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Syria in Crisis

Aired September 5, 2013 - 21:00   ET


CHRIS CUOMO, HOST: I am Chris Cuomo, in for Piers. Welcome to our viewers in the United States and around the world. I also want to welcome my studio audience. Welcome all of you to "Syria in Crisis," a live town hall special.

All right, this is your chance to ask questions and tell us what you think. We've got a power pack panel of experts here and we want your questions. You can tweet them, use my name @chriscuomo#atsyriaquestions, you said hash tag we'll do that.

Now tonight is going to be all about laying out American's concerns, putting them on the table and getting as much information and analysis we can on the important decision of whether or not to bomb Syria. So, the first thing we need to know is how we got here. So, remember, March 2011 in the wake of the Arab Spring, violence starts in Syria after a group of teens and children are arrested for writing political graffiti, dozens of people are killed when security forces cracked down on demonstrations sparking what we now know as a civil war.

August 20 of 2012 another flash point. President Obama says this about potential US involvement.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized, that would change my calculus. That would change my equation.


CUOMO: So that was the now infamous red line statement. That takes us to August 21st, 2013, the heartbreaking picture surface. Rows of dead children, estimates of lives lost exceed 1300. That takes us to August 23rd, 2013, we at CNN are the first to interview President Obama about the situation and he is very cautious, very reluctant to commit the U. to another conflict.


OBAMA: We are already in communications with the entire international community. We're moving through the UN to try to prompt better action from them and we've called on the Syrian government to allow an investigation of the site because UN inspectors are on the ground right now.


CUOMO: The tone decidedly calm and delivered. I know because I was the one asking him the questions, however, within days the President, remember the President won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 for his quote, "Extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples." The President changes his tone and says he intends to punish the Assad Regime by bombing. He calls on allies but hits a major roadblock on August 29th when the British Parliament votes 285 to 272 not to authorize British military forces to join the strikes on Syria. That takes us to August 31st, 2013, President Obama announces, he will seek Congressional approval for strikes on Syria. And just yesterday the President said this.


OBAMA: I didn't set a red line. The world set a red line. The world set a red line when government's representing 98 percent of the world's population said, "The use of chemical weapons are abhorrent and passed the treaty, forbidding their use even when countries are engaged in war." The Congress set a red line when it ratified that through.


CUOMO: Now we've got a lot to get through tonight but we want to begin with the latest perspective from the Administration that it is their job to make their case to Americans and to the Congress. So, here's the latest from the White House.

Joining us now Tony Blinken, Deputy National Security Adviser to President Obama. Mr. Blinken, thank you for joining us.


CUOMO: Now there are a lot of considerations obviously that are causing reluctance in the country, in the United States and around the world. One of the major ones is the nature of what's being called, the intelligence of the situation, that chemical weapons were used and it was the Assad regime that used them. I want to play you something that former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said to me on New Day. Take a listen to this and then I'd like you to explain it for me. Take a listen.


DONALD HENRY RUMSFELD, FMR SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: If intelligence were a fact it would be a called a fact and not intelligence.


CUOMO: Do you agree with that statement Mr. Blinken, that when it comes to our national security intelligence isn't necessarily a fact? BLINKEN: Well look there's two things going on here. There are intelligence assessments and assessments are pulling together what we know that is facts and then trying to understand what they mean, and so an assessment, you know, by definition is someone's best understanding of what the facts mean. But there are lots of facts here that make up this case and we know and we've released unclassified intelligence over the last week. We know that rockets were launched from an area controlled by the Syrian government. We know they landed in an area that was controlled by the opposition. We know that there was an explosion of social media coming out contemporaneous with the attack with people demonstrating the symptoms of a chemical weapons attack.

We now have from analysis that was done of soil and blood and hair that sarin was used and we have intelligence of conversations among key players in the Assad regime acknowledging that this happened. So, when you put all of that together, now some of these we had to go to Congress in a classified setting and give them all the details, they're the people's representatives they have to make that judgment for the people, but a lot of these we've been able to put out in public. And what's really striking, Chris is the public information on this, especially the social media that was contemporaneous with the attack, whether it was Facebook, Twitter, videos that came out is overwhelming and actually I don't think there's a lot of doubt around the world about whether chemical weapons were used and that Assad used them.

CUOMO: Mr. Blinken, clearly there has to be doubt, I mean you're hearing it from the Russian president. You hear it from communities abroad. I mean, let me just ask it to you simply. Can you guarantee that chemical weapons were used and they were used by the Assad regime?

BLINKEN: The intelligence community, no one's going to guarantee, use the word guarantee, they're going to tell you ...


