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Syria Accepts Chemical Weapons Plan; Obama Takes Message to Capitol Hill; Obama Works to Convince Congress; McCain Skeptical But Willing to Try Russian Plan in Syria; Obama Addresses Russian Plan

Aired September 10, 2013 - 12:00   ET


SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome. You're watching AROUND THE WORLD. I'm Suzanne Malveaux.

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

President Obama heading to Capitol Hill this hour to make a personal push for lawmakers to authorize those military strikes in Syria.

MALVEAUX: The president's rare visit to Congress now comes amid a stunning turn in what appeared to be a run-up to the war. Well, just within the last few hours, Syria accepted Russia's plan for Bashar al- Assad, the regime, to place its chemical weapons under international control.

HOLMES: That's according to Syrian state television. What does it all mean, though? It's a concession that now puts the White House on something of a dual track. The president's national security team back on Capitol Hill today making their case for air strikes in the strongest possible terms, even if it ends up being as a backup. Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Joint Chief's chairman, General Martin Dempsey, all testifying before the House Armed Services Committee.

MALVEAUX: So Kerry makes it clear the administration is willing to listen to the Russian proposal but will not fall for any kind of stalling tactics from the Russians or the Syrians. Here's what he had said.


JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: Assad's chief benefactor, the Russians, have responded by saying that they would come up with a proposal to do exactly that. And we have made it clear to them, I have in several conversations with Foreign Minister Lavrov, that this cannot be a process of delay, this cannot be a process of avoidance. It has to be real, it has to be measurable, tangible and it is exceedingly difficult, I want everybody here to know, to fulfill those conditions. But we're waiting for that proposal. But we're not waiting for long.


MALVEAUX: We don't know how long that is, but the proposal for Syria to hand over the chemical stockpiles, it is an idea that is at least gaining momentum. We've got China, Iran say that they will actually support the Russian plan.

HOLMES: Yes, the big question is, is it doable? There is a war going on. We're going to take you around the world looking at all of the angles in the crisis as only CNN can. Phil Black live from Moscow. Nick Paton Walsh is at the United Nations.

Phil, to you first.

You know, the Russians had the idea. They sort of jumped on what Secretary Kerry said. Then the Syrians said, OK, we'll play. But how do you do it? How are the Russians going to move forward now?

PHIL BLACK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's very much the challenge now, Michael, turning this idea into a reality. The Russians say they're working on it, along with the Syrians. They are coming up with what they say will be a viable, credible plan for making this happen. And, they say, they'll be ready to present that to the world in the near future. But they're not giving a specific time frame, they are not giving specific details.

The challenge is considerable, as Secretary Kerry was saying there. They have to come up with an international framework that is acceptable to everyone -- the goals, the punishment, potentially, as well. A key issue there is, will any resolution that goes before the Security Council be binding and enforceable potentially with military action? Will it be a Chapter 7 resolution? The Russian context there is that Russia doesn't like those and has stood in the way of them throughout the military crisis.

The other goal, of course, which you've alluded to there, or the challenge I should say, is really how to make this happen, how to identify, secure, potentially destroy the top secret weapon system within the context of this ongoing war -- civil war, which is still very much tearing apart the country.

MALVEAUX: So, Nick, let's bring you in here because that's a very good point here, the Security Council, how do they get everybody on board here? You've got the five members who actually are able to veto. Russia says that they'll accept no language that has any kind of punishment for Syria. And that would not actually jive with what France is proposing. Is there any kind of language or resolution on the table now that you see all, at least the five permanent members, would agree to?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's, of course, what's happening behind closed doors here at the U.N. A U.N. diplomat explaining that the French are very much involved in one-on-one meetings with key U.N. Security Council members to try and get some sort of text together which everybody can accept.

Well, there's a huge amount of daylight between what the French want, which includes a condemnation of the regime for doing this, along also with a suggestion that the perpetrators should be put on trial in the international criminal court. So a lot of amount of daylight between the two.

And we have just heard from the AFP news agency that the French foreign minister believes that the Russians are opposed, at this stage, to a binding resolution that would encapsulate all the things they've currently proposed. They've put an awful lot in there and many, I think, are wondering if any of that really will be acceptable to the Russians.

So are we now looking at this resolution falling on its feet? Unlikely, because so many sides suggested perhaps that there needs to be some international control mechanism for Syria's chemical weapons. I think perhaps we're looking into negotiation now for the hours and perhaps days ahead to maybe water down the intensity of the initial French proposed text, take out some of those things which were going to, of course, cause the Russians problems. But there's still the big issue here, what happens if this mechanism doesn't go the way that the French would like to see? Will there be, quote, serious consequences for the Syrian regime?

