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Interview With Rep. Alan Grayson Of Florida; President Obama Ready To Strike Syria; Obama Wants Approval From Congress; Nelson Mandela Leaves Hospital; Labor Day A Work For Car Thieves; Tim Tebow Released By The Patriots; Open Court; Al-Assad's Brother Called "The Enforcer"; Russia And Iran Stand With Syria

Aired September 1, 2013 - 14:00   ET


FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone, I'm Fredricka Whitfield. You're in the CNN NEWSROOM.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry says there's more stunning evidence of a chemical weapons attack in Syria. He said today blood and hair samples show that deadly nerve gas sarin was used near Damascus. And Kerry said the U.S. has to act. But that decision is now up to Congress. President Obama said yesterday he will seek congressional approval for military action. And his administration is busy making a case. Right now, a classified briefing to members of Congress is getting started.

Officially, Congress isn't back in Washington until September 9th, but the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold a hearing on Tuesday. And we've already heard a lot of reaction to the president's announcement from Washington and around the world. We start our coverage in Damascus, Syria, with Bill Neely with ITN. He's live there now in Damascus.

So, Bill, what has been the response to President Obama not striking before getting U.S. congressional approval?

BILL NEELY, ITN INTERNATIONAL EDITOR: Well, the first reaction from here came, I'd say, about two minutes after he finished speaking at the White House, when Syria's army began shelling rebel-held districts in Damascus after a day of calm. And after that came the mocking. In newspaper headlines, one saying "The American retreat starts here." And then the ministers and diplomats weighed in. The ambassador to the United Nations saying Obama and Cameron had climbed the tree but didn't know how to get down. The deputy prime minister saying Obama's delay was laughable.

And today, I spoke to another one of Assad's men, the deputy foreign minister Fayzal Al Mikdad. He said he wasn't surprised by Obama's administration because he said Obama and the administration are lost, they don't know what they will do. And he said he hoped the wise people in Congress would do what the MPs and the British House of Commons did and vote against military action. But he said if it came, Syria's army was ready, absolutely.

WHITFIELD: All right. Bill Neely, thanks so much from Damascus. We'll check back with you later on. Meantime, the weapons inspectors just back from Syria are briefing the U.N. secretary-general on the evidence collected. Ban Ki-Moon is urging the White House to hold off on any military action until the full report is in. So far, no U.N. resolution calling for military strike.

Our Nick Paton Walsh is at the U.N. So what is the timetable for any talks or votes, any action?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: We have been asking all day if there is a timetable. And we're not going to be told what that is when U.N. inspectors will release their results.

We're getting inklings, though. The U.N. spokesperson for the secretary-general said the results that have been taken by U.N. inspectors from the alleged sites in Syria where chemical weapons were used are being transported by plane transported by the German government to Hague in the Netherlands. They will be given to laboratories tomorrow, and presumably then testing can begin.

One other detail he gave too is that two Syrian officials are traveling with those samples along with U.N. inspectors to give the Syrian government a member here at the U.N. the ability to have some oversight. But we don't know when those results will come out. We do know they're on Tuesday. Some members of the Security Council, the non-permanent members - that's not Russia, France, China and the U.K, -- they'll be given a briefing by the secretary-general, a little more information on how this process is going. But they've been clear, we are not going to get the final result until information is ready and collated in one place.

But it's entirely possible, given the speed the U.S. has shown, within 11 days since the attack taking samples of blood and tissue and producing what they said is definitive results, the pressure is certainly on here at the U.N. for them to deliver with a similar speed. And it's possible it may happen. So that before Congress the U.N. will have given their verdict on whether chemical weapons were used but not part of their job, not who used them. Fredricka?

WHITFIELD: And you mentioned blood and tissue samples. But do we know of the bags of evidence that a number of these weapons inspectors brought back or at least now are in the Netherlands. Do we know what kind of evidence is among it?

WALSH: We are being told they got what they needed to do the job. I think the indication is we will be talking about samples from individuals. We have seen video of their work, been to buildings, soil samples where these things, these weapons were allegedly used. They've also taken statements from witnesses and survivors, which need translating and compiling into this report.

