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Russia Begins Air Strikes in Syria; County Clerk Met Secretly with Pope; John McCain Speaks About Russian Air Strikes in Syria. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired September 30, 2015 - 11:00   ET


[11:00:31] JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Breaking news. Russia attacks, hitting sites inside Syria. Russian planes and U.S. planes now bombing inside the same country at the same time, a historically tense and complicated situation.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: And mystery meeting. The clerk who's refusing to issue same-sex marriage licenses says she met privately with the pope. So what did the pontiff say?

BERMAN: The east coast on high alert as Hurricane Joaquin with a surprise turn toward the U.S. A storm that is growing and unusually unpredictable.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BERMAN: Hello, everyone. I'm John Berman.

BOLDUAN: And I'm Kate Bolduan.

Happening right now, Russia begins air strikes in Syria. And they come after a last-minute heads-up and warning to the United States. The warning was "keep American fighter jets out of the way." Now, the Russian military says that they are targeting ISIS operations with these strikes, but a senior U.S. official says those strikes near the Western city of Homs are not targeting ISIS.

BERMAN: And in an incredibly peculiar sequence in diplomatic terms, the U.S. embassy in Baghdad was given just an hour notice from a Russian general before the bombs fell inside Syria.

Earlier today, Russian President Vladimir Putin was given unanimous approval from his parliament to use the air force in Syria. The request for military assistance against ISIS, according to the Kremlin chief of staff, came directly from Bashar al Assad.

CNN Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, joins us now with the very latest -- Barbara?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Hi, John and Kate. The U.S. military are looking to see if the Russians are conducting additional air strikes in Syria. The ones they know about in Homs, in Western Syria, this simply is not an area where ISIS is located no matter what the Russians say. This is an area where anti-Assad, anti- regime militias have been fighting the Assad government. This, by all indications, is a military strike to prop up the Assad regime.

But that may be the least of it right now. One U.S. Official is saying to me a short time ago this is not how militaries in this day and age conduct relations. One general banging on the door of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad and saying, "Don't fly your planes." Right now, what the Russians have done is create an exquisite military problem for U.S. pilots. What has to happen now, officials say, there are going to have to be so-called rules of engagement. If U.S. pilots flying in Syrian airspace -- and they will continue to fly -- if they encounter Russian aircraft, what are the rules of the road? If they feel threatened, even inadvertently, let's say the Russians are making the mistake, they don't understand it's a U.S. aircraft, what are the rules of the road for U.S. military pilots encountering Russian aircraft? Do they have the right of self-defense? Can they counterattack against the Russians if they feel a threat? These are the questions that the Pentagon wanted to sit down and talk to the Russians about.

It was just earlier this week, of course, that President Obama and Russian President Putin said there would be talks between the two militaries to work all of this out. But now the Russians have taken the first step. They've gone ahead and done it. And here at the Pentagon, a lot of unhappiness, to put it mildly, about what the Russians are doing and what may come next.

BOLDUAN: To say the least. And what may come next is a huge question mark, obviously, at this moment.

Barbara, thanks so much.

We're joined now by global affairs correspondent, Elise Labott, and CNN military analyst, Colonel Peter Mansoor, who served as General David Petraeus' executive officer in Iraq.

Great to see both of you.

Elise, this all comes, this action today, comes on the heels of -- you sat down with Secretary Kerry and talked to him about Russian involvement in Syria. At that moment, he called it an opportunity. Listen to this for our viewers, and then we'll talk about it.


JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: I think it's an opportunity, to be honest with you. I think it's an opportunity for us to force this question of how you actually resolve the question of Syria. And the bottom line is you cannot resolve is without including the Sunni in a political solution, a political agreement ultimately, and that will mean that you're going to have to have some kind of transition, some kind of timing because as long as Assad is there, you simply can't make peace, period.


[11:05:11] BOLDUAN: I mean, when he talks about Russian involvement being an opportunity in Syria, essentially looking at it in a positive light, is this what he had in mind?

ELISE LABOTT, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, this is a stark contrast, obviously, to what's going on, on the ground.


