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THE SITUATION ROOM

Crisis in Syria; The Putin Factor; Rebels Await Decision On Syria Strike; Interview With Congressmen Michael Grimm, David Cicilline

Aired September 2, 2013 - 17:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, our SITUATION ROOM special report -- Crisis in Syria. President Obama enlists a former rival to help him convince Congress to support a U.S. strike on Syria.

Can John McCain deliver the votes the president needs?

This tense new phase in the Syria crisis comes just days before President Obama comes face-to-face with Syria's most powerful ally, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. We're going live to Moscow.

And the incredibly high stakes in all of this for Syrian rebel fighters. We'll speak live this hour to one of their top generals.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

President Obama making a full court press right now for Congressional backing for a U.S. strike against Syria, following his dramatic turnaround over the weekend, when he asked Congress to formally authorize any U.S. military action.

And today, he enlisted the help of two prominent and powerful hawks, Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who are both warning this crisis isn't just about Syria and that a Congressional vote against a strike would be, in Senator McCain's words, "catastrophic."

Senator -- our senior White House correspondent, Brianna Keilar, is beginning our coverage this hour.

The president wasting no time trying to enlist that critically needed support.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: No, that's right, Wolf.

And he definitely did the full press here today.

Senior administration officials are reacting very positively to this meeting that President Obama had with Lindsey Graham and John McCain and specifically to the comments that they made after this meeting, which lasted a little over an hour. Now, Senator McCain was asked if he would persuade, or attempt to persuade, other Republicans, which is something, clearly, the White House is relying on him to do. And he said he will try to persuade them if he is persuaded.

Obviously, there are still conditions to authorizing force that the White House would have to agree with for McCain and Graham and other Republicans to give the OK here.

But this specifically was the comment that the White House is reacting very positively to.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: I understand where the president is at on that issue. But it is my hope that even a limited military strike can degrade Assad's ability to project force, particularly using chemical weapons.

But there seems to be emerging from this administration a pretty solid plan to upgrade the opposition, to get the regional players more involved.

Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan, a lot of the Gulf Arab states, have been helping quietly. Now is the time to get out front and be more overt.

When it comes to financing these operations, the people in the region need to carry the lion's share of the financial costs.

So what can I sell to people in South Carolina?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: Senator Graham and I are in agreement that now that a resolution is going to be before the Congress of the United States, we want to work to make that resolution something that a majority of the members of both houses can support.

A vote against that resolution by Congress, I think, would be catastrophic, because it would undermine the credibility of the United States of America and the president of the United States.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KEILAR: So you hear there from Senator John McCain, buying into working on a resolution that a majority of both houses would be able to pass. This is what the White House is reacting very positively to.

Make no mistake, there's still a lot of convincing to do. And that will continue. President Obama and his top aides will meet with House Speaker John Boehner tomorrow, as well as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. They'll be meeting, as well, with the Democratic and Republican chairmen and ranking members of pertinent committees from both the House and the Senate.

This is an extraordinary amount of outreach -- but Wolf, this meeting today was key. And it's fascinating, because the man that Barack Obama defeated in 2008 in the presidential race is now the man who he is relying on for help on this issue that could very well define his foreign policy legacy.

BLITZER: You see the two senators both wearing ties, the president a little bit more casual on this Labor Day.

Susan Rice, the president's national security adviser, also in that Oval Office picture -- Brianna, the White House submitted, the other day, over the weekend, some draft legislation, if you will, some -- a proposed resolution that would be considered in the House and the Senate. Already, there's grumbling, they want -- some people want significant changes, others some tweaks.

Is the White House open to some changes in that legisla -- in that language?

KEILAR: I think the White House is open to that. And that is where they're speaking to find agreement here with Senators McCain and Graham. Now, their demands specifically I called more aid to rebels. They want rebels to have additional resources so that they can, obviously, be a stronger force against the Syrian regime.

Still, you have, on the other side in Congress, members who want to make sure that there are no boots on the ground. They want that very explicit. And they want an end date so that this is definitely a limited engagement.

So as far as the White House sees it, I think they expect changes and they're seeking that sweet spot as they work with Congress on this -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Let's see if they can find it.

