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Members of Congress Briefed on Syria; The President's Changed of Heart on Syria; Military Strike Could Spark Cyber War; Nerve Gas Can Kill in Minutes; Protests Against Syria Strike Spread; Arab League Wants Measure Against Syria; The Two Sides of Syria's First Lady

Aired September 1, 2013 - 16:00   ET


FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Hello again, everyone. Welcome to the third hour of the NEWSROOM. I'm Fredericka Whitfield. A look at our top stories right now.

Congress is now taking a hard look at the chemical weapons allegations against Syria. Some members just finished the closed door briefing at the capitol. But Congress isn't officially back to work until September 9th. So, when could we see a vote on this? We have more next from Capitol Hill.

And not everyone's support taking action. Protesters around the country are turning out in force to say, no to strikes.

The U.S. military has gone from standing ready to standing down after the President's decision to ask Congress for approval to strike Syria. Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr is with us now. So, Barbara, there's certainly a different dynamic now to the Syrian crisis. How is it playing out at the Pentagon?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Fred, as I think you would expect, they're looking at where all the ships are. They may switch a few ships out. They're not going to leave everybody just sitting there but they will have the same number of ships, the same fire power. Four to five destroyers. Forty tomahawk missiles on each of them ready to go. Those missiles of course guided to their target by very precise GPS satellite coordinates. So they will have to keep after this.

If they see Syrian forces on the move, dispersing, they will be retargeting the missiles which they know how to do very readily but they will an keep eye on Syria very closely over the coming days so if and when the President orders a strike, those precision-guided missiles with their 1,000 pound warheads will be ready to go.

WHITFIELD: And then, Barbara, what are military leaders saying about how the extra time to need a hurt or help?

STARR: Well, you know, maybe it turns out to be awash. I think we'll going to have to wait and see. They're concerned that Syrian forces could start moving around and they will have to keep looking through U.S. spy satellites overhead to locate them, to be able to target them if that's what it comes to. As for helping, the U.S. military says, it is ready to go, has been ready to go. It's an interesting thing. General Martin Dempsey made it very clear, the chairman of the joint chiefs that he told the president they would be ready today, tomorrow, a month from now if that came to it so that statement gave the president, perhaps, the military reassurance to be able to tell Congress, there was time to debate all this. They can still act with full capability whenever the order comes.

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

STARR: Sure.

WHITFIELD: Members of Congress just left a briefing on Capitol Hill with a team from the Obama administration. Dana Bash was outside that briefing. So, Dana, what are you hearing from these lawmakers and was it a pretty sizable turnout concerning it's the holiday weekend?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It has been a pretty sizeable turnout. I should tell you that it appears that the briefing is still going on, likely just wrapping up because we have seen and talk to a number of lawmakers who have come out sine then. The reaction even among some of the President's generally most loyal supporters has been pretty mixed and even skeptical. For example, one democrat Jim Himes of Connecticut came out and talked about the mood inside and then I'll tell you what he's going to do at the other side of this. Listen to what he said.


REP. JIM HIMES (D), CONNECTICUT: In that room, today, there was a lot of memories over another time when the President came and said or at least the President's people came and said that was a slam dunk intelligence and of course, that was not -- episode that most members would never want to repeat. So, I do think that most members are thinking a lot more about the merits of the proposal here rather than the political consequences to the president.


BASH: I asked if he had to take the vote today, would he vote yes or no? And he said, the answer was no, he would vote no. Another democratic congresswoman Janice Hahn took the red eye from California, went in to this meeting, came out and told us that she feels the same way about, certainly, they made the case on intelligence, she actually took felt comfortable with the intelligence, but with regard to the military plans and what happens after, what they say would be these limited strikes, she doesn't feel comfortable right now.

Both of them said that they're still persuadable but they're certainly not there yet even after this hour-and-a-half long briefing. Now, the other thing I should tell you that is come up with these members of Congress is that several have said that they believe that the way the legislative language that the President sent last night to Congress for this authorization as written is too broad. Now, they wrote it only about a page, a little bit more than a page, they wrote it, "With the intention of being narrow." It talks about authorizing force for anything dealing with WMD or weapons of mass destruction in and around Syria but still there's no timeline and there aren't enough specifics for some of these members so look for some, again, especially in the President's own party who want to get comfortable with this to ask for changes in the way that they're structuring this authorization.

