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Obama To Meet With Boehner And Pelosi; Syrian Rebels: 118 Killed In Fighting; Inside the Mind Of Bashar Al-Assad; Diana Nyad Breaks Swim Record

Aired September 2, 2013 - 14:30   ET


BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: Bottom of the hour. I'm Brooke Baldwin.

And at this very moment, behind closed doors, President Barack Obama is set to meet with two of his biggest critics, Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham. He needs their support to help convince Congress that taking action against Syria is the right thing to do.

I want to go straight to the White House, to our correspondent there, Athena Jones.

And, Athena, not only is this meeting happening today, you now are getting word of a pretty high profile meeting happening tomorrow.

ATHENA JONES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Brooke. House Speaker John Boehner is scheduled to come to the White House tomorrow morning to meet with the president, as is Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. This is part of the ongoing consultations and multiple briefings the president and other members of the administration have been having with members of Congress to try to get this resolution passed.

Now, we know that the White House has said the president doesn't have to have congressional approval to act in Syria, but now that he's taken this step in seeking it, they're going to do all they can, working very, very hard, night and day, to try to get this through the Congress. And it's right now very much up in the air. There are a lot of folks with a lot of questions. And so today you have the president meeting with Senators McCain and Graham. We expect to hear from them coming out of this meeting. And one thing that's important here is that these are two senators, Republican senators, who really have said they want the president to go further. They say they want him to talk about a clear plan and strategy in Syria.

Something that -- they want the goal to be to take Bashar Al-Assad out of power, to change the battlefield balance against Assad and so they want these strikes to strike at Assad's missile defense, command and control centers, that sort of thing. Now the White House has said the goal here is not regime change. So there's a big difference here. The White House wants to punish Assad for using these chemical weapons. Certainly something we expect these two to be talking to the president about today -- Brooke.

BALDWIN: And as you highlighted, we are watching and waiting. We have that camera poised just outside of the White House, waiting to hear from both of those senators as soon as that meeting is finished. Athena Jones, thank you very much.

I want to take you inside Syria now and just tell you the number we have, 118, 118 people were killed in fighting there on Sunday including 13 children. This is according to the Syrian opposition. Just to show you, some of the fighting here, this is Saturday. These are rebels fighting government forces in extreme Southern Syria. This is very, very close to Israel.

That is the fighting on Saturday. The following day Bashar Al-Assad met in Damascus with parliament members from Syria's close ally, Iran. And in an interview today with French newspaper, Assad called the Middle East a, quote, "powder keg," which could, quote, "explode" if the U.S. strikes.

Joining me now from San Antonio, Texas, Middle East history professor, David Lesch, he is the author of two books on the Assad family and he has met multiple times with Bashar Al-Assad. Professor, it's nice to see you. Welcome.


BALDWIN: If you could guess, sir, do you think Bashar Al-Assad is celebrating today or breathing a sigh of relief that the U.S. has put off action against him?

LESCH: I think he's sighing a little breath of relief, but I think overall they've already made the calculation that anything the U.S. would do in terms of a strike, whether now or later, wasn't going to change dramatically the scope of things on the battlefield. I think they've already made the determination that the United States, the Obama administration, is not out to affect regime change as the Obama administration has said right up front.

And numerous times the Syrian regime, obviously, has come up against or exceeded these so-called red lines, and so I think they feel fairly certain that below a certain level of force, that they can do what they want in terms of -- in terms of taking action against the revolutionaries.

BALDWIN: So a sigh of relief from the president in Syria. I want to take you back, David, to last Friday. Military action against Syria at the time seemed a near certainty even imminent. So I was talking to one of our CNN analysts, former CIA operative, Bob Baer. He told me this. I want to play this sound bite for you. This is based upon conversations he has with his contacts in Damascus.


