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Public Opposes Strikes on Syria; Syria Welcomes Russia Proposal; Kerry, Hague Make Statement; Chemical Attack Video Released; U.S. Polls Against Syrian Intervention; Assad Threatens Retaliation, Claims Regime Forces Were Victims of Chemical Attack

Aired September 9, 2013 - 12:00   ET



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

We've got some breaking news right off the top.

MALVEAUX: Russia trying to deescalate the Syrian crisis by urging Syria to put its chemical weapons under international control. And now Syria is responding to that potential offer.

HOLMES: Saying they're not against the idea.

This all started when the secretary of state, John Kerry, was asked, what can the Russians do to - what can the Syrians do to slow it all down. And he made what appeared to many to be an off the cuff comment saying, well, they could hand over all of their chemical weapons. Well, guess what, the Russians then said, good idea, we're going to ask the Syrians to do just that. And we've just heard from the Syrian foreign minister, Walid Moualem, saying that Syria welcomes Russia's proposal for Damascus to put its chemical weapons under international control.

MALVEAUX: And then not only that, now you've got U.N. Secretary- General Ban Ki-moon who says, you know what, I think this is a good idea, too. Let's see what the Syrians bring to the table. Let's see what Russia brings to the table. This is potential a way out of military strikes.

HOLMES: A way that would take the wind out of the sails of the Obama administration's move to military action because, in essence, the Russians and the Syrians are agreeing to what Secretary Kerry said he wanted them to do in order to avoid military action. This is a very complicated story. Phil Black is in Moscow. We're going to get to him in a few minutes and talk more about this complicated stuff, but a fascinating development.

MALVEAUX: And one of the things the Obama administration is saying is, look, you know, we want to make sure this never happens again, that this is a deterrent. If he hands over those chemical weapons, they can make the case it is a deterrent, you don't have to hit us with military strikes. HOLMES: We've already seen the British prime minister, David Cameron, saying it must not be used as a distraction, this tactic -- as a tactic of distraction. So already you see a little bit of back pedal going on because it would -- to get rid of those it would take months -- months and months and months and verification and everything else. It really does - you know, it could throw a spanner in the works of what the Obama administration would like to be doing.

MALVEAUX: So the press in question, of course, can the president, President Obama, convince a skeptical Congress to support military strikes inside of Syria. The American people certainly hope not. And that is why because most Americans do believe that Syria's government gassed its own people, but they do not wanton go in.


MALVEAUX: This is a new CNN/ORC poll showing 59 percent of Americans say no, Congress should not pass a resolution to authorize military action inside of Syria.

HOLMES: Yes, 39 percent do say yes. And we're going to bring you more on the public sentiment this hour, as well, because they're saying no even though most people believe that the Assad an regime was behind it.

MALVEAUX: Yes, he's a bad guy.


MALVEAUX: Lawmakers, as well, they're returning to Capitol Hill. This is after their month-long summer break. Their session begins in just two hours. And by our estimates here, our count, most are still undecided about whether to launch strikes inside Syria.

HOLMES: Yes, President Obama himself doing a round of interviews with six major television networks, including our own Wolf Blitzer. And that should give us a bit of a preview of his nationwide address tomorrow when he will take his case directly to the American people.

MALVEAUX: Meanwhile, Syria's president is speaking to Americans in a CBS Interview. He says there is no evidence that he used chemical weapons against his own people.


PRESIDENT BASHAR AL-ASSAD, SYRIA: Our soldiers in another area were attacked chemically. Our soldiers. They went to the hospital as casualties because of chemical weapons. But in the area where they said the government used chemical weapons, we only had video and we only have pictures and allegations. We're not there. Our forces or police, our institutions don't exist. How can you talk about what happened if you don't have evidence? We're not like the American administration. We're not social media administration or government. We are the government that deal with reality. When we have evidence that's (ph) good enough.


HOLMES: And we're going to have much more of that interview with the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, coming up. But right now want to take you live to Washington.

MALVEAUX: So our Brianna Keilar, she is at the White House, Dana Bash on Capitol Hill.

