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CNN NEWSROOM

Putin And Obama Meet At G-20; Syria Crisis Takes World Stage; Tough Opposition To Attacking Syria; Marco Rubio Shifts Direction On Syria; G-20 Leaders Arrive for Working Dinner; Syria Impact On U.S. Military

Aired September 5, 2013 - 13:00   ET

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


SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN ANCHOR: This is CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Suzanne Malveaux.

It's a simple handshake in front of the cameras, but the relationship between presidents Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama definitely still strained. Their first face to face since the crisis in Syria.

And speaking of strained relationships, lawmakers feeling the heat from their constituents. Latest polls shows 59 percent of Americans do not want the U.S. to take military action inside Syria. So, how will that sentiment affect the vote? We're going to take a closer look.

And Pope Francis making a personal plea to the Russian president, find a peaceful solution for Syria. The G-20 summit formally began in Russia's second largest city today, St. Petersburg. It is designed to bring the world's top economic powers together. But this year's meeting has one main issue hanging over it, what to do about Syria?

President Obama is openly looking for allies to join his call for military strikes on Syria. The president is convinced that Syrian troops used chemical weapons against civilians there, killing hundreds of men, women and children.

Now, back in the states, President Obama -- well, rather, Obama officials, they are holding closed door briefings with lawmakers today, hoping to secure more votes in favor of military strikes. And even the pope now getting involved in this debate. Pope Francis wrote a letter to the G-20 leaders asking them to seek peace through dialog not military action.

I want you to listen to the president speaking in Russia. He makes his case at the G-20 very clear.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

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 of that, the use of chemical weapons in Syria, is not only a tragedy but also a violation of international law that must be addressed.

(END VIDEO CLIP) MALVEAUX: The G-20, of course, it is the group of 20. It is an international forum that brings finance ministers and central bank governors together from 19 countries and the European Union. The G-20 was initially formed after the financial crisis of 1997 which revealed just how vulnerable the international financial system was at the time. Well, it is often now overshadowed by the world's pressing issues and the crises that leaders have to deal with these days. The G-20 Leaders' Summit, it brings together the heads of state for formal meetings and equally important, however, are the side bar meetings that President Obama is having with the leaders of China, France, and Japan. And, of course, this year the big focus, the side bars, that is the crisis in Syria.

Now, you can see with this map here what a huge portion of the world the G-20 represents. Even though it's only 20 countries, two-thirds of the world's population lives here. Now, the countries involved are Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States.

I want to go live to St. Petersburg now where the G-20 leaders, they are gathering. Our Jim Acosta following this, of course. And we saw the moment -- that moment when everybody was waiting for when you had presidents Obama and Putin come together. They shook hands and I think Obama slightly disarmed him a little by smiling and laughing a little bit. Tell us what this relationship is like now and what do they hope to accomplish in the next 48 hours?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Suzanne, the relationship, you know, is pretty apparent to everybody's eyes. It's been on ice in recent weeks not only because of what's happening in Syria right now and the Obama administration accusations Russia is blocking any actions at the United Nations but because of the NSA's surveillance programs, Edward Snowden being granted temporary asylum here.

And, you know, Snowden is here in Russia where we're standing right now and he is not really the subject of conversation. It is about Syria. This has been really on the president's mind and the advisers' minds within the Obama administration who are with him on this trip. We heard the president say that in that just a bit of sound that you played a few moments ago with the prime minister of Japan.

But, Suzanne, I just want to let you know earlier this afternoon, the press secretary for Russian President Vladimir Putin held a briefing here in St. Petersburg. He is sort of Russia's equivalent of Jay Carney. And I asked him a question about this Obama administration claim that Russia is blocking action at the United Nations Security Council. He sort of side stepped that question and went to really the Russian default response to these issues about Syria. He said that the world needs to remember the lesson from Iraq. Here is what he had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DMITRY PESKOV, RUSSIAN PRESS SECRETARY (via translator): We're well aware that no weapons of mass destruction were discovered in Iraq so not every proof can be a proof in itself. So, Russian encourages to consider this situation in a responsible manner while not using the fact to justify some reasons of the actions and Putin mentioned them.

ACOSTA: Do you believe that the United States is fabricating the evidence or lying about the evidence?

PESKOV: I didn't say that. I said that we all need a convincing and legitimate evidence of proof. We highly appreciate our cooperation with American partners, and we would like our relations with the U.S. to be very positive.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ACOSTA: And so, you heard the Russian press secretary there, Dmitry Peskov, answering that question really basically saying this has to be handled at the United Nations. And Russia still very much against a unilateral strike on part of the United States. And just for the record, Suzanne, I did ask Mr. Peskov to answer that question in English. He reminded me, we are in Russia. He is answering in Russian -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: All right. Fair enough. Thank you, Jim. Appreciate it. Let us know if there are any side bar meetings, meetings on the margin between those two leaders.