But it's pretty clear from the U.N. spokespeople here that they are happy they got enough to make the determination. But it is a complex job defining those chemicals. They have to use a spectrometer to take out the dirt from the samples, then isolating, identifying the different particles that make part of the chemical weapon. That can take some time, although we have been made fully aware here they know they're on the clock. And it's possible we could see the results slightly sooner than the two to three weeks that have been intimated.

WHITFIELD: We know - we know, or it can be presumed Russia and China will not likely be on board any kind military strike or repercussions against Syria. But what could the U.N. do without their support, without those -- at least two countries' support?

WALSH: Nothing, really. And that's the issue with the Security Council here. They have a veto. The U.S. and U.K. and France have a veto as well. So, that's essentially the deadlock here. It's unlikely a resolution will be passed unless it somehow bridges the divide between these two groups who have totally polarized opinions about how to pursue the crisis inside Syria.

It's possible that if the inspectors come back that chemical weapons were used, and Russians are satisfied by that as the Chinese, they could pass a resolution condemning the use of those weapons. I'm just speculating here.

But when it comes to what to do about it, the two sides are so far apart, that's the reason Barack Obama says this building is, quote, "completely paralyzed." Fredricka?

WHITFIELD: Nick Paton Walsh, thanks so much from the U.N.

In Washington now , Capitol Hill, members of Congress are in a closed briefing right now with a team from the Obama administration. Dana Bash is outside that briefing right now. So Dana, what have you been seeing as folks enter the room?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right. You can see it behind me, members of the House and the Senate have been trickling in, many of them in their weekend attire. This, of course, is the Sunday of a holiday weekend. Not usual for the Capitol to be open, and not usual to have this kind of classified briefing. But members of Congress have been flying in from around the country in order to come to this. I'm actually, to be honest, a little bit surprised how many I've seen come considering the fact that were told they will have other opportunities later in the week.

But look, you cannot underscore enough how critical this is. Not necessarily the information they're specifically going to get in here, which is classified information about the intelligence that the Obama administration really says proves that Bashar al Assad did use chemical weapons against his own people and maybe even more information about the military plans they have in place. But also just more broadly politically, the idea of reassuring members of Congress, many of whom are skeptical, many whom are undecided, that this is the right way to go. I've been talking to senior Republicans and Democrats in the Senate and the House, particularly in the House where this is going to be a tougher vote. They said if the vote were taken right now, it likely wouldn't pass. The Obama administration needs this week-plus they going to have now before these votes are taken in the Senate and the House to do some arm twisting.

WHITFIELD: All right, Dana Bash, thanks so much. Keep us abreast of all taking place there on Capitol Hill.

So for days now, top-level officials have made it clear the U.S. military is ready to strike Syria and strike quickly. But after the president's decision, the military is now on hold. Let's bring in our Barbara Starr from the Pentagon. So, Barbara, how does this delay potentially affect the military's readiness?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Fred, according to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he says not at all, that they will keep up on the intelligence so they will be able to target anything inside Syria they are ordered to strike. And that he has assured the president everything will go smoothly on that, that they will have the information, they will be able to target those sites inside Syria.

That perhaps leading to the president's statement yesterday that he was assured this strike could be effective today, tomorrow, a month from now. Remember, five U.S. Navy warships aimed at a range of targets inside Syria. You see them there. Each of these ships has about 40 tomahawk missiles on board guided to targets by GPS satellite coordinates. So, they have to keep the satellites over Syria as they have, looking for the targets, plugging those GPS coordinates into the missiles, ready to go if and when the president orders. Fred?

WHITFIELD: And so Barbara, is there any concern this kind of delay will actually help the Assad regime?

STARR: Well, that's the question. Yes. As the satellites spy overhead and look for any moves of Syrian military forces so they can keep track, get the GPS coordinates, put them into the U.S. missiles, the question is what will the Syrians be up to?

