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Face to Face But Far Apart; Iran's Leader is Tweeting; Iran's President Tweets Holiday Greeting to Jews; Video of Syrian Rebel Barbarism; Rumsfeld Blames Obama for Lack of Cooperation

Aired September 5, 2013 - 12:00   ET


SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN ANCHOR: Japan's crippled nuclear plant. Well, now, we're going to take you inside the safety zone.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Residents are allowed back during the daytime now because the radiation levels here have lowered, but they're still not allowed to stay the night.


MALVEAUX: Welcome to AROUND THE WORLD. I'm Suzanne Malveaux.

MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Michael Holmes. Thanks for your company today.

And we're going to start, of course, with the crisis in Syria, front and center on the world stage.

MALVEAUX: Leaders of the most powerful global economies, they're attending the G-20 Summit. That's in Russia. The international impasse over how to handle Syria obviously overshadowing a lot of the economic agenda.

HOLMES: Which is why they're meeting to begin with. All eyes on President Obama, his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, as well. Those two battling, of course, over the U.S. plan to potentially attack Syria. But today they were shaking hands during a photo op. You see a smile there. There are no formal meetings scheduled between them, but they will have opportunities to talk during a summit on the so-called margins of the meeting.

MALVEAUX: And President Obama will spend time trying to persuade allies to support his plan for military strikes on Syria. That, of course, in response to last month's chemical weapons attack. The U.S. says the attack killed more than 1,400 people.

HOLMES: Meanwhile on Capitol Hill, Obama administration officials holding more closed door briefings with lawmakers in an effort to secure more votes for those military strikes. And get this, the pope has written a letter to the G-20 asking leaders to lay down what he calls the futile pursuit of military solutions in Syria and seek peace through dialog. MALVEAUX: The world's 20 biggest economies flying their flags in St. Petersburg today, of course, all around the world leaders gathering around one table. And the summit agenda, very business oriented. But also the president, of course, making his case for a strike in Syria.

HOLMES: Absolutely. That's got nothing to do with trade issues. They will be talking about that as well. Have a listen.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I also look forward to having an extensive conversation about the situation in Syria and I think our joint recognition that the use of chemical weapons in Syria is not only a tragedy but also a violation of international law that must be addressed.


MALVEAUX: It is hard to overstate the high-stakes diplomacy that is underway right now at the G-20 Summit. Want to go live to Russia. Jim Acosta, he is traveling with the president, joins us from St. Petersburg, Phil Black is in Moscow.

And, of course, Jim, I want to start with you here because let's talk a little bit about the optics here. I remember the first time that President Obama and Putin met, this was years ago at his country residence just outside of Moscow and we saw Putin barely even looked at him, barely looked at the president. Now they've met face-to-face, eye-to-eye. What do you make of this appearance today?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, I'll tell you, Suzanne, they only met there for about 10 seconds as President Putin welcomed President Obama here in St. Petersburg for the G-20. And so, you know, we did not get any sense from the president of the United States as to what he thought about President Putin just yet. You did hear in those comments that you played just a few moments ago from that spray of the meeting with that little bit of video that we just showed of the meeting between President Obama and Prime Minister Abe of Japan, that the president is talking about Syria.

You know, a few weeks ago, Suzanne and Michael, had this G-20 Summit happened, the conversation would have been about Edward Snowden and the NSA. But that conversation is not really happening that much here at the G-20. It's really all about Syria and the president trying to make his case to the other countries that are at this summit that his course of action is the right one when it comes to taking military action against Bashar al Assad's forces in Syria.

And I just want to point out, about an hour ago we attended a news conference that was being held by Russia's equivalent of Jay Carney. He is the press secretary to Vladimir Putin. And I asked him about this issue of the evidence that is being shown. And at one point during the exchange I asked -- his name is Dmitry Peskov, what more does the president needs to say, what more proof does he need to provide? And the Russians very much sticking to their talking points, saying that they are waiting for conclusive evidence coming from the United Nations. And I asked, well, do you think that the United States is lying or fabricating the evidence? And he responded - it was very interesting. He said, I did not say that.

But, Suzanne and Michael, one thing that keeps coming up every time the Russians are asked this question, they bring back Iraq and the weapons of mass destruction as sort of their default response when it comes to this question of what to do about Syria. They say, hey, wait a minute, last time around the evidence wasn't there with Iraq. We don't want to make that same mistake twice.

MALVEAUX: And so, Jim, the warm greeting that we saw, when we saw the president there smiling with Putin, shaking hands, trying to talk to him a little bit, is he trying to warm him up for a potential side bar meeting? Do they think that that would be advantageous at all?