One thing seems to be very clear here, is the American people firmly against launching strikes inside of Syria, even with congressional authorization. I want you to take a look at these facts here. When asked if the U.S. should launch air strikes if Congress passes a resolution, 43 percent of people in this CNN/ORC poll say they would favor strikes, 55 percent oppose it.

HOLMES: Now, when asked if the military should strike if Congress does not pass a resolution, only 27 percent would favor that move, 71 percent would oppose it.

Brianna, let's start with you there at the White House. Those polls showing President Obama really swimming against a tide of public opinion. People do not want the U.S. to get involved in Syria. And that was before these latest developments with the Russians and the Syrians and whether they'll hand over chemical weapons.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, yes. And first, let me deal with that, Michael. We're at this point trying to get some reaction from the White House on that breaking news.

But I will tell you that we've heard about this idea before. In fact, this is something that has been proposed, or something akin to this proposed by a Democratic senator, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, talking about having the Syrians give up their chemical weapons and that being a possibility.

But this was actually something President Obama was specifically asked about during that press conference in St. Petersburg on Friday. And he said at this point, some of these options, including that one, he didn't really see as feasible at this point. So know that that's something that he's already staked out a position on.

And also, I think, as we do wait for reaction, you see the White House being very skeptical when it comes to Russia and when it comes to Syria talking about, you know, whether it's -- they're questioning if chemical attacks even happened in Russia's case at one point and now this idea. They feel that Russia has I guess it's sort of every turn is just trying to kind of run out the clock, slow things down.


KEILAR: And so I think that's the lens through which they will see this.

But in terms of the president trying to turn the tide here, he's very focused. He is focused very much on trying to convince members of Congress that the Assad regime is responsible for this. This is the point of so many of these briefings. The problem is, you look at these polls and it shows eight out of 10 people surveyed actually believe that the Assad regime is responsible, but they're not making that leap that the Obama administration is trying to get them it make, which is, if the Assad regime is responsible, then you go to this response - a military response like President Obama has laid out and tried to win over members of Congress and as he's going to do with the American people tomorrow night. So far, Congress, Americans haven't made that leap.

HOLMES: But on the point, and you're right about the president having talked about the handover of chemical weapons and the like and verifying it and the difficulties of that, but it was Secretary Kerry who made that comment just the other day. And it seems that maybe it was an off the cuff comment. Maybe it wasn't. But it was the Russian seizing upon this. Does it complicate matters politically?

KEILAR: I think it could for some Americans who look at this and certainly would like to see something other than a military intervention. So they look at that. Perhaps that's something that makes sense to them. They say, why don't we just go this route.

But I think the comment, at least as I've read, and I haven't seen Kerry's comment, what I read, it was sort of him saying, you know, if Assad were just to give up his weapons, you do -- if you talk to observers of what's been going on in Syria, they don't actually think that Assad would ever give up his chemical weapons. And I think that may reflect certainly what we would hear from the White House as we do await reaction.

But also at this point, Michael, it's just really unknown where the White House is going from here. It wasn't clear that President Obama was necessarily going to say anything new, make any news tomorrow night, but that he was just trying to reach a wider audience, trying to convince Americans. But I think at this point, the White House is really looking back at the last few days, trying to figure out if their argument needs to be retooled, if it has been working. And they're sort of in that mode right now where it's unclear really how they move forward here.

HOLMES: Yes, fascinating and very fast-moving.

KEILAR: Very fast-moving

MALVEAUX: Just two hours from now, the White House -- Senate officially getting back to work. This is after their month of recess. And the president's plan to take military action in Syria, of course, that is what they are talking about, everybody is talking about. And we want to bring you more numbers, these new polls to share with you, that indicate how Americans feel about this possible military strike.

And the latest CNN/ORC poll, 57 percent say it doesn't matter to them how their member of Congress votes on this issue, 31 percent say they would be more likely to support someone with a no vote, and 11 percent say they are more likely to support someone with a yes vote.

