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Will Syria Give Up Control of Chemical Weapons?

Aired September 10, 2013 - 18:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, a SITUATION ROOM special report, "Crisis in Syria." President Obama will walk a careful line in a speech to the nation tonight, keeping military pressure on Syria while at the same time trying to keep the door open to a possible deal.

We're seeing the first cracks in that potential breakthrough, though. U.S. officials fear the Syrian and Russian leaders can't be trusted to follow through.

And behind the scenes of the president's address. I'll ask his former speechwriter about any last-minute tweaks in this really fast-moving crisis.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer, and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

President Obama speaks to the nation in about three hours from now under very different circumstances than he faced just yesterday. We're told he will still make the case for military action against Syria, even as a possible diplomatic deal unfolds that could prevent an attack. The Syrian regime now says it accepts a Russian proposal to give up control of its chemical weapons to the international community.

But U.S. officials are deeply worried that Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin may simply be stalling for time.

Our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto, is here. He's got more on what is going on.

This is a very delicate, tense moment right now.


No question. And just now, a White House official tells me the president will continue to work with Congress on language authorizing the use of force, that that will strengthen any diplomatic efforts, but still, this proposal has become the world's de facto plan A for Syria, radically transforming the entire debate.


SCIUTTO (voice-over): Just 24 hours ago, Secretary Kerry dismissed the plan the moment the very words had left his mouth. JOHN KERRY, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: 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, and it can't be done, obviously.

SCIUTTO: But now his hypothetical is a full-fledged proposal, embraced by the unlikely alliance of Syria, Russia, and China, and Britain, Germany, the U.N. and now Secretary Kerry himself.

KERRY: President Obama will take a hard look at it, but it has to be swift. It has to be real. It has to be verifiable. It cannot be a delaying tactic.

SCIUTTO: Today the administration claimed that Syria's chemical stockpiles had been in discussion for a year, that Presidents Obama and Putin had spoken about it personally, that Secretary Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov were their designated point men, and that it was only the looming threat of force that finally pushed Russia and Syria to act.

So, in the administration's version, yesterday's goof was actually part of the plan all along.

REP. HANK JOHNSON (D), GEORGIA: You did not misspeak, did you?

KERRY: No, I didn't misspeak.

JOHNSON: And you meant to say what you said at that time, isn't that correct?

KERRY: I did.

SCIUTTO: Looking ahead, the practical obstacles to ridding Syria of weapons at sites like this one may be more imposing than the diplomatic. Syria has an estimated 1,000 tons of chemical weapons in six known sites and many more unknown now likely dispersed and hidden as the U.S. has considered striking them. All this in the country in the middle of a civil war.

(on camera): This is one of the largest chemical stockpiles in the world as you say at a number of sites and dispersed already from those sites. Reasonable time frame to reliably put them all in one place and get rid of them?

JOSEPH CIRINCIONE, PRESIDENT, PLOUGHSHARES FUND: It will take weeks to get inspectors there, to conduct an initial inventory, and to secure the site will probably take several months. Destroying the weapons, that will take years.


SCIUTTO: In private, I'm hearing real doubts even from some inside the administration. One U.S. official told me -- quote -- "There's grudging recognition you can't ignore this proposal. But it doesn't mean we will accept the terms." This official went on to say, "We have a long way to go before this chain reaction over the last couple days leads to a result that's in our national interest." Wolf, I think you could say there's a healthy dose of skepticism.

BLITZER: Yes, but even the secretary of state, he's going to Geneva on Thursday to meet with the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, to discuss this issue. That could be critically important.

SCIUTTO: Absolutely. It shows that they are pursuing this. And they really have no choice but to pursue it. They have to show that they're exhausting all diplomatic options.

BLITZER: And then if they wind up using military force, they will be able to tell the American people and the world we tried everything. There's no other way. That would be their argument at that point.

SCIUTTO: And likely build a stronger, wider, broader coalition.

BLITZER: Jim Sciutto reporting for us. Thanks very much.

It's important to remember that in the midst of all the talk of a possible U.S. attack or a possible deal, there's still a very deadly civil war going on in Syria, even as we speak right now. Rebels and government forces fought new battles across Syria today. If the regime in Damascus were to actually surrender its chemical weapons, it would happen in the middle of all of this.

Let's bring in our senior international correspondent, Arwa Damon. She's covered Syria extensively. She's joining us from Beirut right now.

