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A Way Out of Attacking Syria?; Obama Pulls Out All the Stops; A Way Out for Congress?; Breaking Down Obama's Votes In Congress; George Zimmerman Involved In Domestic Dispute; Buckling under Weight of Syrian Refugees; Rodman Plays Defense on North Korea

Aired September 9, 2013 - 17:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, a SITUATION ROOM special report, Crisis in Syria.

I'm Wolf Blitzer reporting live from the White House, where I have just interviewed the president of the United States on a critically important day.

What sounded like an off-handed comment from the secretary of state, John Kerry, now, potentially, a way out for the United States and for Syria.

Just ahead, the possible -- possible new alternative to military action a number of key diplomatic voices now seem willing to consider.

Meantime, the president is pulling out all the stops with his legacy potentially on the line.

Will his last ditch effort to sell the case for military strikes shift the dwindling support in Congress and in the polls?

And my far-reaching interview with the president -- that's coming up. You'll see it here in its entirety.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.


We begin with the breaking news, a potential game-changer in the U.S. stand-off over Syria. Secretary of State John Kerry apparently veering a little bit off script earlier in the day, making some controversial comments that are fueling questions about a possible way out for the United States, quickly gaining critical endorsements both here, in Washington and around the world.

Our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto, is working this story for us.

He's joining us with details.

A very dramatic development today, potentially a game-changer in this current crisis with Syria between the U.S. and Syrian regime.

Update our viewers -- Jim.

What happened?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, no question. And a dramatic difference over the course of the day. This morning, officials I talked to privately were dismissing this idea out of hand. One called it a "major goof" by Secretary Kerry.

But over the day, it gained traction overseas, not just from Russia and Syria, but our allies -- the U.K., France, Germany, the U.N., which could be submitting a resolution, it says, before the U.N. Security Council. This idea no longer, Wolf, just a hypothetical.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What is your response?

SCIUTTO (voice-over): It began this morning with what sounded like an off-hand comment to reporters -- Secretary John Kerry inadvertently raising a way out for Syrian president, Bashar Al-Assad.

JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: Sure. He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week, turn it over, all of it, without delay, and allow a full and total accounting for that. But he isn't about to do it.

SCIUTTO: A State Department spokesperson quickly qualified the secretary's statement as a purely rhetorical argument.

But Russia heard something more. By late morning, its foreign minister had promised to encourage its ally, Syria to accept it.

SERGEY LAVROV, RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTER (through translator): We are calling on the Syrian authorities to not only agree on putting chemical weapons storage under international control, but also for its further destruction. We have passed our offer to the Syrian foreign minister.

SCIUTTO: Who, speaking just 60 minutes later, declared his country on board.

WALID AL-MUALLEM, SYRIAN FOREIGN MINISTER (through translator): I declare that the Syrian Arab Republic welcomes Russia's initiative on the basis that the Syrian leadership cares about the lives of our citizens and the security in our country.

SCIUTTO: By the end of the day, some very powerful American voices were, at least in theory, publicly endorsing the idea.

HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: If the regime immediately surrendered its stockpiles to international control, as was suggested by Secretary Kerry and the Russians, that would be an important step. But this cannot be another excuse for delay or obstruction.

SCIUTTO: But the rhetorical may be getting well ahead of the practical. Experts say that reliably emptying Syria of one of the largest chemical stockpiles in the world, in the middle of a war, would be next to impossible.

AARON DAVID MILLER, WILSON CENTER: You'd have to literally open up the entire country. You'd have to have a cease-fire. You'd have to have a prolonged period where U.N. weapons inspectors would come in, blanket the country, identify what's there, inventory it and then manage to extract it. And it seems to me almost unimaginable.


SCIUTTO: In a phone call today with the Russian foreign minister, Secretary Kerry made clear the U.S. does not want the play games here and that this cannot be a reason to delay getting the U.S. Congress to authorize military action.

But it may turn out to be just that. The U.S. may not trust Syria or Russia, but it also does not want to look like it's dismissing, Wolf, a serious diplomatic solution.

BLITZER: It, potentially, could be a game-changer right now in this current stand-off Let's see. We should know in the next few days.

Jim Sciutto reporting for us.

Thank you.