MALVEAUX: All right, thank you, Phil Black in Moscow, Nick Paton Walsh live from the United Nations. Still a lot of discussing to do. And they're not close. These sides are not close. They're very powerful.

HOLMES: It is very -- very hard to see the Russians and the Chinese on board with a resolution that would make President Obama and the British and the French happy. It really is.

All right. Let's go back to Washington, actually, right now. There is much going on there. It was just less than an hour ago we heard from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.

MALVEAUX: So he actually says he is optimistic, but he's also realistic about this. About a possible diplomatic solution to the Syrian crisis. Here's how he explained it.


CHUCK HAGEL, DEFENSE SECRETARY: All of us are hopeful that this option might be a real solution to this crisis, yet we must be very clear- eyed and ensure it is not a stalling tactic by Syria and its Russian patriots. And for this diplomatic option to have a chance at succeeding, the threat of a U.S. military action, the credible, real threat of U.S. military action must continue as we are talking today and will continue to talk and discuss throughout the week.


MALVEAUX: Want to bring in our Dana Bash in Washington.

And, Dana, you know, it seems like a lot of lawmakers, they don't want this military strike at all. They're trying to come up with something, something, whether it's an amendment or an alternative resolution, a bipartisan one to avoid a military strike. Explain for us, what's on the table now?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, what's going on right now is everything is kind of in suspended animation. Nobody knows what is going on and they're waiting to see what happens at the U.N.

But in the meantime, there is some discussion behind the scenes, bipartisan group of senators, working, including John McCain, by the way, and Chuck Schumer, so veteran senators on both sides of the aisle, working on an alternative that takes into account what is going on with this potential diplomatic breakthrough, potential breakthrough with Russia and what this would do would say that the U.N. would have to pass a resolution saying Assad did use these chemical weapons and, of course, say that he's going to have to give them over to the international community.

But, meanwhile, as that is going on, there are -- the tempers are really flaring on Capitol Hill, particularly over the fact that these votes have been delayed on the authorization. And there was one moment that just happened a short while ago in the House hearing where a Republican member, who was against this, said, let's face it, these votes were delayed because the votes weren't there. Listen to what the secretary of state said in response.


JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: Look, do you want to play politics here or do you want to get a policy in place? The policy that could be put in place is to try to get this particular option of getting control of chemical weapons in place. And if you want to undermine that, then play the politics? If you want it to work --

REP. JEFF MILLER (R), FLORIDA: OK. How about this, Mr. Secretary.

KERRY: Then I'm asking you -

MILLER: Explain to me, Mr. Secretary, reclaiming my time, sir.

KERRY: To be serious about how we got here.

MILLER: Mr. Chairman, would you please ask the witnesses to limit their answers to the questions that are asked.

Mr. Secretary, would you please explain what an incredibly small strike is?

KERRY: It's not Iraq. It's not Iran. It's not a year's war. What I was doing was trying to point out to people that we are engaged in a strike which we have again and again - and if you want to take my comments in their entirety, I have said this will be meaningful, it will be serious. The Assad regime will feel it because it will degrade their military capacity. But compared to Iraq, Kosovo, Libya, it's small. It is not any of those things. That doesn't mean that it would be anything less than what I've suggested previously and the military has suggested, that Assad will know. We don't do pinpricks. The president has said that and we've said that. We will degrade and I believe we will deter, but it is not Iraq, Afghanistan. And compared to them, it is small.


BASH: And that is the kind of questioning that you're hearing across the party lines, Suzanne and Michael, from members of Congress. They say that they want to hear that from the president tonight. And I should say that the president is on his way to the Capitol to meet with first Senate Democrats and then Senate Republicans to have a discussion about this, to talk about what he plans to discuss tonight.

But even as he's doing this, you're seeing senator after senator, Republican and Democrat, even the man who took the seat of John Kerry in the United States Senate saying that they are against military action. So that is the backdrop through which the president is going to speak tonight.

MALVEAUX: All right. Thanks, Dana, appreciates it.

The Syria story so complex. Things changing hourly. So we wanted to get a sense of what do people think? Do they have a good handle on what's actually going on? Well, our new CNN/ORC poll asks people how they understand President Obama's policy on Syria. Nineteen percent say completely, 53 percent say somewhat, 15 percent say not much and 13 percent say they don't get it at all.

HOLMES: Goodness me.

President Obama, of course, going all out to explain his position to the American people, as we have seen. And, of course, making that nationwide address tonight that Dana was pointing to. But lawmakers saying, no, generally speaking, to a possible military strike in Syria if the diplomatic efforts don't work.

