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Crisis in Syria; Can Obama Convince Liberals to Strike Syria?; From Vietnam to Syria, Kerry Has Long History of War; Assad's Ruthless Father Shaped His Leadership Ideas; Iran Open to Nuclear Talks?

Aired September 5, 2013 - 18:00   ET


JOE JOHNS, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, a SITUATION ROOM special report, crisis in Syria. President Obama walks a lonely path in Russia trying to get world leaders to take his side and support a military strike against Syria. There's shocking, new ammunition for people who are worried about helping the Syrian rebels. Stand by for graphic video.

And strongman Bashar al-Assad was taught from childhood to be ruthless and brutal by watching his father rule Syria.

Welcome to our viewers in the United States and around the world. Wolf Blitzer's off. I'm Joe Johns. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

President Obama and his team have been playing to two very tough crowds today in their struggle to win support for military action in Syria. The president is lobbying world leaders at the G20 summit in Russia, where host Vladimir Putin is a powerful opponent. Back here in Washington, the administration is counting votes in Congress, and coming up extremely short.

Athena Jones is covering political pressures here at home.

First to our foreign affairs correspondent, Jill Dougherty, with the president in Saint Petersburg.

JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Joe, there are plenty of official speeches here in Saint Petersburg, but that's not the news.

It's the side conversations that matter.


DOUGHERTY (voice-over): The much-anticipated handshake seemed friendly enough for two men who radically disagree over Syria. But then, Russian President Vladimir Putin is the host of this year's G20 summit in Saint Petersburg, and he says Syria is one issue he's ready to discuss with his fellow world leaders. So is President Barack Obama.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: 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. DOUGHERTY: He began with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

SHINZO ABE, JAPANESE PRIME MINISTER: I certainly look forward to continuously and closely working with you to improve the situation on the ground.

DOUGHERTY: But administration officials admit they don't anticipate that every member of the G20 will agree with Obama, particularly given Putin's objection to any military action, without approval from the United Nations Security Council. Case in point, the British prime minister supports military action against the Assad regime, but failed to get Parliament support.

Obama does have backing from France, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Germany's prime minister, Angela Merkel, in the midst of her election campaign, says she wants a green light from the U.N. before any military action.

ANGELA MERKEL, GERMAN CHANCELLOR (through translator): We have made clear that we won't take part in the military actions against Syria, but we are happy to provide humanitarian aid or political support.

DOUGHERTY: Obama's deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes says the president will "explain our current thinking to allies and partners and explore what kinds of political and diplomatic support they can offer."

Obama isn't looking for any major financial support for military action, aides say, since what's being considered doesn't require significant international participation.


DOUGHERTY: But President Obama isn't prepared for any endless debates over whether chemical weapons were used in Syria, and he doesn't want to entertain what aides call any implausible theories that the opposition use them.

Bottom line, the White House is highly skeptical that Russia will change its position at the U.N. Security Council -- Joe.

JOHNS: Thanks to Jill Dougherty for that.

Members of Congress say they're getting negative feedback from voters about a possible strike against Syria, and that's making some lawmakers nervous about next year's midterm election and the administration nervous about winning the Syria vote.

Let's bring in CNN's Athena Jones -- Athena.


That's right. It's looking like a tough road ahead for the White House. While a lot of members of Congress say they're undecided, quite a few of them have already said they plan to vote against military action. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JONES (voice-over): Things got heated at Senator John McCain's town hall in Phoenix Thursday...

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: Unalterably opposed to having a single American boot on the ground.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Not good enough.




UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You don't respect our view. We didn't send you to get war for us. We sent you to stop the wars.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We cannot afford to shed more Syrian blood.

JONES: ... as McCain, who supports missile strikes in Syria, tried to convince a skeptical audience that taking military action is in America's national interests.

The event shows the tough task ahead, as the White House push to win over lawmakers kicks into high gear. Back in Washington, the Democratic head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who also supports strikes, admitted to getting an earful from her constituents.

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN (D), CALIFORNIA: There's no question what's coming in is overwhelmingly negative. There's no question about that. But, you see, then they don't know what I know.

