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Obama Asked if He Will Go It Alone; Congress Gears up for Syria Vote; State Department Orders Embassy Personnel Out of Lebanon, Issues Warnings to Americans in Iraq, Turkey; Long-Range Bombers Added To Syria Strike Plan; Bashar al-Assad's Background

Aired September 6, 2013 - 12:00   ET


SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN ANCHOR: Staunch opposition over how to handle the Syrian crisis.

MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, all the leaders put on their smiles, as they always do, for the G-20 class photo. You see it there. President Obama now scheduled to head home. In fact, this hour it's going to be wheels up on Air Force One.

MALVEAUX: He's going to address the American people on Tuesday about his proposal to attack Syria in response to last month's chemical weapons attack. Meanwhile, Syria's parliament has written a letter to the U.S. House calling for civilized dialogue, not blood and fire, as the crisis escalates.

HOLMES: They wrote a similar letter to the British parliament, which ended up voting against action. There is a reported plot, meanwhile, by Iran, directing militants to attack U.S. interests if there is a strike against Syria. This is from "The Wall Street Journal," that says U.S. intelligence intercepted messages from the leader of Iran's Revolutionary Guard to militants based in Iraq.

MALVEAUX: And, of course, the one thing that everyone wants to know from President Obama, is he willing to go alone if Congress says no on Syria. That is exactly what our own Brianna Keilar asked the president just a short time ago. This was during a news conference in St. Petersburg, Russia. I want you to listen to how he responded. The back and forth.


BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: On the resolution to authorize the use of force, one of the big challenges right now isn't just Republicans, but it's from some of your loyal Democrats. It seems that the more they hear from classified briefings, that the less likely they are to support you. If the full Congress doesn't pass this, will you go ahead with the strike? And also, Senator Susan Collins, one of the few Republicans who breaks with her party to give you support at times, she says, what if we execute this strike and then Assad decides to use chemical weapons again, do we strike again? And many Democrats are asking that as well. How do you answer her question?

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, first of all, in terms of the votes and the process in Congress. I knew this was going to be a heavy lift. I said that on Saturday when I said we're going to take it to Congress. You know, our polling operations are pretty good. You know, I tend to have a pretty good sense of what current popular opinion is. And for the American people, who have been through over a decade of war now with enormous sacrifice and blood and treasure, any hint of further military entanglements in the Middle East are going to be viewed with suspicion. And that suspicion will probably be even stronger in my party than in the Republican Party. I understand the skepticism. I think it is very important, therefore, for us to work through systematically, making the case to every senator and every member of Congress.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I want to follow up on Brianna's question because it seems these members of Congress are simply responding to their constituents.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And you're seeing a lot of these town halls. And it seems as if the more you press your case, the more John Kerry presses the case on your behalf, the more the opposition grows. And maybe it's just -- or the more the opposition becomes vocal. Why do you think you've struggled with that? And you keep talking about a limited mission. We have a report that indicates you've actually asked for an expanded list of targets in Syria and one military official told NBC News -- characterized it as mission creek. Can you respond to that report?

OBAMA: That report is inaccurate. I'm not going to comment on operational issues that, you know, are sourced by some military official. One thing I've got a pretty clear idea about is what I talk with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff about and what we have consistently talked about is something limited and proportional that would degrade Mr. Assad's capabilities.

In terms of opposition, Chuck, I expected this. This is hard.

JONATHAN KARL, ABC NEWS REPORTER: And I still haven't heard a direct response to Brianna's question. If Congress fails to authorize this, will you go forward with an attack on Syria?

OBAMA: Right. And you're not getting a direct response. Brianna asked the question very well, you know. I think - did you think that --

KARL: But it's a pretty basic question.

OBAMA: You know, I was going to give you a different answer? No. The -- what I've said, and I will repeat, is that I put this before Congress for a reason. I think we will be more effective and stronger if, in fact, Congress authorizes this action.