This dramatic new development certainly isn't stopping President Obama from making his all-out push to shift the growing momentum against military action that's unfolding in Congress and amongst so many Americans. His latest move, a string of television interviews here at the White House, including one that you're going to see, the interview he granted me just a little while ago. That interview coming up here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta, is here at the White House, as well.

He's got a special report for us.

I want to warn our viewers that what they're about to see in his report is very graphic and very disturbing.

Tell our viewers what you have -- Jim.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, as for that Russian proposal that we heard Jim Sciutto talk about, administration officials are all using the same words when talking about it, saying that they're going to take a hard look at it. And even as that proposal is being considered, administration officials are, as you said, Wolf, pulling out all the stops to get that vote for Congressional authorization up on Capitol Hill, including welcoming an estimated 70 members of Congress to the White House just today.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) ACOSTA (voice-over): It hasn't let up all day -- a steady stream of Republicans and Democrats, from top GOP leaders to Hillary Clinton and the Congressional Black Caucus, all meeting with administration officials making the case for lawmakers to approve a military strike against Syria.

The administration shifted into overdrive with the release of video showing the victims of last month's poison gas attack in Syria. Then the dinner with the vice president and GOP senators Sunday night, a slew of network interviews today and the address to the nation Tuesday night, not to mention the administration's big guns that went before the cameras both past...

HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: The world will have to deal with this threat as swiftly and comprehensively as possible.

ACOSTA: -- and present.

SUSAN RICE, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: If we begin to erode the moral outrage of gassing children in their bed, we open ourselves up to even more fearsome consequences.

ACOSTA: A new CNN/ORC poll shows nearly six in 10 Americans oppose military action against Syria and White House officials say they want Congress to go out on a limb, despite what may be a trial balloon from secretary of State, John Kerry, for Syria to give up its chemical weapons, an idea that was immediately embraced by Russia and then Syrian officials.

TONY BLINKEN, DEPUTY NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: That would be terrific. But unfortunately, the track record to date, including recent statements by Assad not even acknowledging that he has chemical weapons, doesn't give you a lot of confidence. But that said, we want to look hard at what the Russians have proposed. And we will.

ACOSTA (on camera): I just want to make sure, is this -- so is this an ultimatum coming from this White House to Bashar Al-Assad?

Is this an escape hatch for him?

BLINKEN: Again, we will look at what the Russians have proposed. We'll talk to them about it and we'll see where it goes.

ACOSTA (voice-over): The Russian proposal is proof, White House Press Secretary jay Carney suggested, that administration policy is working.

JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The only reason why we have a dynamic today where the Russians have proffered a proposal and there's been some response from the Syrians with regard to stockpiles of chemical weapons they have heretofore not even acknowledged they have is because of the intense pressure being placed on Assad by the prospect of the United States engaging in military force.

ACOSTA: But just last Friday in Russia, President Obama seemed cool to a similar idea, offered up by West Virginia Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, to give Assad 45 days to surrender his poison gas arsenal.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: So far, at least, I have not seen ideas presented that as a practical matter, I think would do the job.


ACOSTA: Now, asked whether Secretary Kerry's comments that led to that Russian proposal were some kind of trial balloon or escape hatch for Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, a senior administration official tells me, Wolf, that it is not even a tiny bit in that regard.

And as for President Assad's implicit threat to President Obama that if a military strike were to occur that there might be some kind of response from Syria, a White House official told me, Wolf, watch the TV interviews that the president is doing this evening. There will be a response to that in those interviews -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Including in my interview, that will air in its entirety right at the top of the hour. I just wrapped up that interview with the president.

Jim Acosta, thanks very much.

Even Wall Street seems to be rallying a bit on the possibility -- the possibility of a diplomatic alternative to U.S. military strikes in Syria. The Dow closing up 140 points today, while the S&P 500 and NASDAQ, they were also about 1 percent up, each of them. The market had been trading higher for most of the day.

On Capitol Hill, the president is facing what seems to be a steeper and steeper climb to get support for U.S. military action.

