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Syria Strike Debate Continues; President to Address the Nation Tuesday; G20 Wraps Up Today; Congress Gears up for Syria Vote; Syrian Children Hit Hardest by Crisis

Aired September 6, 2013 - 13:00   ET



This is CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Suzanne Malveaux.

President Obama will take his case for military strikes on Syria directly to the American people. The president told reporters he is going to deliver a nationwide address on Tuesday. Now, his statement coming during a news conference. This was at a summit of world economic leaders. The G-20 wrapping up today with leaders divided over how the handle it will crisis in Syria. Now, President Obama and Russian President Vladmir Putin, they did discuss the crisis but they didn't reach any kind of agreement.

Now, the two presidents, they remain locked in staunch opposition over how to handle the situation in Syria, the civil war there.

Meanwhile, tensions are rising in the region around Syria. Today, the State Department ordered all non-essential diplomatic personnel and family members to get out of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut. Also told nonemergency staff to leave the American consulate in Turkey.

President Obama says he knew going in it would be a heavy lift to persuade people to support his plan to attack the regime inside Syria.

Well, our Brianna Keilar, she is travelling with the president in St. Petersburg, Russia and she pressed him for answers on whether or not he is prepared to go it alone if Congress votes no to these strikes. Listen.


BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): President Obama downplayed the possibility of this turning into a long, drawn out unilateral war between the U.S. and Syria if the U.S. takes military action. And then, Syria uses chemical weapons yet again saying that would mobilize the international community and create a broader response.

Now, as Congress considers a resolution that would authorize a strike, there is a big question that remains about whether President Obama will go ahead even if both chambers of Congress, the House and the Senate, don't OK it.

(on camera): 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 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. 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 of 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.

You know, since a lot of the people who supported me remember that I opposed the war in Iraq. So, I understand skepticism. I think it is very important for, therefore, for us to work through systematically making the case to every senator and every member of Congress. And that's what we're doing. But for the American people at least, the concern really has to do with understanding that what we're describing here would be limited and proportionate and designed to address this problem of chemical weapons use and upholding a norm that helps keep all of us safe. And that is going to be the case that I try to make not just to Congress but to the American people over the coming days. OK?

KEILAR: (INAUDIBLE) to go ahead with the strike.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You know, Brianna, I think it would be a mistake for me to jump the gun and speculate because right now I'm working to get as much support as possible out 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 the more the opposition becomes vocal. Why do you think you've struggled with that?

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: In terms of opposition, Chuck (ph), I expected this. This is hard. And I was under no illusions when I -- when I embarked on this path. But I think it's the right thing to do. I think it's good for our democracy. We will be more effective if we are unified going forward. And, you know, part of what we knew would be -- there would be some politics interjecting --


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: No, I said some. But I -- what I have also said is that the American people have gone through a lot when it comes to the military over the last decade or so.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: 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?

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Yes, and you're not getting a direct response. Brianna asked the question very well, you know?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But it's a pretty basic question.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: If you think that I was I going to give you a different answer, no. The -- what I said, and I will repeat, is that I put this before Congress for a reason. I think we'll be more effective and stronger if, in fact, Congress authorizes this action. I'm not going to engage in (INAUDIBLE) now, Jonathan (ph), about whether or not it's going to pass when I'm talking substantively to Congress about why this is important.

KEILAR (on camera): President Obama says he'll address the American people from the White House on Tuesday. And he has a long way to go in convincing Congress and their constituents that this is the right move. A recent NBC News poll shows that four out of five Americans believe that he should not act if there is not Congressional approval for this.

Brianna Keilar, CNN, St. Petersburg, Russia.


MALVEAUX: And nonessential government staffers -- U.S. staffers in Lebanon, they are out. Same for Americans at the consulate in Turkey. The State Department is now saying it is not safe for them to be there. In fact, all Americans, even tourists, are being strongly advised today to stay away from any place that is close to a border with Syria. U.S. officials are worried about how some groups will react in the event of a possible military strike.

Chris Lawrence, he is at the Pentagon. And, Chris, first of all, explain to us, what is behind the concern here? Do they have hard evidence that suggests that some people could retaliate?

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, there's a Wall Street Journal report, Suzanne, that says the U.S. has intercepted a communication that Iran has ordered militants in Iraq to go after and try to attack Americans and the embassy in Baghdad. Now, this would be in retaliation if the U.S. were to conduct a strike on Syria. And I can tell you from talking to officials here, it is one of their concerns. They have said that one of the ways in which Syria could retaliate is to go after U.S. interests in the region or to have their allies like Hezbollah go after U.S. interests in the region. We do know that the State Department has issued a warning for Americans who are working, living in Iraq. So, it is something to keep an eye on, high alert in that part of the world now.

MALVEAUX: And, Chris, I know you've been working your sources and talking about possible scenarios about how the U.S. might launch such a strike on targets in Syria. So, give us some details. What have we learned today?