WHITFIELD: OK. So again today, some meeting was one to reveal classified information. However, there are some hearings that are likely to be scheduled this week before all of Congress reconvenes next week, right?

BASH: Absolutely. Look. The main reason why Congress is still going to be effectively and officially on recess this coming week and that leaders and the White House are not asking Congress to come back for a vote immediately is because the votes aren't there. Everybody who is in the position to know will admit that now so what the White House is doing effectively beginning with this briefing that's again wrapping up behind me, and continuing through the week is full court press.

They're going to have John McCain, it was a key player who is not there yet in terms of a yes at the White House tomorrow to meet with the President and there will be public hearings in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday and then there will be a slew I'm sure of phone calls, a classified briefings of discussions and likely some negotiations over the language of this authorization until you get a week from Monday and that week is the week we're going to see the vote in both the Senate and the House on this authorization.

WHITFIELD: All right. Dana Bash on Capitol Hill, thank you.

Turkey can't escape its involvement in the Syrian situation. It is geographically very close. Syrian refugees flood over the border and it is politically in step with the U.S. But the President's decision to ask Congress to approve a military strike is raising questions in Turkey. Here's more now from Ivan Watson.

IVAN WATSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Fredricka, mixed results here in Turkey to Obama's announcement that he was going to delay any type of military action against Syria. The Turkish government has been very hawkish about any possible military operation led by the U.S. against the Syrian regime. The Turkish government clearly wants it and has been calling for regime change in Damascus and after Obama's announcement one Turkish official wrote me, quote, "We are not thrilled with the delay and uncertainty that Obama's announcement will bring." However, he also indicated that the Turkish government does respect the democratic decision-making processes inside the U.S. when it comes to the use of military force.

Now, the Syrian policy here in Turkey, it's a NATO ally country, a majority Muslim country, also a close ally of the U.S., is very divisive. While the Turkish government wants a U.S.-led military operation, many Turks are uncomfortable with this and that was repeated at peace day, so-called peace day rallies that were held in cities around the country. This is an annual rally and demonstration that takes place but it probably had more importance amid this talk of war in neighboring Syria.

In Istanbul, throughout the afternoon, demonstrators blew bubbles, they held up peace signs and said they didn't want a war. Here near the Turkish border with Syria, it is much more divisive and it cuts across ethnic and sectarian lines. We actually saw several hundred people in what's supposed to be peace day chanting the name of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and basically cursing the Syrian rebels who they accuses them of being members of al-Qaeda. Just showing you how complicated this conflict is in Syria and how it's also complicated the way it spills over into Turkey, a country that is hosted hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees. Back to you, Fredricka.

WHITFIELD: All right. Thank you so much. Ivan Watson. So, how did the President come to change his mind on Congressional approval from military action in Syria? CNN's Jim Acosta looks at the chain of events.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Fredricka, just as the President seemed to be ready to go it alone on Syria, he called on Congress to go along with him.


(voice-over): In a city that feasts on political theater, it was high drama just past high noon as President Obama told the world he had pulled back from the brink of a military strike against Syria.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I will seek authorization for the use of force from the American people's representatives in Congress.


ACOSTA: Aids to the president saying, Mr. Obama decided to go in a different direction at almost the last minute at approximately 6:00 p.m. Friday, the President made the stunning change in plans to seek Congressional authorization and then went for a walk. A 45-minute walk in fact with his chief of staff Denis McDonough. At approximately 7:00 p.m., the President announced his decision to his national security staff sparking a heated debate, he then started to spread the word calling Vice President Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. Saturday morning, Mr. Obama convened a principles meeting with top national security and intelligence officials to finalize the decision.


JOHN KERRY, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: The question is when do we -- we collectively, when do we in the world going to do about it?


ACOSTA: Just hours before the President's abrupt move, Secretary Kerry had made a passionate case for urgent action.

KERRY: Instead of being tucked safely in their beds at home, we saw rows of children lying side by side sprawled on a hospital floor, all of them dead from Assad's gas.


ACOSTA: But aides say what Kerry and the rest of the President's team did not know is that Mr. Obama had been privately kicking around the idea seeking approval of Congress for days. As Kerry was turning up the heat, the president seemed to be turning it down.