CUOMO: Well if that's the basis for your attack why would you attack if you can't even guarantee the basis?

BLINKEN: Because we believe beyond a reasonable doubt, let me use that standard it's familiar to a lot of people, that beyond reasonable doubt that the Assad regime used chemical weapons against its own people. Beyond reasonable doubt, the case is clear it's compelling, it's based on intelligence, it's based on facts, it's based on a lot of public information.

CUOMO: Mr. Blinken these are tough questions thank you for answering them. You know how much it matters that's why I'm chasing you about it. But thank you for giving us the opportunity.

BLINKEN: Appreciate it. Thanks a lot Chris.

CUOMO: Beyond reasonable doubt, a standard we have in the United States of America because it is better to let a 100 guilty men go free than to punish one innocent man right? However is it a good enough standard for when you're deciding whether or not to bomb, show of hands here so far. Beyond reasonable doubt, is that enough? Who thinks that's enough of a standard? Hands up. Anybody else, but just to start tonight, who so far feels that we know enough that there's enough proof on the ground for the United States to make a decision to bomb? Who feels confident this morning? OK. Let's start off now. This is as little about me as possible as much about you, so we want to get our first question.

Mr. Jordan Valetine (ph) what is your question?

JORDAN VALENTINE (ph): Obama is taking the issue to Congress. Will he get the votes he needs?

CUOMO: OK, will he get the votes he need. Who better to answer that than members of Congress, let's bring in two members right now, they're from opposite parties but neither is sold on Syria. Joining us now Republican Congressman Jason Chaffetz, he's a member of the Homeland Security Committee. Also joining me Representative Janice Hahn, a Democrat. Thanks to both of you. You heard the question from Jordan, did you? I'll take it as a yes.


REP. JANICE HAHN, (D) CALIFORNIA: Yes, I heard the question.

CUOMO: All right that's it. I'll answer for it I'll take it as a yes. This is what we know so far, the soft vote count in the House. 23 yes 109 no, 20 unknown and 281 undecided. Let me start with your Congressman Chaffetz, in the Senate by the way if you want to know that Jason its 24 yes, 18 no, 58 undecided. So, that's where we roughly are in Congress. Well let me ask you Congressman Chaffetz, you tweeted the following, "So far about 500 e-mails regarding Syria, 499 say no and one says yes." Right now you're both likely no votes. British intelligence now has proved that sarin gas was used. Do you believe the case has been made for you that there's a legitimate basis to go to war? You still a no?

CHAFFETZ: I'm still a no at this point, we're talking about going to war and if there is a clear and present danger to the United States then of course I want the President to act swiftly and decisively. But in this case I see no present -- clear and present danger to the United States. It's an awful terrible situation. It is a civil war and I think we also have an obligation, Chris to consider then what happens? If we start bombing another country and we start killing people in Syria, then what happens in what is truly a powder keg situation with neighbors that don't like each other and then suddenly we have US servicemen and women with their lives on the line. I just -- I don't know that the case has been made yet.

CUOMO: Representative Hahn let me attack the basis of my own question. I said war, the White House says this is not about war, this is a limited attack. There is going to be no reprisal. They don't believe the Syrians will attack, they don't believe anybody else will attack. Why isn't that giving you comfort? This is your party we're talking about, this is your President's party. HAHN: This does not give me any comfort and it's interesting I think this is the first time Jason and I maybe agreeing on something. But the case has not been made to me that this war has anything to do with us and it is so unpredictable and we do not know after we have the first strike of what is going to be next. It could explode, they could retaliate against us, against Israel, against our embassies. This is not a war that I believe we should be dragged into. And by the way, my constituents as well, overwhelmingly are saying absolutely no, to dragging us into another foreign war.

CUOMO: Now whether it's right or wrong though, your constituents don't know what you know, right? Senator Diane Feinstein made that point, she's the Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and she said, "Well, my constituents are against me but they don't know what I know." Because you have extra information why isn't that giving you comfort that there's a legitimate basis for this attack and that it will be limited in scope, no boots on the ground, in and out.

CHAFFETZ: Well, Chris if I can jump in here ...

HAHN: Well the only thing ...

CUOMO: I wanted Jason -- Jason go ahead.

CHAFFETZ: I'm sorry, look that's the concern is, those that have looked at the intelligence, they are split. I don't think this is conclusive, you don't see the intelligence committee for instance in the House unanimously supporting this at this time. I don't think the questions have been answered. Of course we have the greatest military might in the entire world. If we're going to war then we go with everything and fight to win but the President has not explained what steps two, three and four are. What the other ramifications are and that is simply not good enough. We can't just send a hallmark card and lobby (ph) in a few missiles and say, "Hey we're punishing you for using sarin gas," that's not good enough and the sarin.