There - our sources are telling us there is some evidence in recent days the Syrian military has in fact dispersed its forces, moved things around in anticipation of some sort of U.S. attack. But right now, I have to say, all the indications are they are certainly not stopping their attacks, their shellings, against civilian neighborhoods against Damascus and other areas in Syria. So, this is going to be a the process the next several days. The Syrians on the move, the U.S. chasing them down and getting precise locations as to where they are.

WHITFIELD: All right. Barbara Starr from the Pentagon, thank you.

The president is calling on Congress to give him the go ahead for military action against Syria, but he faces opposition. We will talk live with one lawmaker who says the U.S. has no reason to act in Syria.



UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I want to let the American president that we want peace, we don't want war. To leave us alone, to take care of his government because people are dying everyday. And he's just making everything in Syria worse.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I am an American citizen, and I love this country but I do love my Syria. and I want peace. I want it to be stopped. I want America to stop the war an on my country.


WHITFIELD: Syrian Americans talking about the crisis in Syria. The president of the United States making his case on punishing the Syrian government for allegedly using chemical weapons against its own people.

But in his Rose Garden speech, Mr. Obama said he first wants Congress to approve. Just outside the White House gate, protesters urged Obama to stay out of Syria, just as you saw across the country.

How will the debate play out? In Congress, already there is criticism from New York Republican Peter King. Peter King is stating he thinks the president is kind of bypassing his authority by now turning to Congress.

Another one of Obama's critics, Florida Congressman Alan Grayson joining me from Orlando. He opposes any intervention at all. So after hearing the president, Mr. Congressman, yesterday, did the president say anything to change your mind?

REP. ALAN GRAYSON (D), FLORIDA: No. It's not our responsibility. It's not going to do any good. It's dangerous and it's expensive. Nothing the president says changes any of those facts.

WHITFIELD: And what do you mean by that when you say it won't do any good when you hear Secretary Kerry spell out that letting a dictator like Assad go with impunity means it sends a message to other dictators who might have chemical weapons that they could harm their people as well?

GRAYSON: Actually, there's only four countries in the world that have chemical weapons. The largest of the four is the United States. So are we trying to send a message to ourselves? That's not logical.

I've heard that theory before somehow one country's actions will affect another country's and another country's and another country's. It's just the Domino argument again. We'll call it the bombino argument. It's not logical, doesn't make any sense.

WHITFIELD: So, when the president and Secretary of State Kerry says Syria threatens national security and that it behooves the United States to do something, you say this is not a national security issue?

GRAYSON: Absolutely not. And there is a huge number of Americans who agree with me. We set up a Web site called don' and got over 10,000 signature in less than 24 hours. The polls show people understand this literally has nothing to do with us. We are not the world's policeman. We can't afford this anymore, these military adventures that lead us into wars that last for a decade or more. It's wrong. We need to cut it off before it even happens. WHITFIELD: Does this mean it's at least comforting then to you the president while he said he thinks justifiably the U.S. should strike but he still wants to hear congressional approval? Is that any comfort to you he wants Congress to be thoughtful about this and to give the green light or not?

GRAYSON: Yes. And in fact, the British went through exactly the same process a few days ago. They came to the right conclusion, that it's simply not their responsibility. We're not the world's policeman. We're not the world's judge, jury or executioner. No one else in the world does things like this, and there's no reason why we should. We have 20 million people in this country who are looking for full-time work. Let's tend our own garden for a change.

WHITFIELD: You mentioned your don' and that there are a number of petition signatures; people are on board with your point of view. But what about fellow members of Congress? Where do you believe the allegiance will fall?

GRAYSON: Oh, the allegiance will fall into what makes sense for them representing their districts. In my district if you ask people where does Syria fall on your list of concerns, it wouldn't even be in the top 100. We have to spend a billion dollars (INAUDIBLE) according to British authorities. The billion dollars of this attack will cost that money that is better spent on our schools, our roads, our bridges, our health care and so on.