JONES: The White House is lobbying members on the phone and in classified briefings, and National Security Adviser Susan Rice tweeted about a new Web site launched Thursday to help make the case to the American public.

But, right now, it's clear the White House faces an uphill battle getting enough votes to pass a resolution authorizing missile strikes. Public pressure is coming from all sides, with pro-Israel lobby AIPAC urging Congress to support the resolution, saying, "Barbarism on a mass scale must not be given a free pass."

Meanwhile, the liberal group MoveOn wants members to vote no and plans to send a petition to Congress and the president pushing a more prudent approach than military action. Key congressional leaders in both parties support action, but liberal Democrats and many Republicans are against strikes. And members can still change their minds.

Here's New York Republican Congressman Michael Grimm on Monday's SITUATION ROOM.

REP. MICHAEL GRIMM (R), NEW YORK: I would want the president's strike to be a very meaningful strike. We cannot allow a precedent of this regime and a regime anything like the Assad regime to use chemical weapons.

JONES: He was singing a different tune by Thursday.

GRIMM: The president and the administration has failed to really explain exactly what the plan is, what the goal is, and that's a big problem for me.


JONES: Now, late today, we learned West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, who's a Democrat, will vote against supporting a missile strike. That's a move that could make it much harder to reach the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster -- Joe.

JOHNS: A very fluid situation. Thanks so much for that, Athena Jones.

Fareed Zakaria joins me now from New York.

Fareed, what is the president supposed to do if, for example, the House of Representatives says no to what he wants on Syria? Should the president go forward or should he just forget about it?


I think this is the risk he ran when he took on this course. I would think that he should do something anyway, because he has kept stressing that he has the authority. He has said that he thinks this is in the vital national interests of the United States.

Whether you agree with it or not, at this point, for him to have to back down in a humiliating fashion because he faced a divided vote in Congress would undermine the powers of the president of the United States, would undermine the president's ability to conduct these kind of operations with or without congressional approval.

Remember, for the last 30 years, the president of the United States has launched many military strikes against many targets around the world without congressional authorization. So, it would de facto change the rules of the game for the exercise of presidential power, which I think would be a bad thing for America's global leadership.

JOHNS: You see all of this as ill-planned, and that the president had plenty of time to think about it and perhaps should have taken a different route?

ZAKARIA: Well, if you think about it, once he laid out this red line, you would have hoped that the administration would have had a game plan. On the assumption that Assad would violate it, what would they do? What would the first few steps be? How would they gather an international coalition? Would they strike first and then present the evidence? Would they first present the evidence, then strike? Would they go to Congress? You know, you would have expected there would have been a sequence of events that had been planned out. Instead, when it happened, it appeared to many of us as if the administration was caught flat-footed and was unsure what to do, and then first decided they were going to act, then decided to go to Congress.

JOHNS: Today, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said this on "NEW DAY."


DONALD RUMSFELD, FORMER U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: It's exactly the reason that there is not a large coalition wanting to support the president. It's the reason that the Congress is confused, because he has spent so much time saying what he wouldn't do and what it wouldn't amount to that I think people are confused.


JOHNS: Did the president get zero out of the G20 summit? Do you think this would be on the world stage a huge failure for the United States?

ZAKARIA: No, it's always a struggle. We're always out there alone, certainly, in the first few rounds of these kind of international negotiations when it comes to the use of force.

And it is worth pointing out, the principal reason we are having so much trouble, both in the United States and around the world, is because of Donald Rumsfeld's legacy, that is to say, Iraq.

JOHNS: "The Washington Post" wrote about the Fareed Zakaria case for why Syria is imploding, your theory that it's an inevitable balancing of power along ethnic and religious lines. Could you talk to our viewers about what that is? Because so many people might not be familiar with it.


You know, we tend to think of what's going on in any country as good guys and bad guys and Democrats and dictators, and there's some of that. But, at heart, what's going on in Syria is you have a minority regime -- that is the Alawites, who Assad is a member of, and that's 14 percent of Syria -- rule Syria and they have ruled it for five decades.

