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Sarin Gas Evidence Found in Syria; Pressing Putin to Support Syria Strike; Congress Under Pressure on Syria; Extremists Among Syria's Rebels

Aired September 5, 2013 - 14:00   ET


BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: It's a moment you cannot turn away from, the tense handshake between President Obama and Vladimir Putin. All this comes as Putin accuses the Obama administration of lying.

I'm Brooke Baldwin. The news is now.

And Congress gets ready to debate action in Syria. I'll speak live with one Congressman about the one reason he's still undecided.

Plus, graphic new video of executions in Syria raise the question, who really are the rebels the U.S. wants to support?

And --


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: OK. Let me see if I can figure out --


BALDWIN: A celebrity's attempt to get Americans interested in what could be America's next military conflict.

Here we go. I'm Brooke Baldwin.

Breaking news just into us here at CNN. It is the evidence that helps the Obama administration's case against Syria. Britain says samples collected from a victim of that reported chemical weapons attack back in Damascus in October, or rather August 21st, have tested positive for sarin. Atika Shubert is standing by for us live in London.

And just to be crystal clear here, Atika, this is not the official testing by those U.N. chemical weapons inspectors who have been in Syria. But that said, what do we know about these samples?

ATIKA SHUBERT, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right. These are Britain's independent testing samples. And what the prime minister's office has confirmed is that these clothing and soil samples have tested positive for sarin. They were taken from a victim of that August 21st attack and they were tested at the Porten (ph) Down (ph) facilities here in England.

So this is clearly Britain's strongest evidence yet of a chemical weapons attack. And it really sort of echoes what Secretary Kerry and the United States have been saying, that this is not a question of if there was a chemical weapons attack. As far as they're concerned, that has already been established and they believe firmly that it was the Assad regime behind it.

What's interesting here is that Britain decided to reveal this information on the eve of the G-20 Summit. In fact, Prime Minister Cameron said it to a number of reporters as he was going into those talks. Clearly trying to put some pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin.

BALDWIN: So, eve of the G-20. But we talked last week, Atika, in terms of timing, it was a week ago the U.K. parliament, a very fiery parliament session, voted down support of U.S. military action. With this news, how might this change things?

SHUBERT: It is new evidence, but I don't think it's going to push them to take a second vote on military action just yet. There is, however, more and more evidence being gathered. And so as the case continues, as it gets stronger, there could be the possibility of that second vote. But really it's going to depend not only on this evidence of sarin gas, but on what other evidence comes out, particularly from those U.N. inspectors.

BALDWIN: OK. Atika Shubert for us in London.

This is obviously a huge, huge deal for the president of the United States as he is making the case for military strikes on Syria. President Obama gained some ground in the U.S., but now he has come face to face with his toughest opponent, Russia's Vladimir Putin, in a moment the world was watching very closely.

You can see the lips moving. The handshake. We can only assume that some niceties were exchanged here. This photo op at the G-20 Summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, comes after months of tense diplomatic relations on everything. Think about it. From NSA leaker Edward Snowden, to Russia's ban on U.S. adoptions, to their biggest stalemate, Syria.


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.


BALDWIN: CNN's Phil Black is live for us right now.

And, Phil, just -- we saw the handshake. Is that the only time we know of, thus far, that Putin and Obama have seen each other face to face?

PHIL BLACK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Just a short time ago, Brooke, we believe that -- or actually we saw -- we saw President Obama arrive for the working dinner that's taking place tonight. And in his opening remarks earlier today, President Putin had sort of asked that all discussions on Syria be put off until that big, formal dinner that's taking place tonight, because, of course, the summit is an economic one. Syria is not on the formal agenda, but is expected to dominate a lot of the discussion that's taking place around, on the sideline, on the margins, as they say. And, tonight, President Putin invited them to discuss it over this working dinner that's taking place in a former terrorist (ph) palace outside St. Petersburg there.

Now, how friendly a dinner this is going to be given that very serious conversation, particularly between the United States and the U.S., you gave a list of some of the things that have been a real -- have been real irritations in relations between these two countries recently. And there are many others as well. That's what inspired President Putin -- President Obama, I should say, to call off a big summit here in Moscow. And since then, things have only got a lot more tense over this issue of Syria. And we know that there are differences on how to respond to the use of chemical weapons remain very deep.


BALDWIN: Phil Black, thank you, who is in -- Phil is in Moscow.

Who's in St. Petersburg is our senior White House correspondent Jim Acosta. And earlier today he talked to and interviewed President Putin's press secretary and asked if Russia thinks the United States is fabricating evidence of the chemical attack. And here's what he told Jim.


JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Do you believe that the United States is fabricating the evidence or lying about the evidence?