Arwa, this would be an enormous struggle to isolate, control, and eventually destroy all of Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles if there were a peaceful environment. But there's a brutal civil war going on with no end in sight. Give us some perspective on what's going on.

ARWA DAMON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Look, we're talking about a phenomenal undertaking that might not be entirely realistic. Syria's believed to have one of the largest stockpiles of chemical weapons in the world.

Prior, or while all this was breaking out, the Syrian regime actually moved those stockpiles, according to Western intelligence from key locations into smaller, more isolated ones. Any sort of effort to actually put an investigation team in country would highly likely require individuals around that team to protect them. Look at what happened to the U.N. inspectors when they were already on the ground. Their vehicles got shot at. They were caught up in crossfire.

Hypothetically speaking, a sort of safeguarding force could number in the hundreds of thousands according to one diplomat. An expert was also saying that just securing Syria's chemical weapons, that means going around to every single site in the midst of this incredible violence that's taking place. They're bringing them into one location. That could possibly take months.

Actually destroying those chemical weapons, that could take years. You also are going to have to somehow bring in the technology to even begin to destroy them. Let's assume that a cease-fire was somehow on the table and that would allow the inspectors to safely move around the country. Very difficult to envision how that cease-fire would actually be implemented especially given that the opposition does not speak in one voice.

So this is logistically speaking a complete nightmare.

BLITZER: I remember after Saddam Hussein was removed in Baghdad, and you were there on the scene for us, the Libyan leader, Gadhafi, he agreed to international teams coming in to destroy his nuclear capabilities that he seemed to be developing, some other weapons of mass destruction, because he was afraid the U.S. would put together a coalition to remove him at the time.

So there are international inspectors, international teams potentially that could go in and at least begin the process if there's a willingness on the part of the Syrian regime to allow them to do it.

DAMON: Right, but let's look at the conditions under which inspectors were in Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

It was Saddam Hussein's Iraq. They did not have a security issue confronting them. Same dynamics applied to Gadhafi's Libya. He was firmly in charge of the country. So, that issue of security did not necessarily exist for those U.N. inspections teams. We're talking about completely different dynamics. We're talking about a civil war raging inside Syria with no clear front lines, with battle lines that are constantly drawn and redrawn and battle dynamics that can change within a fraction of a minute.

So that adds an entirely new and novel layer for these inspectors that they're going to have to handle if they do choose or do decide to go into Syria and try to undertake this massive effort of securing its chemical weapons.

BLITZER: It would be an enormous challenge, as you correctly point out. Arwa, thanks very much. Arwa is in Beirut.

Up next in our special report, insights into the president's prime- time address this evening. Given everything that's happened, why didn't he just cancel the speech? I will ask his former speechwriter Jon Favreau. He's standing by live.

And Syria denies it, but what would Bashar al-Assad gain from a chemical weapons attack? His military strategy and a lot more, that's coming up.


BLITZER: Stay with CNN for special coverage of the president's address to the nation. We will have special coverage coming up all the way until 9:00 prime minister Eastern. I will be back then to bring you the president's speech live. Stay with CNN, lots going on.

Certainly while Syria's sounding open to the idea of surrendering its chemical weapons, at least that's what they're saying publicly, the regime has denied using poison gas against its own people claiming it doesn't need to because it's winning the war against the rebels.

Tom Foreman is taking a closer look at what's going on. He's joined with retired U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel and CNN military analyst Rick Francona.

What are you guys seeing, Tom?

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You know, what we're seeing here is that maybe there could have been a reason for all of this.

As the colonel has pointed out here, this is an aerial view of Damascus. This is the center of it all there and look at the areas there. This is where the regime generally holds sway in that area. This is where the rebels generally hold sway. And right down through here is a major roadway which you say is basically the dividing line between them.

LT. COL. RICK FRANCONA (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: It's the dividing line between the rebels to the east and the regime to the west. And that's a four-lane highway. And it's very strategic. They try to control it, but they're having trouble.

FOREMAN: So there are some incursions on either side. This isn't a perfect map at this point, but generally you get the idea.

And this is where the attacks took place. Well, if you look at this, and you listen to the government's argument, you could say why would they hit this area out here, this suburb sort of area with no clear reason? But let's move in a little bit closer and talk about that. For these to be hit right in this area, you believe would have something to do with this.

FRANCONA: Yes. There's a military reason to do this.