OBAMA: I am very clear that the world generally is war weary. Certainly, the United States has gone through over a decade of war. The American people understandably want us to be focused on the business of rebuilding our economy here and putting people back to work. And I assure you nobody ends up being more war weary than me.


ACOSTA: As it turns out, administration officials say, the President was listening to members of Congress who wanted in on the process.

SEN. RAND PAUL (R), KENTUCKY: I think it's incumbent to always obey the constitution. The rule of law is something our country is founded on and I would ask Congress to come together.

REP. BARBARA LEE (D), CALIFORNIA: The 64 members of us who signed our letter want to make sure Congress is called back in the session, debate the issues, the facts and then vote on whether or not we should engage militarily.


ACOSTA: So, on Saturday, the President got back on the phone calling House Speaker John Boehner and other Congressional leaders.


OBAMA: Here's my question for every member of Congress and every member of the global community, what message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children to death in plain sight and pay no price?


ACOSTA: Just minutes later, the President departed the White House with Biden to play a round of golf leaving administration officials scrambling to show a united front despite that fierce discussion inside the west wing, aids say, the President's team is now fully on board. As for the defense secretary, one senior U.S. official said as a former senator whose views on the limits of war are well-known, it is not hard for Chuck Hagel to agree with the president. Another official said of Kerry, no concerns, he was in the Senate for 29 years and has made consultation with Congress a huge priority since he became secretary of state. The debate that counts is the one to come in Congress where lawmakers from both parties still have questions.


SEN. TED CRUZ (R), TEXAS: In my view, U.S. military force is justified only to protect the vital national security interest of the United States and to date the administration has not focused on those interests.

REP. CHARLES RANGEL (D), NEW YORK: I don't see where America is threatened. I don't see where our national security is threatened. And perhaps between now and the time we get back in September the 9th, the President will have information that would allow the Congress to effectively see where this danger is.



ACOSTA: Administration officials say the President still reserves the right to take military action as one top official put it, the commander in chief still has the authority to act even if Congress says, no -- Fredericka.

WHITFIELD: Thank you so much, Jim.

President Obama didn't mince words when he announced he wants the strike against Syria but he does want to get that Congressional support. So what happens if lawmakers say no? Beyond what Jim was telling us? Some answers from our chief political analyst Gloria Borger.


WHITFIELD: And this information just in. According to Reuters News service, the Arab league is now calling for the U.N. and international measures, no further response coming from the U.N. or any other countries, but this information we're just now getting from Reuters that Arab league is calling for U.N. and international measures against Syria over that gas attack or the series of gas attacks that have now being proven by the weapons inspectors who are just now returning from that country.

All right. We'll get more on that later. So, here's a question. Why did President Obama decide to ask for U.S. Congressional authorization to strike Syria when he says he really doesn't really need it? Earlier I spoke with our chief political analyst Gloria Borger about that.


GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: It is a bit of a risky strategy, isn't it, Fred? I think that after David Cameron lost his vote in Britain, when I think the White House it had to do some rethinking because they had lost one of their chief allies, when you don't have a chief ally like Great Britain on board, the President is going to be looking for some other air cover, if you will, and I think that this is a president, by the way, who was always supported Congressional authorization for the use of force.

When you look at all the people in the administration, President Obama, Biden, Hagel, Kerry, all former senators, all have spoken on the floor of the Senate about Congressional authorization for the use of force. I think in the end they decided that it was the most prudent thing to do even at the same time it kind of makes him look like they were vacillating. I asked Secretary Kerry this question this morning. Let's take a look at his answer.

KERRY: The President made his decision first. And he announced his decision. His decision is that he believes the United States of America should take military action to deter Assad from using these weapons and to degrade his capacity from doing so. Now, that's the President's decision. But he --

BORGER: No matter what Congress does? No matter what Congress does, the President --

KERRY: He has the right to do that no matter what Congress does. That's his right and he asserted that in his comments yesterday.

WHITFIELD: And so, Gloria, you also asked the secretary, Secretary Kerry, what if Congress says no? Would the President act anyway?