ACOSTA: All right.

MALVEAUX: Appreciate it.

And CNN, of course, is tallying how Congress is going to vote. So far in the House, 18 Democrats and nine Republicans are backing President Obama. Twenty-three Democrats and 60 Republicans are against him and more than 300 lawmakers are either undecided or their feelings are unknown.

Now, I want to take a look at the Senate, 17 Democrats and seven Republicans support a strike against Syria. Three Democrats and 13 Republicans do not with 58 senators still undecided. Still quite a bit of a debate left there.

And you can see how the lawmakers plan to vote on a strike against the Assad regime in Syria. Just go to CNN.com, slash, politics and click on counting votes. You can click through interactive tally state by state, name, comments, whatever. The tally is running and it's based on public statements, press releases, and these interviews from the lawmakers.

And, of course, lawmakers well aware that the American public does not support military action in Syria. Polls are actually showing that, so it's backing it up. But people very much still divided. They are staying protesters starting to take to the streets to voice their opposition as well. This is a protest. It was held this week in Minneapolis. It was just outside a senator's office.

I want to bring in Jessica Yellin from Washington to talk a little bit about that. Really, the passion and people are becoming aware now. They're paying attention to what is happening. They're taking to the streets. I imagine a lot of lawmakers who are getting a lot of questions and a lot of backlash as well.

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Suzanne, and yesterday we saw that especially in the House committee hearing when Republican Congressman Duncan held up a lot of papers and said this thick wad of papers represents e-mails from constituents who say they fiercely oppose this effort.

What we're seeing, as you might expect, is that Republican lawmakers are more openly expressing the criticism they're hearing from their own constituents. Democratic lawmakers saying that they're hearing from their constituents about war weariness from concerns over Iraq and Afghanistan. And, you know, there is a natural split there with the president's base a little more reluctant to criticize him, Republicans who tend to be more in favor of military action, in general, were willing to speak out because they oppose the president these days. So, it's a little hard to read where people really stand on the strike as opposed to on the politics of supporting an effort by President Obama.

MALVEAUX: And, Jessica, I thought it was interesting this morning Chris Cuomo, he was interviewing the former defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, and he asked him if he thought there were any mistakes that had been made from Iraq, because we are living with the legacy of Iraq when you look at whether or not we should go into Syria. And the one thing that he was -- that he at least did acknowledge here was that he felt that this whole nation -- this whole idea of the notion of nation building was something that the U.S. had to be cautious about, perhaps more cautious than when they went into Iraq. I want to you listen to how he put it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD RUMSFELD, FORMER DEFENSE SECRETARY: Now, are we capable of nation building in the United States of America? No, I think we're not. I think people in a country have to build their own nation. And we don't speak those languages and we ought to be, I think, modest about any impression we have that we can do nation building in and the idea that the template we have that we have arrived at after hundreds of years is necessarily the proper template for other countries.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MALVEAUX: So, Jessica, is that what lawmakers are hearing, maybe somewhat of the acknowledgment from Rumsfeld that, you know what? We've got to be really careful before you get involved in trying to completely change a regime, a country, a culture?

YELLIN: Well, I think these are two different instances because this White House has been pretty clear and I think you probably agree, Suzanne. They're not interested in going in and changing Syria. This is about a surgical strike and leaving. And, you know, if there are consequences, dealing with those consequences. Whereas Iraq was about changing the government. What I found striking about what Donald Rumsfeld said there and you covered them -- that administration just as I did, is he said the exact same thing before they went into Iraq. I found a quote from him, Suzanne --

MALVEAUX: Yes.

YELLIN: -- in the early part of 2003 before the U.S. invaded Iraq where he said, the goal would not be to impose an American style template on Iraq, same words, template on Iraq, but create conditions where Iraqis can form a government in their own unique way. So, I mean, this was his view before but they went ahead and proceeded in their own way. He just opposes the president, this president's, efforts now sort of striking.

MALVEAUX: I think you're absolutely right, Jessica, because one of the things that people are having a hard time is trust. Trust in what the government is saying. Trust in the officials, what does it mean when you put out the message and then it turns, it goes in a different direction and, you know, that is the fear.

YELLIN: I (INAUDIBLE) because they feel burned by the experience after Iraq and Afghanistan. Don't you think? People were told one thing and it went in a very different direction.

MALVEAUX: Yes, absolutely. Jessica, thank you. I really appreciate it.

YELLIN: Yes.

MALVEAUX: Tune into CNN tonight. It is a special town hall on Syria. It's going to be hosted by our own "NEW DAY" anchor, Chris Cuomo. He's going to be talking with a panel of experts, and he's going to be taking questions about evidence, the evidence we're talking about, of a chemical attack in Syria and, of course, the proposed U.S.-led military response. That is tonight, 9:00 Eastern right here on CNN.