Our chief congressional correspondent, Dana Bash, is outside the House Intelligence Briefing Room, where a classified briefing for members now underway -- Dana, is this new proposal that has been floated today by the secretary of State, picked up by the Russians, accepted, at least for now, by the Syrians and Ban Ki-moon at the U.N., is this, potentially, a way out for Congress, because a lot of members really don't even want to vote on this sensitive issue?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It absolutely could be, Wolf, not just for members who don't want to vote, who are undecided or, you know, flatly no, but even for those who are, you know, sort of actively and outwardly yes, people who think that military intervention is the right way to go.

For example, Dianne Feinstein, the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, she released a statement very quickly after this became news, this idea. And she said that she very much believes that this would be a way out.

I think, look, big picture, for members of Congress, just like for the administration, if there's a way for them to make this work, it would be -- allow them to say, look, even the threat of military action got Bashar Al-Assad to step down. Of course, it would be the best of all worlds.

Having said that, as you can imagine, Wolf, there are a lot of people here on Capitol Hill who are very skeptical that the Russians will be able to do anything -- and will be willing to do anything that they will be able to accept as legitimate when it comes to really making sure that the chemical weapons inside Syria will be given over and will be secure.

BLITZER: The president and his top aides, they've been pushing and pushing and pushing for the last two weeks.

Which way is the tide turning right now, if there had to be a vote this week on the use of military force in Syria?

BASH: At this point. I have to say the tide is still turning against the president. And, as you mentioned, I am standing outside of a very, very important briefing. And you can see members of Congress are still coming in. They are going -- there you see the ranking Democrat of the Armed Services Committee there, going into this room back there. It's an auditorium where every single member of the House of Representatives, 435 -- actually, fewer now who are actually in office. But they're all asked to come in there and to talk to or to listen to members of the administration, the highest ranking members -- Secretary Hagel, Secretary Kerry and others.

This is really one of the biggest efforts so far that we have seen. And we've seen a lot of efforts over the past week by the administration to convince these members to go for it.

The problem, as I've talked to so many of these lawmakers coming in here, Wolf, is that they are coming back from five weeks at home. And especially the last week, they are getting pounded -- pounded by their constituents saying please do not do this. And I've even talked to some members who have said that they were surprised to hear from their colleagues, that they were hearing the same thing that they are.

So this is going to be an incredibly important briefing. But there are a lot of minds, I think, that are pretty much secure in voting "no." A lot of leaning "no," as well.

It's not -- at this point, it's not looking very good for the president.

BLITZER: Yes. Well, let's see if there are even going to be some votes, given this latest diplomatic potential breakthrough.

Dana Bash up on the Hill.

Thank you.

When we return, in our SITUATION ROOM special report, breaking down the votes for and against the president's plan in Congress. Our own John King, he's over at the magic wall with the very latest tally.

Also, my interview with the president of the United States -- that's coming up at the top of the hour here in THE SITUATION ROOM. You're going to go -- you're going to see it, the entire interview. That's coming up.


BLITZER: Welcome back. I'm Wolf Blitzer at the White House. Just ahead at the top of the hour in our special report, crisis in Syria, my full interview with President Obama. I just finished talking with him over in the White House. You're going to see it in its entirety. That's coming up, an important interview with the president on Syria options. You stick around for that.

Meanwhile, the number of no votes in Congress for President Obama's case for potential U.S. military strikes, that's growing, while the number of lawmakers planning to vote yes has dwindled, according to CNN's latest count. Let's bring in our chief national correspondent, John King. He's over at the magic wall, breaking down the numbers for us, the voting, the potential voting, I should say. What is the latest tally, John?

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it's nice to see you back in that familiar spot on the North Lawn there. You know the reason you're there. The reason the president is giving these interviews, the reason the president will address the nation tomorrow night is because at the moment, he's losing when it comes to the vote count on Capitol Hill. Here's our latest count when it looks at the senate.

We have 49 undecided senators. That's the biggest bloc, 26 no votes on the record, 25 yes votes on the record. If you look down low here, you see the blue and the red, that's 26 Democrats undecided, 21 Republicans, 18 Democrats yes, seven Republicans yes. That's the Senate vote right there. If they need 60 to avoid a filibuster, that's one big number.

Then if they do that, obviously, it would take 51 to pass. The president just about at the halfway point, nowhere near enough. And the Senate side, that's the Senate side, Wolf, where they are reasonably optimistic. Here's the president's biggest problem, the House of Representatives. 255 members currently say they're undecided but already on record, 153 nos, including 121 Republicans and 32 Democrats.