BORGER: Well, it sure seems to me from listening to Secretary Kerry right there that he believes that the President does have the authority to do this. And they believe as they've been saying over and over again that this is a matter of national security. That American interests are at stake. And that, therefore, they could do this by themselves. They say, however, they would now prefer to go to Congress. I think the big question here is, how will this Congressional debate play out, Fred?

I mean, you have members of the President's own party who are very skeptical about this mission. People aren't so much skeptical about the evidence of Assad using chemical weapons. I think the real problem in the Congress is really a difference of opinion on whether this kind of a so-called surgical strike would actually be effective in deterring Assad from using chemical weapons and whether it would be an effective signal, in fact, to send to Iran or North Korea.

And so, you know, you have John McCain out there saying this is a slap on the wrist that isn't really going to make much of a difference. So, the president right now has a little bit of time to make his case and he and his lieutenants and you saw Secretary Kerry this morning will all be there out there forcefully saying that members of congress have no choice but to back this president.

WHITFIELD: And at the same time, you have got Congressional leaders, senators who are worried about their constituency and America is very war weary. BORGER: Right. Absolutely. And, you know, the irony here, of course, Fred is that this is a president who rose to prominence by being an anti-war spokesman, if you will. And now the skepticism and the cynicism about military action that has been built up over the last years is, in fact, a problem now for this president. So it's one of sort of a great ironies of this story which is that the war weary country is in large part because of a group of Democrats led by the President and Republicans who are saying, you know what? Enough. We don't want to fight anymore wars. And I think nobody understands that better than President Obama.

WHITFIELD: All right. Gloria Borger, thanks so much for joining us from Washington.

BORGER: Sure. Thanks, Fred.


WHITFIELD: So could a military strike against the Assad regime spark an all-out cyber war with Syria? We'll tell you why some think Syrian hackers have already launched their first attacks.


WHITFIELD: The President says he's holding off on military action until Congress has its say but have Syrian groups already attacked U.S. targets? Some say they have and the attacks are taking place in cyberspace. Brian Todd explains that a military attack on Syria could lead to an all-out cyber war.


BRIAN TODD, CNN INTERNATIONAL (voice-over): "Server not found." A screen designation that many "New York Times" website customers had to deal with for about 20 hours. The website of one of the nation's largest newspapers taken down. A group called the Syrian electronic army claimed responsibility. Who are they?

MARC MAIFFRET, CHIEF TECHNOLOGY OFFICER, BEYOND TRUST: The Syrian Electronic Army is a pro-Assad hacking group. It appears to be a loose collective of a few individuals. There's been some information put out on the internet that it could be even as young as 19-year- olds.

TODD: Marc Maiffret, a former hacker now with the cyber-security firm called Beyond Trust, has followed this group's attacks.

This spring the Syrian Electronic Army hacked the Associated Press Twitter feed, put in fake message saying, "Breaking: Two explosions in the White House and Barack Obama is injured."

A U.S. official tells us this is a murky underground group that makes its name plastering pro-regime propaganda on popular Web sites, but Maiffret says the method these hackers used this time was an escalation. (on camera): Previously experts say the Syrian Electronic Army would go after the direct managers of the Web sites they were hacking, using a phishing e-mail like this one to try to trick them into giving up their login credentials.

Well, this time the hackers went after the larger connection chain. It's called the domain name system. That's what connects you, when you type in a Web site like or, to the specific computer addresses where that content is found. Well, this time the hackers went after the managers of those connections, in this case a firm that works with a company called Melbourne I.T. They tricked them into giving up their passwords.

(voice-over): As a result some people trying to go to "The Times" Web site were steered instead to servers controlled by the Syrian Electronic Army. Then --

MAIFFRET: You could basically have your computer attacked.

TODD: If the U.S. conducts military strikes on Syria, will the hacks get worse? As the Pentagon once warned a cyber-Pearl Harbor?

Homeland security expert Frank Cilluffo says the Syrian hackers will likely strike again.

PROF. FRANK CILLUFFO, GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY: If they did work with some of their allies, with Iran, if they were to get some support from China and Russia, then, yes, then you get the game changes quickly. It escalates in terms of capability.

TODD: The targets for America's cyber-enemies? The U.S. electrical grid, government computer systems. Experts say the Syrian Electronic Army isn't sophisticated enough to do a lot of damage to those systems right now. But with Iran's help, certainly with China's or Russia's, they could get there.