Here is also what we're working on for this hour. John Kerry spent 27 years in Congress. Well now, he is on the other side of the table as secretary of state facing his greatest challenges yet, Syria.

And for the last two years, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, he's been demanding U.S. intervention in Syria. But now, he is shifting his position. We'll take a look at that as well.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: So there's going to be a lot of movement on Syria over the next week. Take a look at the calendar here. There is a bill authorizing a limited military strike that's going to head to the full Senate after it had cleared the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday.

President Obama, he is expected to lobby for it, of course, when he returns from the G-20 Summit in Russia tomorrow. When Congress finishes its summer recess on Monday, both the House and the Senate, they're expected to debate and vote on the measure. Also next week, a Russian delegation will come to Capitol Hill to lobby against a U.S. strike.

And the U.N. report on Syria's suspected chemical weapons attack, that, too, could also be released. You're going to want to pay attention in the next week as well.

Secretary of State John Kerry, he, of course, he has emerged as the point man to sell the administration's Syria policy. Well, from a young veteran who lobbied against the Vietnam War, to the seasoned secretary of state now, pushing back and actually pushing for an attack in Syria, this has been a long road for him, but Kerry, he is blunt on the need for pushing and punishing the Assad regime.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: We need to send to Syria to the world, to dictators and to terrorists, to allies and to civilians alike the unmistakable message that when the United States of America and the world say never again, we don't mean sometimes, we don't mean somewhere. Never means never.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MALVEAUX: We want to go live to St. Petersburg, Russia, for the G-20 Summit. Let's watch as the leaders gather.

So these are the leaders of the G-20 Summit. They are emerging from the meeting. You see Germany's chancellor, Angela Merkel, there, with others. With British Prime Minister David Cameron and some of the others who are leaving the main meeting that just wrapped up here.

Often what happens too, they love to take class photos as well. You see Vladimir Putin leading the delegation with those behind.

What's important about the meetings are clearly there -- it's an economic summit, but it really is the side bar meetings that take place between these world leaders where a lot of the business gets done, where a lot of those negotiations, those conversations and those relationship that happen between world leaders that make a difference, that will make the difference between perhaps not support for a military strike in Syria, but perhaps more economic support, economic aid. That's something that President Obama was stressing when he was sitting with the Japanese leader earlier today, that perhaps there are different ways that these world leaders can cooperate. And it is about those private relationships and private conversations that they have that often will provide those breakthroughs.

And you can see here, this is a -- it looks like kind of a solemn but casual occasion as they are all walking across the promenade there.

We are being told that they're headed for a group dinner. And that's just as important as well. It gives the leaders an opportunity to be a little bit more relaxed with each other as they share a meal and take in their first meal together. It's a 48-hour summit.

And I want to bring in our own Elise Labott at the State Department to talk a little bit about why this is so important.

Elise, you and I have covered many, many of these G-20 Summits. Originally it was the G-8 Summit. It expanded. But this is -- it's about the finance, the trade relationships, but it's also about those -- the political and the crises that these leaders are faced with.

ELISE LABOTT, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Suzanne, that's exactly right. Any crisis of the day. And you've seen over the course of the Arab Spring and other international crises, that that really becomes front and center. And, obviously, they want to talk about the issues that are always on the agenda.

But as you said, those back discussions, those private meetings are all about Syria right now. The president trying to build support. Obviously this -- the coalition that the U.S. is trying to put together looks like it's going to be a very limited one. But what President Obama really needs right now is for countries to support him, to say that they support that the U.S. is going to be taking action and that the world community should act.

You only have about nine countries right now that have publically spoken out on this. So President Obama really trying to shore up political support. And Secretary Kerry will be doing that this weekend when he travels to Europe to meet with foreign ministers.

MALVEAUX: And what's interesting, Elise, as well, we heard from Secretary Kerry saying that they have the support of some 53 countries and leaders regarding a military strike, but they said certainly not people who would necessarily be providing any kind of military presence. But perhaps things like helping with intelligence or even diplomacy, if you will, or the kinds of things that they wouldn't necessarily talk about publicly. And that's where these kind of meetings are so effective.

LABOTT: That's right. And, also, who's going to be at the back door to help the opposition in helping seize the momentum, capitalizing on any strikes that would be taken, mostly as the administration said, just for -- to respond to these chemical weapons. But they really want this to weaken Assad in the sense that then they can maybe push him to some kind of political negotiations.