MALVEAUX: Briana Keilar, she's joining us from St. Petersburg, Russia, traveling with the president. Brianna, you know that you are on point when you've got the whole press corps following you up with those follow-ups, at least three or four occasions, asking, trying to get an answer out of the president on that -- on that question of whether or not he's going to go it alone. What do you make of the fact that he -- he just did not answer? He did not pursue that.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: I get the sense that he's leaving his options open at this point, Suzanne. First off, I think the White House is banking that they're going to get some congressional support. The Senate is seen as an easier go. The House, more difficult. And not because of the opposition party, but because there's bipartisan opposition to what the president wants to do here and it's because members of Congress are hearing from their constituents.

When you look at the polls, the most recent NBC News poll says 50 percent of Americans don't want there to be any U.S. military action in Syria. Only 42 percent support it. And then when you ask them, what about military action without congressional approval? Four out of five of those surveyed say, no, that's not how we want it to go. So that's why I think the president, while he's made a very strong case for this strike, he doesn't want to say that he's going to go ahead with it if Congress says no.

In fact, he was sort of signaling maybe, not totally clear, that that's not what he wanted to do. He said it -- this wasn't a symbolic practice where he put this before Congress. And he talked to observers of what's been going on and how the U.S. has reacted to Syria and they really think that maybe if President Obama gets both chambers saying no, that he may not go ahead with a strike. This would be devastating to his presidency, but there is this open question, if just the Senate says OK, will the president go ahead with that? And that's where he's not committing.

HOLMES: Yes. And, you know, I'm curious about the dynamic, because everyone was between he and Vladimir Putin, Mr. Obama, obviously, had hoped to go there and do some convincing. But it sounds like there was a lot less dialogue and a lot more just restating already firmed positions.

KEILAR: That's right. And I don't think, Michael, that President Obama really had high hopes that he was going to make any progress with Putin. A couple days ago when he was in Sweden, he said that basically U.S. relations - U.S. and Russian relations had hit a wall. He said, of course he always remains positive. But, privately, White House officials had felt that, you know, they're kind of barking up the wrong tree or that it was pointless to go forward with this. And you really got the sense, both from Putin and from President Obama, that even their 20-minute discussion today where they were stating their positions, disagreeing, acknowledging their disagreement, that what they were talking about privately was basically what we were hearing them talk about publicly.

HOLMES: Yes, indeed. Brianna, good to see you. Brianna Keilar there. Been covering the G-20 for us and all the drama in St. Petersburg. Something else, by the way, to add on the question of whether President Obama does plan to go it alone if Congress says no to strikes on Syria. The president's deputy national security advisor, Tony Blinken, was interviewed on NPR this morning. His response was rather telling.

MALVEAUX: So he clearly says that the president does not intend to go forward with strikes without approval from Congress. But we want you to listen to this for yourself, the portion of this interview that has a lot of people asking some questions about the president's intentions.


TONY BLINKEN, DEPUTY NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR (voice-over): After the events of August 21st, we reached out to Congress and we had conversations with members of Congress across the county and the one thing we heard from nearly all of them was that they wanted their voice heard and their votes - and their vote counted.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Just a couple seconds here. Will he - with he strike?

BLINKEN: And the president - the president, of course, had the authority to act, but it's neither his desire nor his intention to use that authority absent Congress backing him.


MALVEAUX: And there's since been numerous e-mails going out, clarifications of the point of view there -

HOLMES: That's right.

MALVEAUX: Because they do not want to get ahead of the president here. But, you know, obviously, they are calculating whether or not he gets one or both chambers if he decides he's going to go and strike anyway.

HOLMES: And then - and then if he does get a no vote from Congress and does go and strike, then what was the point of going to Congress to begin with, you know? It's a - it's a very difficult question. And when he gets back to Washington, by the way, he's going to be jumping right into that heated debate over the next several days, trying to convince members of Congress to support the plan for what he's describing as limited, very targeted military against the Syrian regime.

MALVEAUX: And the president, he says, Bashar al Assad, he crossed the red line by using chemical weapons on his own people. But right now there's a lot of lawmakers not so sure that the military strike is the correct response. A heated debate that is going on here.

I want to bring in Dana Bash, Capitol Hill here, to talk about this because, Dana, we know that about 25 percent of Congress opposed to military action in Syria, but a lot of lawmakers still undecided. So what do they need to hear and what are they hearing from their constituents?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, first of all, what they're hearing from their constituents to a person, they say, is overwhelming opposition. And these are Democrats. These are Republicans. You saw all day long we've been playing some really, really heated back and forth with John McCain, one of the chief supporters of - historically of being aggressive with Syria. People in his state saying, please, do not do this, at least at that particular town hall.