Brian Todd, CNN, Washington.


WHITFIELD: The U.S. secretary of state says signatures of sarin gas has been found in Syria. But what is this gas that would have feared so much? And what affects does it have on victims? Our senior medical correspondent explains straight ahead.


WHITFIELD: All right. Bottom of the hour now. Welcome back. I'm Fredricka Whitfield.

Five things crossing the CNN news desk right now. Breaking news, the Arab states, according to Reuters, is -- Reuters News Service is reporting that the Arab states are now calling on the international community to take action against the Syrian government over that chemical gas attack that President Obama says killed hundreds of civilians. The Arab League foreign ministers also saying that those responsible for the attack should face trial as other war criminals have.

We're talking about 22 members of the Arab League, including the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Qatar, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, all weighing in on that according to Reuters.

All right. Number two. Ford just announced that it is recalling 370,000 cars. The company says the steering shaft may corrode which can cause loss of steering. The recalls affects 2005 to 2011 models of the Crown Victoria, Mercury Grand Marquis, Lincoln Town Car. No incidents or injuries have been reported.

And number three takes us to South Africa, former president Nelson Mandela left the hospital today but doctors say he is still in critical and at times unstable condition. The 95-year-old anti- Apartheid leader is now at home. The South African government says Mandela will get the same kind of intensive care that he has been receiving at the hospital, and this time at home. He was admitted in June with a lung infection.

And number four, a sharp spike in radiation levels in Japan is reported in pipes and containers holding water at the Fukushima nuclear plant. Tokyo Electric Power Company says only a single drop of highly contaminated water escaped the holding tank. The company is confident that its crews can deal with the problems safely. The Fukushima plant was severely damaged in the 2011 tsunami that hit Japan.

And number five, veteran British broadcaster David Frost has died. He was a fixture on American and British television. But he was perhaps best known for his revealing interviews with President Richard Nixon. Frost died of an apparent heart attack aboard the cruise ship Queen Elizabeth. David Frost was 74.

And now we take a closer look at the nerve gas that the U.S. is accusing Syria of using. Sarin gas. It is one of the most toxic chemical weapons that exist. Even a fraction of an ounce can kill a person.

Senior medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen tells us just how dangerous it can be.

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

Now 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 breathe it in or when they touched it, or maybe they were able to run away and get to a place where there is no gas.

Here's exactly what nerve gas does to your body. Your glands and your muscles have off switches so that they're not working all the time and 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.

Now there is an antidote to nerve gases like sarin. It's called atropine. It's an injection. And it's best to get it as soon as possible -- Fredricka.

WHITFIELD: All right. Thanks so much, Elizabeth Cohen.

Many Americans are weary about launching a strike on Syria and some are taking those concerns to the streets. The growing protest movement next.


WHITFIELD: Talk of military action against Syria has ignited protests around the country. The White House became a target as well right as the president addressed the nation from the Rose Garden yesterday.

Nick Valencia is here.

So how sizeable are these protests?

NICK VALENCIA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, they're big and they're all across the country. And I think that's why it matters. That' why they're making noise. You have these demonstrations outside of the Rose Garden yesterday.

But there were dueling protests, Fred. There were those that were against this action, possible military action against Syria. But there were those also that supported this. The large contingent, though, of those demonstrators outside the White House yesterday were saying that we need to keep our hands off Syria. They're saying United States has not business there.

And as I mentioned, these protests and demonstrations all across the U.S., not just in Washington but also in places like Boston. Here in Atlanta and in Los Angeles, California, where our CNN crew was, and they caught up with a demonstrator who couldn't help but get emotional about her reasoning why we should stay out of Syria. Take a listen.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I want to let the American friends that I know that we want peace. We don't want war. To leave us alone. To take care of this government. Because people are dying every day. And he's just making -- making everything in Syria worse.


VALENCIA: You see a lot of raw emotions there, Fred. And Gloria Borger was talking about this nation being a very war weary nation. I think that that's what we're seeing in these demonstrations.

WHITFIELD: And I wonder, the president's words about now seeking the approval of Congress. In any way has that changed the tone of the protests, the demonstrations?

VALENCIA: Well, you have one side that's been very opposed to it, very vocal about their opposition, but not everyone sees it as a bad move.

