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Stunning Online Confession; Possible Russia Response to Syria as Iran Warns of Retaliation; Brutality of Assad Family; The Downfall of Dictators.

Aired September 6, 2013 - 11:30   ET


ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: And ultimately, Alex had mentioned in some of the reporting to CNN that he doesn't want people calling him courageous. In fact, he is sort of buckling at the notion that people are looking at this video and say it's courageous. It may seem courageous, but he killed a man and there's a family out there that for quite some time now has had a hit-and-run on their hands.

MARK O'MARA, CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY & CNN LEGAL ANALYST: In many cases, in many other cases, the victim's family, when they complain, they complain because they've never gotten that apology. They never got that sense of fulfillment for what the other side would say. We have to give him credit for saying that to the family.

BANFIELD: You've stood before a lot of judges and pleaded cases and asked for mitigation in sentencing before. If you were in this courtroom, what do you really think might end coming out? Because he's going to get charged and he's going to have to go through some process and he's going to plead guilty. What do you think a young would do with something like this?

O'MARA: I'd tell you, I'd like to represent him in front of a judge and say to a judge, look, we know it's a horrible crime and a death has been caused, but if we look at somebody that said, they've done what we wanted them to do, they've started the process of rehabilitation, they've acknowledged their remorse and guilt, and they made life easier for the family and for the system, then at least he has now taken the first step towards somebody who we should still punish but punish as little as reasonable, make him pay for his actions and then move forward. This might be the kind of guy who does videos like this one that goes out to schools and goes out to other community people to say, don't do what I did.

BANFIELD: You think that might be the actual sentence --


BANFIELD: Or will there be jail time?

O'MARA: He's going to jail. He's killed somebody, he's going to jail.

BANFIELD: Good to see you.

O'MARA: Great to see you. BANFIELD: You are a fine lawyer. Both of you and the prosecution in the Zimmerman trial, fine examples of great skills and stamina as it turns out.

O'MARA: Thanks so much. I appreciate it.


BANFIELD: Great having you onboard. Mark O'Mara joining us.

Thank you.

We also have the very big story that we're continuing to follow, President Obama and Russian president Vladimir Putin finally meeting face to face, sort of a non-planned marginals, meeting on the margins, but they failed to reach any agreement. Don't think that's a big surprise? But if the U.S. does take military action against Syria, what do you think Russia might actually do? They've made a couple of veiled remarks. We'll ask our experts to weigh in on just what the remarks might mean.


BANFIELD: Welcome back. I'm Ashleigh Banfield.

The international dispute over what to do about Syria's use of chemical weapons is at a fever pitch this hour. President Obama, overseas, is making a last-ditch appeal for international support for a strike against Syria. This is at the G-20 summit in Russia. The backdrop, Russian's president, Vladimir Putin, is warning that he has an unspecified plan of action if any kind of attack occurs. Also Iran weighing in. Its supreme leader warning of dire consequences if a strike occurs. And "the Wall Street Journal" adding to that, reporting that Iran has actually ordered militants in Iraq, next door, to attack the United States embassy and other U.S. interests in Baghdad if, in fact, an attack on Syria happens. And that is a whole lot of mess to deal with.

Joining us is CNN military analyst, retired Air Force colonel, Rick Francona, who happened to live for three years in Syria as a military attache. And also joining us is former U.N. chief weapons inspector, Dr. David Kay.

Colonel Francona, I want to begin with you, if I CAN.

Let's start at the top with Russia and with what president Putin has said in veiled terms. It didn't feel like a threat but it didn't feel like it wasn't a threat. "We have our plan."

RICK FRANCONA, FORMER MILITARY JAG & CNN MILITARY ANALYST: I would venture to say his plan is going to be on the diplomatic side or the economic side. I just can't imagine that the Russians want to get into a fight with us over Syria. It doesn't make sense. It doesn't reach the threshold of something they want to get into a superpower confrontation in the military realm. They've got quite a number of ships in the eastern Mediterranean, it's a small body of water. There's a lot of firepower out there. They may do a show of force, but I just don't see them doing anything militarily.

BANFIELD: So, Dr. Kay, if Vladimir Putin is paying lip service to his allies and making sure he walks this fence, let's go south to Iran and next door, Iraq. You and I have had a couple of conversations off air about the "I" word, and that's Iraq. It's no a place we ever want to be again, and yet we'll be there matter what, aren't we, if Syria enters the picture?