BOB BAER, CNN INTELLIGENCE AND SECURITY ANALYST: And this regime is panicking. And they've made it very clear that if any of these strikes look like regime change, if they hit, for instance, the fourth division, the president's brother's division, Bashar Al-Assad will act irrationally. And that could mean anything you could imagine, from attacking neighboring countries to using more gas. (END VIDEO CLIP)

BALDWIN: Panicking, irrational, David Lesch, again, that was my interview last Friday. But when the regime appeared to be under that imminent threat of attack, the crux there being Assad might act irrationally. As we mentioned, you've met the man a couple of times, proper assessment, unstable?

LESCH: I wouldn't -- I wouldn't describe it like that. They weren't panicking. I can almost assure you of that. They're used to this. Again, they're fairly certain that the United States was going to act in a very limited way. The United States was actually saying it was going to act in a limited way. They know the United States doesn't want to effect regime change.

If anything they were trying to figure out how they would respond. Not so much in a dramatic fashion or any meaningful sort of way against the U.S. or U.S. interests, but how do we turn this to our favor in terms of propaganda. How do we make it fit the narrative they've been saying from the beginning, that the whole uprising is caused by external enemies of Syria?

How do we portray ourselves as the victim of an American-Israeli project which again for Assad has won him a lot of points in the Arab world particularly a lot of street credibility in the Arab world in recent years?

BALDWIN: So street cred from some considered a despot by, we heard from John Kerry on Friday, and when I think of Middle East despots we think of the one who set the modern standard. So this guy was Iraq's Saddam Hussein. He seemed to relish playing the bad guy. Side by side with Saddam, Bashar Al-Assad, strictly by appearances, seems to be -- just look at this, seems to be milder. I read an article you wrote, I guess when you first met him in 2004 you let the world know this man loves Phil Collins. You called him a geek. Is that right?

LESCH: Yes. That's why people had a lot of hope in Bashar Al-Assad when he came to power because he was different, because he had the atypical background and atypical personality of your usual Middle East tyrant. People thought he would bring dramatic reform into Syria. But what people didn't realize is that, you know, Syria is almost immune to dramatic reform because of the inert, stagnant system that he inherited. So I think the expectations of him in Syria and particularly outside of Syria in the United States were way too high.

Therefore the disappointment was that much greater. Just because he likes western rock music doesn't mean he's going to embrace the west and embrace Israel. The major influences on his life were his father. He was a child of his father. He was a child of the Arab/Israeli conflict. He was a child of the super power cold war. This had a great deal more impact on his world view than spending 18 months in London studying ophthalmology.

BALDWIN: Right. He was an eye doctor. I want to get to the point about his father. I've read so many articles. I'm fascinated by the relationship and also about his brothers because my next question is, is Bashar Al-Assad really the guy in charge of Syria? Hold that thought, got to take a quick break, that answer after this.


BALDWIN: We're back with just fascinating insight from David Lesch, Bashar Al-Assad biographer, live with me from San Antonio, Texas. David Lesch, I want to just take a look at the Assad family photo. Here you have Hafez. This is Bashar, his father, predecessor and then standing left to right that is Maher, Bashar and Bazel. And we are all led to believe that Bashar was not his father's first choice to succeed him. Tell me about that, David.

LESCH: Well, Bazel was the first to succeed. Everyone believes that to be the case until he died in a car accident in 1994. As is usual in the Arab world, the second eldest son then takes over or is groomed for the family business. That's what Bashar was in the mid to late 1990s. He was elevated in the state apparatus in a number of ways very, very quickly, in almost a race against time to build a credible base of power before his father, who was in ill health, died in 2000.

BALDWIN: And let's throw the picture back up because I want to talk more about the brother, Maher Assad. Maher Assad commands Syria's ruthless Fourth Army Division accused of orchestrating that August 21st chemical weapons attack. There are rebels who believe Maher is in charge and Bashar is more of a figure head. Professor, is there any truth to that?

LESCH: Not to my knowledge. My understanding of the situation, many Syrians to whom I've spoken who were either recently in the Syrian government or still in the Syrian government, universally say that Bashar Al-Assad is in control. He's the one that's calling the shots. I think this counters the dominant image of Bashar over the years. He was thought of as fairly weak and incompetent by most governments.