All right, thanks very much for that.

Brianna Keilar at the White House.

What certainly promises to be a fierce debate will begin tomorrow in Congress, when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee takes up the issue of Syria.

Our chief Congressional correspondent, Dana Bash, is up on Capitol Hill -- Dana, the president, I think it's fair to say, especially in the House, facing an uphill battle.

DANA BASH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. I spoke with a Democratic lawmaker who had just hung up the phone with a lob -- from a lobbying conference call with Obama officials and 127 Democrats. And he told me based on what he heard in that call, anyone who says they know how this is going to go should get out of the prediction business.

And what is most interesting is on that call and others, the person who has been the most impassioned about pressing for help with Syria is somebody who knows all too well about complicated war votes.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BASH (voice-over): Multiple Congressional sources tell CNN that on a flurry of Syria conference calls, John Kerry is the administration's most passionate advocate for military action.

But Kerry knows full well how dicey authorizing war is for lawmakers.

JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.

BASH: Then Senator Kerry's vote for the Iraq War, and later its funding, complicated his 2004 presidential run. And he's not the only cautionary tale.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM OCTOBER 2002, COURTESY YOUTUBE)

HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: That if left unchecked, Saddam Hussein will continue to increase his capacity to wage biological and chemical warfare.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BASH: Hillary Clinton's support for Iraq turned out to be her undoing in 2008 against anti-war Barack Obama.

The lawmakers weighing action now insist their decisions will not be political. Kerry and Clinton's experiences serve as haunting examples that what may seem right now may look wrong in hindsight.

REP. JAMES HIMES (D), CONNECTICUT: A lot of memories over another time when a president came and said -- or at least the president's people came and said that this was slam dunk intelligence. And, of course, that was not, I think an episode that I think most members would ever want to repeat.

BASH: CNN is told that on an administration conference call, one House Democrat accused them of, quote, "historical amnesia," forgetting the lessons of Iraq and Vietnam.

Kerry shot back he has a case of attacking Syria, quote, "beyond a reasonable doubt."

But there are other reasons some lawmakers in both parties are highly skeptical about authorizing force in Syria.

REP. JANICE HAHN (D), CALIFORNIA: We know that chemical weapons have been used in other instances and we did not take military action. I am hoping to find an answer to the question, is there another way to hold Assad accountable?

BASH: Some don't see the need to defy opposition from their own constituents.

REP. MICHAEL BURGESS (R), TEXAS: And the certainly the mood in the district that I represent is do not do this. BASH: To get enough yeses to pass, one thing is clear -- this legislation the White House sent Congress Saturday night is too broad.

REP. GERRY CONNOLLY (D), TEXAS: I think we're go to need to take a good hard look at the wording, to make sure it is limited in scope.

BASH: Democratic sources say plans are underway to make changes -- limit the time for military strikes and make crystal clear no boots on the ground.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

BASH: Now, I'm told that on this conference call today, the Democratic leader in the House, Nancy Pelosi, made a pretty strong case for military action. Still, I'm also told by Democratic sources not to expect actual overt arm-twisting. No whipping, as they call it here.

But I'm also warned and told that they are going to be tallying up what the votes are going to be on the Democratic side, at least in order to help the White House, so they know where things stand going into these critical votes next week.

BLITZER: Yes. They'll do some serious head-counting, as you will, as far as the voting is concerned -- Dana, the Senate Foreign Relations takes up the issue tomorrow. John Kerry, Chuck Hagel, the secretaries of State and Defense, will testify. I think General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, will -- yes, there he is -- he'll testify, as well.

When the House comes back on Monday, will they then begin with Congressional hearings holding similar testimony inquiries or will they go right to debate on the House floor?

BASH: There's actually going to be another public hearing this coming week, we learned today. And it is going to be on the House side, the counterpart to that committee, the House Foreign Affairs Committee. So they will actually do that this week before they formally come in.

But we don't actually have the parameters of when they're going to start floor debate in the House and when they're going to have that vote. I think they're going to wait until the end of the week the kind of get a sense of where things stand before they put that on the schedule.