Earlier I spoke to a member of the Syrian American Council and he laid out his reasoning of why we should strike Syria right now.


FERAS ALHLOU, SYRIAN AMERICAN COUNCIL: Most recently we saw the chemical weapon that was used against women and children. If we -- the U.S. and international community do not take action, the Assad regime will use chemical action -- chemical weapons in other parts of Syria. So we're not asking to start a war.

I mean, the Syrian opposition, personally myself, I'm not asking for war. We're not asking to start a war. We're asking to end this war.


VALENCIA: And Feras went on to say that it's very important for our regional interests, it's very important for our allies in the region that no one else is bombed with these chemical weapons, that these chemical weapons aren't used on anybody else. And he said it's our moral obligation to strike now.

WHITFIELD: And then of course some of the breaking news within the last hour that the Arab League --

VALENCIA: That's right.

WHITFIELD: -- is now voting in favor of some sort of U.N. intervention or at least the international community stepping in in some capacity so it'll be interesting to see if what -- if this dynamic will change the course of action.

VALENCIA: And how this develops. You know, people are very passionate about whether or not we should be in Syria or whether or not we should be out of Syria. And, you know, only time will tell in this case and, you know, President Obama has made a very strong claim for why we should be there. So you'll these dueling voices and dueling protests -- Fred.

WHITFIELD: All right. Thank you so much.

VALENCIA: You got it.

WHITFIELD: We know it's just the beginning. Nick Valencia, appreciate that.

All right. The potential strike on Syria has been delayed but if the president of the United States makes the decision to go, what happens then? We'll explain how the military action would be planned and executed.


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN Breaking News.

WHITFIELD: All right. This breaking news now, former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi will stand trial in criminal court, according to Egypt's official news agency. He's accused of incitement to conduct murder and, quote, thuggery relating to clashes in December of last year.

Morsi was ousted in July by the military. There have been a series of deadly clashes in the country between Morsi supporters and opponents. A date for the trial has not been set.

Strong words today from the Arab League. It has called for, quote, "action against the Syrian government."

Let's bring in our Reza Sayah from Cairo on the phone.

So a few things happening and we should talk to you from your vantage point but let's begin with the Arab League, Reza, and how significant this is that these Arab League nations are 22 but that includes Syria. The majority of these nations are now saying there needs to be some U.N. intervention or some intervention from the international community?

REZA SAYAH, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (via phone): But the key is they don't mention the word military action, Fred. So the words are not as strong as the Obama administration would have liked.

After a meeting, the Arab League has delivered a message and that message is that they do not explicitly approve military action against Syria. However, they do say that the League calls on the international community that represented by the Security Council to assume its responsibility and take deterrent and needed measures against this crime referring to the chemical attacks in Syria and all crimes of genocide.

If you break down the implications here, the Arab League is an organization that represents Arab governments so if they would have come out and given direct support for military action by the U.S., it would have certainly bolstered the case President Obama will have to make to the U.S. Congress in the coming days that the U.S. should carry out some kind of limited attacks against Syria.

The head of Syria's opposition group today in Cairo, the Syrian National Council, addressed the Arab Foreign Ministers and asked them to pass a tough resolution in support of military action. The Arab League has already condemned the use of chemical weapons. They've already put the blame squarely on the Assad regime. But so far, their position has been and it remains with their message today.

That they want the U.N. Security Council to take charge when it comes to approving military action. Obviously that's not happening so that explains why the Arab League did not give the green light for a military strike explicitly but they left the wording open enough and vague enough that if Washington does go ahead with a strike, it would not be in violation of the Arab League's position.

But I think what's paramount here, Fred, and a bigger point is that the Arab League's position is probably not going to be a difference maker for the vote that will take place in the U.S. Congress. That's the vote that will decide if the U.S. attacks Syria or not, despite what the Arab League delivered with its message today.

WHITFIELD: All right. All right, Reza Sayah, thank you so much from Cairo, Egypt. We appreciate that.

All right. Coming up next, we'll meet a close member of President al- Assad's family. His wife Asma. 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 in her country rises?

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UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm going to be successful.

GOINES: Once that light goes on, whatever they do, they're on their way to fly.