CUOMO: OK, for Representative Hahn here's the other case though, America looks weak. The President said that there was a line, the line has been crossed and if you do not take steps now, others will follow and you saw the human cost in the ground, there were too many kids and they were killed in one of the worst ways that we know, it has to stop. America's uniquely positioned to stop it and that is the mandate.

HAHN: Well personally, I don't think we look weak when we choose to not return violence with violence. I think America can look a lot stronger right now. If we chartered a new course for ourselves and instead of using this energy to bomb Syria and have this collateral damage and unintended consequences, why don't we use our strength and our might to bring together the international community in diplomacy and finding another way to hold Assad accountable. I think we would be a greater country if we took care of our problems here at home. If we invested more in our own schools and our own bridges and roads and really help people recover in this bad economy. So I think that's what would make this country strong.

CUOMO: Final question to both of you. Is there anything that will change your mind on this situation between now and the vote?

Representative Chaffetz?

CHAFFETZ: Yeah, of course I'm going to keep an open mind, I'm leaning though, I want to hear the best intelligence that we have right up until the time we vote. It is important that the United States of America do the right thing, but I'm not there to just, you know, pass off what the political establishment says, my job is to represent the people of Utah and right now we're just not convinced.

CUOMO: Representative Hahn?

HAHN: I don't think so. I've seen all the evidence, I've read the classified documents and I don't believe there is anything at this point that will convince me to vote in favor of military force at this time ...

CUOMO: No crisis, no crisis.

HAHN: ... only if I could be shown that we have explored all other diplomatic opportunity.

CUOMO: When you see the pictures of those kids though, there's no crisis of conscience?

HAHN: Well those were horrible pictures, look I'm a mother, I'm a grandmother. But I'll tell you if we have a limited military strike, what's to say that we are not going to also kill some innocent civilians and there may be a dad that doesn't come home or a brother that doesn't come or a son that doesn't come home. I don't believe we should return violence with violence.

CUOMO: This is a -- we talk about a lot of votes being tough, this is a vote that actually is very difficult for all of the most important reasons. Representatives Chaffetz and Hahn, thank you very much for joining us. Good luck going forward.

All right, so we heard from Representatives, we heard from the White House. We heard from some of you so far. Tonight, now I want to introduce you to the panel, we've got a very good group of people to help us figure this all out. We have New York Times columnist Nick Kristof. We have Lieutenant Colonel Rick Francona, CNN Military Analyst and a former air attache in Damascus who traveled extensively in Syria as an observer of the country's air defense and military operations. Fran Townsend, CNN's International Security Analyst and a member of both the DHS and CIA external advisory boards and Mr. Philip, help me say your last name the right way.


CUOMO: Gourevitch? I've been mangling it for years and I apologize for that, staff writer for The New Yorker.

There's one thing we got settled tonight good. And we're going to have Mr. Newt Gingrich former Speaker of the House and co-host of CNN's Crossfire. It's good to have you with us as always Newt. I want to start off with one quick question, Fran help me with this, you've been guiding me through the situations for a long time. The idea that intelligence is not fact. To hear that said to the American people, to hear that the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt, which we don't even like in criminal trials, let alone we're deciding to bomb, surprising to you?

FRAN TOWNSEND, CNN INTERNATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: It is and I think that it was said both by Secretary Rumsfeld and Tony Blinken not very well frankly. So, there are assessments those aren't facts, but we know some facts which are based on science. We know chemical weapons were used, the British came out they identified it as sarin gas. We know it killed people. We know from the intelligence that where it was fired from and the method of delivery. So, there are a lot of facts.

CUOMO: So intelligence still means that you know something?

TOWNSEND: That's right.

CUOMO: It still means that.

TOWNSEND: That's right.

CUOMO: We could take some comfort in that?

TOWNSEND: That's exactly right.

CUOMO: But that's not what Mr. Rumsfeld said?

TOWNSEND: No. That's right. But there are ...

CUOMO: That's not what Mr. Blinken was prepared to say?

TOWNSEND: Right. There are some facts that have been established so far. It may not have persuaded some of the people in the audience, some members of Congress, but there are some facts that we do know now.

CUOMO: OK. So, assuming we can make -- we -- assuming the case is (inaudible) American people that the intelligence is there, that those are facts, that these were chemical weapons, and that they were fired used by the Assad regime against this innocent people. That's one part. The second part is, is whether or not this plan makes sense.