This dividing line, that road is very strategic. The Syrian military believes and they have written in their literature that if you can break through that line, get to Abbassiyyin Square, you have pretty much free rein of the downtown of Damascus. And they say this is a strategic area and they have to hold this.

These two suburbs, Zamalka and Ain Tarma, are key to taking that road. And they had numerous airstrikes, artillery, but they have never cleared it. They have cleared it now with chemicals.

FOREMAN: So even if the war overall was going well, you get the point here. There may have been a key, critical area that needed to be backed off. Same question down here. Let's move down to this region. I'm going to get rid of this so you can see it a bit more. If I get rid of all these things, you can see the attacks. Rebel area over here. This is the regime over here. What's this?

FRANCONA: This is Mezzeh air base. This is a strategic air base, and it's probably the most important air base in the Damascus area. This would be where the regime leaves from if they had to bug out.

FOREMAN: You get the point here, Wolf. The bottom line is, these attacks, which may have seemed a bit random to us from here, to those in the know in fact were very close to very important targets.

BLITZER: All right, guys, thanks very much. Good explanation.

Up next in our special report, "Crisis in Syria," we have some special insights into the president's prime-time address to the nation tonight. Given everything that has happened, why didn't he just cancel his speech? I will ask his former speechwriter Jon Favreau.


BLITZER: Tonight, President Barack Obama takes advantage of an important tool at the president's disposal, a tool he hasn't really used all that much, prime-time speeches from the White House. Certainly, they get a lot of attention, but they don't always get the results a president wants.

Let's bring in our chief domestic affairs correspondent, Jessica Yellin.

You have been reviewing the history of these speeches. What do you see, Jessica?

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CHIEF DOMESTIC AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, usually a president has already taken action by the time these speeches are delivered or at the very least has a clear path forward. In this speech, you don't really have either. I don't envy the president's speechwriter tonight.


YELLIN (voice-over): The prime time address, an iconic display of presidential power, one this president has not frequently used.


YELLIN: He's addressed the American people from the Oval Office only twice, both times sounding like professor Obama.

On the BP oil spill.

OBAMA: Over 5.5 million feet of boom has been laid across the water.

YELLIN: And the withdrawal of troops from Iraq.

OBAMA: We have met our responsibilities.

YELLIN: But when he's projecting American force, this president is on his feet, joining the fight in Libya.

OBAMA: I authorized military action to stop the killing.

YELLIN: Pressing his case against Syria.

OBAMA: Assad must go, and I believe he will go.

YELLIN: Announcing the killing of Osama bin Laden.

OBAMA: America can do whatever we set our mind to.

YELLIN: And that brings us to tonight's speech. What exactly have we set our mind to?

DOUGLAS BRINKLEY, PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: He's got to hit that big, big point. What is so important about this? There's always civil wars going on in the world. Syria's always a mess. Why does this matter to the people of America?

YELLIN: Presidents usually deliver the war speech after they have initiated military action. President Reagan's invasion of Grenada.


YELLIN: President Bush toppling Manuel Noriega.

GEORGE H.W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Last night, I ordered U.S. military forces to Panama.

YELLIN: President Clinton and the bombing in Kosovo.

BILL CLINTON, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Today, our armed forces joined our NATO allies in airstrikes.

YELLIN: President George W. Bush and Iraq.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Coalition forces have begun striking selected targets.

YELLIN: Tonight, President Obama will make the case for war or at least the threat of war before the first missile has flown.

BRINKLEY: I think though it's become a stopgap speech instead of a leadership speech. It seems to me the White House is hemorrhaging on all of this right now and that they need to tourniquet it.


YELLIN: Or even, Wolf, a peace of diplomacy speech on the other hand. One benefit the president could gain tonight, after a few weeks of muddled messaging and zigzagged policy-making, some clarity about his plan for Syria could solidify his ability to lead in this brewing crisis, and I should point out he will be giving the speech not in the Oval Office, but in the East Room on his feet -- Wolf.

BLITZER: That's the same location he gave the bin Laden speech, is that right?

YELLIN: That is right, Wolf.

BLITZER: OK. Thanks very much, Jessica Yellin. Let's dig a little bit deeper right now.

We're joined by a former speechwriter for President Obama. Jon Favreau is joining us. He's a columnist for The Daily Beast as well.

Thanks, Jon, very much for coming in.


BLITZER: You have just come over from the White House. I take it you have been talking to some of the president's speechwriters, helping them out of a little bit. What's going on?