LAWRENCE: Yes. Officials say they have been fielding daily calls from the White House, multiple calls every day asking, you know, what can we do? Can we do this? Can we not do this? What would it take to do this? One of the options that they are considering is using aircraft, long-range bombers specifically. Some of which could even be piloting by pilots directly from the United States. These, though, would be standoff. In other words, we're not talking about flights that would be going over Syrian air space. One official told me that these could be used outside Syrian air space using these long-range missiles to hit targets on the ground.

MALVEAUX: All right, Chris, thank you.

Here is more of what we're working on for this hour. Senator John McCain, he is supporting the president's plan to launch military strikes inside Syria, but voters in his district, well, they are not happy about that plan. McCain, he's not the only lawmaker who is feeling the heat. Look at how many votes the president has and what he doesn't have in terms of a possible military strike on Syria.


MALVEAUX: Congress is just days away from debating a resolution that would authorize the limited use of force inside Syria. So, here is a look at how the vote is actually breaking down so far. In the House, 15 Democrats and eight Republicans are backing the president, 23 Democrats and 92 Republicans are against him, and 295 lawmakers are either undecided or their feelings unknown. Let's also take a look at the Senate there. The 17 Democrats and seven Republicans support a strike against Syria, five Democrats and 14 Republicans do not, with 57 senators still undecided. You can see the details on lawmakers' positions on

Well, one Republican Congressman from New York has held two very different positions on Syria in the same week. We are talking about Representative Michael Grimm who appeared on the "SITUATION ROOM" on Monday, well -- Sunday, endorsing the president's request for use of force. Three days later, he reversed himself. Here he is on the "SITUATION ROOM" on Sunday. Watch.


REP. MICHAEL GRIMM (R), NEW YORK: I would want the president's strike to be a meaningful strike. The president of the United States committed us when he drew the red line. So, the idea that we should or shouldn't strike, I think that ship sailed a long time ago. This is extremely important to the Syrian people but it also matters what Iran thinks, what North Korea thinks, what our enemies and allies think alike. The credibility of the entire United States is on the line because we cannot allow a pressing of this regime, anything like the Assad regime, to use chemical weapons. It's our credibility but it's also our future for decades of how we will be perceived by the rest of the world not only from our enemies but also from our allies. Once you've committed your nation, it's hard to backtrack from that without losing complete and utter credibility in all parts of the world from our allies to our enemies.


MALVEAUX: So then, yesterday, Congressman Grimm did a 180 here on the Syrian regime suspected chemical weapons' attack. So, here is what he said.


MICHAEL: Look, it's a heinous crime against humanity. There's no question about that. My natural instincts, as a combat veteran, as a United States Marine, is to support my commander in chief. I want to support my commander in chief. Unfortunately, my commander in chief has let us down. He has not handled this in the way that he should have handled it and we have lost credibility throughout the world. The problem now is I don't believe a strike in Syria will give us back that credibility.


MALVEAUX: Senator McCain, he is taking a very different view than Congressman Grimm. He supports the president's call for the use of force even though polls show almost 60 percent of Americans do not actually agree with him. The Republican senator got an earful from some of them. This is during a heated town hall in his home state of Arizona. Watch.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I have to wonder, do you really realize what you're getting our country into with this war in Syria? If you attack the Syrians, who do you think they're going to take it out on? Israel. Why are you not supporting Israel on this one? We should be backing Israel, not turning away from them. And second of all, this is what I think of Congress. They are a bunch of marshmallows. That's what they are. That's what they've become. Why are you not listening to the people and staying out of Syria? It's not our fight. Back Israel.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I feel very compelled today, like everyone else, to take time out of their lives and prevent what I feel is a tragedy. The tragedy would be to have our military forces strike Syria. I want to tell you, it does not seem to be a good rationale for the attack.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How much is a life of American servicemen worth? To me, it's worth a whole lot more than the situation --

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: Sir, I - there is no contemplation of putting a single American service man or woman in danger. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You can say that now, but when - when -

MCCAIN: I'm telling you, there's not.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I know but military -

MCCAIN: I'm telling you there's not, sir.


MALVEAUX: Well, you can tell, there's a lot of skepticism about all of that. On Capitol Hill as well. Our Lisa Desjardins, she is there.

And, Lisa, right now we know, the latest polls showing, about 25 percent of Congress opposed to military action, but a majority of the lawmakers are still very much undecided. What are they getting from their constituents and do they believe they need to hear something more from the president directly?

LISA DESJARDINS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We have been talking to - I've been talking to dozens of representatives and senators in the last day, phone, e-mail, in person, and, Suzanne, it's coming down to three things that I hear from these undecided folks -- the cost of going to Syria, the scope and then also the U.S. going it alone. And that's also what I hear honestly, Suzanne, from tourists I talked to here at the Capitol. Those voices of concern are getting a lot louder. Those are the same issues we've heard before, but they're getting louder right now as we get very close to decision time.