Only 25 yes votes on the record in the House right now. That's trouble for the president, 17 Democrats and 8 Republicans. Let's take a closer look at some of the analysis, but look at several different groups here. In the Senate right now, there are 42 members who are around for the Iraq war vote back in 2002. Now, ten of these 42 were in the House then. They're all in the Senate now.

Here's how they voted then, 32 yes, 10 no on Iraq. Here's what they're thinking at the moment about Syria. Only 15 on the record saying yes, 21 saying undecided, six no votes. That's the Senate comparing Iraq and Syria. Here's the House breakdown. As you see there, 143 members of the House that were still there back in 2002, 77-66, again, undecided. Largely carrying the day and quickly, Wolf, two key constituencies for the president, on opposite ends of the spectrum. The Congressional Black Caucus, these are mostly anti-war liberal Democrats. The president needs them desperately. In the House of Representatives, 29 undecided at the moment, six on the record saying no, only four on the record saying yes. Watch this number. Watch this number over the next few days as the president makes his case. He needs to move these undecided Black caucus members over to yes to have any chance in the House.

One last look, he needs Republican votes as well. Tea Party members in the House, we're looking at 50 members here, 32, you see 42, 51 members that we've identified as close to the Tea Party, 32 already on the record as saying no, 19 undecided. So again, the newer members of the House, those affiliated with the Tea Party, much more likely to say no.

It shows you the president's steep challenge. I just go back and show you the Senate count. There's the first count. They're reasonably optimistic there. It is this House count right now that is quite a daunting challenge for the president as he tries this important week to make his case -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. And if they can get a diplomatic breakthrough right now to avoid those votes, especially in the House of Representatives, that would be excellent news, political news for the president of the United States. Certainly a lot better than losing a vote of confidence, if you will, along those lines. John King, thank you very much.

Coming up, CNN's "Crossfire" debuts tonight. Two co-hosts, they are here with a preview as we go -- they go, I should say, head-to-head over Syria.

Plus, police in Florida, they've detained George Zimmerman after a dispute allegedly involving a weapon. We're learning new details. Lots of news happening today right here in the SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Just ahead here in the SITUATION ROOM right at the top of the hour in our special report, crisis in Syria, my full interview with President Obama. I just finished speaking with him here at the White House. You're going to go see -- you'll see the interview in its entirety. That's coming up at the top of the hour here in the SITUATION ROOM.

We'll have much more on the crisis in Syria in just a moment. But first, let's take a quick look at some of the other top stories unfolding right now.

George Zimmerman's estranged wife called 911 this afternoon saying he threatened her family with a weapon and punched her -- punched her father, I should say -- punched her father. Shelley Zimmerman filed for divorce last week. Here's part of that 911 call.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: All right. We do have units en route to you, ma'am. Is he still there?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes, he is and he's trying to shut the door on me.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Is he inside now?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No. He's in his car, and he continually has his hand on his gun and he keeps saying step closer, he's just threatening all of us.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Step closer to what?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He's going to shoot us.


BLITZER: Wow. Police say, as of now, George Zimmerman is not being charged in this latest incident. It happened in Lake Mary, Florida, not far from where George Zimmerman was acquitted back in July in the death of Trayvon Martin.

A previously unknown painting by Vincent Van Gogh has been discovered and authenticated. The Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam says the landscape is called Sunset at Montmajour believed completed in 1888, two years before the artist's suicide. So, where has it been all these years? The museum says it will reveal that next month.

Coming up here in our special report, crisis in Syria, my interview with the president of the United States. I just finished speaking to him. You're going to see the interview in its entirety right at the top of the hour.

Plus, just how realistic is this latest possible diplomatic alternative in Syria? Our "Crossfire" co-hosts, they're here to debate just about an hour before their new show debuts.


BLITZER: Happening now, a SITUATION ROOM special report, crisis in Syria.


BLITZER (voice-over): I'm live here at the White House where I sat down with President Obama to talk about Syria just a little while ago. We'll play the entire interview for you.

Also, debating Syria's chemical weapons. Two co-hosts of CNN's new "Crossfire," they are here with us as we countdown to the debut of their new show that airs just about one hour or so from now.

