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Refugee Crisis Deepens in Syria; Brutality of Some Syrian Rebels; Dilemma in Congress Posed by Syrian Rebels.

Aired September 5, 2013 - 11:30   ET


ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Take a look at the map. Many of the camps in countries around Syria have not only become painfully overcrowded. They are downright dangerous.

As Ben Wedeman reports, some of the refugees there say they would rather go home and die than live in such terrible conditions.


BEN WEDEMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The bus back to Syria is foul. There's no room left. They're fed up in leaving the refugee camp in northern Jordan, ready to risk their lives to return home.

For those who waited for the bus but couldn't get on, the angry realization they've lost even their place in the camp.


WEDEMAN: "We'll have to sleep here in the dust until the next bus," this man tells me.

Around 120,000 refugees live in this dusty camp just 15 kilometers or nearly 10 miles from the Syrian border. Each family has a story of loss and desperation.

This woman's 88-year-old mother has a broken wheelchair and needs medicine.



WEDEMAN: "I want to get up, but I can't," she cries.

In a tent I meet Abwala (ph), recently arrived with his wife and five children. He's hesitant to appear on camera. He fled two weeks ago after the welcome in this which the Syrian regime allegedly used chemical weapons.


WEDEMAN: "We thought our town was safe, then there were air raids, then they attacked with chemicals."

Abu Ala'a left with his family five months ago. He lost everything. "I saw the bomb dropping on my house," he recalls. "We left with the clothing we were wearing."


WEDEMAN: "Everyone has left," Um Mohamed says. "The houses are abandoned. The situation was unbearable."

The residents are no longer under the threat of a sudden attack, but the refugees' lot is replete with trouble.

In a U.N. clinic, Jordanian doctors dress the wound of a woman attacked earlier in the day. They can provide treatment but no protection. Jordanian police are hesitant to operate inside the camp.

Although life, like the landscape, appears bleak and barren, it's not without hope. In this desert, they find ways to supplement the bland rations and earn pocket money.

The camp's main road, jokingly dubbed Champs Elyse, is lined with shacks selling vegetables, sweets, offering a variety of services and toys. And the children who make up more than half of the camp's population have found ways to have fun in playgrounds or in their own ways.

In the morning, 13-year-old Maya (ph) helps his mother with chores. In the afternoon he flies his homemade kite made out of string, a few sticks, and scraps of plastic bags, his eyes on the heavens above today's woes.

Ben Wedeman, CNN, at the refugee camp in northern Jordan.


BANFIELD: Great reporting from Ben Wedeman.

And our Arwa Damon also reported that the sexual assaults and rapes in these camps are escalating. Just terrible, terrible places to live.

I don't know if you've had a chance -- I have held this up three times during the program today. As our Congress in the United States is debating whether to back military action against the Syrian regime, the men holding guns over soldiers, half-naked, with their heads on the ground, they fired those guns after the picture was taken. They executed them right there on the ground. Summary executions, no trials. These are the people that the American government is thinking of arming? Those are the rebels that the Americans are thinking of helping? Is this the right thing to do? Are they friend or are they foe? Coming up next.


BANFIELD: If and when there's a U.S. military strike against Syria, what comes next? Several lawmakers on Capitol Hill are insisting that any attack has got to be coupled with arming the Syrian rebels who are fighting their president right now. And the president in the United States agrees.

Here's the problem -- the rebels are not one simple unified group. Fareed Zakaria just reported there are roughly 1,000 of these groups. Some of them are jihadists. Islamists linked to al Qaeda. Not particularly friendly to the United States. Some of them hate each other. Some of them hate the U.S. Some of them kill each other constantly more than the Syrian military. It is not an easy situation to settle.

