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Countries Support the Russia Plan for Syrian Chemical Weapons; Obama Addresses Surprise Developments in Syria; Polls Still Run Against U.S. Military Involvement; Kerry Testifies in House; Russia Has History of Last-Minute Intervention in Middle East; What Isn't the Government Sharing about Syria; France and Britain to Work with U.S. on Diplomatic Plan

Aired September 10, 2013 - 11:00   ET


ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, CNN HOST: Hello, everyone, I'm Ashleigh Banfield. And it is Tuesday, September 10th -- and a busy day.

We're going to start with breaking news: Syria accepting the Russians' plan to turn over its chemical weapons to international control. This is absolutely a dramatic turn of events causing President Obama to put a bit of a pause in the bid to attack Syria for launching an alleged chemical attack on civilians last month.

Russia's proposal came yesterday, as Mr. Obama was preparing to make his case for a military strike against Syria to the American people. In a prime time address tonight, he's planning to continue that effort. It starts at 9:00 Eastern and CNN is going to bring it to you live.

But right now, we've got a list of the countries that have come out in support of the Russian plan, Syria, Iran, China, France and Britain.

France is digging deeper into the plan, in fact, today, taking its own proposal on Syria to the United Nations Security Council.

Its key points condemn the chemical weapons attack last month which killed United States says 1,400 civilians including approximately 400 children; require Syria to identify its weapons of mass destruction and put them under international control; deploy international inspectors on the ground in Syria, and a warning to Syria of unspecified and severe consequences in the Assad regime violates any part of this agreement.

Now, President Obama has addressed these surprise developments in an interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer. Wolf started by asking if the Russian plan could actually avert a United States attack on Syria.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It's possible if it's real. You know, I think it's certainly a positive development when the Russians and the Syrians both make gestures towards dealing with these chemical weapons.

This is what we've been asking for, not just over the last week or the last month, but for the last couple of years because these chemical weapons pose a significant threat to all nations, and to the United States in particular.

That's why, 98 percent of humanity has said we don't use these. That protects our troops, and it protects children like the ones that we saw in those videos inside of Syria.

So it is a potentially positive development. I have to say that it's unlikely that we would have arrived at that point where there are even public statements like that without a credible military threat to deal with the chemical weapons used inside of Syria, but we're going to run this to ground.

John Kerry and the international team will engage with the Russians and the international community to see can we arrive at something that is enforceable and serious.

One reason this may have a chance of success is that even Syria's allies like Iran detest chemical weapons. Iran, unfortunately, was the target of chemical weapons at the hands of Saddam Hussein at the end of the Iraq war.

It doesn't solve the underlying problems of civil war in Syria, but it does solve the problem I'm trying to focus on right now is which making sure you don't have 400 children gassed by the these chemical weapons.


BANFIELD: Again, Wolf Blitzer joins me from Washington, D.C.

So the president, sounding very confident, in fact, conducting a lot of interviews to get has his message out to the American people, but it doesn't seem the American people, A, are listening, or, B, seem to be very interested in what he had to say.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR, "THE SITUATION ROOM": Certainly if you look at all the polls, including our polls, it shows that the overwhelming majority of the American public, as you accurately point out, they don't want the United States to get involved in another war in Syria along the lines, let's say, of Iraq or Afghanistan.

We've got some poll numbers I'm going to show our viewers. For example, take a look at this. Is the president a strong and decisive leader? The country evenly divided right now, 50 percent saying yes. 49 percent saying no. But that's down from earlier polls when we've asked similar questions.

Here's another poll. Let's put it up on the screen right now. Does the United States have the ability to act as world policemen? A third, 31 percent, say yes, but 68 percent, an overwhelming majority, say no.

Now I must say, Ashleigh, all of these polls have been done before the dramatic developments over the past 24 hours when, all of a sudden, John Kerry raises this idea of putting some controls on Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles. The Russians then make it a formal proposal. The Syrians now accept it and, as you point out, China and France and all sorts of other countries accept it.

When I interviewed the president yesterday, he said he was open to it. He'll take a hard look at it, potentially could be a breakthrough. He used that word, but he wants to test it.

So, look, all those polls were done before the past 24 hours which showed that there might be some sort of diplomatic solution short of U.S. military power.

BANFIELD: All right, Wolf, thank you for that.

And I also want to remind our viewers of the special coverage that's coming later on of the president's address to the nation. It begins at 7:00 Eastern with "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT," "AC360" at 8:00, and Wolf Blitzer's special coverage begins, once again, at 9:00 p.m.

Thank you, Wolf. Do appreciate that.