DMITRY PESKOV, PRESS SECRETARY TO PRESIDENT PUTIN (through translator): I didn't say that. I said that we all need a convincing and legitimate evidence or proof. We disagree with the fact that somebody in the world is trying to impose their will on other country trying to change the regime and power in the country.


BALDWIN: And we will check in with Jim Acosta, whose voice you just heard. He is in St. Petersburg. We'll go back to him in Russia.

Meantime, CNN has been trying to tally exactly how members of Congress might vote on strikes against Syria. So I'm going to throw a lot of numbers at you, but these are very, very important here. This is the latest estimate. It looks like this.

So first you have the House. Twenty-eight members are confirmed as backing the president. That is 18 Democrats and 10 Republicans. But you see on the right side of your screen, the big number. 93. Ninety- three members. You have 24 Dems, 69 Republicans. They will vote no. More than 300 are still undecided. To the Senate we go. There are 24 yes votes for military action in Syria, 17 Democrats, seven Republicans. The no's in the Senate totally 16 includes three Democrats and 13 Republicans. More than half the Senate is still undecided as well.

And I want to bring in Representative Bill Pascrell. He represents a district in New Jersey that has a number of Syrians and people of Syrian decent. He is a Democrat and he falls in the undecided column.

So, congressman, nice to see you. Welcome.

REP. BILL PASCRELL (D), NEW JERSEY: Glad to be here.

BALDWIN: Let me just begin with something said by the secretary of state. This is John Kerry. I want to play some sound. He was making the case yesterday during hours of testimony that the Syrian government has, indeed, used chemical weapons. His word in terms of the evidence "undeniable." Here he was.


JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: Only the most willful desire to avoid reality, only the most devious political purpose, could assert that this did not occur as described or that the regime did not do it.


BALDWIN: So, congressman, Secretary Kerry is saying it requires a willful departure from reality to deny that Bashar al Assad has used chemical weapons. What do you say to that?

PASCRELL: Well, I studied over the weekend the exact information. I went through all the records myself, read it, and then we had a briefing, of course, which I went to on Sunday. I've been working on this for many, many months. I have met just recently, Brooke, with both Syrians who want us to go in, in America here, and Syrians who do not. I mean there -- Assad had an interesting record with Christian Syrians in Syria, protecting many of the churches. And if you listen to the testimony yesterday in the House -- in the House meeting --


PASCRELL: You heard Smith -- Congressman Smith bring out -- which I think is a very important point. Smith was recommending that we hold off here and not -- not have a knee jerk reaction. Well, I think we're beyond knee jerk reaction. And I believe that John Kerry was telling the truth. Just as I believe that Congressman Smith was telling the truth during those hearings. But I -- if you listen to those hearings carefully, I know you did, you heard politics interjected into what is a critical issue for us. BALDWIN: But, but -- but let me --

PASCRELL: But one simply has to look at a map of Syria and the Middle East to know that it's very important and very strategic.

BALDWIN: Maybe it's naive of me to try to say let's take politics out of it, but I hear you. You know, for months you've been studying this. You came into this meeting, the visitor's center, on Sunday. You're talking to your constituents. What do you need to hear, congressman, to convince you that military intervention, that force is the way to go?>

PASCRELL: Well, if I was to listen, Brooke -- and that's a great question, it's a fair question. If i was to listen to my constituents who called in either to the Washington office or to my office in Patterson, New Jersey, it's overwhelmingly, we do not do this. This is the overwhelming interest of those folks.

When I talk to the Syrian-American groups, as I told you I did yesterday and the day before, it is a split decision. Many of the individual groups in Syria who are represented in the United States of America want us to go in. The Christian side of this, which is all -- you know, one might say it's only 8 percent of the total Syrian population, says no, this is not the right thing to do.

So what's the greater risk? I'm getting mail -- here's a picture, Brooke, right from Syria. One of the villages. The children writing to me and asking me, please come to our assistance. They don't want Assad, et cetera, et cetera. There's enough evidence to go around. The question is, how will I vote next week? I have not yet decided and I'm trying to make a good, conscious decision.

BALDWIN: What do -- what do you do? What do you do, congressman? When do you -- when do you make --

PASCRELL: I will make a decision.


PASCRELL: I will make that decision when the time has come for me to vote next week.


PASCRELL: And that's exactly what I'll do. I'm going to say a prayer, like I usually do, on tough decisions.


PASCRELL: This deals with a lot of people's lives. Which is the greater risk? I don't believe that the decision is to bomb or do nothing. I don't accept that as the alternative. I think what we need to do is understand that there are other alternatives. I believe we should ask one more time, perhaps, the Assad regime to sit down in Geneva, to negotiate this. It would have to be a strong, and it would have to be within two weeks.

