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Assad Credits Russia; Obama Meets with Cabinet; Colorado Flooding; Flash Flooding in Colorado; Assad Offers Provisos to Deal on Russian TV; Putin Criticizes Obama, American Exceptionalism; Lawmakers React to Putin Op-Ed

Aired September 12, 2013 - 12:00   ET


SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN ANCHOR: "Handing over its chemical weapons under international supervision because of Russia." He goes on to say, "the U.S. threats did not influence the decision."

MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN ANCHOR: Arwa Damon following all of these fast moving developments in Syria. She is in neighboring Lebanon at our bureau there.

Arwa, you know, this is Assad's way, I suppose, of thanking Putin for saving the regime, but also perhaps making it very clear U.S. threats did not matter.

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Oh for sure. And this is typical bravado coming from President Assad and, in fact, his entire regime. They cannot afford to appear weak or as if they were forced to cower in front of America's military might, most certainly wanting to continue along this image of being a president who is in power. That he was simply doing this because the Russians asked him to, but not because he was worried or remotely even concerned about what a potential U.S. air strike would possibly do to the current control that he has over the areas that the regime does, in fact, control in Syria. Because we do know that there was a lot of concern leading up to the possibility of the U.S. military strike. But, of course, all of that changing very dramatically at this stage, Michael.

MALVEAUX: And tell us about Syria's opposition because we understand, from your reporting, that they are still firmly against any kind of proposal that would allow Assad to hand over his chemical weapons. So what role do they play in all of this?

DAMON: Well, here's what's interesting about that, because they're actually not even really at the negotiating table. It's Bashar al Assad and his regime, the Russians and basically the Americans or other western nations that oppose the Assad regime. We heard from General Salim Idris. He's the head of the mainstream Free Syrian Army, who was saying that they oppose this because they also want to see accountability. The perpetrators that carried out this attack, they want them to have to pay for it. And, of course, they were really hoping that the Americans would, in fact, strike Assad's military bases.

MALVEAUX: All right. Arwa Damon, reporting live from Lebanon. Thank you. And, of course, the high stakes effort to get Syria's chemical weapons under international control now is entering this new, critical phase as the Obama administration and the Russians start getting down to the details of this plan.

HOLMES: Yes. Right now the secretary of state, John Kerry, preparing to meet with his Russian counterpart. And those two men in are in Geneva, Switzerland, right now. Their talks start in the next hour. And they've got a team of experts with them, which sort of indicates they're going to get down to the nitty-gritty, real specific stuff.

MALVEAUX: So they're trying to nail down how the chemical weapons will be turned over, when this is actually going to happen, as well as the mechanics of verifying, securing and ultimately destroying the deadly stockpiles.

Meanwhile, at the White House, President Obama, he is meeting with his cabinet to further discuss the crisis. He spoke just moments ago.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I am hopeful that the discussions that Secretary Kerry had with Foreign Minister Lavrov, as well as some of the other players in this, can yield a concrete result. And I know that he is going to be working very hard over the next several days to see what the possibilities are there.


HOLMES: But coming up with a blueprint for the handover of these weapons isn't going to be easy. Let's bring in Jim Acosta live at the White House.

Jim, you know, of course there's a lot that goes into this, getting these weapons and securing them. There's, you know, the State Department, there's the Pentagon, Homeland Security, all going to have to be involved. What do you think the president is trying to achieve with this meeting today?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think the president, as you heard there, made some comments basically just saying that, hey, his secretary of state is heading over to Geneva to start working on this and the State Department and the White House were both managing expectations yesterday when they were talking about this, Michael and Suzanne, when they were saying that Secretary Kerry was essentially going over there to test the seriousness, was the way one spokeswoman put it, of the Russian proposal. So they're really just getting started here. There is no time line yet as to when these weapons are going to be ultimately destroyed. And all of that is being worked out at the White House.

But you heard the president say in those comments, and we played the fuller remarks earlier today, he's still very much firmly focused on this issue of making sure Basher al Assad, in the view of this administration, cannot gas innocent people in the future. He made those comments. But, you know, Michael and Suzanne, the other thing that the president talked about in the few remarks that he made publicly before that cabinet meeting, is that he has a very big agenda coming up. And so he was making those comments as well. But he's got the budget to deal with, immigration reform, the rollout of the Affordable Care Act. So moving this issue off Syria's chemical weapons off to the side. at least putting it in the hands of his secretary of state, John Kerry, does give him some flexibility to start working on some of these other big issues, which are going to be causing a lot of headaches for this White House in the week ahead.