Even Diane Feinstein, who's the chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee, very much supportive of what the president is doing, saying she's also getting calls. But she says, look, they don't know what I know. Now, she, obviously, is somebody who has a lot of insight based on access to intelligence. But when you're talking about the broader Congress, what they have been doing is every single day, including today, in about an hour and a half, going in as much as they can, getting classified briefings, getting information about not just -- whether or not Bashar al Assad used chemical weapons against his own people, but, more importantly, for many of these lawmakers, it's trying to get a better handle on what the military action would be and what the contingencies would be based on various results from - or maybe even unintended consequences from the military action.

And on that note, you heard Brianna ask the president about the fact that people going in are more - are more skeptical when they come out. And that is true, anecdotally, based on so many people we talked to, they really are going in expecting to hear some specifics and not really getting them. And again, the key, key, key concern among so many of these lawmakers on both sides of the aisle is the - the inability for anybody to really know what kind of Pandora's box this could open if the U.S. does strike.

MALVEAUX: And, Dana, one question here that the president was asked during the news conference is, whether or not he would consider a proposal that some are floating in Congress to ask Syria to wait. Just wait for 45 days, sign a chemical weapons treaty banning the weapons saying - and making a promise here that they will get rid of those weapons. Is that something that he is actually seriously considering, a 45-day delay?

BASH: This is a new idea that just popped up within the past 24 hours or so and it's coming from two of the president's fellow Democrats, conservative Democrats, one of whom, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, has said since last night he's a no. he's not going to support this. He does not think military action is the right way to go.

So what they are proposing, and they're working on it sort of as we speak, is this 45-day delay to give, as you said, Bashar al Assad the ability to or the opportunity to sign the chemical weapons convention (ph). That's not likely to happen, but the goal is for the president to use this time to buy time and to buy support from the international community that he doesn't have. The question, Suzanne, is whether or not, also, if the president feels that he ultimately won't have the votes, either the Senate or the House, that he could use that as kind of a fall back measure or a fall back method to going forward. MALVEAUX: And, Dana, I know we'll all be working over the weekend. The president cancelling his trip to California because he is going to be lobbying those members of Congress. So, Dana, we will be talking throughout the weekend. Thank you, Dana.

BASH: Thanks, Suzanne.

HOLMES: All right, let's have a look now at how the vote is breaking down so far. And there are a couple of remarkable aspects to this. In the House, 15 Democrats, eight Republicans are backing the president. Twenty-three Democrats and 92 Republicans are against him. But get this, 295 lawmakers either undecided or their feelings are officially unknown at the moment. That's a huge number.

Let's have a look at the Senate now. Seventeen Democrats and seven Republicans support a strike against Syria. Five democrats, 14 Republicans do not. Fifty-seven senators, more than half, still undecided or unknown. You can see all the details if you like on the lawmaker's position right at So pop over there if you want to keep an eye. We're updating it all the time.

MALVEAUX: And here's also what we're working on for this hour of AROUND THE WORLD.

Secretary of State John Kerry says that Syria's leader is, quote, "a thug and a murder." But his father may have been worse.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hafez Assad was the most Machiavellian, cutthroat, cunning leader in a region full of brutal dictators.


MALVEAUX: A look at the Assad family and the lessons passed from father to son.

HOLMES: Also this. He's known for his designer shoes, but Kenneth Cole's tweets are getting all the attention at the moment. We'll show you the latest one on Syria causing an outrage.


MALVEAUX: All American government employees considered non-essential have been told to get out of the U.S. embassy in Beirut.

HOLMES: Yeah, that's from the U.S. State Department, which is also urging private citizens to leave Lebanon, a place that a lot of people like to visit at times.

They say they're just not safe there now that the talk of military attack just across the border in Syria is getting louder and more specific.

MALVEAUX: And the same warning is issued for Americans living in or traveling to Turkey especially for the area closest to the Syrian border.

Now the State Department's concern is this. If there's outside military action in Syria, certain elements might feel the need to lash out against any Americans involved or not.