What is happening is a lot of the majority Sunni population is rebelling against it. We have seen this movie before. There are three such regimes in the Middle East. The Christians used to rule Lebanon, and it took a 15-year civil war to displace them from power. Majority, in effect, took over. The Sunnis ruled Iraq. We got rid of them, but it still took a 10-year civil war, a battle between the Sunnis and the Shias, and it's still going on, by the way. Iraq is still the second most violent place in the world.

The third such place is Syria, where you have this minority regime. And my point is, this is a great internal struggle that is going to take probably 10 years. It is going to be very messy and very bloody. And the idea that we can from the outside, particularly with limited interventions like no-fly zones and cruise missiles, that we can shape the outcome is somewhat arrogant and is likely to be disproved by events.

This is going to take its own course, its own internal course. It's almost like a forest fire. We can contain it, we can try to help, but the idea that we can go in there and figure out who the moderate opposition is and fund them and put in place a new democracy in Syria that will respect all minorities strikes me as a fantasy.

JOHNS: I think a lot of people would say yes and agree with you that we have seen this movie before. Thanks so much, Fareed Zakaria.

ZAKARIA: Thank you.

JOHNS: Up next on our special report, President Obama would like to have support against Syria within the Arab world, but how much help can he count on in Bashar al-Assad's backyard?

And John Kerry's biggest challenge since losing the White House -- what he's bringing to the table in the Syria crisis.


JOHNS: Secretary of State John Kerry says Arab countries are offering to pay for a U.S. strike on Syria, but why wouldn't they just do it themselves?

CNN's Tom Foreman and our military analyst retired Major General James "Spider" Marks are breaking down all the options in the CNN virtual studio -- Tom.


When you talk about the Arab League, you're talking about just over 20 countries, and they have sent a fairly clear message so far about what they think should be done. They say that the international community should take the necessary measures to deal with what's going on in this conflict over there, particularly with what's happened with Syria.

So, if they feel that way, then why don't they get involved? Why don't these countries actually get involved with this? There are several reasons to consider here. First of all, there's the issue of culture. There's a question of whether or not Arab nations are willing to attack another Arab nation. Yes, they have a lot of their own disputes between them, but there is much sense that there is an Arab brotherhood, and a lot of Arabs don't want to see an open attack upon another nation in an official sense.

Secondly, there is the matter of the United States. The United States has a long and complex history there. So, if you talk about helping out the United States, some leaders there who might want to do it know that they could pay a price because their own people could backlash on them for having made such a deal. They don't want to see their troops alongside U.S. troops.

And, of course, what goes hand in glove with that is the question of Israel. There's a sense in many Arab nations that if you're helping the United States, by proxy, you're helping the old enemy of so many Arab states, which is Israel.

So, those are the three key reasons why these nations don't want to get involved in many ways or feel they can't openly -- Joe.

JOHNS: But, Tom, the bottom line really is, if some of these nations actually could be drawn into a coalition attack on Syria, the question really is whether they'd make any difference at all.

FOREMAN: Yes, that is a good question.

General, come in here, if you would, now.

Now, General Marks, when you talk about the military power of these countries, who should we be talking about here? For example, if you talk about Saudi Arabia, what could they bring to the table?

BRIG. GEN. JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Saudi Arabia has a modern military, a great relationship with the United States in terms of training and equipment.

Their air force is what I would focus on in. It's a very modern air force, and they could be used in missions that would support no-fly zones, humanitarian corridors, those kinds of missions. But if we're talking exclusively about a strike from the sea against Syrian chemical capabilities, Saudi Arabia may not enter into that discussion.

FOREMAN: What about some of the smaller players, like the United Arab Emirates over there?

MARKS: Nice military, mostly defensive, primarily focused on Iran.

FOREMAN: And then we have some unusual players that you may not think a whole lot about. For example, and this is a unique example, Jordan.

MARKS: Jordan is a great case here. They support United Nations peacekeeping missions. They have rather robustly. They have a very robust special operations capability and a very mature intelligence directorate.