MALVEAUX: And, Jim, I wonder here, you know, senior administration officials are saying, look, you know, they're ignoring kind of the snarky nature of Vladimir Putin's op-ed, the tone of it in "The New York Times," but address this, if you will. This is really a strange time we're in when you've got the leader of Russia talking directly to the American people in an op-ed. I mean this is a different era of diplomacy. And you've got other folks who are tweeting and weighing in on this. What do they make of the whole public relations campaign that Putin is engaged in? This word of words, if you will, directly with the American people?

ACOSTA: Yes, I mean, you know, one thing that the White House is trying to do, I think, at this point, Suzanne, is sort of put it to the side, ignore it. The president was asked about the op-ed in the brief few moments when the press was allowed into the cabinet meeting and he ignored the question.

Now, Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, is going to be holding a briefing within an hour. He is going to be asked that question. He is not going to be able to avoid it. And there were a couple of items in that column that, of course, will rankle people. John Boehner, the speaker of the House, has, I think, already said that he was offended by it. That whole section at the bottom of the op-ed that talks about American exceptionalism and how Vladimir Putin takes issue with that. And so we're going to hear what the White House has to say about that later today.

But I think at the moment, this is such a sensitive, sensitive time for this White House in dealing with the Russians. And because the fate of this chemical weapon process with Syria is really connected to the Russians, that at this point it's sort of like, don't disturb the exotic bird at this point. Let's just keep things moving in the right direction, Michael and Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: All right, thank you, Jim, we appreciate it.

I mean I find it really interesting, having covered the White House, I mean the fact that this is an Obama move.


MALVEAUX: You know, if he wants to go around Republicans and opposition, he goes directly to the American people, brings his message to the American people. This is what Putin did, he went around the president, decided to speak directly to the - through the op-ed. HOLMES: And, you know, you'll remember this, and people may remember this, back in -- it was like at the end of the '90s, Putin did the same thing. He did an op-ed in "The New York Times" when he was battling Chechen terrorists, as he was calling them there, and he wrote a piece for "The New York Times" back then, too, explaining his reasons for doing so. So it's not unprecedented, but it's highly unusual (INAUDIBLE).

MALVEAUX: Yes, a smart strategy, I think.

HOLMES: Yes. Yes, exactly.

MALVEAUX: We're going to have more on Putin's op-ed later in the hour. But coming up, while the world focuses on Syria, it appears that North Korea has possibly restarted a nuclear reactor.

HOLMES: Unbelievable really. Could this be a sign that Kim Jong-un is moving closer to having nuclear weapons?

MALVEAUX: Then, rain causing flash floods in Colorado. The racing water trapping one man in his car. The daring rescue. It is amazing. You're going to want to see this. You're watching AROUND THE WORLD.


MALVEAUX: Want to start off with some breaking news. This is out of the United Nations. We're just getting some information here, the U.N. spokesman, Farhan Haq, telling CNN that the U.N. has received a letter from the Syrian U.N. mission declaring their intention to join to the 1993 chemical weapons convention. That would be a very significant development, break (ph).

HOLMES: Yes, showing intent to follow through on what they said they would do, sign on to the convention. But they said they're going to do that literally in the next few days. It will be interesting to see where there's follow-up on that.

Also saying that they would then follow up with a detailed list of what they have for U.N. inspectors. So things moving quite quickly. But also, of course, we've heard - we've heard the Russians and the Syrians say the U.S. has got to stop threatening action and even saying stop arming the rebels as well. So if we start getting these conditions coming into things, it could muddy the waters a bit.

MALVEAUX: Yes, still a lot of skepticism as well -


MALVEAUX: About whether or not intention versus the reality, whether or not they are actually going to do that as well.

HOLMES: Absolutely. Yes, but interesting developments for sure.

MALVEAUX: It could be a potential breakthrough.

HOLMES: All right, let's go to Colorado now. Heavy rain there has caused some incredible floods. Streets turning into rivers.

MALVEAUX: At least three people have been killed as buildings collapsed. I want to show you some of this nail-biting video. This is just an incredible, dramatic rescue. This was just outside of Boulder. This was all captured live on television. Our CNN affiliate KCNC. Rescue workers obviously risking their own lives to free this guy who was trapped inside of his car.

HOLMES: Let's pause now and just let you watch it play out.


HOLMES: Spent about half hour, I think, in that car. You can see him getting to the shore. A bit unsteady on his feet, not surprisingly. Our Ana Cabrera is in nearby Boulder, Colorado, and we've got Chad Myers here in the weather center.