BLITZER: And we'll see what happens with the meetings tomorrow with the speaker and the president and everybody else.

All right, Dana, thanks very much.

To the Syrian president, Bashar Al-Assad. He is now speaking out defiantly in an interview, dismissing allegations of a chemical weapons attack, issuing a strong warning, as Western nations weigh their response. He tells the French newspaper "Le Figaro" -- and I'm quoting now -- "I have never said whether or not the Syrian Army possesses, or not, such weapons. Let's suppose that our army wanted to use weapons of mass destruction. Is it possible that it would do that in an area where it itself is located and soldiers have been injured by those weapons?"

Bashar al-Assad then goes on to ask, "Where is the logic?"

And he adds -- and I'm quoting once again -- "The Middle East is a powder keg and the fire is approaching today."

And then he warns about the reaction, saying, "Everyone will lose control of the situation when the powder keg explodes. Chaos and extremism will spread. The risk of regional war exists."

All that in an interview today with the French newspaper, from the French president, Bashar al-Assad.

Coming up as we continue our special report, Crisis in Syria, my interview live this hour with a rebel general who is inside Syria. I'll ask him what his forces want the U.S. to do.

Plus, the Putin factor -- Russia's president strongly opposed to any U.S. strike on its ally. Now he and President Obama, they're getting ready to come face-to-face. This is a SITUATION ROOM special report, Crisis in Syria.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Just days from now, President Obama will come face-to- face with one of his fiercest opponents in the push to take military action against Syria. We're talking about the Russian president, Vladimir Putin.

The president's trip to Russia this week comes as the country is strongly rejecting all U.S. claims that the Syrian government launched a chemical weapons attack on August 21st. And tensions between the two countries have reached a pretty significant pitch right now.

CNN's Phil Black is in Moscow.

He's joining us now with more on what's going on -- so they'll be in St. Petersburg, Russia, toward the end of this week, Phil, for the G-20 Summit. There's no doubt that even if they don't have any formal one-on-one meetings, they're going to be spending a little bit of quality time, at least informally, together. And that could be awkward.

VOICE OF PHIL BLACK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Indeed, Wolf. There's going to be a handshake. They're going to be in the same room. Words will be exchanged, no doubt. And it was an encounter that was always going to be awkward because Presidents Obama and Putin agree on so little.

President Obama called off a one-on-one summit that was supposed to take place here in Moscow in the days beforehand. And since then, the disagreement, the divide on Syria has only intensified over this issue of chemical weapons. Today, Russian's foreign minister said the government here had seen information, intelligence supplied by the United States and its allies and remained absolutely unconvinced the Syrian government was responsible for using chemical weapons against its own people.

So, Russia is still sticking to its theory which suggests the Syrian opposition is more likely to have been responsible for that attack. And now, as President Obama goes to Congress, politicians here in this country are seeking to influence that outcome.

Members of Russia's parliament have said in the coming days they'll be sending a delegation to the United States to meet with members of Congress in the hope of persuading them to reject military intervention in Syria, Wolf.

BLITZER: Will they bring with them intelligence to back up their claim that it was the rebels, the rebels were responsible for using chemical weapons against their own supporters?

BLACK: At this stage, we don't know precisely what the make-up of this delegation will be, who will be going, how many, when they're going to arrive or just how they hope to persuade members of the U.S. Congress to take on their way of thinking.

But presumably, they will be armed with whatever the Russian government can give them to ensure that what Russia would really like to see is a result as we saw in the British parliament where U.S. congress rejects the possibility of any sort of international military intervention in this conflict, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. We'll see what kind of evidence the Russians have if they have any evidence to back up their assertions. Phil Black in Moscow for us, thanks very much.

When we come back, what does the opposition in Syria think about President Obama's latest case for military action? A general for the Free Syrian Army is standing by live. He's in Syria right now. We'll speak with him. He just got off the phone, by the way, with the secretary of state John Kerry.

Plus, the decision to strike now in the hands of the United States Congress. Will the president ultimately have the votes he needs to act? We'll debate it with two key lawmakers just ahead. Our SITUATION ROOM special report "Crisis in Syria" continues after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Getting right back to our special report "Crisis in Syria," but first, let's take a quick look in some of the other stories coming into the SITUATION ROOM right now.