Now, we're going take a break. When we come back, we'll going to go to a member of the Pentagon, the spokesperson for them and he is going to answer the question of what the plan is and why it makes sense and we'll take more questions from you. Stay with us.



JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: But not one of us who doesn't understand what going to war means and we don't want to go to war. We don't believe we are going to war in the classic sense of taking American troops in America to war.


CUOMO: All right. That was Secretary of State, John Kerry, testifying before Congress. I am Chris Cuomo, in for Piers Morgan.

"Nobody wants American boots on the ground in Syria." That was seems to be one reality. But, how can that actually be prevented and guaranteed as such what exactly does a limited yet effective strike in Syria look like. For some answers, joining us now, Mr. George Little, Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs in the Department of Defense. Thank you very much Mr. Little for joining us.


CUOMO: Help us with this first point of confusion, the idea of intelligence giving certainty of this situation. Can you tell the American people that you have no doubt about chemical weapons being used and that they were used by the Assad regime? Is your basis for attack solid?

LITTLE: Chris, our basis for what might be a military operation is absolutely solid. This is a common sense case, not just from our intelligence, but from public images. The camera footage and the photographs that are coming out of Syria, we know this was a chemical attack, we know that it was perpetrated by the Assad regime. Its deplorable behavior and we're not alone in that assessment. The British, the French, and others have pin the rose on the Syrian regime. And we're very confident in the facts that we have developed.

CUOMO: All right, let's move on to this second point, the plan for the attack. Obviously, you cannot give us details, we don't expect them. But just in terms of the strategy, it seems to send mixed messages to many people. You're going to bomb, but you don't want to topple the regime. We're hearing reports from ABC News that now there's an expectation of a larger scale to this than originally thought? What can you tell us?

LITTLE: Let me be very clear about what this is and what it isn't. This is about defending an international norm against the use of chemical weapons against innocent populations. That's what this is about. And the President has directed us to plan for a limited operation, limited duration, limited scope, and no boots on the ground. We're not talking about an Iraq or Afghanistan style war.

We do have a broader policy in place to bring about regime change. And we're working through other means to do that. We're using a diplomatic track, the State Department is doing an outstanding job working to build a moderate opposition that is more cohesive, that can build a reconciliation process and help the Syrian people to find a path for themselves that does not involve Bashar al-Assad's brutal regime. That's what we're doing. CUOMO: Are you ready if there is a counterattack by Syria or Hezbollah decides to do something or if Iran decides to do something? Do you have plans for those contingencies that would not involve boots on the ground?

LITTLE: We are absolutely clear-eyed and we've been planning ourselves and with our partners, particularly in the region of Turkey and Israel and Jordan and others. We understand that we can never take the risk down to zero, but we believe that we can take steps to mitigate those risks. And that has factored squarely into our planning.

CUOMO: Do you want regime change right now?

LITTLE: This military operation is focused on the objective of deterring and degrading the Syrian regime's ability to use chemical weapons. And that's what this debate is about. Of course, we want regime change at the end of the day, but this question that we're debating as a nation right now is about chemical weapons and whether or not we're going to stand up against their indiscriminate use by a brutal regime.

CUOMO: What do you feel that the strongest mandate is for this to be the United States in an operation that seems largely solo in a practical sense right now, not having the UN with you, not having NATO with you, not having the bigger allies with you? What gives you the mandate to do it alone?

LITTLE: I think the mandate for this is very clear. There is a clearly established international norm against chemical weapons. It is as simple as that, Chris, and many countries around the world have come out and rejected what the Syrian regime has done and condemned the regime for their actions. This is about standing up for that norm and we believe that it's rooted in the legitimacy of what the international community accepts as responsible behavior.

And we expect the Syrian regime to stop their use of chemical weapons and we should send a clear message that what they did last month was absolutely intolerable and wrong.

CUOMO: Mr. Little, let me let you go with this question. At this point, what do you think it's going to cost?

LITTLE: We're working through that right now. We're going to consult with Congress. This is not a protracted military operation, so we're not looking at tens and tens of billions of dollars here. This is -- even in a fiscally-constrained environment, this is a military operation that we could undertake responsibly and at relatively low cost.

CUOMO: Which would be?

LITTLE: I don't have those figures at hand right now. It depends on the precise parameters of the military operation that we undertake. The President has not decided to do that yet. So I can't put a precise cost on this, but we believe that it's achievable. And at the end of the day, this is about the national security interest of the United States. If we allow Saddam or -- excuse me -- Bashar al- Assad to use chemical weapons, then we're truly setting a bad standard and we're putting our forces in harm's way because they could be confronting chemical weapons in the future.