Ana, let's start with you. How bad has it been there?

ANA CABRERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It's getting worse really by the moment, especially as the emergency crews start to really assess this situation. We are live right now in Boulder, the city. But the whole county is affected. And, in fact, this is a statewide disaster at this point.

You can see this rushing water coming over one of the roadways here and some of the large rocks in the middle of the roadway, the debris that's been brought down from several of the tributaries that are up in the hillside that are just behind me. There's also schools and other residents behind me.

The worst is in some of the outlying county areas, in the mountainous areas. We're learning they've lost homes, cars, bridges, roads. So the access to get to people who are trapped in their homes and who need help is very difficult for these emergency rescuers. And now the National Guard is being mobilized to come help the folks here in Boulder County and across the state of Colorado.

MALVEAUX: All right, Ana, thank you so much. We appreciate it.

Want to go directly to Chad to talk a little bit more about the big picture here. I mean, was this expected? This is all about flash flooding, just getting caught, just swept away right in the middle, no warning?

CHAD MYERS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Yes, we expected this. We did. We forecast this yesterday saying, look, there's a lot of tropical moisture right over the Rocky Mountains. The storms are not moving. When they start, they just rain for hours because there's no jet stream over the storms to push them away. Essex Park, six inches. Boulder, five and a half. That is the wettest Boulder 24-hour period of all time since they've been taking and keeping records.

It is back here, Boulder, the orange and the yellow, these are rainfall estimates, two to four inches, and in some spots way above that. In Jamestown, at least 10 inches on the radar. I'll show you some of that in just a second.

There's a low to the west, a high to the east, taking all of this Gulf of Mexico moisture, and even a little bit of Pacific moisture, and pushing it right over the intermountain west and that's what's happened.

Here's what's happening right now. It is still raining. So when Ana says, yes, it's going to get worse, it is. It's still raining west of Boulder. And that water is still going to come downhill because that's what this entire area is about, a big hill. It's the front range. It's where the Rocky Mountains start. When it rains in the mountains, it has to pour off to the east, into the plains, and that's what's been happening. That's what's happening in Boulder right now. The rain was west of the town of Boulder and it is washing right through the town itself. There are the mountains. There was the rain. Here comes the water now right where our Ana is.

MALVEAUX: All right, Chad. Unbelievable. Chad Myers, thank you, reporting from the weather center.

Also, high winds, heavy rain slamming parts of Thailand. At least one tornado touched down. This storm slammed into part of a school. This was in Tri (ph) Province. This is just near the coast. Check this out, Michael.


MALVEAUX: Unbelievable.

HOLMES: Dramatic stuff. This is a security camera, obviously, capturing the moment of impact there. School officials say at least six students were injured. Must have been terrifying for them. Emergency services warning people in at least five provinces in Thailand to expect heavy rain, flash flooding, even landslides over the next few days.

MALVEAUX: And Vladimir Putin lashing out, calling America a bully. He questions what President Obama calls America's exceptionalism in an op-ed piece in "The New York Times."


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We can stop children from being gassed to death and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act.

That's what makes America different. That's what makes us exceptional.



MALVEAUX: Following a breaking news development, want to go to Moscow where Jill Dougherty is covering this development here.

We understand that there was an interview that Assad, Bashar al-Assad, gave to Russian television, Russia 24, making some news here.

What's the headline, Jill?

JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, I'd say that the first part is, he says he will be handing over documents to the United Nations and also to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

He will carry through the processes, he will give information, et cetera, and sign the agreement, the convention on the prohibition.

But if you look closely, he also says that these mechanisms will not be carried out unilaterally and that Syria will sign these documents, but this bilateral process is based, first of all, on the United States stopping its policy of threatening Syria and to the degree that the Russian proposal is accepted.

Now, that could be a sticking point. Again, we are not the people who are negotiating this, but if you remember, President Putin was saying just, I believe, it was yesterday, you can't expect Syria to disarm if the United States continues to hold the threat of military action.

And this would appear that President Assad is saying, we'll do everything, but the United States cannot threaten us.

HOLMES: And, Jill, it's interesting. I know that --

DOUGHERTY: There's another part of this interview coming up.

HOLMES: Yeah, you translated some of this, I know, there in Moscow, and that's the other thing. We're starting to see "buts" coming into this.