FAVREAU: I check in on my colleagues every once in a while.

BLITZER: So, is the speech ready as far as you know? What are you hearing?

FAVREAU: They're still tinkering, but it's just about ready, yes.

BLITZER: It's a lot different than it would have been before the past let's say 24 hours of diplomacy, 24 hours really. They really have to -- speechwriters like you, you have to go through and rewrite.

FAVREAU: Yes. You have to be ready at any moment's notice to change an entire speech based on events beyond your control.

BLITZER: Have you never seen anything like this? Because we assume the speech was going to be here's why the Congress needs to authorize the use of military force. But now it's going to be a more different message, shall we say.

FAVREAU: Well, I still think the heart of the speech remains, which is the president wants to tell the American people tonight why what's happening in Syria matters to them, why a dictator using chemical weapons to gas his own people should matter to the American people. And that's what he will do tonight.

BLITZER: Is this the kind of speech that there are one or two speechwriters like you, the president starts rewriting, he comes up with his own ideas, or are there teams of people involved because you have to run it through the State Department, through the Pentagon, through the intelligence community?

FAVREAU: Certainly you have to run it by a bunch of people. And everyone will take a look at it.

But when it gets down to the actual crafting of the speech, the president is extremely involved. And the bigger the speech gets, the more the president is involved and the more he does a lot of the writing himself, but he will very closely with Ben Rhodes and Cody Keenan and the whole team to bring this to the finish line.

BLITZER: Who is the main -- who took over for you?

FAVREAU: Cody Keenan took over for me. He was my deputy for many years and now he's doing a fantastic job as the chief speechwriter.

BLITZER: This is what, going to be a 10- or 12-minute speech, is that right?

FAVREAU: Usually, a prime-time Oval address or from the White House runs around 15 minutes.

BLITZER: So it could be as long as 15 minutes?

FAVREAU: Probably, yes.

BLITZER: And the president, when you say he gets involved, does he have a little meeting first, does he meet with the team and say here's some of the points I want to make and then they continue to meet throughout?

FAVREAU: Yes. There's plenty of meetings before the speech.

And then usually the president gets a draft. And then he will stay up very late at night. I have gotten pages and pages of writing back from him the next day making his own edits. And he will be fine- tuning it and tweaking it right up until he delivers it.

BLITZER: The president has now asked Congress to delay any votes.

Was there any consideration, as far as you know, should there have been some consideration to postponing the speech given the fluidity of the diplomacy right now?

FAVREAU: I don't think so, because I think people like you or I, we know exactly what's going on because we're political geeks and we read all the stuff.

But I think a lot of the American people are very busy, and this is an opportunity for him to lay out for the American people what exactly is going on in Syria. It's an opportunity for him to educate the public and it's an opportunity for him to tell people why this matters.

BLITZER: The American public doesn't want to get involved in another war. The president knows this. You know this.

The polls are all consistent in this. So how do you craft a speech that will tell the American people basically, trust us, we know what we're doing, it's not going to be another Iraq or Afghanistan, it's going to be very limited?

FAVREAU: Well, the president doesn't want to get into another war. The president ran for office to end wars. I think he will probably mention that tonight as well.

But this is a special case where a dictator has flouted international law and gassed his own people, including children. And I think in cases like that, the president has always believed -- he laid this out in his Oslo speech when he accepted the Peace Prize -- that sometimes humanitarian intervention is necessary.

BLITZER: How would you describe the tone of what we're going to hear tonight?

FAVREAU: I think it will be firm. I think he will make the case and I think he will be passionate about what's at stake here.

BLITZER: Is it the most important speech at least so far in his second term? I think a think a speech or two in his first team, speeches you worked on like health care, for example, a few others, but this is probably the most important speech of his second term right now. Would you say that?

FAVREAU: I think it's certainly an important speech. He wouldn't be giving it otherwise. But I think history will judge which are the most important speeches.

BLITZER: It's a lot of pressure on guys like you and the president himself, enormous pressure tonight.

Jon Favreau, thanks very much for coming in.

FAVREAU: Thank you for having me, Wolf.

BLITZER: Appreciate it.

Remember, you can always follow what's going on here in THE SITUATION ROOM on Twitter. Go ahead and tweet me @WolfBlitzer. Tweet the show @CNNSitRoom.

I will be back later tonight, 9:00 p.m. Eastern, to cover the president's address to the nation.

Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.

"CROSSFIRE" starts right now.