What's interesting is that in talking to high level government officials in countries in the Middle East in recent months, they've told me, you know, now they almost have a grudging respect for him, certainly not a like for him, but a grudging respect that they've changed their profile of him. That he's a lot tougher guy to deal with than they first thought.

BALDWIN: And we talked earlier about Saddam Hussein. We know he had palaces all over the place. Some or all of which were also military command centers, and he had this network of underground bunkers impervious to attack. Do you know if Bashar Al-Assad has that same kind of infrastructure as well in Syria?

LESCH: I don't know for sure, but I assume they have something akin to that. You know, the Syrian regime is somewhat paranoid to the outside world. I don't think to the case that Saddam Hussein was especially Saddam Hussein who was attacked on numerous occasions by the west, but I assume there is something there. Particularly because they've been confronting Israel or they see themselves as having confronted Israel for decades. Therefore, they've made preparations mostly against Israel and Israeli attacks. So I assume there is something there and they've made arrangements to protect themselves should there be a U.S. strike. BALDWIN: Speaking of a U.S. strike, just bringing this all back to Washington, we know right now the president's meeting the Senators Graham and McCain. Washington's really in a holding pattern right now as far as any kind of military action. As the U.S. debates this, do you see any possibility that Bashar Al-Assad might stage another chemical weapons strike?

LESCH: That would be even more foolish than the initial one if, in fact, they did carry that out. I can't imagine anything like this happening especially when they, in their view, see the United States and the world community equivocating somewhat, giving them a bit of a respite. Why would they do anything that would generate more heat on them than already exists? I don't see anything happening. Now, you know, if the U.S. does strike at some point, you know, the question will be, will it affect a change of behavior, certainly not a change of regime, but a change of behavior. Then we'll see at that point.

BALDWIN: What do you think?

LESCH: I think again the Bashar Al-Assad regime is doing things in a very calibrated way. It's a calibrated way of bloodshed, enough to do the job and protect the regime and to defeat the rebels, but not enough to bring down the wrath of the world community. And so far they've really been treading right at that line and crossing it. So I suspect they may draw back a little bit from that, at least for a time, and concentrate on their most immediate problems.

BALDWIN: David Lesch, thank you so much for your insight, having met this man multiple times, professor of Middle East studies. Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.

LESCH: My pleasure.

BALDWIN: Coming up next, the woman who just completed that record breaking swim from Cuba to Florida, all 103 miles. She has spoken after reaching the shore. You will hear her comments in full. See the moment she first stood up.


BALDWIN: We've got it for you. It has 35 years in the making. The 64-year-old Diana Nyad just within this last hour has accomplished her dream, ever since she first tried it back in her 20s. She has officially swum all the way 103 miles from Cuba to Key West. We were there. We heard from her. Take it.


DIANA NYAD, ENDURANCE SWIMMER: I got three messages. One is, we should never, ever give up. Two is, you never are too old to chase your dreams. Three is, it looks like a solitary sport, but it's a team.


BALDWIN: And the man who has followed her progress for the last couple of years, has been part of the documentary, our chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta. We're going to talk to him and show a clip of that documentary on this incredible, incredible story, right after this.


BALDWIN: Tears from shore as Diana Nyad swims her way into the history books as the first person ever to swim all the way from Cuba to Florida without a shark cage. Look at that crowd there. This was the scene on Smathers Beach just this past hour in Key West.

I want to bring in our chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, who's hopping on the phone with me now. Sanjay, I don't even know if there are really words, right, for this feat. Fifth time was the charm for her. You have been following her journey for quite some time and the failures along the way. You know her well. What do you think this means for her today?

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT (via telephone): She is one of the most inspiring people that I know, period. We get to meet a lot of people in this job, as you know, Brooke. She's 64 years old and she just swam 55 hours almost. It's incredible by any -- any definition. When I spent time with her and she talked about the fact that she had tried this since she was 29 years old. She gave up swimming after that for 30 years, just said goodbye to the sport and then started again at age 60.