I want to bring in our chief congressional correspondent, Dana Bash. And, Dana, first of all, let's just talk about what's developed over the last couple of minutes here because it originally came out of Congress, this idea of this waiting period and having Assad turn over -- potentially turn over his chemical weapons to an international body or international control. Would this complicate matters or does this give a political cover, if you will, an out for some of these members of Congress to say, wait a minute, look, maybe Assad will cooperate. We don't have to do this.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I think it could definitely be the latter, Suzanne, political cover. Not just for members of Congress, but maybe most importantly the president of the United States. You know, as Brianna was just noting, it is still a big if, if Russia can -- from the perspective of the U.S. -- can be trusted on this and then, maybe more importantly, if Syria would actually go ahead and give over the chemical weapons to the international community.

But big picture, this is something that we have seen behind the scenes what we are seeing already, with the fear that this actually could fail, authorization could fail in the Senate, never mind the Republican-led House. Behind the scenes discussions about alternatives for the president and for what could move through Congress. And one of the things that has been out in the open, as you said, is a proposal by Senators Manchin and Heitkamp, to conservative Democrats to delay any military action for 45 days while they sort of work the international community and Assad and try to get him to turn over chemical weapons.

Whether or not that specific language is voted on or would even have to be voted on is a big question. But the idea of delay could be absolutely political cover for everybody. And maybe, most importantly, as I began here, the president, because he could, if it works, argue, you know what, we saber rattled, we scared them and we didn't have to use the -- actually use the might of the military. We just had to threaten it.

HOLMES: Dana, thanks so much. Just fast-moving, as we said and who knows where it's going to go from here. But as you pointed out earlier too, the U.N. secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, saying he likes to entertain the idea. Maybe they could set up some places where the chemical weapons could be gathered and destroyed. Who knows what that means for the plan going forward.

MALVEAUX: Let's go to Phil Black in Moscow.

And, Phil, just explain to us how this could pivot here. I mean this is something that a lot of people are looking at as some potential deal breaker, if you will. At least it would offer the Syrians more time.

PHIL BLACK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, and in the position of Russia, it's really quite extraordinary, because as we often comment, the Russian position is very convenient. It's not just - I'm sorry, consistent (ph), I should say. It is not just slow-moving, it generally doesn't change. It has rarely changed. Certainly not dramatically over the course of the two, two and a half years of the Syrian crisis. So for developments to shift as dramatically as they have done today is really, here in Moscow, quite extraordinary.

Just this morning, the Russian and Syrian foreign ministers gave a press conference basically banging the same drum about how the only possible solution here was a diplomatic one. A big international conference. They want the United States to focus on that, not military action.

They've been in talks all day. Foreign Minister Lavrov emerged from those talks, heard about some comments that Secretary of State Kerry had made regarding the possibility of avoiding a military strike if chemical weapons are given up. The State Department says those comments were rhetorical. We don't know if the Russians know that the State Department has clarified them in that way, in the sense that it's not really an offer on the table. But they've really jumped on it with some enthusiasm. They say that they believe this is the way to avert military action and they're really encouraging the Syrians to do so.

And then just a short time ago the Syrian foreign minister, who is still here in Moscow, gave a brief, short press statement in which he said the Syrian republic supports this completely and trusts Russia to see them through it. So Syria embracing this idea. But I guess it remains to be seen how sincerely, how quickly are they prepared to move and so forth. That clarifying statement from the State Department today, that said all of this was just rhetorical, made the point that Syria's had the opportunity to give up its chemical weapons long before now and it hasn't done so.

Suzanne. Michael.

HOLMES: Well, I guess it boils down to the politics, Phil, doesn't it? I mean what it means in a political sense. And that's going to unfold over the hours ahead. Phil Black in Moscow following developments there. Appreciate it, Phil, thanks so much.

MALVEAUX: A lot of this really depends, too, on how the Obama administration comes out in response to this.

HOLMES: Exactly.

MALVEAUX: I mean is it - is it a real offer? Is it not a real offer? Is it some sort of tactic or delay? But, I mean, they've got to respond, in a way (ph).

HOLMES: They have to respond. But, yes, it could take, if they were to go ahead down that track, it would take months - months and months.

All right, well, the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, as we said, said there's no evidence that he had anything to do with chemical weapons attack in Damascus last month. Now, he did tell CBS that if Syria is attacked, there will be consequences. Let's listen to a little bit more of that interview.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Will there be attacks against American bases in the Middle East if there is as air strike?