WHITFIELD: So, if you had an opportunity to make your case to the president, what would it be? We understand that Senator McCain will be spending some one-on-one time with the president tomorrow. Senator McCain has been saying for a very long time the U.S. needs to act. If you had that kind of face-to-face time with the president, what would you say to him as to why the U.S. should not go this, whether it has allies or whether it means going it alone?

GRAYSON: Well, in fact, all the indications are we will be going it alone. Even French public opinion is overwhemingly against this, and the French are the only ones who are even entertaining the possibility. It should tell the president something that when he's trying to vindicate so-called international norms that there's 196 countries and no one-- no one -- wants to do anything like this.

But what I would tell the president is first, no Americans have been attacked. None of our allies have been attacked. It's an unfortunate circumstance, there is lots of unfortunate circumstances in the world. In Burma, for instance, there's a civil war that started more than 10 years before I was born. And 12 presidents have resisted the impulse to interfere in the Burmese civil war even though far more people have died in the Burmese civil war than have died in the Syrian civil war. And I can give you countless other examples.

Sometimes the highest international norm, the one to respect the most, is mind your own business. And in this case, it simply won't do any good. No one thinks we will determine the outcome of the Syrian civil war by lobbing a few missiles into Damascus. No one thinks we will even degrade or eliminate the possibility of future of chemical attacks by doing. And in doing so, we'll be wasting a lot of money and we'll be opening ourselves to a counterattack.

People forget this, but the embassy in Beirut, the U.S. embassy in Beirut is 15 miles away from the Syrian border, and just down the block from Hezbollah. So if we attack them and then they attack us, I think people can see where this is heading.

WHITFIELD: Congressman Alan Grayson, thanks so much. From Orlando today, appreciate it.

GRAYSON: Thank you, too.

WHITFIELD: So if the U.S. indeed goes ahead with a military strike, what would it look like exactly? In a minute, I'll hear from a former U.S. intelligence officer who spent years in Damascus. I'll ask him what targets he thinks would have the most impact.


WHITFIELD: The United States president says military action is needed against the Assad regime in Syria. But he wants U.S. congressional approval first. So, what would a military strike look like, and how could a delay hurt a possible strike against Syria?

Lieutenant Colonel Rick Francona lived in Syria for three years during the 1990s. He's also a former attache at the U.S. embassy in Damascus. Colonel Dempsey -- General Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the capacity to strike Syria is not time sensitive. Do you agree, it could happen any time and would it make a difference?

RICK FRANCONA, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, it depends on what his target said. If he's going after fixed facilities, they're not going to move; the targets will always be there. You can't move air fields, you can't move a lot of the command and control things, a lot of the radar installations. They will be in the same place today as they're going to be in two or three weeks. So, in that instance, he's right.

But if you're going after the chemical weapons delivery systems, those are primarily artillery, rocket launchers, things that are very tactical, things that are very movable, things that you can hide. And the Syrians have a lot of hardened (ph) places to hide things.

WHITFIELD: And that is likely a target, these weapons systems. I mean, why not it be a target? So, how difficult would it be for the U.S. to track, to monitor any kind of movement over the course days or weeks?

FRANCONA: Yes, even if we have excellent satellite coverage of what's going on, the Syrians have a lot of these systems. I mean, they have hundreds, thousands of rocket launchers and artillery systems that they can move. They've got a lot of places to hide them. They spent years building hardened facilities inside mountains. It's going to be very difficult to track and locate them. And once you locate them, even if you know they're in a hardened facility, there's not much you can do to a hardened facility with a cruise missile. The cruise missile could be very effective against another set of targets, air fields, command and control, that sort of thing. WHITFIELD: Is it your view the U.S. could go it alone? While we heard from Secretary Kerry we heard some support in terms of countries condemning what the Syrian regime is doing, they haven't articulated whether there is going to be military support. I'm talking about Australia, I'm talking about Turkey and even France. Could indeed the U.S. go it alone? Should it go it alone if it comes to that?

FRANCONA: Yes, we have the military capability to do it on our own. But it's always nice to have a coalition so you don't feel you're alone out there. Turkey would be a useful ally in this instance if we were going to go to the next stage, and that would be the used fixed wing aircraft from which we could launch air launch cruise missiles, which have a little heavier warhead. But right now, it's going to be cruise missiles off the ships. We can do that ourselves.