And, also, be sure to watch Wolf. He's going to come back onto the air at 1:00 Eastern, in fact, every afternoon now at 1:00 Eastern, then again at 5:00 Eastern for "THE SITUATION ROOM."

The secretary of state, John Kerry, is testifying before the House armed services committee.

In fact, he's doing that right now, he, along with the secretary of defense, Chuck Hagel, and the chairman of the joint chiefs, talking about the need for military action against Syria, all of this despite what's been going on in the last 24 hours, the Russian overture.

A short time ago, Secretary Kerry said that any plan to have the international community take charge of chemical weapons cannot turn into a waiting game, and he talked about the stakes for the United States.


JOHN KERRY, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: The instant reaction of a lot of Americans anywhere in our country is, whoa, we don't want to go to war again. We don't want to go to Iraq. We don't want to go to Afghanistan. We've seen how those turned out.

I get it, and I'll speak to that in a minute, but I want to make it clear at the outset, as each of us at this table want to make it clear, that what Assad has done directly affects America's security -- America's security.

We have a huge national interest in containing all weapons of mass destruction, and the use of gas is a weapon of mass destruction.

Allowing those weapons to be used with impunity would be an enormous chink in our armor that we have built up over years against proliferation. Think about it. Our own troops benefit from that prohibition against chemical weapons.


BANFIELD: And as the secretary continues to make his case, the president continues to make his case as well.

Of course, the international case is being made as well.

And it seems the developments are fast and furious. It is not the first time the Russians, on the eve of a potential attack, have come into the forefront with an idea.

For some answers as to how it went before, I want to turn to CNN's chief international correspondent and host of "AMANPOUR," Christiane Amanpour, thank you so much for taking the time.

You've been a busy lady. I saw you last night until late and early this morning.


BANFIELD: It is a big story, and it's an important one.

And also with us, I know you'll be happy to hear, this is the former chief weapons inspector, David Kay, who also not only knows a lot about this issue, but has been in all of these regions at all of the critical times.

David, I want to begin with you and that is because, in 1991 and in 2003, the Russians came forward in almost the same manner. It's a bit apples and oranges, but there are similarities between the overtures.

Can you can explain what happened and how it all went down?

DAVID KAY, FORMER U.N. CHIEF WEAPONS INSPECTOR: Well, it was literally in the last 48 hours both before the 1991 invasion of the start of the Gulf War or 2003 before the start of second Gulf War.

The Russians came forward with very similar proposals that would avoid a conflict. It was clearer then, much clearer, I must say, that it was essentially trying to put a stick in the spoke of the wheels.

Secretary Baker had a very pithy of it in 1991, and Colin Powell rejected it in 2003. They're not exact analogs, but it's not unexpected behavior, and it is what a large number of U.S. policymakers initially reacted with real skepticism as to what the intention was.

BANFIELD: So, Christiane, do you get a sense that the skepticism that those overtures were met with back then is anything akin to what we're seeing now?

Nobody has said that we're going to be Pollyanna about this? AMANPOUR: Right. And I'd love to get David Kay's perspective on this, actually, because, look, what's clearly happened is that finally the world is on board with a plan, and that is a plan to get Syria to hand over its chemical weapons.

The question is really, how can that happen? It's a war. Do you not have to send a mini little army in to actually control those chemical weapons sites to make sure you know where they are, to make sure they're under international supervision? The hows of it are very, very difficult to see.

We know that something has to be done to demonstrate good faith very, very soon. The Syrians and Russians and the international community need to be able to do something on the ground very, very soon.

I'm fascinated to know whether David Kay believes that this is a good development, and whether it will make a material difference to the use of these thing, and whether it might even be a precedent-setting maneuver if, in fact, it succeeds and these weapons are, to all intents and purposes, disabled and put under somebody's control other than Assad.

BANFIELD: David Kay, that's exactly the point that I was making.

Is this apples and oranges? Are we at a different juncture this time around? Is there a different -- I mean, it was Hafez Assad back then, but this is his son. And they're not a whole lot different when you see what they've done to their people.

KAY: That's right. I'm not -- certainly not Pollyannaish about the Assad regime and the family crime network that they created.

But, look, this is something that's got to be tested. Christiane is absolutely right. It's going to be an extraordinarily difficult procedure.

The first thing is you've got to have the Security Council draw up a resolution authorizing it. That, in of itself, I think the French are taking the right steps. It not only speaks to the rights of putting inspectors, but what rights those inspectors have with regard to free movement, security, material they bring with them.

You also have to have an identification of where the weapons are. Now this is something that both the Russians, the U.S. intelligence community, but most importantly, the Syrians have got to be called to come forward very quickly with a list of that.