ACOSTA: Well, what we've heard from administration officials, Suzanne, is that President Putin and President Obama plan to meet on the margins, as they call it. And that's sort of a - a -- I guess you could say it's a metaphor for their relationship right now. It's very much on the margins. They are not supposed to have a pull aside or any kind of bilateral summit here.

So if there is a conversation, it's going to be almost impromptu. I've heard from administration officials. Obviously they're going to be trying to set it up in advance. But it's not going to be very formal nonetheless.

And, you know, one thing that I think you can make at this point is that there are just too many really huge obstacle that stand in the way of a really warm relationship between these two leaders.


ACOSTA: It's been said that maybe they don't like each other. President Putin tried to put that to rest in that AP interview earlier this week. But, obviously, the body language is a bit - is a bit chilled -


ACOSTA: Is a bit stilted and we'll have to see as this goes on whether it warms up at all.

MALVEAUX: All right, thanks, Jim.

Want to bring in Phil Black into the conversation here to talk a little bit about what is at stake for Russia here when it comes to Syria. We know they share a port. That they also have a trade relationship, but that it is not necessarily a very significant one. But that the main fear, really, could be that if Assad falls, that you've got the fear of Islamic militants who would spill into Russia. What does Putin hope to get out of this summit and particularly in his exchanges with the president?

PHIL BLACK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Putin's major diplomatic goal remains preventing any sort of military intervention in Syria, Suzanne. That has been the Russian diplomatic goal throughout this crisis, going right back to the very beginning. At the beginning, a lot of the world thought that Russia was protecting Syria because of its naval port there, because of arms sales, because of historic ties. But what has really become very clear over time, through the very consistent, unchanging policy of Russia and its statements on this issue, is that what it really doesn't like is regime change. It doesn't like the idea of the United States and its friends getting together and deciding who gets to be the ruler of a sovereign country. It doesn't like that on principle and it also doesn't like that from a practical concern. It talks to previous examples and it believes the United States has something of an aggressive precedent in trying to achieve this.

It talks about the former Yugoslavia, Iraq, Libya, and so forth, looks at these countries and says, these are all countries where the United States and its allies got involved, got involved militarily, tried to change the government of the day. And from a practical consideration, believes that these countries are no longer safer, more secure. The regions are no longer more stable. That things actually got worse after that degree of involvement.

And you're right, one of the concerns there is that in that vacuum that is created by a fallen regime, that radical Islam could rise in its place. That's a real concern for the Russian government, both in terms of what it would mean to the reason in the Middle East, but also what it would possibly mean to Russia, which has Islamic regions of its own, some of which are still dealing with their own Islamist insurgencies.

MALVEAUX: All right, Phil Black and Jim Acosta, good to see you both. Thank you.

Our foreign affairs correspondent, Jill Dougherty, she actually has an excellent piece, this is on the strained relationship between the presidents, Obama and Putin, and really how it got to this point. You want to check that out. It's on

HOLMES: And, of course, while we're all looking at body language on Syria in St. Petersburg, let's talk about the G-20. It should be all about the economy. It is stand - it stands for the group of 20. We're talking about an international forum. It brings together the finance ministers, the central bank governors, from 19 countries, plus the European Union, hence the 20.

Now, it was initially formed after the financial crisis of 1997, which revealed just how vulnerable, of course, the international financial system was. It is now, as we're seeing today, often overshadowed by the world's pressing issues and various crises that leaders have to deal with these days.

Now, the G-20 leader's summit does bring together the heads of states for formal meetings as well. But equally important are the side bar meetings we've been talking about. The so-called on the margin meetings. One that we're talking about President Obama having with the leaders of say China, France and Japan. Will it be Moscow as well? This year the big focus, of course, of those sidebars, they're going to leave the economics to their ministers. They're going to be talking about Syria. And you can see by this map what a huge portion of the world the G-20 represents. Even though it is only those 20 or 19 current plus the E.U., two-thirds of the world population live in these countries. Countries involved like Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, Turkey, the United Kingdom and, of course, the United States. Hundreds of millions of people.


MALVEAUX: All right, thank you, Michael.

Here is also what we're working on for AROUND THE WORLD.

We have seen -- these are heartbreaking pictures of the chemical weapons attack inside of Syria. But our guest ahead says that nobody is really asking the basic question of who ordered that attack and what if it was not Bashar al Assad.

Plus, Twitter is blocked in Iran, but that did not stop Iran's president from tweeting. His message to the Jewish community up ahead.


MALVEAUX: So this is kind of something unusual that is now happening in the twitterverse. This is a world leader sending a holiday best wishes to the world's Jewish community on the occasion of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year.