And one of the other ones speak to this, more -- even more of a sticking point with the U.S. saying now that they are starting to help out the rebels with lethal weapons, part of the statement refers to that, and insists on them stopping doing that.

DOUGHERTY: Yes. In fact, that is very much correct.

He -- I can read actually this part. "When we see that the United States really wants stability in our region and will stop threatening and striving to attack, and will stop providing weapons to the terrorists, then we consider that we can carry out these necessary processes to the end, and they will be put into effect by Syria."

So, again, I think if you look at this, it's not necessarily a legal document. This is the president in an interview with Russian TV.

But if he is insisting that the United States stop any type of threat of military action, then that would appear to stymie their progress because he says, I'll do this if they stop.

So, again --

HOLMES: Or supplying the weapons too. DOUGHERTY: -- I'm not a lawyer. I'm not in Geneva.

Correct, yes, there are several things that could be big "buts" in that agreement.

MALVEAUX: And, Jill, of course, we've been picking apart the op-ed that Putin has in "The New York Times" today.

And one of the thing his takes exception to is President Obama from Tuesday evening in his address, talking about American exceptionalism.

Let's listen to what the president said first.


OBAMA: We can stop children from being gassed to death and thereby make our own children safer over the long run. I believe we should act.

That's what makes America different. That's what makes us exceptional.


MALVEAUX: So he responds, Putin in the op-ed, saying, "It's extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional whatever the motivation.

"We're all different but when we ask for the Lord's blessings we must not forget that God created us equal."

Jill, you're somebody who has certainly covered the Russian president like no other journalist, quite frankly.

And give us a sense of what he means by this and who he is. Is he being sincere or is he just trying to poke President Obama?

DOUGHERTY: Well, I think on the -- this is on the one hand, on the other hand, and that's very common with President Putin.

But on the one hand, he's saying, and it's a point that people around the world, many people around the world, would accept, which is the United States is not the most -- is not the decider of everything, other countries have their own views, we're all equal in the sight of God, et cetera.

But what the Russian -- let's say foreign policy right now does have a strain, a very strong strain, which is their own version of exceptionalism, that Russia has its own approach, its own foreign policy, its own beliefs in its importance in the world and how we do things.

And so, it does have, to me, kind of a strange ring that, you know, Russia considers itself kind of different from other countries and here he is saying the United States shouldn't. That's how I'd look at it. HOLMES: Yeah, you know, it's interesting, Jill, too, and again, you as a student of Russia, he makes that comment about God created us equal and sets himself up as a champion of the U.N. system when his country itself has been one of the main vetoers of anything meaningful about Syria.

When he says God created us equal, his own country facing criticism over the treatment of gays and lesbians and others like that.

How is he viewed when he makes these statements in Russia?

DOUGHERTY: Actually, I think a lot of people agree with him. I mean, there are people who, of course, are against the gay law and many other things, the treatment of human rights groups here.

But beyond that, that idea that the United States shouldn't throw its weight around, that it's not better than other countries, that has resonance here and also has resonance in other countries, especially, let's say, developing countries, or the BRICs, you know, Brazil, Russia, India, et cetera, China, that they're -- let's say the Russian position, the key part of the Russian position, is sovereignty, that no other country should force another country to do what it doesn't want, and that means no regime change.

And so I don't think it's a contradiction when he says, you know, the U.N. is important and they vote against something. That's just their opinion.

But they believe the ultimate arbiter is the United Nations and not the United States.

MALVEAUX: All right. Thank you, Jill. Appreciate it as always, reporting from Moscow, her perspective there.

HOLMES: Great to have Jill there.

MALVEAUX: She's been covering that area for many, many years.

U.S. lawmakers who have seen Vladimir Putin's op-ed, they're also speaking out as well, as you can imagine, pushing back strongly.

House Speaker John Boehner just spoke to reporters a couple of minutes ago. Here's how he weighed in.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What was your blunt reaction when you read that?


SENATOR ROBERT MENENDEZ (D), NEW JERSEY: And I have to be honest. I was at dinner, and I almost wanted to vomit.

The reality is I worry when someone who came up to the KGB tells us what is in our national interests and what is not.

And you know, it really raises the questions of how serious this Russian proposal is.

SENATOR JAMES INHOFE (R), OKLAHOMA: Putin was lecturing to the United States. You know, I could hear Reagan turning over in his grave as this is going on.


MALVEAUX: U.S. supplied weapons in the hands of Syrian rebels, but can we be sure the weapons will not fall into the wrong hands?

We've got more on the "Crisis in Syria," straight ahead.