Some of these rebels are so incredibly brutal. I want to show you an example of what I'm talking. We showed the photo earlier but there is a video. There's a video that "The New York Times" has taken a still shot of and put its front page. It was obtained by the newspaper and it seems to show rebels in the back just executing seven half-naked Syrian army soldiers. The video is graphic. The "Times" blacked out the actual part where the prisoners are shot execution-style in the head by each of those captors with a gun behind them. You can hear the gunfire.

And I want to warn you if you have children in the room, it's a good time to move them. This is a graphic piece of video. The sound that you're going to hear is graphic. We want you be to be warned. But it is important in this cold calculation.






BANFIELD: The New York Times" says that that video was actually smuggled out of Syria just a few days ago. And the person who smuggled it, not a defecting soldier, not a member of the regime. It was actually a former rebel. And it was a rebel who said he was disgusted, according to the "Times," about what was going on with other rebels.

Atika Shubert joins us live from London, more on this.

It is so astounding and really eye-opening to see the brutality. And let's not forget, it is brutality of the Assad regime that has launched this entire problem to start with. What more do you know about this video, Atika?

ATIKA SHUBERT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, we know from "The New York Times" that it appears to be a rebel commander named Abdul Sumaasawi (ph). He leads several hundred fighters but he's sort of an entity on his own. As you say, the opposition forces are really an incredibly fractured group. And his group isn't particularly allied with any jihadist cause. He is a person who appears to be bent on revenge, according to "The New York Times." He happens to be charismatic enough to lead several hundred men into fighting. But it calls into question, who are the opposition and can they control men like this who are clearly brutally executing people and documenting it on video. It's a frightening thought.

BANFIELD: Atika, as we're looking at the picture beside you, I want to point out, to the far Right, the man who is holding the sidearm, "The New York Times" says that that is the commander that you're referring to. So that everyone's clear, each of those rebel soldiers -- some of them masking their identities, let's be clear here -- they are doing this and not showing who they are. They have at least that part very obvious in this photo. That's the commander on the right.

Atika Shubert, thank you for that.

I want to go further into this. Several lawmakers have been heaping praise on the rebels involved in this uprising. The secretary of state, John Kerry, has said on Capitol Hill just yesterday, in fact, that the claim that the majority of the rebels, the majority are in fact linked to al Qaeda. That's just not true, he says. The fact that they are -- the good guys, effectively, says that that's the majority. Let him tell you exactly in his words what the Senator had to say about the rebels in an interview with CNN. Have a listen.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, (R), ARIZONA: I know these people. I was in Syria, and I can assure you the Institute for Study of War and other experts who are in all the time, the most valuable and powerful force is a Free Syrian Army. They're still a major fighting force if Syria. And anybody who tells you they're not and doesn't know who they are, come with me to Syria and I'll introduce you to them.


BANFIELD: Joining us live is David Kay, a former U.N. chief weapons inspector, live on the telephone.

Dr. Kay, when I saw that photograph, you were the first person I thought of. You and I have had conversations in the last week about who these rebels are and what the picture is that is emerging. Then I heard the Senator make those remarks. In fact, he said that to Chris Cuomo here on the program "New Day." All I kept thinking was, how does he know. I know that he's been to Syria. But congressional visits are not really like going to Syria, are they?

DAVID KAY, FORMER U.N. CHIEF WEAPONS INSPECTOR (voice-over): No, congressional visits, believe it or not, are carefully scripted. So it's very hard to gain a picture of what's going on by just looking at a -- a congressional visit.

Let me tell you a far more accurate measure, and it's not 100 percent accurate either, is what journalists, particularly unilateral journalists who put their lives on the line to gather to see gather data and capture it, and the reports have been just devastating the last six months. Both kidnappings and more journalists saying it's just too dangerous. We can't go there. This is particularly true in the east and central areas, and north, even toward the Turkish border.

BANFIELD: And I have to tell you, I was one of those journalists. I've been to Syria, to Afghanistan. I was a unilateral in both places. And I felt a very different story that emerged than what I heard in Congress and the reports that were coming out of the U.S. I remember thinking, they're not meeting the same people I am out here. They're not hearing the same stories. And I suppose that's understandable.