DR. DAVID KAY, FORMER U.N. CHIEF WEAPONS INSPECTOR: We still have both State Department personnel and American armed forces there. A small number. And a lot of NGOs, Americans, are still in Iraq. The amazing thing being commented on for the last year is that Iraq has provided a free flow of Iranian support, both material, arms, as well as personnel across Iraq, both ground and airspace.

BANFIELD: It's been a pipeline. What you are saying Iraq, a place that effectively the United States created as it is now, is the pipeline for the bad guys in Syria. Is that what you're saying?

KAY: It's a major pipeline. And I think one reason there's been so little public comment on it is, if you think about it, it is extraordinarily embarrassing to the U.S. government to reveal and talk about something that we've spent billions of dollars and over 4,000 American lives on is now providing aid and comfort to Syria.

BANFIELD: So, Colonel Francona, with that in mind, I'm looking at some of the reports that have been coming in to CNN from the Pentagon to Chris Lawrence and our producers, and they are saying that a defense officials has told them they've received, quote, "many, many calls from the White House" almost every day asking for different options, can you do this, what would it take to accomplish "X," "Y," "Z," if you want to do "X," we'll need rescue personnel, refueling options.

The question I have for you, given what you and David Kay just outlined with regard to Iraq, does that mean any kind of plan that's being made at the Pentagon right now is going to really focus on Iraq as well but maybe we won't be speaking so much about how much Iraq will matter?

FRANCONA: They'll have a plan. If something happens, if we do something militarily against Syria, there's a whole host of things that will happen, and the Pentagon has to plan for these, and those involve the evacuation of embassies and the personnel and even the NGOs that David mentioned. They've got to take that into consideration.

And going back to Iraq, Iraq is not this monolithic country anymore. It's, over the last two years, the civil order has almost broken down, you have the Sunnis resurgent in the north. And while the government is funneling official aid from Iraq into Syria, we're also seeing in the north this is where a lot of the Islamists are coming across as well. So Iraq is the funnel that is causing all the problems --


BANFIELD: Despite the problem that no one wants to hear the word Iraq.

FRANCONA: When people hear the word Iraq, people shut down.

BANFIELD: Yes, no kidding. And that may be a big issue for Congress.

Thank you so much, Dr. Kay.

And thank you so much, Colonel Francona.

It's always good to have your expertise, especially at times like this.

When we come back, I want you to take a look at this video. It's President Assad and his wife. They're shaking hands and they're smiling. Who would think that behind it lies one of the most cruel dictators in the world? So what do you suppose might happen to him and to his wife if he falls? And his people get a hold of him. There's some ugly history here that may lay some groundwork. We're going to show it to you in a moment.


BANFIELD: When it comes to cruelty, you might say that for Bashar al Assad, it runs in the family.

CNN's Brian Todd takes a look at Assad's family, their opulence and their history of brutality.


BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Recognize the boy on the swing? It's Bashar al Assad. As he looked on, his father, many believe, envisioned a dynasty.


TODD: 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?

ANDREW TABLER, AUTHOR: It's a mafia dynasty and it's definitely crumbling.

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 dictators late father, Hafez al Assad.

TABLER: Hafez al Assad was the most Machiavellian 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, alternating fighting 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 power 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 NEWS ANCHOR: 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's partly because they ruled so brutally as a minority, part of the Alawites Muslim sect over majority Sunnis who have resented them. And Bashar al Assad had other difficulties changing the old ways of his father.

TABLER: Hafez al Assad stabilized Syria through a closed system, people couldn't travel or 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 opens Syrians' minds. But how do you control this system? And how do you basically perpetuate authoritarian and tyranny?

TODD: Bashar al Assad war apparently warned that he couldn't do that. Analysts say, when Bashar brought 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.


BANFIELD: So, you know, it's hard to imagine what Bashar al Assad is thinking right now. Is he going to hold on to power or could he possibly suffer the same fate as many brutal dictators before him? Think about it, Gadhafi, Saddam. Remember how it turned out for them and their families? We'll have a look at that in just a moment.


BANFIELD: Bashar and his wife, Azma Assad (ph), were the vision of 21st century leaders. They were so suave and young and cool. Now they might be on the verge of suffering the same fate as other despised leaders before them. The disturbing images of a legacy. Moammar Gadhafi, seen in power and in a bloody pulp he was left when the masses got a hold of him hiding in a drain pipe. Don't forget about Saddam Hussein, who ruled with an iron fist, but there he is on the right after pulled out of a spider hole, and then he was tried and hanged by his people. Romania's Nicola Chachesqu (ph), and his wife, Elena (ph), are seen her literally minutes before a lightning-fast trial and then being tied and both being led outside the door of that room and riddled with bullets. And Italy's Benito Mussolini, he was a big fan of Hitler. But look at him on the right-hand side. That's him strung up in public alongside his mistress. A lot of people with despotic leaders aren't fond of their despotic leaders when they get a hold of them. And what might the Syrian people do to Bashar Assad and his family given the chance?

