to see how the United States and other countries are responding to the use of chemical weapons in Syria.
Next, we are giving you five specific reasons why the United States may feel obligated to take action.
LEMON: President Obama has outlined his desire to carry out a military attack on Syria, if Congress supports his position, but questions still remain about that. What is the timeline? What does the military plan look like? And for many, why get involved at all?
CNN's Tom Foreman broke down some reasons why the U.S. government may feel only obligated to get involved in Syria.
I want to bring back in now CNN's intelligence security analyst Bob Baer. He is in Telluride, Colorado. I want to talk about these points.
OK. So, Tom's first point is stability for the region, especially for Israel. How important is that for the U.S.? BAER: It's extremely important. Look, if the regime it falling apart, at least psychologically falling apart, and they did use chemical weapons against civilians in large numbers, they're perfectly capable of firing a 122 millimeter artillery round into Israel. The Israelis will respond. This is a catastrophe scenario. I hope it doesn't happen. We also have the possibility of Hezbollah getting involved. They have 40,000 or 50,000 rockets facing Israel. This could very easily overnight spread into a configuration through the Middle East. You know, will it happen, I don't know. But no one else does either.
LEMON: OK. There's been an argument made by some that a reason to get involved with Syria has to do with Russia and China and not allowing them to dictate terms. Is that the U.S. image at stake here?
BAER: I think the Chinese and the Russians have been entirely irresponsible in this. You know, they have just pushed Bashar Al Assad. I don't even think they're factors in this. I don't pay any attention to them. I'm just worried about this sectarian war going through the Middle East, and you can watch it from Iraq to Tunisia, to Syria, and into Lebanon. And the chances of this spreading into a very large regional war I think are getting better by the day, especially when the chemical weapons come out. You know, if there's a mass fleeing of Sunni Muslims into Jordan and you're talking about two, three million people, it will destabilize Jordan.
And what's to stop the Syrian regime from firing artillery shells with chemical warheads into Jordan? These are, you know, these are the kinds of things that the president's thinking about and I know the CIA is. Where does it go next?
LEMON: So, I want to go down here because there is, one is Syrian instability. We understand that. Another one is stopping Iran. We understand that. But lastly, I want to get straight to number one, and possibly the most important here because it's the president deciding this.
President Obama's credibility is on the line when he talked about the red line. Is this a justification for an attack like this? And first of all, is that correct about his credibility being on the line for this?
BAER: I think it was horrible that the Arabs haven't stepped forward in support of him up until now. And that he didn't get Congressional backing in advance for this. And the British backed out. He's standing out there alone. I mean, if this all falls apart, he's going to get the blame. I don't think he deserves all the blame, but he's going to get it. So his political legacy is on the line here.
LEMON: Bob Baer, thank you. Stand by.
Coming up, if the U.S. does decide to strike Syria, who will it help? According to my next guest, Al Qaeda. He will explain, right after this.
(COMMERCIAL BREAK) LEMON: After more than two years of civil war in Syria, the United States is closer than ever to a military strike. My next guest says if we do strike, it won't be the opposition we're helping. It would be Al Qaeda.
Barak Barfi is a research fellow with the new America foundation. He joins me from Antioquia, Turkey.
So Barak, how would a U.S. strike help Al Qaeda?
BARAK BARFI, RESEARCH FELLOW, NEW AMERICA FOUNDATION: Basically the Al Qaeda local affiliate known as the Islamic state in Iraq and Syria are the strongest overall brigade in the Syrian revolution. In the northern province of Aleppo, lived in Iraq, the powerful or second most powerful -- disciplined fighters, the most well equipped. It captures tanks and anti-aircraft missiles from bases. And as it does, the FSA, the secular-led rebel alliance, is very weak. Most of its units are corrupt and they are disintegrating. And that means that ISIS is going to benefit most from any American attack.
LEMON: So you -- I think the quote, I'm paraphrasing here, what you said, that Al Qaeda wanted to use a volcano of revenge on the regime. Is that correct? Why do you say that?
BARFI: Actually I didn't say that, but they will want to have a volcano of revenge against the regime because what's going to happen is the regime is going to give up isolated bases of its United States bombs such as queries in the northern province of Aleppo. When it retreats into its core areas of the coastal Antioquia and around the capital of Damascus, ISIS will be the best-placed rebel unit to take over these isolated bases and move into the central provinces of Hama and Holmes where it's weak and will launch its final attack on the capital of Damascus.
LEMON: Barak, do you think a strike would help the opposition at all?
BARFI: Don, this American strike is too little, too late. The window of opportunity for a successful American air strike that could turn the tables in favor of the FSA has passed. Last June when the rebels moved into Aleppo, the second largest city in Syria, coincided with a regime being on the ropes because a number of its senior officials were killed in a bomb strike. And that was the best opportunity for the Americans and the west to get involved and shift the battle in favor of the FSA. We didn't get involved. We didn't get involved after the chemical attacks in March.