MALVEAUX: So in the House, the number planning to vote no has now jumped to 166. In the Senate, the tally is up to 29 no votes.

And my guest, one of those lawmakers who has a lot of concerns about a possible military strike inside of Syria, Senator Bernie Sanders. He is an independent from Vermont, caucuses with the Democrats.

Senator, good to see you here. We know that you are in a hurry, that you're on your way to meet with the president in about 15 minutes or so with other members of the Senate Democratic Caucus. What do you want to hear from the president right now in terms of, can he make the case, the dual case, one track being military strike, the other being diplomatic action?

SEN. BERNARD SANDERS (I), VERMONT: Well, what I want to hear from the president is that he recognizes that the overwhelming majority of the American people do not want to get sucked into a war in Syria. They were misled about Iraq. They were misled about Afghanistan. And I think the response that you're seeing, and I've got to tell you, in Vermont, 95 percent of the e-mails and calls we're getting are against the war and I think you're seeing similar numbers around the country.

And what really this tells me is the American people are saying, you know what, Mr. President, the middle class is collapsing. Our kids can't find jobs. Why don't we, as a government, start paying attention to the enormous needs we have in America? I hope the president recognizes that and now seizes the opportunity that Russia and France have offered us to get these terrible chemical weapons out of Syria without the United States getting unilaterally involved in this bloody and complicated war.

MALVEAUX: And, senator, so I'm assuming you would support the breakthrough plan with the U.N. for Syria to turn over its chemical weapons to an international body. In a practical sense here, how does that get accomplished? How does that get done when you've got a civil war taking place inside that country? Do you think this is a realistic plan, a realistic alternative?

SANDERS: Look, nothing is easy, especially as you've indicated in a horrendous civil war. But you know what, United States' involvement in a bloody war in Syria is not easy, as well. So I hope and what excites me very much is now we have finally Russia playing a constructive role, China getting involved, France playing a good role, the United Nations playing a good role. If, and I understand this is more difficult than it looks, but if in fact we can get these chemical weapons under international supervision without the United States getting involved in that war, I think that will be a great thing not only for our country, but for people throughout the world.

MALVEAUX: Senator, would you support the amendment to the resolution that is now being floated by a group of your colleagues, a bipartisan group of your colleagues, saying, look, we will go ahead and work with the U.N., work with Russia, work with China to make sure that those stockpile of weapons can be seized, can be controlled, and at the same time, possibly if that's not going to work, go ahead with a military strike?

SANDERS: Well, I think what we're seeing now in a bipartisan way is a constructive effort. I don't think there is a final resolution yet that I can comment on because it hasn't been written. But let me repeat, I am very, very, very concerned of what happens if this country gets involved in Syria's civil war.

MALVEAUX: All right. Thank you, Senator Bernie Sanders. Please, let us know how your meeting goes with the president. We'll hear back from you and get a sense of what he told you afterwards. Thank you so much, senator. Appreciate your time.

And you can watch President Obama's address to the nation tonight, 9:00 Eastern, right here on CNN. Our special primetime coverage starts at 7:00.

HOLMES: And still to come here on AROUND THE WORLD, even some lawmakers who backed the president on a possible strike against Syria, they want to know a lot more about what he has in mind. More detail.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: There's a degree of incoherence which is incomprehensible to me when the secretary of state says that a strike would be unbelievably small, then many of us who support it say, what does that mean? What could that possibly mean? (END VIDEO CLIP)


HOLMES: Welcome back, everyone.

Senator John McCain, a staunch supporter of the Syrian rebels, wants a stronger attack than the president is proposing in order to give the rebels, if you like, a leg up in the fight to oust President Bashar al-Assad.

Now, earlier, I spoke with the senator and asked him about this Russian proposal to have Syria turn over its chemical weapons in order to avert a military strike, whether it's for real, even doable, or whether it's a game of bluff-calling and stalling.


MCCAIN: I'm very, very skeptical, but I think that the option has to be explored.

And I think we can find out the validity of it almost immediately because then Bashar Assad, who by the way has never admitted that he has chemical weapons, would agree to immediate dispatch of international monitors to these chemical weapon sites so that they can be secured and not used again against the Syrian people while we work out the provisions and modalities and all that for the disposal of these chemical weapons.

So we can find out very quickly. So I'm very skeptical, but to ignore this possibility I think would be obviously a serious mistake, as well.

HOLMES: I suppose, though, the reality is that when it comes to logistics, there's a war on.