Let me tell you, Brooke, today my kids and my parents were calling me about Diana. Across generations, it's just absolutely remarkable. She sang songs to herself in the dark. It's a big, wide ocean. You can't hardly see anything. You have no reference points. She would sing songs to keep herself going hour after hour after hour. Daylight would come up sometimes and she would be in these dreamlike states.

She would think someone had opened the door to her bedroom since she was a child. It was actually the sunshine down on her back. It's absolutely extraordinary any way you can define it.

BALDWIN: Let's just watch a piece of one of your documentaries on this incredible woman.


NYAD: I was driving in my car, telling myself, you better get with these life lessons. You can't go back. You better just seize the day. Go forward and 60 isn't old. I was looking at the cars in the rear-view mirror and I caught a sight of my eyes for a second and I thought, but wait a second. Maybe I could go back. Maybe that would be the event that would make me feel strong and powerful again, would define me again.


BALDWIN: So let's just, Sanjay, talk about a couple other things. The challenges if you will. You have sharks, right? This is significant because this is the first person who's done this without a shark cage. There are jelly fish. In fact, I know the third and fourth attempts ended with near death because of those box jelly fish stings, dehydration, nausea from just the sea salt, what is the toll all of that takes on the human body?

GUPTA: Well, you know, a good way of putting it is one of these extreme medicine doctors we talked to about Diana basically said she is in a race really against her own body. She is consuming and burning so many calories, needing so much hydration to maintain her activity, but also to maintain her body temperature, it's near impossible to sort of just keep up in terms of fluids and calories.

She just starts off almost immediately fatigued and no matter how hard she tries, very hard to keep up with that. They had these -- you can see in the video there, Brooke, they had basically a line of fluid out to her and occasionally feed her various concoctions that she had come up with to provide her the most calories in the shortest amount of time.

But it is -- it's just -- there's not a tactful way of putting this. She's essentially digesting her own body, her muscle mass, in order to fuel that activity and her heat, again, for a young person, a person in their 20s, very hard. She's 64 years old, again, it's mind numbing.

GUPTA: Digesting her own body. Here she is taking in some of that. I know some of it made her sick along the way. Please do me a favor when you -- when you see her, give her a collective high-five from all of us here at CNN. I look forward to watching the new documentary, of course, with the happy ending, Sanjay Gupta. Thank you.

GUPTA: I'll give her a big hug absolutely. Thank you.

BALDWIN: Please do, thanks, Sanjay.

And any moment now, as we now know, Senators John Mccain, Lindsey Graham, we know they've been meeting with the president behind closed doors there at the White House. We are watching. We are waiting. See that podium there? We have learned they will speak publicly talking about the meeting with the president as Congress getting ready to debate Syria reconvening a week from today. Stay right here.


BALDWIN: One of CNN's most famous programs is returning one week from today. Now one of the new hosts shares a clip from classic "CROSSFIRE."


STEPHANIE CUTTER, HOST: One of the most intense episodes of "CROSSFIRE" was in November of 1985. Six months earlier the Philadelphia police department's attempt to evict members from a group called "Move" from their home started a fire. They killed 11 people and destroyed 61 homes. Watch what happened when two members of "Move" joined Tom Braden and his co-host on the right, Congressman Robert Dornan. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You said, and I quote, there's no doubt that move through garbage in the streets and some of their neighbors. I assume you saw them number one throw garbage in the streets. Is this true?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Look, we cannot all derive our knowledge by personal experience.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I am asking you a question.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Every newspaper reporter knew you threw garbage in the streets.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We can't talk together. May I finish, please.


BALDWIN: Top of the hour. I'm Brooke Baldwin. Thanks for being with me here on this Labor Day. We are getting details of this call today between 127 members of the Democratic caucus and Secretary of State John Kerry among a few others who were on that call. It was, of course, on Syria. According to sources on that call, the secretary of state believes more ally support is coming.

Other countries, getting behind the president's plan to strike Syria and also revealed on this call, there are apparently still no specific targets for this proposed limited strike. Right now, President Obama is sitting down behind closed doors with two men who have called on him to do more militarily not less.