Five times the charm for endurance swimmer, Diana Nyad. The 64- year-old completed an historic swim of more than 100 miles from Cuba to Florida today, becoming the first person ever to do it without a shark cage. Nyad's first four tries failed for reasons, including fatigue, storms, and jellyfish.

Scores of people expressed support for her on the beach and online including President Obama who tweeted "Congratulations to Diana Nyad. Never give up on your dreams."

Take a look at this video coming in from a CNN iReporter in Washington. It shows a D.C. Harbor Police boat accidentally crashing into two parked boats on the Georgetown waterfront. The iReporter says everyone was shocked. One of the boat sank and had to be towed away. But fortunately, no one was on board. No injuries have been reported.

And Ruth Bader Ginsburg is now the first U.S. Supreme Court justice to officiate a same-sex wedding. Justice Ginsburg married Michael Kaiser. He's the president of the Kennedy Cent4er, which is where the wedding took place to D.C. economist, John Roberts, in a private ceremony over the weekend. Kaiser asked Ginsburg to preside over the wedding because they are long-time friends.

Coming up, a Republican lawmaker who supports a strike on Syria and a Democratic lawmaker who's not convinced. They'll debate what the U.S. should do about the alleged chemical weapons attack. This is the SITUATION ROOM special report "Crisis in Syria."

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Happening now --

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER (voice-over): A leading voice for the Syrian opposition responding directly to President Obama. Right here on the SITUATION ROOM, we'll speak live to Gen. Idris from the region. That's coming up next.

Plus, the U.S. military stepping up its presence in the region, even though a possible strike for now appears to be on hold.

And a stern warning from the new pope about the escalating crisis in the region.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. This is the SITUATION ROOM special report "Crisis in Syria."

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER (on-camera): Over 100,000 people killed in the past two and a half years, a civil war raging in Syria. The toll climbing every single day. The Syrian opposition reports 63 more people died today, but it's the dramatic toll from that alleged chemical weapons attack by the regime. More than 1,400 people according to the United States government that has the U.S. considering military retaliation.

Rebel forces certainly closely watching all of the developments unfold in Washington. General Salim Idris is the commander of what's called the Free Syrian Army. He's joining us via Skype from Northern Syria right now. General, thanks very much for taking some time to speak to our viewers here in the United States and around the world.

I know you spoke to the secretary of state, John Kerry. He called you. What did he say to you? Did he reassure you that the U.S. would strike even if Congress rejected a resolution?

GENERAL SALIM IDRIS, FREE SYRIAN ARMY: First of all, thank you very much for giving me the opportunity to speak to our American friends. Secretary Kerry called me today afternoon and told me that it's still a making process in the United States and we understand that in all Democratic countries make it important to go to the conference.

And we, really, in the Free Syrian Army thank (ph) President Barack Obama on the position taken towards the regime in Damascus after the use of chemical weapons against unarmed civilians in Damascus which lays (ph) to the poll of more than 1,600 martyrs, including more than 500 children and we support President Obama's decision to go to the Congress to get authorization to carry out strikes against the Syrian regime.

And we understand really the decision making in the democratic country and realize that support for the decision will make it stronger and more effective and we hope it will encourage other friendly countries to participate in the international campaign against the regime.

BLITZER: Are you worried, General Idris, that during this period, it could be a week, two weeks, a month, who knows, before Congress makes a decision that the Syrian regime of president Bashar al-Assad might use chemical weapons against your supporters another time or do you think he's learned a lesson?

IDRIS: Really, regime in Damascus can use chemical weapons against civilians again in Damascus and we know that the process of making the decision may take a few days or weeks. But now, we are currently fighting the criminal regime which killed our people and destroy our country for more than two and a half years and the regime has committed countless crimes against humanity and the latest of which was the use of chemical weapons against children (ph) in Damascus.

And we think if there is no strike, the regime is going to use chemical weapons and to kill I'm afraid to say in the coming days, not coming weeks, to kill more than 20,000 or 50,000 people, of our people, and we are afraid of coming to a day to see more than 20,000 martyrs or 50,000 martyrs and that's why we are waiting now for our friends in the Congress to make the right decision to support the president's decision to do the strikes against this regime.