HOLMES: Yes, but what's unusual is that the world leader we're talking about is Hassan Rouhani. He is the new president of Iran. Here's the quote that he put out on Twitter apparently. "As the sun is about to set here in Tehran, I wish all Jews, especially Iranian Jews, a blessed Rosh Hashanah." Now this president, as I said, he's pretty new to the office. Only been in it a few weeks. And we would never ever have seen such a message from his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. And you see there supposedly an Iranian Jew praying in a synagogue.

MALVEAUX: Want to bring in Christine Amanpour to talk about this.

You've been reading these tweets here. And, first of all, we have to ask you, are we absolutely sure that these are messages that are coming straight from the president of Iran? Because we don't know whether or not this account is verified or not. How do we know?

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I've been doing a lot of ringing around, calling, and investigating into this. And why is it such a big deal? Because, as you said, the former president, Ahmadinejad, made a huge issue of being really antagonistic and practically anti-Semitic when he came to Israel. And this really colored relations and the tension around Iran for eight years. So when these tweets started to come out, you could understand, they took everybody by surprise. And everybody wants to know what you're asking, is this real?

So here's what I know. The Iranian president, Rouhani, who is a moderate, who wants to bring reform, who won the election despite conventional wisdom, does not tweet himself, I'm told, but his office does on his behalf. Certainly when he was running for president, we were told that that was the official Rouhani Twitter site and that he is, you know, doing it through his office members.

But what's significant is that I spoke to Iran's foreign minister, Javad Zarif, who is a long time connoisseur of America, who speaks and writes in perfect American English, he too has been tweeting. He confirmed to me that he's been doing it himself. He also wished Iranian and Jews worldwide a happy Rosh Hashanah. And then in response to a direct question to him via Twitter, he said Iran has never denied the Holocaust. He said the one who was perceived to have done so is no longer here. Happy new year. And he was referring to Ahmadinejad.

So all of this to say that this new team makes a huge difference in the tone that's coming out of Iran, the interaction between Iran and the rest of the world and President Rouhani, his office, has further tweeted on an equally important issue and that's about the upcoming nuclear negotiations.

You know that that is what colors all relations between the United States and Iran, the state of Iran's nuclear program. He has said that he wants a constructive engagement. Apparently these negotiations are going to start again at the end of September and he has nominated the foreign ministry, presumably Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, as the head negotiator.

And that also is very, very significant because Zarif has enormous amount of experience with Americans, with American politicians, with international negotiations

HOLMES: Yeah, it's sort of a Twitter diplomacy perhaps starting out here.

What is interesting, though, and perhaps ironic in a way, these tweets are, of course, in English, Twitter not available in Iran.

Is he saying these in a way or in a manner or in a forum where Iranians hear them?

AMANPOUR: Well, look, it may not be officially available, but you can bet Iranians hear them because everybody is connected.

You know, satellite television, CNN, is not officially allowed in Iran, but everybody has a secret satellite dish. I have so many times visited the country and I know that every time there is a potential crackdown, everybody, you know, slams a tarpaulin over their satellites. You know, they put they in areas where they're not immediately visible by the authorities.

People are incredibly connected in Iran. It is one of the most electronically and technologically sophisticated countries in the world, and I might as well say this. There are so many Iranian- Americans who form the backbone of the U.S. electronic and tech industry.

So they're very connected. They want to know what's going on. They want better relations with the rest of the world and that is one of the reasons why they elected President Rouhani because he promised that he would have a more constructive, more moderate, less extremist relationship with the rest of the world.

HOLMES: Yeah. Yeah, very, very sharp connected and intelligent young population, too, in Iran, as you point out, Christiane.

Yeah, fascinating stuff. Who knows where it will go from there? Twitter diplomacy, I mean, who knows?

MALVEAUX: It is very telling this time. Christiane, making news, breaking news there about the nuclear talks and where they're headed next. It's very significant.

HOLMES: Who knows where that could lead to? Hey, Facebook.


As Congress debates whether to back military action against the Syrian regime, there are images that show a darker side to the rebels. We're going to show that, up next.


MALVEAUX: This is new, disturbing video. It appears on "The New York Times" website.

Now "The Times" is reporting that this shows Syrian rebels executing soldiers loyal to the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

HOLMES: Not the first time we have seen such videos.

Now "The Times" says it was shot in April (inaudible) and was smuggled out by a former rebel commander who was disgusted himself by the violence in his own country.

We're going to show you a portion of the clip, obviously not the moment of the executions, but we will warn regardless that, of course, it is extremely disturbing even to watch the prelude.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (Untranslated).


HOLMES: What you see at the end there is bodies being dumped unceremonially into a well.

Atika Shubert is in London, been looking into this.