And at the end, what makes this so difficult is you're inserting inspectors in an ongoing civil war. You know, inspectors are not very good about telling who is shooting at them. All they know is someone's shooting at them and they'd like to get out of the way.

You're going to have to have some form of physical security as the inspectors carry this out.

And then over the long run and, really, technically, the most difficult situation is going to be if you ever get to the destruction of these chemical weapons.

I was involved as we discussed the negotiation of that with regard to the Iraqi chemical weapons, and let me tell you; it's very tough to do.

BANFIELD: Well, I mean, yeah, notwithstanding the grave level of danger for anybody who is set upon to actually carry out the logistics of this, whether they be weapons inspectors or those who are tasked with destroying these weapons. There's the big question of 100 percent capitulation as well.

As we move on in the program, we're actually going to tackle those topics. And, David Kay, I ask you to stay on with us, if you could, please, because there is that logistics issue, and it's a very big one.

Christiane Amanpour, I think you have a very long day. Thank you for being here with us. I appreciate it.

AMANPOUR: Thank you.

BANFIELD: And David Kay's going to stay on, as I mentioned.

There's also some brand-new evidence that the Syrian government knew full-well about the chemical attack well before it happened. We're going to show you that evidence, actual evidence, right after this quick break.

Stay with us.


BANFIELD: President Obama says he intends to make sure that Russia following through with its proposal to help rid Syria of those deadly chemical weapons. Here's what he had to say about it last night in an interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We have not seen these kinds of gestures up until now, and in part, the fact that the U.S. administration and I have said we are serious about this, I think has prompted some interest in conversations. And these are conversations that I've had directly with Mr. Putin.

When I was at the G-20, we had some time to discuss this, and I believe that Mr. Putin does not see the use of chemical weapons as a good thing inside of Syria or anyplace else. And so it's possible that we can get a breakthrough, but it's going to have to be followed up on, and we don't want just a stalling or delaying tactic to put off the pressure that we have on their right now.


BANFIELD: U.S. intelligence agencies are convinced that the Syrian regime was behind the poison gas attacks of August 21st, but the huge question everyone is asking, how can you be so sure? Well, they're citing some pretty serious hard evidence. Several pieces in fact. Three days before the attack, Syrian forces were observed preparing chemical munitions. Syrian troops were then warned to have gas masks ready. Once the rockets were in the air, their trajectories were tracked. That means the United States knows exactly where they were launched from. And immediately after the attack, a senior Syrian official was heard expressing fear that the United Nations inspectors would be coming and looking for the evidence.

Yes, it's very telling, it's also circumstantial which can be very tough as well. Let's bring in chief CNN national security correspondent Jim Sciutto. Jim, as you've been reporting on this, this evidence is remarkable. And there is even more that the administration is not sharing with Americans, number, what is it? And Number two, why aren't they sharing?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's the difference between what's classified and what's not classified. This has been the subject matter in these classified briefings you've been hearing about on the Hill where members of Congress are able to see additional information that members of the public are not.

That said, as you ran through that, the evidence that the administration has released is already a pretty convincing case that the regime ordered the attacks. Is it a smoking gun that Assad himself ordered the attacks? Not yet. It may not exist. Maybe he was smart enough not to leave a paper trail, or it was regime commanders who made a decision in the field. But I do think we've moved on from this to some degree because now you have this Russian deal which the administration will stay is a tacit admission by both Syria and Russia that, one, Syria has chemical weapons, that two, Russia doesn't trust Syria with those chemical weapons. But also, it takes away this idea that Russia had been putting out there that it might have been the opposition who used them. Who really knows? Because if Syria is agreeing to possibly give them up and Russia is agreeing to supervise this, Russia is taking away that charge that it could have been someone else aside from the Assad regime.

BANFIELD: Jim, quickly if they've got satellites of rockets they're not sharing with us, and if they've got transcripts of actual chief -- high-level Syrian authorities making these orders. It just seems to me I'm not in the spy apparatus business, but it seems to me it might not be compromising. David Kay has said it's not necessarily always compromising to release that to the public to help make the case. Why wouldn't they?

SCUITTO: Well, I hear you. I spent some time in government, and I know that their knee jerk reaction, the default setting is to classify everything, right? There's a natural prejudgment we've got to be careful about this, we've got to be careful about that. I agree with you. In this case, when you have lingering doubts, when you see the public polls if there was a time where you can take a risk with some of this information, now would be the time.

BANFIELD: Now would be the time. I hear you. Well, it's not too late. It's only Tuesday. Chief national correspondent Jim Sciutto, excellent work and great material that you've been able to unearth for us. Thank you.