BLITZER: As you know, General Idris, the U.S., President Obama, has refused to provide your Free Syrian Army with lethal weapons, fearing some of them could wind up in the hands of al Qaeda supporters within the operation, the so-called al-Nusra Front and others. What kind of assurances would you give the the secretary of state or the president, for that matter, that if the U.S. were to supply you directly with military - with weapons, that they wouldn't wind up in the hands of al Qaeda?

IDRIS: Yes. I would like to say to all of our American friends that the fighters in the Free Syrian Army are civilians who left their jobs and joined the revolution and took up arms to stand against injustice against their families and their countries. And many of the fighters in our Free Syrian Army are military who defected from the army and joined the revolution. And our fighters are more than 90 persons of old (ph) revolutionary forces who are now fighting to collapse the regime. (INAUDIBLE) forces are those who are called Islamic groups. Many of these Islamic groups are (INAUDIBLE). But some of them declared (ph) clearly, the joint to al Qaeda (ph). And the most important, dangerous group of them are what is so-called the fate of (INAUDIBLE). We don't cooperate with this group, and we don't share any kind of information or any kind of support with them.

And I can give our friends in the United States and in the Western countries any kind of guarantee that they need that weapons and ammunitions that we receive from our friends if we are coming to receive such will go to the right hands, to the hands of my fighters who are (INAUDIBLE) fighting to build a free and Democratic Syria for all, for Muslims, for Christians and Alawi and all components a Syrian society.

We will - (INAUDIBLE) to stop killing, to stop the friction (ph) and to put a quick end to the suffer - to the suffering which our people are now for more than two-and-a-half years, they are suffering because of the crimes of the regime.

BLITZER: General Salim Idris is the commanding general of the Free Syrian Army, the opposition to the president, Bashar al Assad. General Idris, I know you're busy. We'll get back to you. Hopefully, we'll check back with you tomorrow and throughout this week to get your firsthand account of what's going on. Salim Idris, joining us via Skype from northern Syria. Thank you very much.

Just ahead, our special report, "Crisis in Syria" will continue. As the president makes the case for military action, the decision now remains in the hands of the United States Congress. Does he have the votes he needs? I'll speak with two key lawmakers.

Plus strong words from the pope on Twitter. What he thinks about holding Syria accountable.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: It's a high-stakes Washington debate. But unlike most others, this one does not fall cleanly along party lines. President Obama is asking Congress to approve a U.S. military strike on targets in Syria in retaliation for its alleged use of chemical weapons to slaughter -- according to the Obama administration -- more than 1,400 of its own citizens. The White House is now intensely lobbying members, but it's far from clear whether they'll give him the green light, especially when it comes to the House of Representatives. Let's speak with two representatives now. Democratic congressman David Cicilline is joining us from Rhode Island. Republican congressman Michael Grimm is joining us from New York. Congressman, to both of you, thanks very much for joining us.

A quick question to both of you. Congressman Grimm, you first: if the vote were today, would you authorize the president to use force in Syria?

REP. MICHAEL GRIMM (R), NEW YORK: Yes, I would, but I want to stress that I would want the president's strike to be a very meaningful strike. It has to be one that sends a very strong message not only to Assad, but it also sends a message to Iran and their terror proxies, including Hezbollah. So, it has to be a meaningful strike. It cannot be a shot across the bow. It should really topple the regime is what it should do.

BLITZER: Well, topple the regime, that's a big challenge.

Well, let me get Congressman Cicilline's reaction. You're a Democrat from Rhode Island. Would you support the president? Would you vote yay if the resolution were before you today?

REP. DAVID CICILLINE (D), RHODE ISLAND: Well, I'm pleased that the vote is not before us today because the president has begun consultation with Congress. I was in Washington yesterday for a classified briefing for a little over three hours, looked at some documents on a call today with the president's national security team.