Atika, as I say, unfortunately it is not the first time we have seen such execution videos. What do you know about these people and their motivation in this case?

ATIKA SHUBERT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: No, it's not the first time at all. We have seen other videos, but this is one of the clearest, frankly, most cold blooded videos we have seen of this type.

From -- according to "The New York Times," the man who in charge there, and you see him there holding a gun on the side of the screen, is a rebel commander, Abdul Samad Issa.

And he's somebody who, according to "The New York Times," controls several hundred armed fighters, doesn't seem to be allied with any particular jihadist cause, but is somebody who is bent on revenge for personal reasons, is particularly -- takes brutal revenge against anybody associated with the Assad regime.

And it calls into question, frankly, how much the opposition has over armed groups like this. There are, of course, many jihadist rebel groups the United States has been worried about, but also just lawlessness like this.

And the Syria National Council president is actually in London today. He met with Foreign Minister William Hague, and the Syrian National Council just put out a statement now condemning that video.

In that statement it says, "The Supreme Syria Coalition and Supreme Military Council want to make it absolutely clear that they and all mainstream opposition groups condemn in the strongest possible terms any actions that contravene international law."

It goes on to say, "Killing or mistreating captured soldiers is an affront to the hopes and principles that fueled the initial popular uprising against the Assad regime," Michael.

MALVEAUX: Atika, I'm wondering here because also in "The Times'" article, it talks about Secretary Kerry saying, look, you know, trying to reassure lawmakers this is not a large group, these kind of rogue people, if you will, inside of the opposition, maybe 10 to 20 percent.

But other lawmakers say they understand it's as much as half, so is there any sense at all in terms of these people? Do they make up the majority or how small, how big are they as a part of this opposition, which the president is now trying to reinforce?

SHUBERT: I think the very fact that there is this debate as we saw just yesterday shows that nobody knows exactly the percentage of how many of these groups may be, for example, jihadists or maybe have other motivations to carry out these kinds of extrajudicial killings.

But what is fright frightening is that it shows the Syrian National Council may not have control over many of these groups, and so if a military strike or arms are given to these groups, then what's to guarantee that these guys won't carry out more killings like this?

MALVEAUX: Atika Shubert, thank you so much. Appreciate it.

She brings up a very good point. HOLMES: Yeah.

MALVEAUX: I mean, you know, people don't really have a good sense yet of who's on the ground, who's got the weapons and, if they're motivated by revenge, there's no one who's going to stop them from doing those kinds of things.

HOLMES: Absolutely. I mean, local commanders in different area that don't come under any umbrella, the rebel leading that group apparently said that on the cell phones of the soldiers they found videos of looting and mistreatment of civilians.

But that is still a barbaric way to deal with the situation. Remember that -- the guy that was eating the organs of another soldier as well. There is a lot of barbarity going on on both sides.

MALVEAUX: Yeah, absolutely.

Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, of course, one of the architects of the Iraq war, now he is questioning President Obama's leadership during the Syrian crisis.

A lot of people finding that hard to believe, but Rumsfeld says that it is President Obama, not Iraq, that is causing this lack of support throughout the world, broader support.

HOLMES: Interesting to hear from him. He was especially critical of the president's comments yesterday, actually, when Mr. Obama said he had not drawn a red line; the world had,


DONALD RUMSFELD, FORMER SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: It's a stunning comment. It conjures up the thought of the uncertain trumpet or the trumpet that provides an uncertain sound. Who will prepare themselves?

It's exactly the reason that there is not a large coalition wanting to support the president. It's a reason that the Congress is confused because he has spent so much time saying what he would not do and what it would not amount to that I think people are confused.

And the essence of leadership is clarity and providing a vision. And he has not done that, and I think as a result, it is perfectly understandable that people in the Congress are getting arranged to oppose what he's proposing because they find that it's uncertain and lacks clarity.


MALVEAUX: Rumsfeld's position is that the United States should go big or go home.

It's interesting. Our colleague, of course, Chris Cuomo, pressed him on whether or not there were any mistakes made in Iraq, and he said one of the things he did acknowledge was that nation-building is something that should be modest, that the idea of the U.S. can come in and just change everything is not really that realistic.

HOLMES: A lot who look back on what happened in Iraq would be fascinated to hear Donald Rumsfeld having his viewpoints here.

Meanwhile, let's talk about the secretary of state, John Kerry, of course, who said the other day that there is proof beyond any reasonable doubt about the chemical attacks.

But there are many around the world who ask, OK, if the evidence is irrefutable, let's see it. Who's behind the chemical attack? If it is the Syrian government, regime, let's see it.

We're going to talk about that when we come back.