FOREMAN: And that could mean that even now, as we talk, it's possible that there could be forces from Jordan that are helping direct where missiles would go if a strike were to come -- Joe.

JOHNS: Very interesting. Thanks so much, Tom. General Marks, good to see you.

A familiar face back on Capitol Hill this week, but John Kerry is no stranger to the spotlight -- his long history in the public eye coming up.

And we will show you some shocking video of rebels executing soldiers. Could they be just as bad as the Assad regime?


JOHNS: Happening now: a SITUATION ROOM special report, "Crisis in Syria."

Disturbing video surfaces of rebels executing Syrian soldiers. Just who are these guys and could they be even worse than the regime?

Plus, Bashar al-Assad's bizarre family history -- how the Syrian strongman learned to be ruthless and brutal from his father.

And is Iran's president softening his country's stance on nuclear talks? The tweet that has the U.S. hoping a change is in the works.

Wolf Blitzer's off. I'm Joe Johns. You are in THE SITUATION ROOM.

A graphic new video that's fueling fears that the Syrian rebels may be as brutal and dangerous as the government forces they're fighting and certainly not helping the Obama administration make its case that the opposition is made up of mostly good guys.

Here's our Pentagon correspondent Chris Lawrence.

Hey, Chris.


It's not our job to tell you how you should react to this video, but you may feel it is very graphic, something that you don't want children to see. We just want to give you that warning now ahead of time and also tell you that this was -- that "The New York Times" is reporting that this video was given to them by a former rebel who was disgusted at what he saw.


LAWRENCE (voice-over): The men are stripped to their shirts and kneeling. "The New York Times" says this video was just smuggled out of Syria and shows a rebel commander executing captured Syrian soldiers in April.

It's shocking, but some lawmakers say they have seen classified reports that suggest half of the rebels are extremists.

REP. MICHAEL MCCAUL (R), TEXAS: The briefings I have received, unless I have gotten different ones or inaccurate briefings, is at 50 percent.

LAWRENCE: Secretary of State John Kerry argues it's as low as 15 percent.

JOHN KERRY, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: There is a real moderate opposition that exists.

LAWRENCE: Kerry and Republican John McCain both cited reporting from an analyst who's traveled to Syria.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: Dr. Elizabeth O'Bagy.

KERRY: And she works with the Institute of War. She is fluent in Arabic.

LAWRENCE: Apart from the cities Assad still rules, Elizabeth O'Bagy says there are distinct areas where moderate rebels are in control and can keep weapons out of the hands of extremists.

ELIZABETH O'BAGY, INSTITUTE FOR THE STUDY OF WAR: I travel with groups where we actually can kind of identify the more extremist checkpoints and simply move around them into areas where the moderates are in control and have authority.

LAWRENCE: But one U.S. official tells CNN he doesn't see the clear division between moderates and extremists that Kerry and O'Bagy suggested. Both elements are mixed amongst the opposition.

Another officials says most of the groups fighting Assad are composed of Islamist fighters, but only a minority could accurately be characterized as extremists.


LAWRENCE: And the way this official described it is the way they look at it as. They look at extremists as those who are tied to terrorist ideology or terrorist groups.

He tells me that most of the rebels in Syria now are between moderate and very conservative Islamists. But I think what you see in this video, the actual commander who was -- you sort of heard his voice on that video in the beginning, you know, giving the sort of narrative of what was happening, he is not someone known to be affiliated with jihadist groups.

It may have been that he was simply out for revenge. And so, I think when you start trying to parse this, extremist vs. Islamist, true, some people may not have an extremist ideology, may not be tied to actual terrorist groups, but this video shows that there are people still very, very capable of extremely brutal acts -- Joe.

JOHNS: Very hard to figure out what's what there. Thanks so much for that report, Chris Lawrence, at the Pentagon tonight.

President Obama insists that any military strike against Syria wouldn't lead to all-out war like the ones in Iraq or Afghanistan, but as members of Congress consider whether to give him the green light to attack, they clearly have the lessons of Iraq on their minds.