But I think there remain a lot of questions for me. I want to be convinced this is in the best national security interest of the United States. I think we should proceed cautiously. We have a hearing on Wednesday before the Foreign Affairs Committee. Secretary Kerry will testify. But I have a lot of questions. I think the case needs to be made to the Congress of the United States and to the American people that this is in the best interests of the United States and in our national security interests.

BLITZER: Well, just to be precise, Congressman Cicilline, if the vote were right now, based on the classified information you learned yesterday, you would still vote no, you wouldn't authorize the use of force? If the vote were right now. I know you could change your mind over the next week or two weeks or whatever, but right now you're not yet convinced?

CICILLINE: That's right. I'm convinced that Assad is responsible for the chemical attack, that it was a horrific attack. But I think what we have to determine what's the appropriate course of action that will protect and advance the national security interests of the United States? And I think there remains a case to be made as to what will happen after a military attack, who will be part of it. So, I would not support action today but will listen very carefully to the administration, to the arguments and participate to learn as much as I can to make a judgment in this case.

BLITZER: You've heard, Congressman Grimm, administration officials say repeatedly this is not about regime change right now, this is about punishing Bashar al Assad for using chemical weapons. But it's not designed to remove him and they would be very limited, these military strikes. You say that's not good enough.

GRIMM: Well, I don't think that's good enough, and fortunately for us, the president put himself in this position where now he really to some extent needs the Congress. He himself has said it will be a stronger situation for the United States, it will be a stronger strike if we come together. So he's kind of committed himself now.

That being said, I think there's two major reasons why we have to strike. Number one, the president of the United States already committed us. The president of the United States committed us when he drew the red line. So the idea that we should or we shouldn't strike, I think that ship sailed a long time ago if we want to keep the credibility of the United States.

And again, you have to remember, this is extremely important to the Syrian people, but it also matters what Iran thinks, what North Korea thinks and our enemies and allies think alike.

BLITZER: Go ahead and respond to that, Congressman Cicilline.

CICILLINE: Well, I think it is very important. Look, everyone who has watched these videos understands this is a horrific use of chemical weapons, that there has to be a price paid. But the reality is, we need to understand completely all of the evidence in the case, the strategic objectives, what are the likely implications of military attack. Have we built an international coalition? There's been a lot of talk about this international norm, which clearly exists.

But we need to build an international coalition. It ought not fall on the responsibility of the United States alone to enforce this international norm. We're a country that faces tremendous challenges right here at home: record unemployment, a crumbling infrastructure, a budget challenge that we need to meet. We've got to remember this question is being raised in the context of urgent domestic priorities. And I think before we proceed, that we should proceed very cautiously, do a thorough review of all the implications in the region, what will happen after an attack, who will participate. I think we have a lot of questions to ask to do our due diligence --

(CROSSTALK)

GRIMM: I have a great respect for my colleague and my friend Mr. Cicilline, but the president should have thought of those things. All of those things are all valid points. But the president drew that red line.

So, now we have two issues. His credibility, the credibility of the entire United States is on the line, number one. And number two, you cannot allow, in the world we're in today with Iran racing toward nuclear weapons, we cannot allow a precedent of this regime, a regime anything like the Assad regime to use chemical weapons and not have an extremely strong response from the United States. Extremely strong response. It's our credibility, but it also our future for decades of how we will be perceived by the rest of the world, not only from our enemies but also our allies. So, that's why this is extremely important on two different levels. But again, everything that Congressman Cicilline just said is very valid. I have all of the same concerns. But unfortunately, the president of the United States has already spoke. So, once you've committed your nation, it hard to backtrack from that without losing complete and utter credibility in all parts of the world from our allies and enemies.

BLITZER: Because you know, Congressman Cicilline, a lot of your colleagues say that the Iranians, for example, in the U.S. were not to retaliate, were not to do anything in response to the use of chemical weapons, they would get the message: go ahead, build a bomb, threaten Israel, do whatever you want because the United States is not going to deliver. That's the fear you hear obviously from Congressman Grimm, but from John McCain, Lindsey Graham and others.

CICILLINE: No, I think there's no question that that is one of the things we have to consider in making this decision. But I think it's very important, and I think the president was right to come to the Congress of the United States to make his case. This is a case that the American people have to support and understand, to listen carefully to the arguments. This is a complicated question, and we have to understand all of the implications of military action. What it will mean for the region if we act, if we act alone, what it will mean if we fail to act.