But here's the bigger issue -- I think a lot of people know that these groups can be ruthless. But what do we know about what they're capable of doing if they get their hands on, say, the largest stockpile of chemical weapons in the world if Assad falls?

KAY: Well, what we do know is that people who win revolutions and rebellions of this type don't win on the basis of who's in the majority. They win it by brutality, the willingness to be brutal, and the willingness to die for their cause. And it's groups like al Qaeda that, you know, as the revolution goes on, it's those extremist groups gain the upper hand, those who are less willing to die for the cause, less brutal, less ruthless, tend to be pushed aside. I have no doubt -- pushed aside. I have no doubt, we've known for almost two decades that al Qaeda wants access to chemical weapons.

So look, if the regime breaks down, loses control, it's not going to be the nice vote of the nice guys versus the Assad regime.

BANFIELD: Let me ask you this, what is the metric for counting and categorizing who these 1,000 rebel groups are? Is it about who's stronger and more organized, or is it about who's more numerous?

KAY: If you're talking about who wins in the end, it's clearly not who's more numerous. It's clearly those that are willing, most willing to die for their cause, and most brutal and willing to be brutal in seeking the reins.


BANFIELD: I'm sorry, lost your audio for a moment there, Dr. Kay. I'm sorry.

I wanted to mention -- I got a note passed to me that when you refer to journalists who haven't been able to move about in some areas of northern Syria, I do know that Jonathan Apelry (ph) -- I'm not sure if I'm pronouncing that right. He was abducted in April and held by rebels for 81 days. The only way he was freed was by ransom. So there you have it. He was a photojournalist and he knows firsthand that movements of journalists, not necessarily obstructed by the Syrian regime, also by rebels.

Dr. Kay, thank you for your insight. I appreciate it.

I have other news I want to get to. Heavy rain coming to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Dominican Republic. And all of this thanks to Gabrielle. It may not be as bad as once thought despite those pictures. More in a moment. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BANFIELD: What was tropical storm Gabrielle is now a tropical depression. Make no mistake, Gabrielle is still trouble. She's expected to pound parts of Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic with some very heavy rain today. It's expected to dump about four inches of rain in parts of Puerto Rico and as much as eight inches in other places. Right now, the National Hurricane Center says that the maximum winds are about 35 miles per hour, likely to move east toward the Turks and Caicos tomorrow.

Anthony Weiner got in the face of a man at a bakery, and it's just videotape you have to see to believe. Now let's set the stage because the man was not particularly kind. He called that controversial mayoral candidate a scumbag. He also said to Weiner, "You married an Arab." So what Weiner did was post the video of what happened next on his campaign website.

Take a peek.


ANTHONY WEINER, (D), NEW YORK MAYORAL CANDIDATE: What -- who thought you that you're my judge?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Stay out of the public eye.

WEINER: That's not for you to judge, my friend. I don't take my judgment from you, and I don't judge you.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You're a bad example for the people --


WEINER: That's your judgment?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, that's obvious. It's not moral behavior.


WEINER: You're perfect. You're going to judge me?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No. I'm not running for office.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm not out in the public.

WEINER: Do you know who judges me?


WIENER: Do you know who judges me?


WEINER: Go visit your rabbi. Go visit with your rabbi. Shows how much you know.



BANFIELD: So voters will judge Anthony Weiner next week. Not his rabbi, actual voters. Tuesday is the vote in the Democratic primary in New York's mayoral race.

A 17-year-old boy is charged with murder in stabbings at a high school in Spring, Texas, north of Houston. Police say Louie Alfaro got into a fight with several students in the hallway yesterday morning and he stabbed one of them to death while injuring three others. The investigation is in the early stages but the police say it may have been gang related.

