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Obama Addresses Nation on Syria Crisis; Americans Divided on Syria; Destruction Continues in Syria; The Troubling Source of Syrian Weapons

Aired September 11, 2013 - 11:00   ET


ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm Ashleigh Banfield. And it is Wednesday, September 11th, a day that, of course, America pauses to remember those lost who were lost in the attacks 12 years ago.

Today is also a day for diplomacy though. And diplomacy is front and center this morning as plans for a U.S. military strike on Syria are on hold for now.

But President Obama has laid out his case for military action against that president, Bashar al Assad and his regime if a diplomatic effort led by Russia doesn't work.

Here is part of his national address on that very subject.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It's too early to tell whether this offer will succeed, and any agreement, it must verify that the Assad regime keeps its commitments.

But this initiative has a potential to remove the threat of chemical weapons without the use of force, particularly because Russia is one of Assad's strongest allies.

I have, therefore, asked the leaders of Congress to postpone a vote to authorize the use of force while we pursue this diplomatic path.

I'm sending Secretary of State John Kerry to meet his Russian counterpart on Thursday, and I will continue my own discussions with President Putin.

I will not put American boots on the ground in Syria. I will not pursue an open-ended action like Iraq or Afghanistan. I will not pursue a prolonged air campaign like Libya or Kosovo.

This would be a targeted strike to achieve a clear objective, deterring the use of chemical weapons and degrading Assad's capabilities.

We'll also give U.N. inspectors the opportunity to report their findings about what happened on August 21st, and we will continue to rally support from allies from Europe to the Americas, from Asia to the Middle East, who agree on the need for action. Meanwhile, I've ordered our military to maintain their current posture to keep the pressure on Assad, and to be in a position to respond if diplomacy fails.


BANFIELD: After hearing the president, how do you feel about the possibility of a launch of a military strike against Syria? Obviously, a very complicated situation, and there are a lot of very fast-moving parts.

But people are reacting to the president's speech, and our senior White House correspondent Brianna Keilar joins us live now on that topic.

We do something called fast polls. They certainly do, as a disclaimer, poll a certainly sector of society, because not everybody, Brianna, listened to the president's speech, but those who did certainly have an opinion.

Can you break it down?


So we should say -- obviously, this is a CNN-ORC poll, but we should say, as you mentioned there, Ashleigh, it's a bit of a self-selecting group. Those who choose to watch the president's speech tend to be more of you would expect his traditional supporters. They're more Democrats who are doing this.

But in this quick poll, we asked, did Obama make a convincing case in his speech? People were split on this, 50, no. Forty-seven percent said, yes.

They do, though, at least the folk whose watched his speech and we were able to survey, favor what he did propose in his speech, which was, obviously, kind of taking this diplomatic off-ramp and then keeping this military option kind of in the back pocket.

So 61 percent said they favored that. Thirty-seven percent said opposed, a kind of two-to-one on favor and oppose.

And nearly two-thirds say that it's likely diplomacy will work. Sixty- five percent said it's likely to be resolved through diplomatic efforts. Not likely, 35 percent.

So you kind of see there, I think at least, even if it's sort of hard to extrapolate to the American public as a whole, it does sort of reflect what we are seeing, which is that there's a lot of pressure from the American public and certainly on Congress to pursue a diplomatic solution rather than any sort of military intervention.


So last night right after the president finished, I heard Newt Gingrich say he wasted a late-night speech. And then I heard Stephanie Cutter say, no, he did not.

And I'm sort of am curious what exactly comes next? Because that was a big diplomatic effort on President Obama's behalf, but now what?

KEILAR: I think, really, the speech was -- it wasn't the speech we expecting, right? I mean, the speech that we expected a few days ago, we expected to be an argument for a military strike.

In the end, it seemed like a speech that was trying to buy some time. And it's trying to buy time for what the administration sees as their best next step, which is this meeting that's going to happen between Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, the foreign minister there for Russia.

So he's going to Geneva, Switzerland, today. They'll meet tomorrow and there's a lot is hanging on whether they can work out the details of a proposal for Syria giving up its chemical weapons.

BANFIELD: All right, Brianna Keilar, live for us at the White House, thank you for that.

And the president certainly wants to keep the pressure up on Syria for myriad reasons, but let's not forget that the devastating loss of life continues there in Syria. People are still dying every day in that country and the numbers speak for themselves.

According to a group of activist organizations and opposition groups called Local Coordination Committees of Syria, so far just this week, and it is Wednesday -- this began, this count, on Sunday -- 225 people have died in that conflict.

This month, the number is 840 people dead, and last month, the toll is astounding, 2,882 people killed.

And so far, if you're keeping count since the revolution began in Syria, not quite three years ago, more than 100,000 people, dead, men, women, many of them children, dying in that country, and we want to be very clear.

CNN can't independently confirm these numbers, and to be frank, Syrian government officials don't usually provide any kind of official death toll, so to say it's a murky situation is clearly an understatement.

United Nations human rights groups are reporting that Syrian government forces have bombed hospitals this week -- hospitals -- while opposition forces are reportedly launching shells directly at neighborhoods. Did I say murky?

Let's take it straight to our senior international correspondent, Arwa Damon. She's in Beirut.

So, Arwa, while the world seems to have paused to digest this diplomatic option, there has been no pause in the death and destruction in Syria. Has there?


And when you talk about those numbers there, I think it's also worth reflecting for a moment that those are families that have been torn apart. Those are parents, children, feeling that unbearable loss of losing a loved one.

I was actually skyping an activist in Syria a few hours before President Obama's speech. He lives in a town that is just in the southwest of Damascus that he says has been effectively under siege for months now.

They're running out of food. They're having to try to plant vegetables in the gardens. They're running out of much-needed medicines. Children there, according to a doctor, were beginning to die because their bodies were so weak and vulnerable they weren't able to get nutrients needed to sustain themselves.

And this activist was saying that at this point he really just had one wish, one message, that these various global leaders would just spend an hour, not a day, just an hour, living under those circumstances, feeling that terror that paralyzes a person when you hear an artillery shell, when you hear a bomb, not knowing exactly where it is going to land, smelling that scent that just sticks inside your nostrils of blood being intermingled with gun powder, with burning metal and then hearing the cries, the screams of the wounded.

And he believed if one individual who is a key player in all of this, anyone went and experienced that, there would be a greater level of compassion, an even greater effort to try to bring around the violence.

Because, Ashleigh, the U.S. right now is coming out there, saying, well, look, at the very least, the threat of a U.S. strike has forced the Russians to force the Syrians to start admitting that they have a chemical weapons program to take action on that.

Well, why is it that that same stick can't be used to try to exert the same amount of pressure to force the Syrian government to open at the very least humanitarian quarters into these areas that are under siege, Ashleigh?