CUOMO: All right. Mr. Little, thank you very much for the perspective. I appreciate it.

LITTLE: Thank you and good night.

CUOMO: OK, we're going to come to the panel now and I want to do it motivating with the questions from the audience. Toby -- Toby Goldstein (ph), you ready? What do you have?

TOBY GOLDSTEIN (ph): Yes. My name is Toby (ph). I'm a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom and a student in Columbia University. We learned a lot of hard lessons in those early years of Iraq. Should this end up being a prolonged conflict? How do you think we can avoid making some of the same mistakes we made early in that war?

CUOMO: All right. I'm going to direct this to you, Rick. Thank you for the question, Toby. I guest the first one should be that we shouldn't call Assad, Saddam, right?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's a good one.

CUOMO: Because it does kind of bring back some memories for American people and people around the world. But please lay it out for us. Rick, this is serious and how do you see this in the best case scenario.

LT. COL. RICK FRANCONA, (RET) CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, the best case scenario is we'd be able to do something all stand off. You know, using cruise missiles, maybe air-launched cruise missiles. But keep out of Syrian airspace. If you look at the resolution it's written in such a way that there's no way to preclude as you're flying over Syria.

And what I didn't hear in all of these so far is what, is the actual objective of this operation?

CUOMO: Is that unusual that you wouldn't have heard that at this point?

FRANCONA: Yes, yes. Normally what happens is the President defines an objective and he tells the Pentagon here's what I want to happen. And the Pentagon decides what weapons are going to use, how they're going to do it, they determine the strategy and tactics, and then he approves it and they do it.

Now what they're being told is you're going to use cruise missiles, oh and because the way of the resolution is written, there's now report that maybe B2s, B-52s in the standoff mode. But I can tell you if the goal is to hit these high-value assets, delivery systems, the scud missiles, cruise missiles, air-launched cruise missiles are not going to do it. You need penetrating weapons and that means aircraft over Syria.

CUOMO: So playoff Rick. Show us on the map you guys. What could you do? Forget about the doubts. Let's just say everything works perfectly. What would you do here that would achieve the goals as been stated so far that you're going to stop the ability to use chemical weapons, deter anybody else from wanting to try it, but not topple the regime and not hurt anybody that you don't want to.

TOWNSEND: Well Chris, I actually think it's more confused than Rick has suggested. In an interview with George Little, he says, "The military strategy is as you've described that is to deter and degrade the ability to use chemical weapons" the State Department that's another agency of the same government. Their policy, their strategy is regime change. And what nobody seems to be able to explain to any of us is how are these two things linked?

CUOMO: Well, Nick, why don't you get it on that because, you know, frankly you have been following your work for a lot of years. You're a mentor for me in the business. And when you start making statements and, "Hey, this maybe necessary." Why? Why?

NICK KRISTOF, COLUMNIST, NEW YORK TIMES: Well, I made a couple of thoughts. First of all, I think there is very little chance if we're going to send aircraft over Syria really for the reason then we have to take out their air defenses first, and I just don't think that's going to be in the cards. I think we're going to do things either from our destroyers offshore or from aircraft standing offshore.


KRISTOF: So it's not do deal with the air. I think that the parallel (ph) of this is probably something like Operation Desert Fox, 1998, which is a three-day campaign against Saddam's Iraq. There's a debate about whether or not it accomplished very much, some think it did, some think it didn't, but it wasn't, you know, it wasn't anything like Iraq.

And, you know, I guess where I come down on this is that I think we're very much focused reasonably on the risks of intervention. And that's him (ph), we have to be prudent about it. But there are also real risks of not getting involved. We have to think about alternatives. Representative Hahn talked about "Well, we should go instead to the United Nations and seek multilateral ventures." That sounds great. But we have tried that approach and a 100,000 people have died as a result, 60,000 people at this rate are dying each year. We have seen this escalation of chemical attacks.

And so, I think the question becomes, you know, what are our alternatives. And given those, it seems to me that firing some cruise missiles from offshore to try to deter the chance that chemical weapons are going to be used again, seems to be, a less worse alternative in all the others.

CUOMO: All right. So we're going to take a break here. We're going to come back on this question of explaining to people how that will be accomplished. How you'll stop chemical weapons by using bombs and the regional fall out that we're worried about. We're going to pick it up right there. And we're also going to bring in Mr. Gingrich 'cause I don't want to waiting out there too long. We're going to ask him what we've learned from the past and what the best course forward is. Stay with us.