WHITFIELD: And are your concerns -- what kinds of concerns do you have about any retaliatory strikes if indeed it comes to this? You heard Congressman Grayson mention earlier Israel being a likely or possible target from Syria if the U.S. were to intervene. Do you see that as happening, and if so, what would be protections in place?

FRANCONA: Well, the Syrians have said that. They made that threat and said if they're attacked, they would respond and they would burn Israel. They would launch strikes there. The Israelis have taken the prudent measures. They're issuing gas masks to their citizens, they're moving the Iron Dome anti-missile system to protect Tel Aviv. So they're taking prudent steps to do that.

I'm not sure the Syrians would strike the Israelis. I think that would be a foolhardy move. The Syrian army is tied up right now, fighting the insurgency, fighting the rebels. They don't need to take on the Israelis. Because if you attack the Israelis, there will be a response.

WHITFIELD: And Colonel, the president underscoring it would be limited capacity. But just based on all you played out, that sounds pretty extensive. Is it your belief that it could be limited, and limited means just in a day in or two?

FRANCONA: Well, if you mount - if you launch a series of missiles one day, then you look the next day to see what you did. If you didn't hit what you wanted, if you didn't achieve the level of degradation you wanted, you'd have to go back and restrikes. So now you're talking two, three days. And unfortunately, these things have a way of going on and on. And so, once you -- as we say in the Middle East -- once you stick that nose under the tent, where does it stop? So it could be the first step to an escalation, and that's what everybody's concerned about.

WHITFIELD: Colonel Rick Francona, thanks so much for your time. Appreciate it.


WHITFIELD: And in just a few minutes, if the strike on Syria were to occur, what then? What happens afterwards? We'll look at the bigger picture and how Iran and Russia may fit into this crisis.

And what will history ultimately say about the president's decision to go to Congress for approval to strike? We'll discuss.



JOHN KERRY, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: I personally believe at a time the institution of governance are being doubted by many people, I think this is a very courageous decision. I think it is a big presidential decision, and no one should misinterpret it.


WHITFIELD: That was U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaking earlier and you can see his full an interview in just about an hour from now right here on CNN.

So we're told President Obama made his decision during a Friday walk on the White House lawn with his chief of staff and then he sent foreign policy reverberations around the world with the announcement that he would delay a strike on Syria until Congress approves.

I'm joined now by presidential historian, Doug Brinkley. Doug, good to see you. So is this turnaround that is now happening, is it potentially reshaping the president's legacy?

DOUGLAS BRINKLEY, PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: Well, it's certainly creating a lot of interest. I mean, for starters we don't like being on the opposite side with Great Britain. We have a special relationship with that country. Throughout the cold war it was always United States and Britain working in lock-step with only a few deviations. So the fact that the British parliament had rejected going into Syria with us I think had to be very sobering to the president.

He did not seem to have a NATO coalition or U.N. coalition and then here at home, he was getting sniper fire from both the liberals of his own party and conservative Republicans so hence he decided the best thing to do is go with what he said his entire life that military action should be approved by Congress first, hence, he's kind of found his authentic stride right now.

WHITFIELD: So he's being consistent in that message. Might it had been a big concern for the president to say how hypocritical it would have been if he said I'm going to go ahead and use this executive order and make this decision and bypass Congress all together, given when he was senator, he voted against and is on record as voting against the Iraq war?

BRINKLEY: It would have been interpreted as that by some people. But after all, Bill Clinton in 1999 went into Kosovo for humanitarian reasons without Congress. Clinton and Ronald Reagan did it a number of different times. So the president could have gone it alone, but he decided it was wiser to take the prosecution against Assad. We talk about a commander in chief.

Barack Obama is prosecutor in chief and he's taking this case to the world community via television, internet, he's going to try to argue the case that chemical weapons is beyond the pale and that we all have to sit up and do something. It might be not only does Congress go along with him, but the world community will say Obama was right and we were slow to move.