So, I think Congressman Grimm raises very real concerns. This is not an easy question, but I think it's very important for to us proceed deliberately, thoughtfully, carefully, listen to all the evidence, all of the arguments and build consensus within the Congress and within this country before we proceed.

GRIMM: If I could add one thing to Congressman Cicilline, that I think the president was right to come to the Congress. But I think he did it backwards. The Congress now finds itself in a position where the president has spoke, we don't want to leave the president out there on a limb without the support of the Congress. He's already spoken and committed the United States. We feel almost obligated, number one, to support our president.

The second thing is, you have Secretary Kerry going on there and saying the United States Congress cannot possibly turn its back on the Syrian people. So again, now we're put in a position where if we did not agree and we did vote against the president, it's almost an untenable position for the Congress.

So I think the president has not only put himself in a bad position, he's put Congress in a bad position. He should have come to Congress first, he should have been quick, we should have had a special session called immediately, and this strike should have been underway already in opinion.

BLITZER: All right. A good discussion between two --

(CROSSTALK)

CICILLINE: Well, we definitely should have been back in --

BLITZER: Yes, go ahead. Finish your thoughts then I got to --

CICILLINE: I was just saying, we should definitely have been -- I was just going to say that we should definitely have been back. I've been calling on the speaker to bring us back for -- you know, for a long time, not only to address this issue but the many, many issues facing our country. We've been in recess for over a month. We should have been back a long time ago.

BLITZER: And a week from -- today, Congress -- the House of Representatives does come back.

Congressman David Cicilline, thanks very much. Michael Grimm, thanks to you as well.

What an extraordinary situation. You have a Republican basically saying he'll vote with the president, you have a Democrat saying as of today he won't but he might be amenable to changing his mind over the next week or two.

We'll continue to watch the headcount in the House of Representatives.

Up next, what a U.S. strike on Syria can and cannot accomplish. We're going to get a reality check with a former NATO Supreme Allied commander, retired General George Joulwan. He's standing by live.

And now Pope Francis is weighing in as well via Twitter.

This is a SITUATION ROOM special report "Crisis in Syria."

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Our military has positioned assets in the region. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs has informed me that we are prepared to strike whenever we choose.

Moreover, chairman has indicated to me that our capacity to execute this mission is not time-sensitive. It will be effective tomorrow or next week or one month from now.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: The president of the United States speaking on Saturday, insisting the United States is beefing up its military presence in the region. At the same time, positioning several naval ships in the Red Sea.

Let's discuss what's going on with the former NATO Supreme Allied commander, retired U.S. Army General George Joulwan. Is that basically accurate, telling that the Syrian military, you know what, we're going to be able to do this a week from now, a month from now, doesn't make any difference? You're going to be surprised whenever we do it? This looks like a pretty highly advertised military strike.

GEN. GEORGE JOULWAN, U.S. ARMY (RET.): It's -- Wolf, it's the do what. If you're going to lob some Tomahawk missiles, certainly you can do that on very short notice. Telegraphing that, they can hide some things, I guess. But it's a very -- from what I'm getting from the president, a very limited sort of strike that we're planning.

BLITZER: How worried should U.S. military planners be that the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad might bring civilians almost as human shields or hostages to some of their most sensitive areas, that if the U.S. were to launch Tomahawk cruise missiles, kill some of those people, it would be seen as civilian casualties caused by the U.S.?

JOULWAN: There's always a probability of that. You have to remember, during the Bosnian campaign, we fired Tomahawk missiles at Serbian Air Defense units. Very surgically with very limited casualties on their side of civilians. So it can be done. I would be more concerned about the clarity of the mission and what it is we're trying to achieve.

BLITZER: Well, what -- if you were the commanding general instructed by the president of the United States to go out there and do what you need to do, do you want a specific end game? What is the objective? What are the clear limits? You need that kind of precision, right?