Plus, CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta, he's right in the heart of the Syrian refugee crisis and an unfolding humanitarian disaster.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in the SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Congress and the American people are still very, very leery of a U.S. military strike on Syria in retaliation for its alleged chemical attack last month. The Obama administration says some 1,400 people, including hundreds of children, were killed. Two-thirds of the people surveyed in a new CNN/ORC poll say a U.S. strike will likely lead to American troops on the ground in Syria.

Let's get some more with two of CNN's new "Crossfire" co-hosts, the former Obama advisor, Stephanie Cutter, the former House speaker and Republican presidential candidate, Newt Gingrich. Guys, thanks very much for joining us. Good luck with the new program later today.

Let me play a little clip, first of all. This is the White House deputy national security advisor, Tony Blinken, today responding to a question about Russia's proposal for Damascus to put all of its chemical weapons under international control.


ANTHONY BLINKEN, DEPUTY NATIONAL SEUCRITY ADVISER: We would welcome Assad giving up his chemical weapons, doing it in a verifiable manner so that we can account for them and destroy them. That's the whole purpose of what we're trying to achieve to make sure that he can't use them again. That would be terrific.

But unfortunately, the track record to date, including recent statements by Assad not even acknowledging that he has chemical weapons, doesn't give you a lot of confidence. But that said, we want to look hard at what the Russians have proposed. (END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: If that proposal works, it would be a significant development. Newt Gingrich, if it works, could the president, could the Obama administration, declare a victory?

NEWT GINGRICH, CNN CO-HOST, CROSSFIRE: I think so. If they actually got an agreement that was enforceable and if they actually had the United Nations rounding up the weapons and destroying them, I think the president at that point absolutely could take a victory lap. And I think that -- this is a very shaky moment and a fascinating moment in terms of how all these different pieces come together.

BLITZER: What do you think, Stephanie, about this prospect? Is it something serious, is it not serious? What do you think about it?

STEPHANIE CUTTER, CNN CO-HOST, CROSSFIRE: Well, I don't think anybody knows at this point, Wolf, but I think everybody hopes that it is serious. And I think it's important to recognize that we probably wouldn't be at this point with Russia and Syria coming forward, saying that they are going to hand over these weapons of mass destruction, these chemical weapons, if there wasn't a threat of use -- threat of force on the table. So that's an important thing to recognize, and I think that we need to keep the pressure on. We can't let up right now. BLITZER: You know, Wolf, I think the challenge for the president is that the American people aren't there --

BLITZER: Would it be possible, Mr. Speaker -- let me interrupt for a second. Would it be possible, Mr. Speaker, if this diplomatic compromise, if you will, if this diplomatic proposal works, for there not even to be votes in the House or the Senate?

GINGRICH: Well, I'm not sure it's going to work that fast. If it did work that fast, I think the president could ask to withdraw the request for a vote, and I suspect that Speaker Boehner would consider it seriously because at that point, you know, if you win, you're not going to have a bombing campaign; there's nothing to vote on. He doesn't need authorization. It would be a remarkable turn of events.

BLITZER: It certainly would be.

Stephanie, here are the latest poll numbers we have, because it tells something about the president's popularity right now. This is the new CNN/ORC poll approve of how Obama is handling foreign affairs. It's now down to only 40 percent. It was at 44 percent in June, 49 percent back in April, 54 percent last January. It's really been going down. I suspect this whole issue has hurt him. Mpl

CUTTER: Well, I think that any time this country is discussing using military force or the potential of going to war, those numbers are going to go down. This is a very war-weary country after a decade of war and being duped into war in the first place in Iraq.

So I don't think that's surprising. But look, the president's making his case. The president did a round of interviews, including an interview with you, Wolf, and he's speaking to the country tomorrow night. He's making his case about why this is in America's security interests to degrade and deter Assad from using chemical weapons.

GINGRICH: Wolf, this is a good example of where we disagree deeply. I would point out first of all that the duping that Stephanie just referred to was exactly the same intelligence services offering exactly the same guarantees on a worldwide basis. So --

CUTTER: Let's just say we're double checking them now, okay, and we've got it on film. There's no guessing about whether there's weapons of mass destruction.