SEN. SUSAN COLLINS (R), MAINE: Many of us have learned how difficult it is, based on the Iraq experience, for the United States to get disengaged once we take a military action. REP. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN (D), MARYLAND: A lot of this is the shadow overhanging from the Iraq situation, where we both went to war on false pretenses.

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN (D-IL), MAJORITY WHIP: This bitter memory of what happened in Iraq when we were misled.

REP. TOM UDALL (D), NEW MEXICO: We cannot afford another Iraq.

REP. GERRY CONNOLLY (D), VIRGINIA: The overhang of Iraq has many of us chained. Iraq was based on faulty and shoddy intelligence that was also misused.


JOHNS: You really get a feel for the struggle that's going on, on Capitol Hill right now with regard to Syria.

Joining me right now is Nicholas Kristof of "The New York Times."

And you write about how difficult it is for some members of Congress who remember Iraq to now consider Syria. Break that down for me.


Well, I think that it's not just Congress, but, indeed, the entire nation is to some degree fighting the last war, and we always do that. The first Iraq war, the Gulf War, went pretty well, and so people were more likely to endorse the 2003 Iraq war, which in retrospect was a disaster.

And it seems to me, though, that these really are different. And in my case, I was very much against the 2003 Iraq war, and I was dismayed at that time that there were so many liberals who were endorsing it. Right now, I'm equally dismayed that there are so many people who are unwilling to contemplate military action, even if it seems to be, in my view, the best way of intervening to stop a conflict that is killing -- or to reduce the level of a conflict that is killing 5,000 people a month.

JOHNS: Still, this appears to be a very, very tough sell, particularly to people on the left. What do you think the president needs to do or say to bring some of them on board?

I think, you know, look, at the end of the day, I think that the American people are probably not going to get on board. And you look at the polling, and it is, you know, pretty dead set against this, but I don't think that public opinion should necessarily be the guide on these issues. Public opinion was against intervening in Bosnia. It was in favor of intervening in Iraq ten years ago. In both cases, I think in retrospect it was wrong.

I think President Obama can first emphasize that this is not an issue of boots on the ground. It's an issue of cruise missile strikes from outside the country. I think he also needs to emphasize the moral issue that, you know, at the end of the day, there are 5,000 people dying each month, and this is growing, 60,000 a year. It's accelerating. And there isn't really any alternative.

I mean, people talk about going to the U.N., going to the international criminal court. In a sense, that means sitting by as these deaths tolls add up.

JOHNS: I think, though, it is the unintended consequences that a lot of people are very worried about. Are you as worried as some others?

KRISTOF: Frankly, I think those are legitimate concerns. I think that it's right to be worried about how there might be retaliation for Hezbollah in Lebanon, for example. That's something that I would worry about.

Our missile strikes can always go astray and kill innocents. I think those are pretty legitimate things to be concerned about.

But there are risks not only of action but also of inaction, and for the last 2 1/2 years, we've essentially tried a policy of hoping that things will get better and not intervening, and that has worked catastrophically in terms of moral terms and in terms of the entire region. I think that maybe it's time to think about farming some rebel factions, for example, and indeed to try to raise the price on President Assad for using chemical weapons.

JOHNS: You say that people who normally see eye to eye with you on so many things are now disagreeing with you. What are you saying to them and what are they saying to you?

KRISTOF: You know, I think that so much of our, of how we view the Syria conflict depends on the rubric that we use. To those who were very much shaped by Iraq, I think this is a catastrophe. This is something that's going to suck us in, another Middle East conflict. And you know, accomplish nothing other than getting a lot of people killed.

Those who are shaped by Bosnia, by Kosovo, by Sierra Leone, by other conflicts, you know, they think of -- or I should say, we think of other civil wars where the reluctance to get involved ended up taking an awful lot of lives and where in the end a modest investment of military power ended up being the thing that was able to achieve a peace agreement and ended up saving a lot of lives.

I don't think that there is any clear ideological answer to whether or not military toolbox works. I think it's a case-by-case basis. It did not work in Iraq in 2003. It did work in Bosnia in 1995 and 1999. It worked in Sierra Leone in 2000. I think one has to make a case-by- case decision in each case.