I don't see why we want to do this next week. We've already lost a lot of time, quote, quote, for those who talk about time. I think it's our decision. I think that we should wait for the American people. The American people need to know a lot more facts about the proof that we have. I examined that proof. There's no doubt in my mind that Assad was behind this and behind the gassing of his own people. There's no doubt in my mind. And there have been other episodes in the past. Is that enough for us to move and have a bombing of Syria? We don't know what's going to happen the day after we bomb them. And I believe the president. And I believe Nr. Kerry, Secretary Kerry. And I believe the secretaries and the generals who are supporting this position.

BALDWIN: I hear you, sir.

PASCRELL: But the point is -- the point is, the day after, what's going to happen?

BALDWIN: I know. And it was a question that was brought up, House Foreign Affairs and also Senate Foreign Relations.

But let me just end with this, because you bring up Assad, you bring up some of your constituents, specifically the Syrian Christians.


BALDWIN: And I'm just curious because they feel -- is friend the right word? Do they feel like Bashar al Assad is a friend of theirs? They support him?

PASCRELL: No, they don't. They think that Assad has committed pretty, pretty bad, bad deeds. But this is his (INAUDIBLE). This is something that exists within the country of Syria. They've also believed that Assad has taken care in protecting their churches. If you notice, as we have moved refugees from the south to the north into Turkey, into Jordan or the other countries that surround Syria, Lebanon, you'll see that the churches now are being ripped apart. So there cannot be any guarantee because Assad does not control that part of the country any longer. And I can understand that. All minorities need to be protected. But I know that al Qaeda is supporting us in our decision to get rid of Assad and Hezbollah is supporting Assad. It puts us in a very precarious situation. There is no either/or here. That's the point I'm trying to make.

BALDWIN: Congressman, I hear you loud and clear. Good luck with your thinking. Good luck with the vote.

PASCRELL: Thank you, Brooke. And thanks for having me.

BALDWIN: Congressman Bill Pascrell, thank you.

Coming up, graphic new video showing the Syrian rebels executing some of the Assad regime's soldiers. Keep in mind, these are the rebels the U.S. wants to help. You will see that video.

Plus, the pope sending a letter to the G-20 leaders to avoid military action in Syria. The Vatican warning that a war could break out in the region with Christians bearing the brunt of the fallout, coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BALDWIN: So one of the big questions among lawmakers isn't just what the U.S. military will do, might do in Syria, but who exactly makes up the opposition, who the U.S. would be backing. It has been understood that Syrian President Bashar al Assad is the bad guy. But are those who oppose him all good guys?

Just released video from "The New York Times" is even more proof that the answer is no. Got to warn you now, get your kids out of the room. Warning. Roll it. The footage. Not only tough to see, but tough to listen to. Remember the men holding the guns are from the opposition's side. Again, what you are about to see is disturbing.


BALDWIN: "The New York Times" reports a former rebel, fed up by the killings, smuggled the video out. So, senior international correspondent Nick Paton Walsh joins me now from the United Nations.

And, Nick, the brutality depicted in this video, how much of that represents the opposition? How many among these rebels behave this way?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it gives you a real good glimpse of how complicated the question is of what kind of aid do you give to Syrian rebels and which ones? I have to say, the video you've seen, shocking as it is, is not common place, but I've seen many before actually in the last year. They are, in many ways, more horrifying. One particularly springs to mind when rebels moved in to a town in the south of Idlib, in the north of the country. They got a hold of a lot of men they considered to be pro-regime fighters and executed them and the images were terrifying. You saw them pleading for their lives, executed in cold blood there. And that was said to be one of the more extremist groups.

But it's a very mixed picture. On one extreme, you have these al Qaeda affiliated groups prescribed as a terrorist organization by the United States. And on the other part of the spectrum are more moderate rebels who the U.S. thinks they could do business with. And, frankly, we just don't know the proportions they represent. We don't know their affiliations. And we can't really break up the rebel movement into which particular part is which. Because at the end of the day, with (INAUDIBLE) don't really know how many rebels are fighting on the ground. It's such an unclear picture, Brooke.

BALDWIN: With the unclear picture, I know some Americans are concerned. We heard from members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee yesterday grilling some folks from the administration specifically on this issue. Here's just one exchange.


REP. MICHAEL MCCAUL (R), TEXAS: Who are the rebel forces? Who are they? I ask that in my briefings all the time. And every time I get briefed on this, it gets worse and worse because the majority now of these rebel forces -- and I say majority now -- are radical Islamists. JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: I just don't agree that a majority are al Qaeda and the bad guys. That's not true. There are about 70,000 to 100,000 oppositionists. About -- somewhere, maybe, 15 percent to 25 percent might be in one group or another who are what we would deem to be bad guys.