CUOMO: All right welcome back everybody. I'm Chris Cuomo in for Piers Morgan. We have right now with me starting from my left Nick Kristof, Rick Francona, Fran Townsend, and Philip -- give me again.

GOUREVITCH: Gourevitch.

CUOMO: Gourevitch. That's the one thing I want you to take away from tonight is the right way to say his name. And he is worth knowing his name right. We're taking your questions as well.

Tonight we have Newt Gingrich joining us as well. Let's start of real quickly with the show of hands from what we've heard so far. A show of hands, people who are more confident that the plan is in place, the intelligence is in place, that the best option how to help the people in Syria right now is the bomb. Show of hands. All right. Let's continue with the conversation. Let's get a question. Neda, you have a question for us?

NEDA: Yes I do.

CUOMO: Please.

NEDA: So, my question is now that we've clearly established that this is about international norms and the use of chemical weapons, the United States used napalm and weight (ph) busters in Iraq. Are we really the country to take the moral high road on Assad's use of chemical weapons?

CUOMO: All right. Mr. Gingrich

NEDA: And what's the endgame?

CUOMO: Thank you. Mr. Gingrich? Let's bring you in here, Newt from the perspective of, you know, you heard Neda's question. What is the endgame and please give some perspective on how you think the White House has handled it so far.

NEWT GINGRICH, FMR. SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: Well, frankly, I'm opposed to this campaign for partially the purpose that point she made. We had 100,000 people killed in Syria so far. We've had lots of children killed. These are tragedies. We've also had tragedies around the world in Darfur, in Rwanda, in West Africa. I don't agree with the President's comment in Sweden the other day that we're the world's 911. And I think that we ought to be very careful about the projects we undertake.

I can't imagine a limited campaign. And Secretary Hagel yesterday in the Hose testimony said it would only cost tens of millions, that's a direct quote, tens of millions. Well, a Tomahawk missile cost about $1 million. So if it's in the tens of millions become a 30, 40, 50 missiles against the regime which is by the way been in power since 1970. His father took over in 1970, 43 years ago.

It just strikes me that we're in the middle of a public relations effort, it makes no sense. You saw Secretary Kerry and the Senate Committee start by saying no boots on the ground then answer a question by describing boots on the ground, then retract boots on the ground and say, "Gee, I was just thinking out loud."

I don't get a lot of confidence ...


GINGRICH: When the Secretary of the State thinks out loud about a war.

CUOMO: All right. Thank you for that part of it. Nick, give me the other side.

KRISTOF: Can I just address the US question, do you think it's an important one and, you know, it is true that we have violated human rights. Why should we tell in other countries that we have used napalm (ph). So what right do we have to talk about napalm in Syria.

And I guess the argument I would make is that it's important, it's all the more important to raise human rights issues abroad because we have (inaudible) laws in the American south (ph) and we're violating the rights of black Americans does not mean we should not kept quiet about holocaust.

And it is better to inconsistently stand up -- summarizing (ph) to critically stand up and save some lives that it consistently saved none.

CUOMO: Philip, let me ask you a question. And also there's the question of who we will wind up helping here. The New York Times is going to have a cover where there's Syrian soldiers apparently laid out and they're being shot by rebels. It's today's paper. We're looking at right now. Here's the cover.

The question is, who winds up being benefited by this? Who takes over? Do you improve this situation? Are you helping Al-Qaeda? Are you having extremist elements? What about that part?

GOUREVITCH: Well that gets to the obvious question that we don't know why this is being done. There's no stated intended outcome. We know all about this unintended consequences being thrown around. What are the intended consequences? How do we want this to -- over a year and a half ago when the death told us about around a year and a half that one it was about 10,000. There was a (inaudible) can take it the Russian said, you know, there's one inevitable question. After Assad, who do you want there? And we've never have any answers to that.

And that goes to the fact that we don't have an answer to what we're trying to do here. And when Nick starts to say, we have to hold up this international norms, we have to stand up for human rights, but then he immediately is talking about 60,000 a year that we stand by. He is talking about the larger war. You're not talking about limited strikes then.

CUOMO: Right. When ...

GOUREVITCH: And everybody is talking about the larger war. There's a deep confusion in this debate about what the objectives are within the Administration, within the selling of it to Congress, within the press discussion of it. And I think that we don't know we'd be supporting here. We're not comfortable with the rebels, there's ...

CUOMO: John McCain says he does know them. He is comfortable with it and he knows who's going to take -- oh, no it's in the reports. The senator went there and he visited ...