And, in fact, Suzanne, just an hour ago we had what could be called a historic moment. Senator Reid took to the floor and introduced this measure. Let's listen to that.


SEN. HARRY REID (D), MAJORITY LEADER: We convene the Senate today in order to enable the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to report a joint resolution which authorizes the use of military force, limited in nature against Syria, in response to Syrian's regime and their use of chemical weapons. As we know, many, many people have been killed with this, including almost 500 children.


DESJARDINS: And, Suzanne, that was the extent of the argument that he made today. He spoke for just a few seconds longer, but, of course, we expect much more full debate when Congress returns next week.

MALVEAUX: So, Lisa, we know the president is no longer going to California. He's actually going to stay in Washington to lobby those lawmakers. Give us a sense of the timetable here. When would they actually vote on this resolution, the full Senate and then as well as the House?

DESJARDINS: That is the big question, Suzanne. I thought I had a good handle on this yesterday, but as we see more no votes coming in, there are more questions. I'll tell you one scenario. If there's a filibuster of this measure, then we could see a likely vote in the Senate, the first test vote on Wednesday. Maybe a final vote this -- one weekend from now.

But there's so much up in the air right now, Suzanne. We don't know if there will be a filibuster. And we frankly don't know if the president has the votes to even start the process here in the Senate. So I think the best way to say it, Suzanne, is next week is critical. For all these voters listening right now, this is the time to call your lawmaker if you have an opinion.

MALVEAUX: And it's interesting, too, Lisa, the timing of all this -


MALVEAUX: Because we know the president is already going to be addressing the nation, the American people, on Tuesday, to make his case before the country.


MALVEAUX: Lisa, thank you. Appreciate it.

DESJARDINS: You got it.

MALVEAUX: We'll all be working hard over the weekend.

This just ahead in the NEWSROOM, the fighting in Syria leaving so many at risk. We're going to take a look at the youngest victims. We are, of course, talking about the children.


MALVEAUX: The situation is so desperate for many people still inside of Syria. Those who are hardest hit are the children. And a lot of them are dying. Our Arwa Damon, she is taking us to one makeshift hospital where children, they are simply struggling, struggling to stay live without food or proper medical care. We want to warn you that some of the images that we're about to show you are very graphic.


ARWA DAMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Amid the utter devastation caused by weapons of war there is another killer working silently amid the chaos. Its first victims, the most vulnerable.

In this video uploaded to YouTube by opposition activists, two-and-a- half-year-old Ibrahim (ph) struggles for life. His body can't take solid good. It can only digest milk. But there isn't any for him.

Through Skype, we reached Dr. Abu Samer in Syria, the pediatrician who treated Ibrahim. "There are many illnesses we are confronting because of an absolute absence of food," Dr. Samer explains. We've depleted all of our food reserves. Even animal products that could act as alternatives because there are no animals left. Most of the residents to Madamidasham (ph), just to the southeast of Damascus, have long fled. But among the 15,000 who remain, an estimated 5,000 are children, under siege now for months by regime forces, cut off from all aid.

RIMA KAMAL, ICRC DAMASCUS: For us, the fact that reports keep coming in from the area indicating there are (INAUDIBLE) inside, indicating that people are dying because we don't have medical supplies, people are dying because, you know, they don't have food supplies, they don't have, and as you mentioned, probably the necessary staple as well, it a serious cause for concern.

DAMON: The ICRC's request for access have repeatedly been denied and there are hundreds of thousands of people living under a similar siege across the country. In this area, there are tanks on all sides. Only one route sporadically opens and it's high risk. Presented with the tough choice between weapons and food, the rebels say they have to choose weapons, otherwise they will all be slaughtered by the regime.

Nine-year-old Ahmad (ph) had a neurological disorder and there were no nutrients, no food, no medicine to sustain his already weak body.

"People are eating leaves off the trees to stave off the hunger," Dr. Abu Samer tells us. "Adults can force themselves to handle it, but the children can't. Some people rely on vegetables they can grow and their gardens," he adds. "And this doesn't give one enough vitamins. There are no proteins, no fats."

With little or no food and medicine simply unavailable, anyone with any sort of medical condition simply cannot fight it off. Ahmad had part of his intestines removed two months ago after he was hit by shrapnel in the abdomen, but there was no way to provide him with the amino acids and proteins his body needed to recover.

"The main reason is a complete lack of food ingredients that supports a child's immune system," dr. Abu Samer tells us.

We're told Ahmad died the day we spoke to the doctor. We cannot independently verify the authenticity of the videos or the causes of these childrens' deaths. The ICRC also can't confirm how they died or indeed how many people are in this condition. A point of immense frustration for them.

KAMAL: Because what needs to be highlighted, these reports cannot be confirmed, for example, by international organizations because they have not had access. And that lack of access has been a concern.

DAMON: Unless the siege is broken, the doctor says, this is just the beginning. Two-year-old Ibrahim is another one of the innocent victims. The day after this video was shot, he took his final breath.

Arwa Damon, CNN, Beirut.