So is this President Assad's last chance? Is this a way out for a lot of these parties? Can this plan save the United States from attacking Syria, save the world from a disaster? Up next, we're going to dig into those very questions. Stay with us.


BANFIELD: I mentioned at the top of this program that developments are fast and furious, and I deliver because this morning, the White House is saying that the president has had conversations separately with the president of France, Francois Hollande and the prime minister of the UK, David Cameron, apparently all agreeing to work closely together in consultation with China and Russia, to explore this viability of the Russian overture to actually broker a deal where Syria actually turns over its entire, 100 percent, of its chemical weapons stockpile for control elsewhere, and destruction.

Not only that, the efforts are to begin today at the United Nations and apparently this is going to include a discussion on elements of a potential U.N. Security Council resolution. So, full steam ahead it looks like. And, of course, now that Syria said it accepts this plan, the Russian plan, what comes next? This actually could be a possible way out of the crisis, or not. Let not jump to conclusions yet. But Wolf Blitzer did put this question to the president in pretty blunt terms.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Is this Bashar al Assad's last chance?

OBAMA: Well, I think it is important for Assad to understand that, you know, the chemical weapons ban which has been in place is one that the entire civilized world just about respects and observes. It's something that protects our troops. Even when we're in the toughest war theaters from being threatened by these chemical weapons. It's something that protects women and children and civilians because these weapons, by definition, are indiscriminate. They just don't target somebody in uniform.

And, you know, I suspect that some of Assad's allies recognize the mistake he made in using these weapons, and it may be that he is under pressure from them as well. Again, this doesn't solve the underlying terrible conflict inside of Syria. But if we can accomplish this limited goal, without taking military action, that would be my preference. On the other hand, if we don't maintain and move forward with a credible threat of military pressure, I do not think we will actually get the kind of agreement I'd like to see.


BANFIELD: Ahh, and therein lie the key. Does all of this still mean that the Pentagon is full steam ahead with plans for an assault, or is this really Assad's last chance? I want to break this down with CNN's military analyst Lieutenant Colonel Rick Francona who was himself was in Syria for three years as a U.S. military attache. So, Ronald Reagan used to use that phrase, it's become quite famous, "trust but verify." My question to you, colonel, is the Pentagon listening to any of this diplomatic speak, or is it white nose full steam ahead battle plan?

LT. COL. RICK FRANCONA, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, the Pentagon is continuing with their plan because we don't know if this is going to work, and they have to be ready to respond to the president's order if at some point, the president said this is not working. I gave them the chance, I gave them the out, now we're going to take military action. So the Pentagon does what the Pentagon will do. They will plan, they will be ready to execute those plans. Of course, everybody hopes that there is a way out of this.

BANFIELD: Of course, that would be intuitive. However, now that we actually have the Syrian regime on record acknowledging the chemical weapons stockpile, that's been iffy up until now with dabbling and admitting to that. Now that it's actually a fact, is that a game- change at all for the plans for the Pentagon or did they operate as if that were the truth all along?

FRANCONS: No, I think the Pentagon will continue doing what it has been doing, making the plans, being ready to execute. Whether or not the Syrians admit that they have chemical weapons is really immaterial to what the Pentagon is doing. This is an important step. The Syrians actually admitting that they have a chemical stockpile. They haven't said what they have, or how much they have, and that will be the subject of what comes next. Let's not forget, we're in the middle of a civil war. Doing this in the middle of a war -- doing this in peace time is difficult. Doing this in a middle of a war may be impossible.

BANFIELD: Can I just throw another monkey wrench into all of this for a moment, since you know the region so well and you were there? The Syrians have always said because the Israelis have their de facto nuclear weapons that they never admitted to, the Syrians needed some kind of their own weapons of mass destruction, hence the chemical weapons stockpile. Take that away, and where does that leave the Syrians?

FRANCONA: That's the problem, I think what we might see on the part of the Syrians, saying, yes, we have sarin and we have all these tactical weapons that we were - that we have in our stockpile, the rocket launchers, the aerial bombs even some warheads, and we are going to give those up. But I just find it almost impossible to believe that the Syrians will get rid of what they call their strategic stockpile and that will be the VX warheads that are mounted on the scud missiles, because as you say that is their strategic deterrence for Israel. That's the poor man's nuke as we used to call it.


FRANCONA: And that's what they believe deters the Israelis.

BANFIELD: I've got more work for you ahead. Don't go anywhere, Colonel Francona. You're an excellent resource for this. Specifically, who gets tasked with that job if it actually end it's up working of going into Syria, finding the chemical stockpiles, moving the chemical stockpiles in the midst of all of this? See what's on the screen? That is the strategic reality. What are the logistics of trying to get rid of chemical weapons in that place? That story's next.