Joining us now is Peter Bergen, CNN national security analyst.

It's a good question. That can't be far from his mind, is it, Peter?

PETER BERGEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Yeah, Ashleigh. I think, talking to a number of Syrian activists, they believe that he will fight to the end. He won't try to flee to Iran, a close ally. He will go to the coastal areas where there's a traditional stronghold of the Alawites minority that he belongs to and hope to be protected by some combination of Alawites militaries and Lebanese Hezbollah. That could work for a while. It worked for Hussein. He was found. But he did go back. His M.O. was to go back to the place he knew best, his hometown of Tikrit in northern Iraq, and hide. He succeeded for a while.

BANFIELD: Don't they just basically loot the coffers of the country? Saddam made off with something like $40 billion, Gadhafi with $200 billion of the public's money and then just try to buy themselves a safe haven, even overseas.

BERGEN: There's going to be few takers for Assad. Iran and Russia are his closest allies. But he'd have to get there. These countries don't adjoin Syria, and there's a lot of people looking for him. It would be dangerous to try to leave the country, I think. At this point, the Syrian civil war has gone on for so long, it's likely the opposition would contemplate some kind of deal with him.

You mentioned what might happen to his family. As we have seen in past experiences, if you're implicated in the regime's violence, like Hussein's two sons, they were both killed. It's likely his brothers and others involved in the power structure will also --


BANFIELD: And wife.

BERGEN: Wife, I don't know. Saddam's female family members did get away. So it's not a done deal that she would also -- as you say, with the Chachesqus (ph), they killed both the wife and the husband.

BANFIELD: It's amazing. One of his deputies has been reported as shopping for asylum in Cuba, Venezuela and Ecuador. Peter Bergen, it will be intriguing to see how that plays out.

Thank you for your time today. I do appreciate it, Peter, our CNN national security expert.

Coming up next, see how a 17-year-old is sending kids around the world the gift of sight, and it's simple but critical, when we come back.


BANFIELD: As a high school freshman, Yash Gupta broke his glasses and about a week he found it hard to focus in school. Then Yash learned that millions of kids all around the world deal with that same struggle every day because they can't afford glasses. He decided he's going to help. Meet this week's "CNN Hero."


YASH GUPTA, CNN HERO: I was only five years old when I got my first pair. When I was a freshman I broke my glasses and I couldn't see anything. I realized how much they meant. Without them, I couldn't do anything normal.

I learned there are millions of students around the world who need glasses but can't afford them. I had this problem for one week. These kids had these problems for their whole lives.

My name is Yash Gupta, and I'm trying to help students see better.


GUPTA: There are millions of glasses discarded annually.

When I was 14, I started reaching out to local optometrists and putting collection boxes in their offices. When a patient came to get a new pair of glasses, they could drop off the old pair. We work with other organizations and they distribute the glasses.

The other way is by going on clinic trips.

Here are some glasses.

We'll be distributing these to some kids in orphanages.

It's personal interaction. That's what I love to see the people we're helping.


GUPTA: Watching someone get glasses for the first time, it's really inspiring.

Today, we have collected and distributed over $425,000 worth of eyeglasses, which is equivalent to 8500 pairs.

(LAUGHING) GUPTA: I'm 17 years old, and although many people believe kids can't make a difference, I have. I think anyone can do that. It's about being motivated and going out there and just doing it.


BANFIELD: If you want to learn more about Yash and the amazing work he's doing, head over to You can see it there.

That's all time we have. Thanks for joining us, everyone. AROUND THE WORLD with Suzanne Malveaux and Michael Holmes starts right after this quick break. Have a great weekend.



MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Michael Holmes. Thanks for your company.

Leaders of the most powerful economies just concluding their summit in Russia.

MALVEAUX: Russian President Vladimir Putin says he and President Obama did discuss Syria and they did not reach an agreement. The two presidents remain locked in staunch opposition over how to handle the Syrian crisis.

HOLMES: All the leaders put on their smiles as they always do for the G-20 class photo. You see it there.