GOUREVITCH: ... (inaudible) over his iPod and say that he doesn't take the -- that he doesn't listen to the Joint Chiefs of Staff Chief anymore.

CUOMO: The -- Newt, you're laughing. Help me out here. The poker aside, Senator John McCain knows the situation as well as anybody. He's been on the ground. What is your take on that, Newt?

GINGRICH: I think anybody who thinks that American politician even one as experienced as John McCain has any deep understanding of the hatreds, the rivalries, the clan (ph) work violence, the religious conflicts that make a place like Syria operate is rejecting all the evidence we have over the last 15 years.

We occupied and totally dominated Iraq. We could not pacify it. We have blown apart the Gadhafi dictatorship, Libya is a mess. We are unable to completely pacify Afghanistan. Syria is a very complicated country with a lot of people who hate each other and the idea that they've been kept relatively peaceful until two years ago because the Assad regime was so consistently brutal.

The idea that we're going to go in and we're going to cleverly find the right people, denies everything we've learned in the last 15 years about the Middle East.

KRISTOF: We do know something about the rebels. I mean every journalist who goes into Syria including me finds rebels to work with and your betting your life on finding the right rebels and the fact that there are so many journalist going in means that for the most part the people do find rebels who they can trust.

You know it's difficult. It's complex. There have been some tragic mistakes, but it's not completely blocked box there.

CUOMO: All right. So hold that point right there we're going to go to break.

Mr. Gingrich thank you very much for joining us.

GINGRICH: Thank you.

CUOMO: Everybody else, please stay here.

When we come back, I want to know if you think President Obama has tripped over his own red line. We're going to take more questions in the audience so get your (inaudible)


CUOMO: All right. Welcome back everybody. I'm Chris Cuomo in for Piers Morgan. Back with me Nick Kristof, Lieutenant Colonel Rick Francona, Fran Townsend and the man is only known as Philip now, Philip Gourevitch. It's great to have you all with us. Also, joining us in the audience tonight, we have a lot of people who are from Syria, show of hands, people who are of Syrian decent. OK.

I want to go back to what was in the New York Times, the cover. I apologize, difficult for you to see, difficult for everybody to see. Here's what we understand about the situation. The men standing are rebel fighters. The men on the ground, shirtless are Syrian -- members of the Syrian army. They are being used as an example. There's video as well. I want to play you a little of it so you can understand the situation. It's tough to look at. You will not see the actual violence that takes place but you will hear it. Here it is.

The short description is that the rebel is saying, "You're going to take our blood, we're going to take yours as well." And they then execute the men on the ground and put their bodies we believe in an unmarked grave which we believe was a well.

Now, Nick, this is horrible. We know that. It's your paper. And it raises the question who will be helped in this situation. These are the rebels supposedly these are the people we want to help. Help explain the situation.

KRISTOF: There's no question that there are many rebel groups, populates (ph) under the Jihadists in the north that have engaged in all kinds of atrocities. And it's inexcusable. You know, I think one of the -- what really sad things about watching Syria the last two and a half years has been that there has been -- that as more people have been killed everybody has become more full of hatred, more poisonous toward every other group and there's been a real radicalization of all kinds of rebel groups.

CUOMO: So, Philip how do we know who to help?

GOUREVITCH: I don't think we do. I think it's quite clear that we don't know at this point who we want to help. I think that when you see the paralysis that has defined the Obama Administration, Syria policy all this time is that we don't know and the red line, you know, we always talked about when they go to (inaudible) and everybody says, "We're not going to take options off the table down the road." Nobody ever wants to take an option off the table.

What the red line and as it took off the table the option of not having to bomb. Not being and basically putting him this corner where now he feels he has to be seen responding to the use of chemical weapons and basically so far the biggest rationale is that we cannot not do something.

CUOMO: Fran and then Rick, weighing on this but also from the perspective of the basis of the argument that Philip's made. Just because it may have been a political statement that was made, that was wise or unwise, why is the justification for it have to be bombing?

TOWNSEND: Well and I think you've seen now over the last several days, the President walk back from his original language, well it's not my red line, it's the international community's red line and it's Congress's red line, it's everybody's right. The President really doesn't want this to be about his political statement.

There are international norms about prohibiting the proliferation and use of chemical weapons because it was tragically 1,000 -- 1500 in the August attack. That was not the first attack, there have been dozens of other uses of chemical weapons inside Syria and by the way as tragic as the August 21st large scale use of chemical weapons was the ability of chemical weapons to be used to kill 10,000 or 50,000 is not out of the question and so that's what the President is trying to prevent.