GINGRICH: The country is very dubious about this. I think something like 85 percent of the country is opposed to taking sides in the Iraq civil war. And the result has been that frankly, the administration has stumbled a lot in trying to have this balancing act of you want to hit him, you don't want to hit him too much, but you want to hit him enough. And if you watch the way they've tried to juggle this, I think they have actually over the last six or seven days weakened their case by the clumsiness with which they have handled it.

CUTTER: Well, that's not what I have been seeing from the White House. That's not what I have been seeing from the president's interviews so far. He's speaking to the country tomorrow night, and there is no better place to speak than from the Oval Office. The president is going to make a forceful case why this is in our security interest.

Look, these are chemical weapons that indiscriminately kill. Killed more than 400 children, basically suffocated them. It's in our security interests because it impacts our troops, our peace and our security. That's why we signed on to the chemical weapons ban in the first place.

GINGRICH: Look, the problem the president has is that 80 percent of the country believes chemical weapons were used. And they have said, they rendered judgment and said yes, these are terrible things, yes, Assad is a terrible guy. I do not want to get into war.

CUTTER: Do you think we should make all of our national security decisions based on the latest poll? Because that's a very dangerous place for this country to be. Milosevic would still be in power. Think of all of the things that we wouldn't have done to protect our national security if we were putting our finger to the wind.

GINGRICH: And maybe -- but as you point out after ten years of fighting --

CUTTER: We are a war-weary country.

GINGRICH: Maybe having some respect for the American people is a useful thing.

CUTTER: Well, I do think that going to Congress is the biggest sign of respect for the American people and having a full debate on this. Speaking to the country, laying out your case, that is respect for the American people. But look, we have to make adjustments of what's best in our national security interests, and the commander-in-chief can make that judgment.

GINGRICH: Look, I used to be a whip in the House.

CUTTER: Yes, I understand that.

GINGRICH: They are behind 6-1 right now. That's a big mountain.

CUTTER: They just got back today. Let's see what happens this week. I'm not disagreeing with you that this is not an uphill climb for the president. But he's making his case, and he's out there doing it. We have to see what happens this week.

BLITZER: We should know in the next few days whether this proposal that Russia has put out there after the secretary of state, John Kerry, floated it, if it's serious or not serious. Stephanie Cutter, Newt Gingrich, guys, thanks very much. They'll have a lot more debating coming up on Syria when CNN's CROSSFIRE debuts at the bottom of the next hour. You'll want to stick around after THE SITUATION ROOM for CROSSFIRE.

Still ahead in our special report, "Crisis In Syria," my one-on-one interview with President Obama here at the White House as he struggles to get Congress and the American people behind a strike against targets in Syria. Plus, lies, manipulation, threats. What expert sees that and more in President Bashar al Assad's interview on American television.


BLITZER: President Obama answering some tough questions about Syria in my one-on-one interview with him here at the White House. You're going to see it in its entirety. That's coming up right at the top of the hour in our special report, "Crisis In Syria."

The Syrian president Bashar al Assad is making his case against the U.S. military strike on his country, and he's making that case directly to the American people. He's speaking out on U.S. television network, but what he's saying -- the question is, is it credible at all.

CNN's Brian Todd is working the story for us. Brian, what's going on?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, John Kerry says flat-out he is without credibility. Analysts say Bashar al Assad appeared nervous in this interview, he came close to outright threats against the U.S., and when pressed about the August 21st chemical attack, he pulled a classic denial.

We have this warning. Some viewers may find some images in this story disturbing.


TODD (voice-over): He was asked what the reality on the ground was that awful day, when U.S. officials say more than 1,400 civilians were gassed to death in a chemical weapons attack. Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, in an interview with CBS's Charlie Rose, said not only did his forces not launch that attack, they weren't anywhere near it.

BASHAR AL-ASSAD, SYRIAN PRESIDENT: In the area where they said the government used chemical weapons, we only had video and we only have pictures and allegations. We were not there.

TODD: An outright denial. What do you make of it?

ANDREW TABLER, AUTHOR, "IN THE LION'S DEN": This is textbook Assad. He'll come out and deny the most egregious incident.

TODD: Analyst Andrew Tabler has met with Bashar al-Assad and worked with Assad's wife. He says Assad is capable of looking you in the eye and outright lying. Tabler says he's also a manipulator, that this remark from Assad was a calculation to touch a sensitive nerve in the U.S.