PRESIDENT BASHAR AL-ASSAD, SYRIA: You should expect everything. You should expect everything. Not necessarily through the government. It's not all -- the governments are not only - not the only player in this region. You have different parties. You have different factions. You have different ideology. You have everything in this region now. So you have to expect that.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But we'd like to know more, and I think the president would like to know more - the American people would like to know, you know, if there's an attack, you know, what might be the repercussions and who might be engaged in those repercussions?

AL-ASSAD: Before the 11th of September, in my discussions with many (INAUDIBLE) in the United States, some of them are congressmen, it's (ph) safe to say that don't (INAUDIBLE) the terrorists in -- as playing games. It's different story. You're going to pay the price if you're not wise.


MALVEAUX: Assad really playing into the fears of Americans, a potential -- another terrorist attack. This administration, the U.S. administration, of course, continues to push for its Syria military strike overseas today. Secretary of State John Kerry, he was in London, where he was meeting with Britain's foreign secretary, William Hague. And Kerry said there could be no peace in Syria if the Assad regime is allowed to use chemical weapons with no international response.


JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: If one party believes that he can rub out countless numbers of his own citizens with impunity, using chemicals that have been banned for nearly 100 years because of what Europe learned in World War I, if he can do that with impunity, he will never come to a negotiating table.


HOLMES: And, of course, Britain's parliament did vote down any military involvement by Great Britain in Syria.

But William Hague emphasized his country's close alignment with the U.S. on the Syrian crisis.


WILLIAM HAGUE, BRITISH FOREIGN SECRETARY: First, working to create the conditions for a Geneva II peace process that can lead to a transitional government in Syria; secondly, addressing the desperate humanitarian situation; third supporting the moderate Syrian opposition and saving lives on the ground; and fourth, mustering a strong international response to the use of chemical weapons. (END VIDEO CLIP)

MALVEAUX: The president's going to take his case for a military strike on Syria to the American people directly. He is going to be addressing the nation at 9:00 tomorrow night.

But before that, he sits down with six TV networks, including our own Wolf Blitzer. That is airing tonight at 6:00 Eastern.

HOLMES: Yeah, don't miss that.

Meanwhile, here's a little bit more of what we're working on this hour for AROUND THE WORLD.

New video showing the horrific chemical attacks in Syria, we're going to have the latest on the search for evidence of who is to blame.

MALVEAUX: And "The Worm" has returned from North Korea. Dennis Rodman -- we're talking about him -- tried his hand at basketball diplomacy.

Today he is urging the president, President Obama, to pick up the phone and give the North Korea leader a call.


HOLMES: Welcome back.

Members of Congress getting another round of secret briefings today and what they will see are pictures, videos of victims of the chemical attack.

We showed you some of these videos over the weekend. We do need to warn you again that the pictures you're about to see are extremely graphic, but we do need you to see what Congress is seeing.

Jake Tapper, our chief Washington correspondent and anchor of "THE LEAD," broke the story of these horrific videos, joins us now.

Jake, President Assad says there's no evidence that he had anything to do with chemical weapons attacks. It's interesting that he said there's no evidence. He didn't say that it didn't happen.

Tell us about these videos and what we know with their legitimacy or otherwise, that they are what the U.S. intelligence community says they are.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: On that point, these 13 videos that were shown to members of the Senate intelligence committee on Thursday and will be shown to members of the House today and throughout the week, they do not prove a connection between the chemical weapon attack and the Assad regime.

And they do not prove that militarily intervening is the solution if Assad was responsible.

But what the administration is doing, and we can see some of the videos here, is showing members of Congress just how horrific this chemical weapons attack was.

They have separate evidence, the administration says, evidence we have not seen, that allegedly ties this to the Assad regime, but the reason why the administration and intelligence officials were telling senators that they are confident that these very gruesome and sad videos are legitimate is because, first, they were shot, many of these videos, from different angles.

There we see some shots from a scene outdoors, a night scene, and intelligence officials told the senators that they were able to compare the videos of outdoor scenes with overhead imagery and verify the terrain in the picture.