How would you even go about getting these weapons together under any sort of supervision, internationally, and do anything about them anyway while the fighting continues?

MCCAIN: I think it's very difficult, but we know where these sites are. I think that the Free Syrian Army would respect these areas if the international monitors were there and these chemical stocks, chemical weapons stocks, were placed under their control.

Is it difficult? Yes. Is it worth exploring? Yes. Am I very skeptical? Yes, and I still believe that we need to have assistance of the Free Syrian Army to change the momentum for a negotiated departure of Bashar Assad.

HOLMES: It certainly seems that, congressionally speaking, there was a lot of opposition, or certainly indecision, when it came to having a vote on military action by the United States.

Where does that vote stand now? What is the mood of kong conditioning res when it comes to authorizing any military strike and should the threat of that the strike still be hanging over Bashar al-Assad?

MCCAIN: Well, I think the threat of it still must be hanging over, although there's a degree of incoherence which is incomprehensible to me when the secretary of state says that a strike would be "unbelievably small," then many of us who support it say, what does that mean? What could that possibly mean? Does that mean that we're not going to harm anybody?

So there is a degree of incoherence in the message here that I don't -- that from my town hall meetings, people in my state do not understand. They do not understand the threat of this becoming, as it is, a regional conflict, the million children who have become refugee, the 100,000 people who have been massacred that -- and the need for a negotiated departure for Bashar Assad.

But -- so there's got to be a honed message and I hope the president gives it tonight, but right now, this option will have to also be modified to some degree in our resolution that we are working on before the Senate to take in consideration the possibility of this negotiations on chemical weapons stocks, and that means guidelines, reporting procedures, et cetera, that would have to be adhered to.


HOLMES: And Senator McCain says he does hope that President Obama will clearly explain the national interest of the U.S. when it comes to Syria in his address tonight.


MALVEAUX: And coming up, you're going to hear from the president himself, President Obama, talked to our Wolf Blitzer after word of that Russian proposal on Syria came out.

Here's how he said it.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It's possible that we can get a break-through, but it's going to have to be followed up on, and we don't want just a stalling or delaying tactic.


MALVEAUX: President Obama is counting down the hours until his Syria speech tonight. He is also trying to persuade members of Congress, of course, to back his plan.

HOLMES: Yeah, indeed. Just a few minutes from now, the president is going to meet with the Senate Democratic caucus and then next hour he'll meet with the Senate Republican conference.

MALVEAUX: President Obama is going all out to explain his position. Of course, making his nationwide address tonight, but he also spoke to our own Wolf Blitzer last night about exactly what he wants the Syrian regime to do. HOLMES: Yeah, and also whether he thinks the Assad regime poses a real direct military threat to the U.S.

Have a listen.


OBAMA: We've been very clear about what we expect, and that is, do not use chemical weapons, control the chemical weapons.

And, now, because we've seen Assad's willingness to use chemical weapons, we're going to have to go further and give the international community assurances that they will not be used potentially by getting them out of there, at minimum, making sure that international control over those chemical weapons takes place.

That can be accomplished and it does not solve the broader political situation. I would say to Mr. Assad, we need a political settlement so that you're not slaughtering your own people, and by the way, encouraging some elements of the opposition to engage in some terrible behavior, as well.

You know, what I'm thinking about is right now though, how do we make sure that we can verify that we do not have chemical weapons that can be used not only inside of Syria but potentially could drift outside of Syria.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR, "THE SITUATION ROOM": He said in an interview with Charlie Rose that, if you, the United States, attack, launch military strikes, he said he will respond anything -- he said expect anything, not only from him but from his allies.

That sounds like a threat to the United States.

OBAMA: Yeah. Mr. Assad doesn't have a lot of capability. He has capability relative to children. He has capability relative to an opposition that is still getting itself organized and are not professional, trained fighters.

He doesn't have a credible means to threaten the United States. His allies, Iran and Hezbollah, could potentially engage in asymmetrical strikes against us, but frankly, the kind of threats that they could pose against us are typical of the kinds of threats that we're dealing with around the world and that I've spoken of recently, which is embassies that are being threatened, you know, U.S. personnel in the region.

Those are threats that we deal with on an ongoing basis. They are always of concern. Obviously, we saw the situation in Yemen just a few weeks ago where we wanted to respond by getting some of our folks out of there.

But the notion that Mr. Assad could significantly threaten the United States is just not the case.

(END VIDEO CLIP) HOLMES: Coming up on AROUND THE WORLD, the people have spoken.

MALVEAUX: And be Syria not on the top of the list of the most important issues facing Americans.

Plus, how they view the president, up next.