CUOMO: Rick, what is the chance so this could be quick on the military level and then unpacking what happens with the fallout?

FRANCONA: Well, depending on what we want to do. If you want to deter him from using chemical weapons, we may have already done that by having this conversation. By the President and the raising awareness could have achieved that goal, but I don't think we can get away with just that so I think we're going to be forced in to something, but -- and I think they're trying to walk back what the expectations are going to be because and what are the objectives going to be because if you go in there in a meaningful way, you will be helping the opposition and as Philip was saying, the opposition isn't a monolithic organization.

There's probably hundreds of groups out there who have competing interest and they only work with each other when they have a mutual goal and then they go back to be on their own and sometimes they're against themselves. We could be setting up the second civil war Syria.

CUOMO: All right, yes please ...

TOWNSEND: Chris, I think it's more (ph) explain in quickly that even you accept that there are facts that there were chemical weapons used and it was the Assad regime, what the Administration and the President have not done a very good job at making the case is, why is this is in America's national interest and I think that's why you see a lack of support on both sides of the aisle.

CUOMO: So that's the question I put to you. We're going to talk about it after the break. Please tweet us. You could do it at chriscuomo, you can use the hash tag about the Town Hall tonight you'll see it online. We'll going to be right back. Stay with us.


CUOMO: I'm Chris Cuomo, in for Piers Morgan, we have Philip Gourevitch, we have Fran Townsend, we have Colonel Rick Francona and Mr. Nick Kristof joining us here. And we also have a really great studio audience, a lot of members here are of Syrian extract, they have family there and we want to talk and hear their perspective as well. And we're going to start with that. We have Tom in the audience, right?

Tom, please you have -- you're from Syria, yes? And what is your take on this situation? What do you want to say?


Hold on Tom, they're not hearing you, we're hearing you but they're not hearing you at home we're going to get you better a mike. They're going to get you a better microphone. So let's hold on one second. While we're getting Tom let's try this microphone, see if this works best.

TOM: So, as a ...

CUOMO: It's got to be better.

TOM: As a Syrian-American, we Syrians are seeing terrorist, new fist faces, new languages, people would beard, they are killing Christian, forcing (inaudible) to, you know, to convert into Islam, they're eating livers, you know, they're threatening people asking for ransoms. There are new faces from Afghanistan, from Libya, from Cheshunt (ph), the same people that we saw in the Boston bombing, same people responsible we're seeing them in Syria and we want to show the American and the world the other side of the story that is not being covered. We are happy with our regime, we have been very happy with it, we were living in a perfect harmony, Christian, Jews, and Muslims, and atheist.

CUOMO: So, Tom you're saying you support the Asaad regime?

TOM: 100 percent and I think it's all right to decide our future or, you know, it's all right to decide our regime, it's not -- it's no one's business to decide.

CUOMO: Well, Tom that -- it is an important point that someone neglected in the debate that we're having in this country right now is the assumption that everybody wants change.

KRISTOF: I mean, the idea of President Assad got that majority of people would support, I mean we'd have an election and there's, you know.

TOM: I need to say something real quick. The Muslim (inaudible) Egyptian President fell down after a month and a half, Libyan president after a couple of months, certainly Tunisia and all the other countries, Syrian president has been almost three years after what's happening. It's not as Arabic Spring that's, you know, affecting its Arabic Fall that's falling on us because all the negative, all the impact that is affecting the Syrians.

CUOMO: Tom, thank you very much for that perspective.

TOM: Thank you. Appreciate it.

KRISTOF: There is no doubt that there are significant communities within Syria that, yes, support the president, I mean the Alawi Community, great portion of the Christian community supports President Assad. There's also no doubt that the majority of the country is Sunni and is very unhappy with Assad and with -- if he would lose the pre-elections.





UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And -- my whole family actually lives in Syria and I can guarantee that Bashar al-Assad does have support the -- support, you know, the bombing ...

KRISTOF: But obviously he -- if he really had support broadly in the country then he would not need to use guns, he could use ballots.

CUOMO: All right, Nick let's continue this conversation in the break we'll going to come back with more from the audience right after this.


CUOMO: I want to thank all of you for all the great questions online, let's keep that dialogue going just like we've had here. I want to thank the panel, we have Philip Gourevitch, I know if we're on there I'll get it right, so Fran Thompson, Rick Francona thank you very much and Nick Kristof. Thank you for the panel, thank you for the members of the audience, appreciate all the great questions. I hope the Town Hall was a benefit to you.

Let's turn it over to Anderson Cooper right now and his show starts right now. See you on New Day tomorrow morning.