JOHNS: Bosnia certainly seems to be the template, at least right now. Thanks so much, Nicholas Kristof. Always a pleasure to talk to you.

KRISTOF: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

JOHNS: Coming up in our special report, John Kerry's high-profile role in promoting military action against Syria. He lost the White House, but can he win this one? First, a "CROSSFIRE" flashback.


STEPHANIE CUTTER, CO-HOST, "CROSSFIRE": In 2003, "CROSSFIRE" host Tucker Carlson repeatedly promised that he'd eat his shoes if Senator Hillary Clinton sold a million copies of her autobiography. Well, she did, but he had no idea what was coming on this July day when we reminded him of all those rash promises.

PAUL BEGALA, FORMER CO-HOST, "CROSSFIRE": Tucker, my friend, get ready to be munching on a little shoe leather coming up pretty soon, huh?

TUCKER CARLSON, FORMER CO-HOST, "CROSSFIRE": Actually, Paul, I will, in fact, eat my shoes, because I'm a man of my word.

JAMES CARVILLE, FORMER CO-HOST, "CROSSFIRE": I'm going to be curious as to what sort of shoe he chooses, flip-flop or leather.

BEGALA: Well, today, Simon and Shuster announced that Senator Clinton has passed the million books sales mark in just one month. Kind of reminds me of the old prayer: "Dear, lord, make my words sweet and tender, for I may have to eat them." Tucker, you're going to have to eat some shoe leather, my brother.

CARLSON: You know, it wouldn't be the first time I'd have to eat my words. Oh, my!

BEGALA: Ladies and gentlemen, senator Hillary Rodham Clinton!


CARLSON: Thank you very much!

CLINTON: You're very welcome! I really wanted you to notice, Tucker, that this is a wing tip. It's a right wing.



JOHNS: In the middle of the Syrian crisis, new surprises by leaders in Iran, including an eye-popping tweet. What it could mean for the region and a nuclear standoff. More of our special report coming up after this.



JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: Let's draw the proper distinction here, Congressmen. We don't deserve to drag this into yet another Benghazi discussion when the real issue here is whether or not the Congress is going to stand up for international norms with respect to dictators that have only been broken twice until Assad: Hitler and Saddam Hussein. And if we give license to somebody to continue that, shame on us.


JOHNS: Wow. That's Secretary of State John Kerry giving one of many fiery answers at a congressional hearing on Syria. Kerry's back in a big way. This week is the most we've seen of him since his failed 2004 presidential campaign.

CNN's chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto, is looking at John Kerry's return to the spotlight and his long history of tackling issues of war.

Good evening, Jim.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Good evening, Joe. Good to be on, and fiery is the right word, and you really saw the emotion coming across in that clip you showed and so many moments like that this week.

And you know, speaking to people close to Kerry, it's clear that he's taken on this assignment as the lead advocate for military action against Syria without hesitation. You might even say with some relish.

You know, as secretary of state, he now has the job he wanted, but he may in this case for going to war with Syria or launching these attacks against Syria, he might have the legacy-defining mission he's been looking for.


SCIUTTO (voice-over): Today he's the administration's and the country's advocate in chief for military action against Syria.

KERRY: Are you going to be comfortable if Assad, as a result of the United States not doing anything, then gases his people yet again, and the world says, "Why didn't the United States act?"

SCIUTTO: But for John Kerry, war has defined his public life from the very beginning. His historic Senate testimony against the Vietnam War in 1971 turned a young, returning veteran into a national figure.

KERRY: How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?

SCIUTTO: Later, during 28 years in the Senate, he was a leading voice on virtually every U.S. military intervention abroad, from Panama to Iraq and the first Gulf War to Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo. Years later, his support for the 2003 Iraq invasion...

KERRY: When I vote to give the president of the United States the authority to use force, if necessary...

SCIUTTO: ... and subsequent opposition...

KERRY: I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it. SCIUTTO: ... arguably lost him the 2004 presidential election.