MCCAUL: There are moderates there, but the briefings I've received, unless I've gotten different ones or inaccurate briefings, (INAUDIBLE) 50 percent.

KERRY: Well --

MCCAUL: And rising.


BALDWIN: So this was the back and forth yesterday. And my question to you, at the end of the day, Nick, if the U.S. goes on, ultimately if the U.S. arms the rebels, how does the U.S. keep these weapons from getting in the wrong hands among rebel groups?

WALSH: It's an extraordinarily tough issue. I mean there is vetting that goes on, I understand, for some of the groups that receive aid from the U.S. at this point. But, you know, if the U.S. suddenly decides it wants to up aid and try and assist the moderate groups on the ground, what happens inside Syria is often a different picture. The reason why these more extremist radical groups have gained profile is because they're the ones that experience often fighting in Iraq or other places around the world, experience in fighting. And a year ago, when there was a lot of stalemate in the north and the moderate groups weren't finding the progress they wanted, that's when these radicals came in. They got big battlefield victories. And that rose their prestige within rebel ranks, their ability to call the shots, forgive the pun, in some ways.

Now, what we're seeing is they remain very much there. The moderate side hasn't got the assistance. And I think if you did suddenly flood rebel ranks with arms, it's the people who've seen victory, it's the people who've seen success on the battlefield who are disciplined, who will make the most out of those. As it currently stands, that's mostly the extremists, Brooke.

BALDWIN: Nick Paton Walsh for us at the U.N. Nick, thank you.

And I wanted to just show you some pictures. Just moments ago. This was taken in Russia. President Obama walking to a working dinner at the G-20 Summit alone. Vladimir Putin, on the other hand, well, now we know why the president was by himself. That's next.


BALDWIN: Just into CNN, President Obama has canceled a trip to the West Coast that was planned for next week. Right now the president is in Russia, specifically in St. Petersburg at this working dinner. He's meeting with world leaders, talking economy at the G-20 Summit. And our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta, is there in St. Petersburg.

So, two questions, but let me begin with this canceled trip next week, Jim. Why?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes. Why? Because of Syria, Brooke. The president was expected, from what we understand, to go out to California early next week for a fundraiser. Obviously with Congress coming back on September 9th and that potential vote coming up, that is very crucial to what is going to happen with the president's call for action against Syria, he wants to be back in Washington. So that's the reason for that.

We can also point out that he's really working both sides of the Atlantic here, Brooke. He's not only meeting with foreign leaders behind closed doors. He's at a dinner right now here at the G-20 in St. Petersburg. He, according to aides, has been calling back to Washington. Administration officials say he was on the phone yesterday calling a bipartisan group of senators about this congressional authorization he's seeking for Syria. So, he's a busy man right now.

BALDWIN: He's a busy man. He presumably is eating and working right now. As you mentioned, he's at that dinner. And we saw the pictures, Jim, of the, you know, huge group, guys in ties, walking to this dinner.


BALDWIN: And here you have, on the left side of the screen, President Obama. I'm guessing he didn't need some alone time. I know he was coming -- what was he coming out of, a meeting?

ACOSTA: Right. Right. I mean people might be drawing the conclusion that there's some sort of metaphorical thing going on there, the president walking alone, by himself, here at the G-20. But, no. We understand from talking to aides that he was probably meeting with a foreign leader. You know, they come in and out of these meetings and they have a chance here to grab somebody, to talk with them. We're trying to get specifically who that leader was that he was talking to. But that's why he was coming in late behind that big group of other G- 20 leaders. You saw President Putin there with a whole gaggle of foreign leaders prior to the president's walk down that colonnade, which was just beautiful and picturesque. I don't know if you saw the pictures, Brooke, but it is kind of stunning, the show that the Russians are putting on here.

But at one point our Peter Morris (ph), a photojournalist at CNN in Washington, he was basically the pool camera, as we call it, as the president was making his way in to dinner. And he asked the president whether or not any progress had been made on Syria behind closed doors. And the president said, no. He said, we're just talking about the economy. So interesting that the administration officials we've been talking to all day long have been saying, listen, this is Syria, Syria, Syria. We're talking about Syria. I don't want to gloss over the fact that they probably are also saying that there are other issues going on behind the scenes. I don't want to minimize that. But the president, when he was asked point-blank just a few moments ago, said, no, he's been talking about the economy. So he's got a lot on his plate. More than just dinner, Brooke.

BALDWIN: Jim Acosta for us in beautiful St. Petersburg. Jim, thank you.

Speaking of the president, one columnist says he just made a, quote, unquote, history defying decision on action against Syria. But the bigger question we're posing is, is President Obama becoming the president he never wanted to be? That discussion is next.