They were also told, the senators, that there's information from survivors of these attacks that is collaborated in these videos and that also that the intelligence community was able to verify that the stated locations in the videos from outside Damascus in Syria were legitimate and that the videos were uploaded at the time or shortly after the August 21st chemical weapons attack.

But, as you say, there is very little disputing that this chemical weapons attack took place. The question, of course, is, who did it?

Now, Charlie Rose when he asked Bashar Assad about the chemical weapons attack, as you say, Assad said he did not have anything to do with it.

On "NEW DAY" this morning, the deputy national security adviser for President Obama, Ben Rhodes, was asked to respond to what Assad said and here's that clip.


BEN RHODES, DEPUTY NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: I think Bashar al Assad has no credibility.

You're talking about a dictator who has already killed tens of thousands of people. He's already used chemical weapons.

And I think people see in the videos that CNN aired the other day the tragic, horrific consequences of what he's done.

And frankly, it's not surprising someone who would use those weapons would then lie about it.


TAPPER: Now, after our report on Saturday, the Senate intelligence committee posted the 13 video clips so members of the public can go either to the CNN website or to the Senate intelligence committee website to see these videos for themselves.

We should warn people that they are very graphic and in some cases very, very upsetting showing children and others reacting to what intelligence officials claim very specifically was not just a chemical weapons attack, but specifically a sarin gas attack. HOLMES: Yeah, and it's about that sort of control-and-command linking, isn't it? They've got to be able to show the American public as well as Congress that there is that link to the top. And there is debate about that.

What other evidence is needed besides these videos to make that connection? And make a connection that's going to convince Americans who seem to not really care about it. They don't want to go anyway.

TAPPER: It's interesting that you say that because a new CNN poll suggests that an overwhelming majority of the public believes that Assad used chemical weapons against his own people.

They have doubts about it in many instances, but generally speaking, that case has been made and the American people do believe the charge, although, of course, that could be even more solid because there are people who have doubts about it.

That said, as you say, the American people, according to the new CNN/ORC poll, do not believe it is in the U.S. national interest to attack Syria.

But I do think when it comes to members of Congress voting on this issue, there is going to have to be more of a case made connecting publicly, not just behind closed doors, publicly, the horrific images, the horrific images we've seen this weekend in those videos of the sarin gas attack with the Assad regime.

Now, the theory, the prevailing theory from the Obama administration, is that Damascus is an area that is supportive of the rebels and the pro-regime forces, the Assad government, had been fighting them conventionally, didn't work and that's why the chemical attack took place.

But as of now, I only know that to be a theory.

HOLMES: Yeah. Yeah, and there are other theories out there, too.

Jake, appreciate that. Some great reporting over the weekend. Jake Tapper there.

MALVEAUX: And we also need to pass along a correction by "The New York Times."

We aired video last week from "The Times" showing the execution of Syrian troops by rebel forces. The video was cited as an example of the risks of backing the rebels in the Syrian civil war.

In fact, the video was shot more than a year earlier than "The New York Times" article reported. It was shot in early 2012, not in April of this year.

Wanted to make sure that you corrected the record, as well, and you understood that the story.

Has Syria and President Bashar al Assad lost control of some of his military forces? There's a new report out of Germany that's raising questions about who was behind the chemical attack that has outraged the world.


MALVEAUX: Syria's president is warning to expect the worse if the U.S. launches a military attack against his country.

Bashar al-Assad is threatening some kind of serious retaliation, but he is not saying exactly.

HOLMES: Yeah, and he's also claiming his forces have been attacked with chemical weapons. The Russians have backed him on that.

Listen to what he said in a CBS interview.


BASHAR AL-ASSAD, SYRIAN PRESIDENT: Our forces in another area were attacked chemically, our soldiers. They went to the hospital as casualties because of chemical weapons.

But in the area where they said the government used chemical weapons, we only have video and we only have pictures and allegations. We're not there. Our forces, our police, our institutions don't exist.


MALVEAUX: So meanwhile, a German newspaper, citing high-level security sources says it's possible that Assad did not approve of the chemical weapons attack.

HOLMES: Fred Pleitgen joining us from Berlin.

Fred, this came from a pretty reputable newspaper with good sources.