DOUGLAS BRINKLEY, BIOGRAPHER: When he gets his ire up, when something he finds terribly repugnant occurs, and it could be the mafia in Massachusetts or it could be lying during Iran-Contra affair or it could be Assad using chemical weapons, he becomes one of the better prosecutors in the United States.

SCIUTTO: Through the years, Kerry's relationship with Syria is as complicated and convoluted as America's. Just four years ago, he served as unofficial envoy, meeting with President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus in a friendly setting that seems, at best, uncomfortable, at worst, hypocritical today.

More recently, however, Kerry has been a firm and vocal supporter of action to bring Assad down, including arming the Syrian opposition.

KERRY: I just don't agree that a majority are al Qaeda and the bad guys. That's not true.

SCIUTTO: And last Friday, when it appeared that U.S. strikes were imminent, it was John Kerry delivering an impassioned case for swift military action.

KERRY: The primary question is really no longer "What do we know?" The question is "What are we -- we, collectively -- what are we in the world going to do about it?"


SCIUTTO: To be fair, America's position towards Syria has changed as often as Kerry's, remember Secretary Albright at Hafez al-Assad's funeral in 2000. And then just three years later, Syria became the low-hanging fruit, the next target for regime change after Iraq, though that thought lasted only as long as the "mission accomplished" euphoria, post-Iraq invasion.

From the start of the brutal crackdown on protesters in 2011, Kerry's been a more consistent advocate for concrete action like these attacks, Joe, that he's championing now.

JOHNS: Thanks for that, Jim Sciutto. And just really great to have you on board here at CNN.

SCIUTTO: Hey, it's great to be on board. Thanks very much, Joe.

JOHNS: Coming up, Bashar al-Assad's family history of brutality. How the Syrian strongman learned to be ruthless from none other than his father.

And a string of tweets from Iranian leaders could signal a major change from one of the most anti-American countries in the world.


JOHNS: A lot of things get passed down from father to son, including the ruthless and brutal leadership style within the Assad family. That's coming up next.


JOHNS: Secretary of State John Kerry has called Syrian President Bashar al-Assad a thug and a murderer, but Assad's father might have been even worse. CNN's Brian Todd has been exploring their relationship and how it shaped the Assad we know today.

Good evening, Brian.


You have to understand, really, where Bashar al-Assad came from, the influence of his powerful and mysterious father, to really get a handle on how we got to this point in Syria. It's a family tale of a son operating in his father's shadow and trying to emulate him.


TODD (voice-over): Recognize the boy on the swing? It's Bashar al- Assad. As he looked on, his father, many believe, envisioned a dynasty. But he likely wouldn't have imagined it taking the turn it has.

(on camera): Is this a dynasty? And is it crumbling right now?


TODD (voice-over): Andrew Tabler and other experts say to understand what's happening in Syria now, it helps to know about the strange regime built by the current dictator's late father, Hafez al-Assad.

TABLER: Hafez al-Assad was the most Machiavellian, cutthroat, cunning leader in a region full of brutal dictators.

TODD: From a poor background, Hafez al-Assad rose through the ranks of the Syrian air force, but it was hardly that straightforward. The man thrived in the backrooms of Syrian palace intrigue where, according to most accounts, betraying friends, killing and banishing enemies puts you on the fast track.

(on camera): In Syria there were more than 20 successful and unsuccessful coups between 1949 and 1970 when Hafez al-Assad took power. He himself was involved in three of them.

Through the '70s, '80s and '90s, he played the Middle East power game like a fiddle, ultimately fighting with and negotiating peace with Israel while keeping America from being a full-fledged enemy.

(voice-over): That was the contradiction: Hafez al-Assad stayed in powers by torturing and killing his enemies from within, by making friends with terrorist groups like Hezbollah. But in 1990 and '91, when President George Bush needed to build a coalition against Saddam Hussein, look who was on his side. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Bush even met with Syria's President Assad, despite the fact that the U.S. still considers Syria a haven for terrorists.