AL-ASSAD: That reminds me about what Kerry said about the big lie but Colin Powell said in front of the world on satellites (ph) about the WMD in Iran before going to war. When he said this is our evidence, actually, he gave false evidence. In this case, Kerry didn't even present any evidence.

TODD: Kerry rebutted that directly.

JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: We know by tracing it physically where the rockets came from and where they landed, and it is no accident that they all came from regime-controlled territory.

TODD: Assad, who once told CNN he doesn't threaten, now seems to be threatening retaliation for a U.S. strike.

AL-ASSAD: It may take different forms, direct and indirect. Direct when people want to retaliate or governments, indirect when you are going to have instability and the spread of terrorism all over the region that would influence the West directly.

TODD: More than once he talks retaliation.

TABLER: That's right. He's threatening direct response in terms of the Syrian government or its allies in Tehran. And then the indirect threat is the asymmetrical attacks that could happen from the Assad regime's allies. It could be Hezbollah, it could be Iranian-backed groups in Iraq against U.S. assets there.


TODD: That was a gangster-like threat, according to Tabler, responding to that particular comment of Assad's. One U.S. official told me the U.S. is obviously concerned about potential retaliation, that Iran and the militant group Hezbollah, which is allied with Syria, are indeed threats. But this official said, quote, "those groups may assess the damage to the Syrian regime before trying to strike back." Wolf?

BLITZER: Brian Todd with the latest from Bashar al Assad and what he told the United States on this television interview. Thank you.

Coming up at the top of the hour, my full interview with President Obama. You'll see it in its entirety.

Plus, far from the debate playing out here in Washington and around the world are the thousands of lives directly affected by the bloodshed in Syria. Our own Dr. Sanjay Gupta, he reports from a refugee camp right near the Syrian border.


BLITZER: Far from the heated debate over strikes playing out here in Washington and around the world are the people, the people so desperate to flee the bloodshed in Syria. More than two million refugees forced to start fresh in countries that can barely accommodate their own people, and they are stuck there.

Our chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, has a rare look at a refugee camp on the Syrian border.

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we're going to take you inside one of these camps and show you firsthand what is happening here and also encourage people at home not to typecast who these refugees are. Many of them come from decidedly middle class backgrounds in Syria. They had jobs, they had cars, they had a way of life, and suddenly all that's disrupted because of the concerns about violence.

So we'll take you inside, show you the challenges here and also what lies ahead.


GUPTA (voice-over): For Arkan Abdullah (ph), the constant shelling in Homs was becoming too much. But it was after this occurred to her middle son, 4-year-old Yusef (ph), she knew she had to leave.

It was an explosion, she told me, that led to these burns. She packed up her three sons and what little she had, and traveled 12 hours, mostly by foot, to arrive here at this camp. It's one of the largest in Bekaa Valley, along the Syrian-Lebanese border.

The youngest son, Allah, is 8 months old and he's now spent half his life as a refugee. He's severely malnourished, even though he's breastfed.

(On camera): How difficult is it to get food?

(Voice-over): It is tough to breast feed, she tells me, when the mom herself hasn't had enough to eat.

Today they get drastically needed medical attention and vaccines for malaria and polio, thanks to UNICEF. But make no mistake, Lebanon is buckling under the weight of the refugees, who arrive here every 15 seconds.

In this country of over four million, the United Nations say there are some 720,000 registered refugees. But doctors here believe the number to be more than twice that.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's very, very a lot, very lot.

GUPTA: More than one out of every four people in Lebanon is a refugee, he tells me. And it is the people living in these surrounding communities that are now sending a message to the refugees in these valley camps. This will never be your home. This can never be your home.

The children's smiles belie a particularly awful way of life. Their story is one of fleeing the violence of their home country and then not being wanted in their adopted one. After two years, there are no fixed water facilities or system of sanitation. Instead, just a steady stream of sewage snaking its way through this 5,000-person camp.

They have lost everything. Their material possessions, their dignity, their permanence.

To simply live like this, aid groups say refugees at this camp are required to pay $100 U.S. dollars a month to the town's sheriff. And the only way to make it work is to send these young kids into the fields to work for just $2 a day. It is heart-wrenching.