But what the U.S. really needs right now is for countries to start speaking out, to saying, this was an outrage, we fully support the international community taking action led by the United States. You don't have 53. You have about nine countries that have come out explicitly in support of military action. And what I've heard from Secretary Kerry's aides is what he is going to be doing is getting people to speak out, as they say, say the right thing, voice U.S. support, and then they're going to look for more kind of tangible, technical support, whether it's bases, whether it's support for the opposition, whether it's aid for Syria going forward. But they've got a -- a real case ahead of them right now.

MALVEAUX: And, Elise, as we play this tape, this is from just moments ago and we see the world leaders again leaving for their -- from the main meeting and going to the dinner. Realize that the president, he really does have a lot of work to do. He's got his work cut out for him because some of the allies that President Bush had, when it came to the Iraq War, not necessarily the ones that are going ahead, going forward with him this go-round.

David Cameron, the British prime minister, of course, very much disappointed with the parliament vote that said, no, they would not be supporting a U.S. strike. I imagine that meeting will him is going to be very important if the British can offer anything, some sort of assistance. You also have France which says it will go ahead. But you have other allies as well who are not really, this go-round, Angela Merkel from Germany, supporting the president's initiative here.

LABOTT: That's exactly right. You have countries like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates. Some counties say that they're willing to support military action in terms of whether it's bases or over flight rights. But, you're right, the administration has a really tough case ahead of them. European countries very divided on what to do. A lot of countries want the U.S. to seek a U.N. mandate, want to see that report by the inspectors before they approve any action. And the administration says, we don't need the U.N. to tell us what we already know.

So when -- certainly when President Obama is meeting with leaders on the sidelines of the G-8 -- G-20, excuse me, and then when Secretary Kerry travels this weekend to meet with those foreign ministers in Europe and Arab League foreign ministers, he's got a really tough case to say, everyone says that chemical weapons is abhorrent, that the regime needs to be punished. We need you to stand with us and speak out, we can't be carrying this alone, because right now the president has very few countries in his corner.

MALVEAUX: Elise, I have to say, what was notable is that we did not see President Obama among that group of leaders. We saw many presidents of other countries, but we did not see him walking. And, you know, there is tension between Putin and Obama, so you did not see him as part of that group of leaders who are all heading to dinner. I don't know exactly what to make of that, but certainly it's -- there are some awkward moments at times when leaders are meeting each other, greeting each other. We saw the president and Putin greeting each other earlier, but not necessarily in this particular opportunity or this photo.

We're going to take a quick break. We'll be back with more on the G-20 Summit.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: President Obama insists there would be no boots on the ground in a U.S. led military action against Syria. But military personnel will be involved in carrying out what the president calls a limited mission. Scott Holcomb, he served as an attorney in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The former Army captain is now a Georgia state representative and he joins us now.

Thank you so much for joining us here. You have a very unique perspective in a way because, I mean, you -- your experience is such that you followed and you were a part of the lead-in to both Iraq and Afghanistan. Does the president make his case? Does he make a sufficient case for a military strike in Syria?

SCOTT HOLCOMB, FORMER U.S. ARMY JAG ATTORNEY: I think it's a work in progress is the honest answer. Is that the United States has compelling reasons to act and there are also compelling arguments against action. The most compelling argument towards action is, of course, the United States' standing in the world. Everybody agrees that there were atrocity that took place within Syria, they're wrong, there needs to be accountability for that. But, in many ways, this is deja vu all over again in terms of the legal basis for going to war. And that's an important question. And it's appropriate that we're having this real heated debate and discussion. I think the biggest point that needs to be resolved is, what is the end game? What is the ultimate outcome of this conflict? And I think the president needs to articulate that a little more stronger for him to garner more support.

MALVEAUX: Do you think, when he talks about no boots on the ground, is that a guarantee? Is that something that he can guarantee? Or is there always that risk of mission creep?

HOLCOMB: There is a risk of mission creep, but I think the political establishment would keep that from happening. I also think that, institutionally, the armed forces would very much make it clear of what is capable and what isn't capable. And one of the things that's going through my mind in this discussion, is I worked on the preplanned target sets for Iraq in 2002 before we invaded them during the war. It's incredibly difficult to actually match power to targets. And so now that Syria has this window of opportunity to move and shuffle things around, I have some doubt as to whether or not the application of power will actually result in anything that's meaningful, besides just firing weapons

MALVEAUX: You think they'll be hitting empty targets? You think Assad has had time to manipulate and move things around?

HOLCOMB: I think there's a strong possibility of that. And the million dollar question is always, what is the intelligence going to show and is it going to be worthwhile and valuable for us to actually strike targets? And if we do, what does that lead to? And those are the questions that still need to be answered.

MALVEAUX: It's been a while since, you know, the intelligence -- the faulty intelligence regarding Iraq came out. Do you think that we are better equipped now when it comes to our own intelligence capabilities? Can we rely, trust, our government more in providing accurate intelligence, do you -- do you believe?