WHITFIELD: The first lady of Syria has spent many years helping victims of Syria's civil war but as the death toll rises how much influence does Asma al-Assad have with her husband?

Here's Brian Todd.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Fredricka, she's been called Syria's Princess Diana. For years she's lent a glamorous humanitarian touch to the Syrian regime, but right now Asma al-Assad's chief role seems to be to put spin on a horrific situation.


TODD (voice-over): She's photographed consoling the families of deceased soldiers. The pictures posted on the president's Facebook page. She visits victims of the war her husband fights so ruthlessly. In a glowing profile, "Vogue" magazine called her a "rose in the desert," then abruptly pulled the piece off the Web. These are the contradictions of Asma al-Assad. Married for about a dozen years to Syria's embattled dictator.

(On camera): How does she rationalize this? And why does she do that?

ANDREW TABLER, WASHINGTON INSTITUTE FOR NEAR EAST POLICY: I don't think it'll be very hard for her to do that. I think that she's standing by her man. She threw her lot in with Bashar a long time ago.

TODD (voice-over): Analyst Andrew Tabler knows Asma al-Assad, worked with her at a charity in Syria. He believes the Syrian first lady clearly understands the gravity of what's going on there.

In an interview with CNN two years before the Syrian uprising started, Asma al-Assad spoke about the condition of Palestinians in Gaza.

ASMA AL-ASSAD, WIFE OF SYRIAN PRESIDENT: I think about when you put your children to bed at night. This is something I think about on a daily basis. You put your -- children to bed at night and you expect to see them in the morning. That's a luxury that people in Gaza just do not have. So what would it be like for you, having, living under those circumstances?

TODD: Before Syrian children found themselves under those circumstances, Asma al-Assad was all about helping them. She established charities, worked on literacy programs, since the war started she's not been seen as much in public.

(On camera): How much influence does she have over him?

TABLER: I think she has some influence in terms of pointing out some of the basic problems in the country and particularly these issues about reform but politically she's not accepted by the Alawites around the regime's core.

TODD (voice-over): Asma al-Assad is Sunni. The daughter of a Syrian cardiologist. Born in London and raised in this home, educated at the best schools in England, her trajectory was impressive. She worked for two investment banks after graduating, closed some lucrative deals but since marrying Bashar al-Assad, her knack for showing her sense of style has led to some brushback.

(On camera): Last year some private hacked e-mails between the Assads and their inner circle were released and obtained by CNN, "The Guardian" and other outlets. The e-mails revealed that at one point as her country was being torn apart by civil war Asma al-Assad ordered $16,000 worth of candle sticks, tables and chandeliers from Paris.

(Voice-over): In one e-mail she boasted that she was the, quote" real dictator in her marriage." I asked Tabler what may be going through her mind right now.

TABLER: I think that she's torn but she's made her decision. The fact is that that she has made her life around the Assad regime itself. She's I think a divided person very much like her husband between wanting to reform and carry out good works in the country and being the first lady of Syria, and those two things, particularly with this regime, are incompatible.


TODD: There's this speculation since the war started that Asma al- Assad might at some point leave Syria but Andrew Tabler thinks she'll stay to the bitter end. Fleeing the country, he says, would mean leaving her husband and possibly even her three young children behind -- Fredricka?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) WHITFIELD: All right. That's going to do it for me. I'm Fredricka Whitfield. The next hour of the CNN NEWSROOM begins right now with my colleague Don Lemon in New York.

Hi, Don.

DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: How are you? Happy Sunday. What's going on down at Atlanta? Anything good?

WHITFIELD: It's a very -- well, yes, you know, it's rainy and stormy here but hey, it all continues. We've got a lot of news straight ahead of you, Don. I pass the baton to you.

LEMON: OK. I want to show you this before we get to the news.


LEMON: Camera one, look how sunny it is in New York City.


WHITFIELD: You just got to rub it in? Is that you're saying?

LEMON: Fred. Sorry.

WHITFIELD: With your panoramic view. With your new studio? Where are my windows around here?

LEMON: You have a window that the tourists can see in.


WHITFIELD: That's true. I get to see faces but you get to see the sunshine.

LEMON: Have a great day -- evening. Good to see you, Fred. Thank you.

WHITFIELD: All right. Take care.

LEMON: All right.