JOULWAN: You need that clarity and the challenge here, I think, if I can elaborate, is not just military lever that you pull, but we have diplomatic, political, economic. Those are true powers of the United States. I don't sense any of those being called into action here. We need a comprehensive strategy for what we're about ready to do.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Because -- yes, because what does it say to you -- and you're a former NATO Supreme Allied commander. The NATO secretary- general today, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, he issued a statement saying there isn't going to be a formal vote of NATO. They don't foresee -- he says he doesn't foresee any further NATO role.

What does it say that the NATO allies aren't even united on this?

JOULWAN: Well, we have to make them united. The United States is the leader of NATO. Without that leadership, NATO doesn't work well. Look, they have -- they have rules against the use of weapons of mass destruction. NATO does. It's a very serious issue to the alliance. And they need to be called into account on what they already have on the books. So I think with proper leadership and galvanizing NATO, I think that could be a very clear signal to the Syrians that we're serious about this.

France is already making those noises. Turkey is on the border. And other Mideast countries are threatened here. So NATO needs to step up to the plate and the U.S. has to take the lead. Leadership is what is required here.

BLITZER: Well, we know one key NATO ally Britain is not going to get involved militarily based on that vote of the parliament the other day.

General Joulwan, we've got to leave it right there. But we're going to have you back later. Thanks very much.

JOULWAN: Thank you.

BLITZER: Just ahead at the top of the hour as our special SITUATION ROOM report continues, "Crisis in Syria," CNN has correspondents positioned all across the region. We're going live throughout the region at the top of the hour.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We'll get back to our special coverage of the Syria crisis in just a minute. But first there's another story we're monitoring right now. It involves politics here in the United States.

The political battle specifically over same-sex marriage that has former Vice President Dick Cheney's openly gay daughter Mary calling out her sister Republican Senate candidate Liz Cheney and charging she is, quote, "dead wrong" on this issue.

CNN's Athena Jones is working the story for us.

What's going on, Athena?

ATHENA JONES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it's rare that you see a fight within a political family become so public.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

LIZ CHENEY (R), WYOMING SENATORIAL CANDIDATE: President Obama has launched a war on our Second Amendment rights.

JONES (voice-over): Liz Cheney is known as a vocal critic of President Obama.

CHENEY: He's launched a war on our religious freedom. He's used the IRS to launch a war on our freedom of speech.

JONES: Former Vice President Dick Cheney's eldest daughter rocked the boat this summer by launching a primary challenge against Wyoming's senior senator, and now she's getting into a war of words with her own sister, who is openly lesbian.

"I am strongly pro-life and I am not pro-gay marriage," said Cheney Friday in a campaign statement. Over the weekend, Mary Cheney reportedly fired back on Facebook.

"For the record, I love my sister, but she is dead wrong on the issue of marriage. Freedom means freedom for everyone," wrote Cheney, who married her longtime partner last year. The pair have two children together.

Liz Cheney's statement was in response to what her advisers call a deceptive poll asking Wyoming voters if they were aware Cheney supports abortion and promotes gay marriage. The campaign of Mike Enzi, the senator Cheney is challenging, denied it was behind the poll.

The daughter-versus-daughter episode puts their father back in the spotlight. He was at times reluctant to talk about same-sex marriage when he was vice president, pushing back against the question from Wolf Blitzer in this 2007 interview with CNN.

RICHARD CHENEY, FORMER VICE PRESIDENT: I'm delighted, I'm about to have a sixth grandchild, Wolf. And I obviously think the world of both of my daughters and all of my grandchildren. And I think frankly you're out of line with that question.

JONES: He now publicly supports same-sex marriage.

R. CHENEY: I think people ought to be free to enter into any kind of union they wish. Any kind of arrangement they wish.

JONES: Although he agrees with Liz Cheney that the issue should be left to the states.

R. CHENEY: The question of whether or not there ought to be a federal statute that governs this, I don't support.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

JONES: Now same-sex marriage is still a tricky issue for Republican politicians. While a minority of Americans support making such marriages legal, only a minority of Republicans do -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Athena Jones, thanks very much.

Happening now, a SITUATION ROOM special report, "Crisis in Syria." Syria's president warns the region will explode if the United States attacks his country.