WHITFIELD: You mention Clinton among those presidents who did bypass Congress when Clinton was making a decision about Kosovo. So in what way did that alter or change or take away his powers or respects or credibility as a president in -- are those some of the things this president was contemplating?

BRINKLEY: It didn't hurt Bill Clinton in 1999 after all he was going to be leaving office soon. This is a president still has a full 3 1/2 years ahead of him including a fall where he has to fight for immigration and the debt ceiling and on and on with Congress. So to isolate himself from the process in Washington I think the president thought it was just too risky. I would say, a key here, it's one thing not to have the United Nations go along with the U.S.

The U.N. it's not all that popular, but to not have NATO go with us. I mean, we were in Libya, President Obama did go for a while on his own, but we had NATO behind us in that fight. We've got to have more allies to go into Syria. I think this extra 10 days allows him to solidify perhaps getting Turkey and France at least more in the seat with him.

WHITFIELD: You mentioned Libya, there are some parallels, but, of course, the president now breaking stride and conducting this White House very differently as it pertains to Syria. Do you believe, because there was so much criticism post Libya that this go around this president said, OK, I will put a little bit more in the basket as it pertains to Congress and hope that Congress is on board?

BRINKLEY: I don't think it quite happened that way because I think this president was willing to go it alone with France and Britain, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and have a smaller coalition of the willing, if you like. But, again, I think it's when Great Britain balked that the president was feeling very vulnerable. At that time, he kind of changed his own strategy.

WHITFIELD: And now you wonder if the president even regrets using those words "red line."

BRINKLEY: Well, the red line could haunt him. He's trying not to make it not make it President Obama's red line, but the American people's red line via representatives in Congress that this will be an American strike on Syria not an Obama White House strike.

WHITFIELD: Doug Brinkley, thanks so much. It's always good to see you joining us from Austin today.

All right, one of the world's most revered leaders left the hospital today, but former South African President Nelson Mandela still has a long road ahead. An update on his condition next.


WHITFIELD: Bottom of the hour now. Welcome back. I'm Fredericka Whitfield. Here are five things crossing the CNN news desk right now. Number one, this hour, a team from the Obama administration is giving a classified briefing on Syria to members of Congress. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said today blood and hair samples from Syria showed sarin gas was used by the Syrian regime on innocent civilians and he called the case to take action, quote/unquote "overwhelming." President Obama is seeking congressional approval for a military strike.

Number two, takes us to South Africa, former President Nelson Mandela left the hospital today. Doctors say he is still in critical and sometimes unstable condition. The 95-year-old apartheid leader is at home. Mandela will get same kind of intensive care he has been getting at the hospital, this time at home. He was admitted in June, into the hospital with a lung infection.

In California, firefighters are making some headway, fighting a massive fire in and around Yosemite National Park. It's now about 40 percent contained. More than 220,000 acres have burned. Forest Service says warm dry conditions are expected to complicate firefighting efforts over the next few days.

Number 4, there's no Labor Day off for car thieves. In fact, the National Insurance Crime Bureau says it's among the top five holidays for car thefts. On Labor Day last year, statistics showed a car was stolen every 43 seconds. There is a little good news. Progressive Insurance says nearly half of stolen cars are recovered.

Number 5, Tim Tebow did not survive yesterday's final NFL roster cuts. The former Heisman Trophy winner was released by the New England Patriots after completing less than 37 percent of his passes in the preseason. Ironically his best game was Thursday when he threw two touchdown passes against the giants. Tebow thanked the Patriots for the opportunity and vowed to continue his, quote, "life-long dream of being an NFL quarterback."

All right, now, to open court, an in-depth look at the most compelling stories in the world of tennis. Today, we profile one of the biggest champs in the history of the sport, Serena Williams.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think it is just starting to sink in, that she truly is one of the best players of all-time.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: To me overall, Serena is the best I ever seen her play, but the whole package.

VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Serena's 16 grand slam singles titles have earned her at a seat at a table with (inaudible) Martina and Stephie. SERENA WILLIAMS: To have me being that little girl from Compton, mentioning my name with Martina Navratilova and Steffi Graf, I feel like I am just like everybody else, and I don't feel like me being great or good, I know I am a player and I am good at tennis, and I get nervous and apprehensive, and I have all those feelings, but what helps me is I am strong mentally and it helps me get through.


WHITFIELD: He is always in the shadows. Next, we'll shed some light on President Bashar Al Assad's younger brother. Hear why he is called the muscle in the family and what it means for the future of Syria.


WHITFIELD: Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad isn't pulling all the strings when it comes to his regime's show of force. His younger brother is believed to be helping him make and enforce those decisions. Brian Todd shows us why Maher Al-Assad is considered the muscle in the family.


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

PROFESSOR JOSHUA LANDIS, UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA: Maher this is knee capper. He is in charge of keeping the regime in power.

TODD: Considered the more brutal than his brother, the muscle in the family, Maher Al-Assad commands the fourth division and the Republican Guard, elite civilian military units composed of mostly minority of Muslims, the same sect as the Assad clan. He has something else in his portfolio.

ANDREW TABLER, WASHINGTON INSTITUTE FOR NEAR EAST POLICY: Maher as well as his cousins have come to control what's called the ghosts there, Alowhite paramilitary forces.

TODD: Forces that analysts say have carried out massacres of Syrian villagers. Maher's actions once led Turkey's prime minister to publicly slam him saying he's, quote, "chasing after savagery." Ted Kattouf is a former U.S. ambassador to Syria who has met with the Assad family.

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

TED KATTOUF, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO SYRIA: I think his brother has to be wary of him because he's a hot head and he's known to be a hot head and he's known not to have particularly great judgment. But, you know, when you're ahead of a mafia-like regime you depend upon enforcers. TODD: A role Maher's relished, experts say, for many years. There is one legendary account of the time his sister was set to marry someone who was not exactly up to the family's standards.

LANDIS: He's said to have shot his brother-in-law in the stomach in the early days before his brother-in-law was his brother-in-law and the father did not approve of the marriage and thought he was low and Maher was already the enforcer before the father died.

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

LANDIS: We don't even know -- there are rumors his leg was blown off. He was badly wounded. This could be true. We don't know exactly what condition he is in today.

TODD: If Maher Al-Assad is still alive and still helping his brother, they would be following a menacing family tradition. Their late father placed his own late brother as head of important Syrian security units. Refat Al-Assad was reported as a key figure behind the 1982 massacre in the city of Hama in which tens of thousands of Syrians were killed. Brian Todd, CNN, Washington.


WHITFIELD: Coming up at 4:00 Eastern Time, we'll meet another member of President Assad's family. His wife, as she has been called Syria's Princess Diana for her humanitarian efforts. So how much influence does she have over her husband as the death toll mounts. We'll explore at 4:00 Eastern Time.

But first, Iran and Russia, they are two of Syria's biggest allies, will they retaliate if the America strikes Syria? We'll talk about that next in the NEWSROOM.


WHITFIELD: Saudi Arabia is calling for international action in Syria saying this, quote, "The Syrian regime has lost its legitimacy within the Arab world and internationally," end quote. Two major influencers in this Syrian crisis are Russia and Iran. Russia which has sent warships to the region hold as seat in the U.N. Security Council and has been a thorn in the side of the U.S. efforts to get the U.N. to OK military action against Syria. Iran is Syria's largest ally in the region and also has irritated world leaders over its nuclear ambitions.

Joining me now from Washington is Joe Cirincione, a global security expert and the president of the Ploughshares Fund, which focuses on nuclear weapons policy and conflict resolution. Joe, first off, let me get your reaction to Saudi Arabia joining in this chorus. We have heard from Australia, France and Turkey all condemning Syria. Now Saudi Arabia doing the same, but you know, an Arab nation, very different. JOE CIRINCIONE, PRESIDENT, PLOUGHSHARES FUND: Thank you, Fredricka. Yes, a very important statement and one that maybe will precede an Arab League statement on this. The United States very much wants the support of the Arab League, particularly in the case of any military action, but more importantly in any diplomatic solution to this crisis. Whatever your view on the military strikes almost everyone agrees that there is no military solution.