I want to go live to the Pentagon. Our Chris Lawrence is there.

And, Chris, first of all, tell us why is it, what is the evidence behind this, this concern that American interests could actually be at jeopardy, at risk, specifically in Iraq?

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Suzanne, "The Wall Street Journal" is reporting that the U.S. has intercepted communication, Iran ordering militants in Iraq to go after and attack Americans and the embassy in Baghdad.

This is would be in retaliation if the U.S. were to conduct a strike in Syria.

I've been to that embassy in Baghdad when it's being shelled by mortars and other weapons. It's like a fortress.

But the State Department has issued a new warning for Americans, even those living and working outside of the compound, and officials here in the Pentagon tell us it is one of their prime concerns, that an attack on Syria would use them to try to retaliate against American interests in the region.

HOLMES: Yeah, it's a massive embassy. I think one of the biggest in the world, if not the biggest U.S. embassy in the world.

I know you've been hearing, Chris, some possible scenarios about how the U.S. might launch a strike on targets in Syria from your contacts. Tell us what you have been hearing.

LAWRENCE: Yeah, Michael, a U.S. official confirming to us that one of the options under consideration is using aircraft, long-range bombers, specifically, to add to the fire power that's already there with those ships in the Mediterranean Sea.

He says basically things have been changing on the ground. They've had to adjust targets. Targets have moved. They've had to update their target list. And this would add capability.

He says basically, though, don't think of it like American pilots buzzing over the skies of Syria. He said these bombers would still retain that so-called "stand-off capability," in other words, the ability to sit outside Syrian air space and launch these sort of long- range missiles to hit targets on the ground.

MALVEAUX: All right. Chris Lawrence from the Pentagon, thank you, Chris. Appreciate it.


MALVEAUX: The U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Samantha Power, is expected to speak about Syria and her concerns over the inaction at the United Nations.

We're going to have live remarks expected at 2:00 p.m. Eastern. CNN, of course, will carry that, live.

HOLMES: Ruthless and brutal leadership styles passed down from father to son within the Assad family, up next, a look at Bashar al-Assad's predecessor and the lessons he taught his son.


MALVEAUX: Bashar al-Assad was raised to create a dynasty, and those who know him say it was his father, Hafez al-Assad, who set him on the path to dictatorship from the time when he was just a young boy.

HOLMES: A brutal man, indeed.

Brian Todd, tracing the roots of the Syrian leader.


BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Recognize the boy on the swing? It's Bashar Assad. As he looked on, many believe, his father envisioned a dynasty, but he likely wouldn't have imagined it taking the turn it has.

Is this a dynasty and is it crumbling right now?

ANDREW TABLER, WASHINGTON INSTITUTE FOR NEAR EAST POLICY: It's a mafia dynasty and it's definitely crumbling.

TODD: To understand what's happening in Syria now, it helps to know about the strange regime built by his fat father.

TABLER: He was the most cut throat, cunning leader in a region full of brutal dictators.

TODD: He rose through the ranks of the Syrian air force, but it was hardly that straightforward. He thrived in the backrooms of Syrian intrigue. He betrayed friends, killing and vanishing enemies put you on the fast track.

There were more than 20 unsuccessful coups when he took power. He was involved in three of them through the 70s, 80s and 90s.

He played the Middle East power game like a fiddle, negotiating peace with Israel while keeping America from being a full-fledged enemy. He made friends with terrorist groups like Hezbollah.

In 1990 and '91 when President George Bush need 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 Hafed al-Assad's death in 2000? Analysts say it was partly because the Assad's 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: Hafed 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, allowed people to read international newspapers, satellite television and the Internet, and it opened Syrians' minds.

But 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, that they'd have trouble controlling it. They were right.

Brian Todd, CNN, Washington.


HOLMES: As we've been reporting for the last few days, too, the refugee problem in Syria is enormous. Two million Syrians are now refugees, half of them children.

We're going to take you to a refugee camp in Lebanon where Syrians struggle to get basic things like food and water.



Leaders of the most powerful economies in the world have wrapped up their summit in Russia. President Vladimir Putin says he and President Obama did discuss Syria.

HOLMES: Yeah, but they didn't reach any agreement on it.