In June, Benjamin Rose, said we would provide the rebels with weapons. We didn't do that. And now, we wake up a day after an air strike, and Al Qaeda's local affiliate, ISIS, is going to be best positioned to take advantage of that while the FSA is going to be watching them blow by.
LEMON: Barak, stand by.
I want to bring in now senior correspondent Nick Paton Walsh who spent a lot of time in Syria. You want to get in here. Talk to me about the presence of Al Qaeda and what your point is here.
WALSH: It's really dangerous to talk in certainties about this war because we simply just don't know. What we do know is there's been a period, this past in which an opposition which started out being in some ways about democracy and changing Syria and being not necessarily about the Islamic faith entirely and having intentions has begun to lose and we haven't backed them. And now, the people swept in from Iraq and around the world as Islamic extremists have got stronger and many ways are dictating the war. And there's a possible that if there's a successful U.S. strike, they'll benefit from that significantly. But we simply don't know.
What we do know is that level of uncertainty should make people extraordinarily cautious about what they do, what extra force they're willing to throw into the region. There's a huge number of Syrians and I think Fouad is going to be one of them in a second, who wants to remind people that there are a lot of Syrians just fighting for their freedom here.
Unfortunately, the more you observed certainly the north of the country, the more it seems there are a lot of radicals in their ranks and unfortunately have a tendency to push to the other side. I mean, they call them more secular fighters hippies because they're out of touch.
LEMON: You look like my dad sitting at the table ready, everybody is talking wants to jump in, you're like, listen, kids. Usually, you have a very good short concise reason why you think you say because Al Qaeda hasn't been able to take --
AJAMI: Look, when a Syrian population rises in rebellion against one of the most tyrannical and one of the most violent regimes in the world, the idea these people are going to bottle their freedom and give it to a bunch of guys (INAUDIBLE) in Iraq and that they are going to welcome them and hand them power is not very persuasive. I agree with the narrative before on what we did, the chances we had in 2012. But we cannot be paralyzed by fear. We must trust people with their freedom. If we don't trust them with their freedom, we shouldn't even venture there.
WALSH: That's a lovely thought. I mean, I would love to know if there is Al Qaeda in (INAUDIBLE). I think the major fear here, as he points out, is we simply don't know what the impact of the strike is going to be and there is a real serious fear in the north of the country now. They are Shiria calls, the Islamists running parts of the country that fighting all sorts of different directions, different groups that weren't part of the civil war initially. They're fighting amongst themselves, the rebels.
ZELIZER: Look. This is where President Obama can step in. These are the kinds of arguments he needs to articulate. And if he leaves his this murky, he will lose congressional and public support. But you can't have a strike with all these uncertainties looming the public. You have to offer clarity.
LEMON: We're not done yet. What about Israel and the rest of the Middle East? We're going to talk about that, next.
LEMON: The crisis in Syria comes with very high stakes for Israel. If the U.S. launches a military strike in Syria, many people in Israel are concerned about possible retaliation from Hezbollah or Iran.
CNN's international anchor Jim Clancy has more now from Jerusalem.
JIM CLANCY, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR (voice-over): Diminished support for military action in Syria raised new concerns and some new options in Israel. Former military intelligence chief, Amos Yadlin, proposed a possible move by Russia that could spare its ally, Syria, a punishing strike.
Russian president Vladimir Putin is the only man that can stop the attack. Not by sending Russian warships or a Russian force, said Yadlin, but by dealing with what makes President Obama concerned with chemical weapons. Putin can come up with a proposal, he said. I will take out the Syrian e chemical weapons from Syria. Assad will not be able to use chemical weapons anymore.
Despite its obvious merits, the proposal lack any incline of support from Moscow or Damascus. There would be daunting obstacles on the ground in logistics and verification as well. Polls show most Israelis favor a military strike to show international opposition to chemical arms and weapons of mass destruction. But an almost equal number of Israelis fear that in this case, their country could become a target for reprisal by Syria or its allies.
One poll tallied support for U.S. military attack had more than two out of every three Israelis. The same poll showed an almost equal number of people feared even as it tries to steer clear of involvement in Syria's civil war, Israel could face a rage of missiles coming from Syria or Hezbollah rocket launchers in Lebanon.
Those fears propelled Israelis to take advantage of a government offer of free gas masks in increasing numbers. The crush of people trying to get gas masks for themselves and family members saw waits as long as five hours in some places.
Frustration and fear forced organizers to call in police and there were even some reports of fistfights breaking out. There was frustration in the media as well. Pundits fired broad sides at politicians who blocked Britain's involvement in any military action against Syria calling it a perfect storm of political ineptitude, short-sided expediency, and gutlessness.
Israel's stake in this is all too clear. International opposition to weapons of mass destruction is being tested not only with Syria's chemical arms but Iran's nuclear program as well.
Jim Clancy, CNN, Jerusalem.
LEMON: Well, Syria's crisis has the whole region on edge. Some people are concerned a possible U.S. strike on Syria perhaps may trigger retaliation from other countries.
So, I want to get some perspective on this from on today's developments with my panel, now.
Nick Paton Walsh is here. You know, you have covered this conflict from the start. How does Obama's speech today change things for nations near Syria?