A military strike can degrade Assad's capability, but it won't topple him from power, won't end the chemical weapons threat and certainly won't end the slaughter. Only a diplomatic solution can do that. To get that you need the involvement of all the players in the region including Russia and Iran, they have a very key role to trying to bring an end to this slaughter.

WHITFIELD: What would it take to get Russia and Iran on board to condemn because if anyone else has a word in this, most would say they're more complicit than anything else?

CIRINCIONE: They are. They're backers of the Assad regime. You might see Russia, for example, increasing its arms shipments to Assad in this case. Both have a similar interest to that of the United States. They would like to stabilize the conflict and they would like to keep Assad in power. You heard the president say the focus of our military action would not be regime change. There's a very good reason for that.

You think Assad is bad? What follows an Assad collapse could be much, much worse, including a rise to power of al Qaeda-like Islamist forces that are fighting Assad. So what your outcome might be to stabilize, keep Assad in power at least for the moment and try to reach a diplomatic solution. Russia and Iran might have a say, interest in that. Ironically the president moving towards military action could be a lever to get Russia and Iran to aid a diplomatic solution.

WHITFIELD: That's where it gets very confusing then because, you know, critics of the Obama administration would say it's what happens next, which would be the greatest worry and if the Assad regime, if the objective is not to remove him, then how is it this kind of strike would help stabilize this country if it's the same regime and just now suffering a blow from U.S. attacks?

CIRINCIONE: That is one of the biggest argument against the strikes, if they really are just a shot across the bow, symbolic effort and then why are you doing this, you might make the situation worse. The president now has a diplomatic window for the next week. I think he did the right thing going to Congress. The Congress has the authority to make war, not the president. That's our constitutional democracy.

But it buys him about a week, 10 days in which he can push the diplomatic solution. He has to put as much effort into trying to reach a political solution to this crisis as devoting to his military actions. A good place to start is G-20 meetings that will take place in Russia, St. Petersburg, September 5th and 6th. There he can try to say to Putin, you don't want me to strike, what are you going to do? How are you going to help end this slaughter? WHITFIELD: The president beginning his travels to that region starting this Tuesday. After Monday, he is going to be meeting with among other people, members of his staff and also U.S. Senator John McCain, how the country proceeds as it pertains to Syria. Thanks so much, Joe Cirincione. Appreciate your insight.

CIRINCIONE: My pleasure, Fredricka.

WHITFIELD: All right, the U.S. says evidence that lethal sarin gas was used in Syria is overwhelming. What exactly does sarin gas do to a person's body? We'll explain why it's so toxic and deadly next.



JOHN KERRY, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: I can share with you today that blood and hair samples that have come to us through an appropriate chain of custody from East Damascus from first responders, it has tested positive for signatures of sarin. Each day that goes by, this case is even stronger.


WHITFIELD: Sarin gas is one of the most toxic chemical weapons. Even a fraction of an ounce can kill a person. Senior medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen tells us how dangerous it can be.

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Fredericka, one of the reasons why sarin gas is so lethal is that you don't know that it's coming. It's odourless. It's tasteless. You usually don't know you've been affected until you get sick. Here are some of the things that happen. People's pupils come to a pinpoint. They get headaches, excessive sweating, convulsions, and respiratory failure.

Nerve gas can kill within minutes. Some people do survive and that probably means that they didn't get as big of a dose when they breath it in or when they touched it or maybe they were able to run away and get to a place where there is gas. Here's exactly what nerve gas does to your body.

Your glands and your muscles have off switches so they're not working all the time. A nerve gas turns off that off switch, so your muscles and glands are working all the time. You actually can become exhausted, collapse, become paralyzed and eventually die. There is an antidote to nerve gases like sarin, atropine, an injection and best to get it as soon as possible -- Fredricka.

WHITFIELD: Thank you so much, Elizabeth Cohen.