You are looking at a 100-vehicle pileup on a bridge in Kent, England. All of this due to heavy fog. Hard to believe nobody died. Six people were seriously hurt. 200 people had minor injuries. And one witness told Sky News a driver used his truck to block the entrance to the bridge so more people wouldn't end up in this disaster. Holy cow.

The what-ifs in Syria. Up next, a look at how far the U.S. could have to go should the killings continue after, after any potential strike, and what President Assad could do to strike back.


BANFIELD: There are so many questions about any potential attack on Syria. Like, when the president says a limited and proportional attack, what if it doesn't complete the mission? What if it doesn't take out the chemical weapons? What if Bashar al Assad strikes back at the United States? What if Bashar al Assad strikes back with more chemical weapons or even conventional weapons against his own people? Then what? Then what's the United States' mission?

With us is Lieutenant Colonel Rick Francona, the military attache for Syria for three years.

What's the answer to those questions, Colonel?


LT. COL. RICK FRANCONA, FORMER MILITARY ATTACHE FOR SYRIA: Well, I don't think the goal of this strike will be to take out chemical weapons. I don't think that's possible. The chemical weapons in the Syrian inventory and hidden away in very protected bunkers. Cruise missiles are not penetrating weapons and they won't be able to do that. Will it deter Assad from using them again? Possibly. That's hard to know. It won't stop the killing. That's for sure. It is going on -- it hasn't stopped. It never stopped. There was not even a lull. In fact, there was kind of an uptick in violence on both sides right after the announcement that the president was going to go to Congress and he made this announcement we were going to take military action. I don't think a limited strike is going to have much effect at all. BANFIELD: That distresses me when you say I don't think we'll get the chemical weapons. I want to play for you just something that Senator Susan Collins from Maine, said just a short time ago about the efficiency of what any strike can actually do, specifically about those chemical weapons. Have a listen.


SEN. SUSAN COLLINS, (R), MAINE: One major issue that I have is it is unlikely we will be able to completely take out Assad's chemical stock pile. It is one of the largest in the world. Many means of delivering the weapons. And what if we execute this strike and he decides to use chemical weapons again? Do we strike again? Well, that's the definition of further entanglement and the definition of our becoming deeply involved in a war.


BANFIELD: Deeply involved in a war. I am just reading in the "Wall Street Journal" this morning the Pentagon is revising now ramping up the actual as is et cetera to include air bombers for whatever kind of movements Assad has been doing with his assets. So is this mission creep? Do we need to be far more agile in the planning here and what we're telling Congress?

FRANCONA: That's exactly what's happening. We're doing this backwards. Normally, what happens is the president gives the military a mission and then the military decides, OK, we need these assets to accomplish that, and that may include manned aviation and might -- land based bombers, and could be cruise missiles, air-launch cruise missiles. There's a variety of weapons and you pick what you need. Right now, the military has been told, you can use cruise missiles so do the damage with that. Unfortunately, cruise missiles don't have the penetrating power to get into the places where the chemical weapons are.

I think it is foolish to take out the chemical weapons unless you bring in the assets to do that. But there are other things you can do. I think that's probably where we will see the military action take place, for example, going off the air fields.

BANFIELD: That's where it is fascinating. So many reports about the robust nature of Assad's assets and maybe not so much. The defectors have said he is pretty diminished.

Lieutenant Colonel, that's all the time I have. But thank you for your insight. Look forward to further analysis from you as this continues to be a massive story.

Thank you so much for watching. AROUND THE WORLD with Suzanne Malveaux and Michael Holmes starts after this quick break. I'm Ashleigh Banfield.


SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN ANCHOR: President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin meeting face-to-face and shaking hands. Will they actually find some common ground?

MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN ANCHOR: Plus, Secretary of State John Kerry says Syria's leader, Bashar al Assad, is a thug and a murder, but just five years ago was Kerry and his wife dining with the Assads?

MALVEAUX: Also we have been talking about the dangerous radiation levels near Japans' crippled nuclear plant. Now we'll take you inside the safety zone.