WALSH: It gives them a little bit more time, potentially. Although, there is a missile strike, it certainly injects a huge amount of uncertainty as to whether or not this will, in fact, happen. And if it doesn't happen, that is an enormous impact on the region because it gives license to Assad to do this again and it perhaps, suggests the U.S. is checked out as a kind of policeman to that particular part of the world.
Butt, one thing you should bear in mind about how awful it's already been for the Syrians is that since this war began, as many Syrian children have died, as United States has lost soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan put together. This is damage to generation now. There is the whole part of the world which is going to recovering this for 30 more years.
It is going to impact the U.S., it is going to impact our allies. At some point the U.S. was going to get drawn in. Is this the time which it was supposed to happen? It's too late. But eventually, that is going to be the case and Barack Obama possibly has the moral weight of history on his side when trying to navigate this problem.
LEMON: Let's talk more about Israel, Fouad. How worried should Israel be, if at all?
AJAMI: Look, the Israelis and Syrians have shared a border for a very long time. One thing that's very interesting, the most quiet border, Israel's border, is the border with Syria. But in fact, the Syria/Israel border is the most quiet of the borders since the peace was negotiated in the Golan Heights with the Israeli and Syrians by hand Kissinger in 1974. The Israelis can take care of themselves. And the Syrian regime knows that if in any way endangers Israeli security, that's the end of the Assad dynasty and the end of that regime.
LEMON: You heard what Nick said, excuse me. Nick, what you said about the moral imperative for children. You heard what he said about Israel. What is -- put this in a perspective for us for history. Is there a moral imperative here if we don't go to war of some sort of military action in Syria? In history, how are we going to be looked at?
ZELIZER: Well, there's certainly a moral imperative to go to this particular war. It doesn't mean we will and it doesn't mean there's not moral imperatives elsewhere. I think what he has to combine that argument with is some strategic logic meaning the president how we're going to do this and how are we going to deal with it eventually get out and what the goal is because we can't get into all moral imperatives. And that was the Kissinger argument.
And so, he needs to offer a response. That's Obama's promise that we can do this, do it in particular ways and if he wants to make this case, this is why we go to this war. And he needs to do that within the next few weeks otherwise it will be meaningless.
LEMON: Hold that thought. Our final thoughts, next.
LEMON: Before we get final thoughts from my panel here, I want to talk about the war powers act and whether or not the president is outside of that or can he go with unilaterally?
AJAMI: Don, there's a real controversy about the war powers act. Obviously, presidents believe they should be able to prosecute wars without any oversight. But the war powers act, to the extent that we know the basics of it, presidents can prosecute military operations, and they can do so for 60 days. When these 60 days only to an end, if the military operations are still going on, then they have to go and seek Congressional authorization.
LEMON: He's already saying he doesn't think it's going to last that long.
AJAMI: He says limited scope and limited duration.
LEMON: So, your final thoughts here?
AJAMI: My final thought, this is Barack Obama's moment of reckoning. Because Barack Obama made a kind of, he would make the following argument that Iraq was a war of choice and he opposed it. Afghanistan, he said, he adopted the war in Afghanistan. And he said it was a war of necessity and that's why we have to prosecute it. We now will find out whether Syria is a matter of choice or a matter of necessity.
LEMON: Nick Paton Walsh?
WALSH: This is the really nasty bit of being the commander in chief of the U.S. or technically the leader of the free world. You have no good options here but you have to do something or you kind of lose that title.
ZELIZER: And he has to make sure this doesn't destroy his presidency here at home. Wars have destroyed many presidencies in terms of what presidents want to do on the home front. Domestic policy, the budget, immigration. It's all waiting. And he needs to make sure that he can contain this politically so those issues don't go in a direction that really harm how we remember him years from now.
LEMON: There is some question about whether the president looked weak today or did he look strong? AJAMI: I don't think it was his finest moment. I don't think it was his finest moment. And I think in distant lands they will look at him and think, we were on track to go to war, all of a sudden this man changes on a dime. And the idea that by going for a walk with Dennis McDonough, it wasn't that he went to a walk with George Schultz or Henry Kissinger, you know. This is a political operative, Dennis McDonough. And this epiphany that came with him, you know, I walked with Dennis McDonough, I thought about it and now I'm going to bring it to Congress.
LEMON: Nick, quickly, did he look strong? I'm not sure as a correspondent you really want to answer that question.
WALSH: Look, consider, I understand why he's doing what he's doing and the end of the day he made this choice because this could go on for a lot longer than the limited --
ZELIZER: He needs Congressional support. But I don't think the way he's handled it in the last few days has been very effective.
LEMON: Thank you very much, everyone. I appreciate your perspectives.
I'm Don Lemon. Make sure you stay with CNN for the latest developments on the crisis in Syria.
And tomorrow, secretary of state John Kerry is going to be on CNN's "STATE OF THE UNION." Make sure you join here, Candy Crowley, tomorrow morning at 9:00. Gloria Borger will be hosting for Candy Crowley.
I'm Don Lemon. Good night.