Within these camps, there is the constant friction between two groups -- those who support the Syrian regime and those who hate it. But they do share something in common, they all want to go home.

Arkan and her three sons, they can't wait to leave.


GUPTA: Wolf, they want to leave because the situation is just not tenable for Lebanon as a country, the numbers explain that. And for the people themselves, $100 a month to live on these small plots of land like this is just not something that they can sustain.

Now I'll tell you, as far as the concerns about strikes, nobody here knows what's going to happen, obviously, but the numbers, because of those concerns, are likely to increase here, not decrease. At least in the short term.

Wolf, back to you.

BLITZER: Thank you very much, Dr. Sanjay Gupta on the Syrian border with that heartbreaking report.

Coming up, my interview with President Obama here at the White House. We go one-on-one, that's right at the top of the hour.

Our SITUATION ROOM special report "Crisis in Syria" will continue.

Up next, though, Dennis Rodman playing a bit of defense after a controversial trip to North Korea, and an even more controversial remark about President Obama.


BLITZER: Just a few minutes away from my one-on-one interview here at the White House with President Obama. You will see it in its entirety. That's coming up right at the top of the hour. Stand by for that.

First, though, some insight into another despotic regime we've been covering for a long time. We're looking into the controversial remarks by a controversial figure. The former NBA star Dennis Rodman speaking out about his most recent visit to North Korea, his friendship with the new leader there, Kim Jong-Un, and a shocking, truly shocking comment about the president of the United States.

Our own Jason Carroll pressed Rodman on it. Jason is joining us now live.

What did he have to say, Jason?

JASON CARROLL, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, Rodman had used a derogatory word in terms of how he referred to President Obama, and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, but he also had a glowing review for the North Korean leader, a man whose regime is known for running labor camps and developing nuclear weapons.


CARROLL (voice-over): Former NBA star Dennis Rodman on the defense about his second and most recent trip to North Korea, and the man he calls a friend, Kim Jong-Un.

DENNIS RODMAN, FORMER BASKETBALL PLAYER: He has to do his job, but he's a very good guy.

CARROLL: Rodman described the reclusive leader as a man who wants to change. During his five-day trip, he says he was allowed to hold the leader's baby daughter, who Rodman says is named Ju-Ae.

RODMAN: For him to open his heart and his mind to give him his daughter for the first time in history, I hold his kid.

CARROLL: And then there's Rodman's uncensored thoughts about President Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton caught on tape shortly after Rodman returned from Pyongyang. Listen to what he said when questioned if he was able to secure the release of imprisoned American Kenneth Bae.

RODMAN: Ask Obama about that.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: They want you were going to talk about that.

RODMAN: Ask Hillary Clinton. Ask those -- ask those (EXPLETIVE DELETED) about it.

CARROLL (on camera): When you were overseas, you referred to the president and the former secretary of state using a derogatory term, which was caught on tape. Do you stand by what you said about the president and the former secretary of state Clinton?

CARROLL: Absolutely. I would say that's very easy, I would say it direct. I swear -- Obama, what are you afraid of? Come talk to me. Obama, I don't hate your guts. Hillary, I love you, Bill Clinton, I love you.

CARROLL: Earlier in the conference you referred to the dictator as a very good guy and the man who has to do his job. But how do you reconcile with the fact that this is a man who's responsible for oppressing millions of his people?

RODMAN: The one thing about this, and I'll say this to him, I say, your grandfather and your father did some bad things, I said, but you are trying to change something.

CARROLL (voice-over): As for basketball diplomacy, Rodman says he inked a deal with the North Korean dictator to train their basketball players for the Olympics, also saying Kim will allow a game between U.S. and North Korean players to take place on January 8th and 10th of next year. But his efforts at diplomacy not convincing to some experts in the region.

ABRAHAM COOPER, NORTH KOREA FREEDOM COALITION: Rodman's behavior now on both of these trips are just absolutely outrageous. It just aids and abets one of the most dangerous regimes in real time.


CARROLL: Well, when asked more about trying to secure Bae's release, Rodman says he's not going there to rescue somebody. He simply said he's going there to open doors. His next trip, Wolf, is scheduled for this December -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Jason, thank you.