TODD: How did the dynasty unravel after Hafez al-Assad's death in 2000? Analysts say it was partly because the Assads ruled so brutally as a minority, part of the Alawite Muslim sect over majority Sunnis who resented them, and Bashar al-Assad's had other difficulties changing the old ways of his father.

TABLER: Hafez al-Assad stabilized Syria through a closed system. People couldn't travel. They couldn't communicate very well. International news was very limited.

When Bashar came to power, he lifted the restrictions on travel and allowed people to read international newspapers, satellite television and the Internet, and it opened the Syrians' minds. How do you control this system and how do you basically perpetuate authoritarian and tyrannical rule?


TODD: Bashar al-Assad was apparently warned that he couldn't do that. Analysts say when Bashar brought the Internet into Syria it was against the advice of his security staff, who were his father's old cronies. They told him it would be dangerous and that he'd have trouble controlling it. They were right -- Joe.

JOHNS: Wow. Got to ask: What do we know about the personal relationship between father and son?

TODD: Very interesting. The people who know this regime, know the family say the relationship was distant when Bashar was a child. Bashar was shy and he was modest. The father was closer to Bashar's older brother, Bassel, and had chosen Bassel to succeed him. Bassel was much tougher and cruel by all accounts, but Bassel died in a car accident in 1994. Then as Hafez al-Assad started to groom Bashar to take over, it became kind of a student/master relationship.

JOHNS: Brian, fascinating reporting. Thanks so much for that.

TODD: Thanks, Joe.

JOHNS: Coming up, a string of tweets from Iran's leaders could signal a huge change in one of the most anti-American countries in the world.


JOHNS: Did that really happen? A surprising string of tweets from Iran's top leaders, including a positive message for Jews. That's next.


JOHNS: Some stunning developments from one of Syria's closest allies, Iran. Earlier today Iranian President Hassan Rouhani sent out a tweet suggesting he may be open to more dialogue on nuclear negotiations. Tweeting foreign ministry will be in charge of Iran's nuclear negotiations, ready for constructive interaction with the world.

CNN's Jessica Yellin is following that story. Jessica, what does this mean?


It's potentially a good sign from the Middle East, and we could definitely use some good news right now, couldn't we?

Iran's president is saying that he's taking nuclear negotiations out of the direct control of the ayatollah and putting it in the hands of a western-educated minister in Iran who is well known to American leaders and has a history of negotiating with the west.

Now, the White House responded to this news with what you could call cautious optimism. A spokesman for the National Security Council told me in a statement that, quote, "We have seen these reports, and we reiterate our hope that the Iranian government will engage substantively with the international community to reach a diplomatic solution to Iran's nuclear program."

This person added, if Iran does that, quote, "It will find a willing partner in the United States."

So, this sounds to me like the White House is waiting to really see how much freedom this foreign minister -- his name is Mohammed Zarif -- really has. But potentially positive good sign for now.

JOHNS: Right. And you mentioned there have been other signs like this, haven't there?

YELLIN: Yes, there have. And they're quite stunning. Just as the Jewish new year, Rosh Hashanah, began, President Rouhani, who as you say is the brand-new president of Iran, sent out this tweet which said, "As the sun is about to set here in Tehran, I wish all Jews, especially Iranian Jews, a blessed Rosh Hashanah." And then it includes this picture of an observant Jew praying in Iran. For Jews that's just a striking image where Jews are known to be oppressed historically and recently in Iran.

And then, given the power of Twitter, Christine Pelosi, the daughter of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, tweeted back saying, "Thanks, the new year would be even sweeter if you would end Iran's denial of the Holocaust, sir."

And then Zarif, the foreign minister I mentioned earlier, tweeted back at Ms. Pelosi, saying, "Iran never denied it. The man who is perceived to be denying it is now gone." He's referring to Ahmadinejad, who is no longer the president. And he ended by saying, "Happy new year."

Clearly, what matters is actions not words, but a change in tone, Joe. JOHNS: That is just remarkable. Really appreciate that reporting. Remember, you can follow us and what's going in THE SITUATION ROOM on Twitter. Just tweet me, @JoeJohnsCNN, and tweet the show, @CNNSitRoom.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.