LABOTT: And I think what the U.S. was hoping is that they would be able to harness Russian strategic influence, their military power on the ground, for the common aim not only of going against ISIS but then trying to get everybody on board for some once the conflict subsided for some kind of political transition that would actually involve President Assad after years of saying he had to go. And we spoke quite a bit about how that U.S. position has evolved, and now Assad's supposed to be part of the solution. So I thought it was quite remarkable that he was speaking of this as an opportunity because what they were hoping to do was de-conflict, as Barbara says, what the Russians are doing right now with the help of the Iranians and clearly on the ground in Iraq is trying to ground the U.S. from doing any type of military activity, and the Russians have created a new reality on the ground.

BERMAN: This is the opposite of harnessing Russian power, the opposite of de-conflicting.

Colonel Mansoor, we were all scratching our heads trying to figure out the last time U.S. and Russian planes were dropping bombs in the same country at the same time. It's been generations, I think, at least right now. And the rules of engagement that Barbara talked about have to be incredibly complicated, incredibly tense and incredibly delicate.

COL. PETER MANSOOR, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, absolutely. I think the last time Russian planes and U.S. Planes were in the same airspace was in the Korean War, and they were shooting at each other. So we don't want that to happen. I think the rules of engagement here are going to be pretty simple. ISIS and the rebels have no air force. And so we'll simply ban air-to-air engagements.

But that doesn't solve all the problems because the planes occupy the same airspace. They could actually run into each other. They could be bombing the same targets. There's a lot of issues here.

And I think looking at what the Russians actually bombed, the town of Talisbah about 12 kilometers north of Homs, they're not after ISIS. They're after other targets that will prop up the Assad regime and make a bigger political statement, than they will put military capability into the counterterrorist campaign.

BOLDUAN: And, Elise, I mean, this could be a game changer because it's just -- it's not just a United States, Russia and Syria involved in this region, involved here in trying to take on is. You've got all of the coalition forces who have been working with the United States to take on ISIS. What is the reaction going to be? What could the reaction be from other regional partners, if they see that Russia is on the ground, not attacking is, but attacking anti-Assad forces? LABOTT: That's right. And this is what Secretary Kerry was supposed

to try and get together today. The Saudis, the Turks, the UAE, this whole anti-Assad crowd to get them on board for some kind of longer political transition. If what happens if Saudi Arabia says no way, they're going to start protecting their interests on the ground by defending the opposition, and we've been talking to our military analysts, and they say this could really blow up into a more regional proxy war when you have a lot of countries battling Russia. I mean, it's a very potentially destabilizing situation.

BERMAN: Colonel, don't underestimate it. The Russians have a different mission, and they're hitting different targets than the U.S. mission right now in that country. Simply put.

MANSOOR: Yeah, putting at risk the safe zones that we wanted to create in the northern part of the country as well. If they start hitting targets up there, then all of a sudden you're not able to protect refugees. The refugee crisis worsens. In every way this Russian involvement is not an opportunity. It's a complicating factor in actually ending the civil war in Syria.

BERMAN: And it looks to be out of U.S. control completely at this point.

BOLDUAN: At least at this moment for sure.

Great to see you, Elise. Thank you so much.

Colonel Peter Mansoor, thank you so much.

Much more on this to come. But also ahead, the secret meeting between the pope and one of America's most controversial figures in the fight over same-sex marriage. You're about to hear from the Kentucky clerk on what she says happened when the Vatican called.

BERMAN: And then, Donald Trump's wife speaking about her husband's campaign. What she says at home about what he should do on the campaign trail. This is their first major interview, ahead.

And nightmare in Chicago. 14 people shot in 15 hours. Two generations of one family gone. The mayor there livid, saying enough is enough.


[11:13:21] BERMAN: All right. Our breaking news, Russian warplanes now dropping bombs inside Syria. Hopefully, we have a map of the region we can show you right now. The bombs falling near the city of Homs in the Western part that country, the city that's been the heart of this conflict over the last several years. It was held into rebel arms early on but back in regime hands right now. It seems as if these Russian planes and these targets specifically to prop up the Assad regime which is trying to hang on to that city.

BOLDUAN: And we're also learning that Senator John McCain of Arizona, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, he's going to be speaking on the Senate floor really any minute about the Russian air strikes in Syria. You can be sure he's been a longtime critic of the Obama administration's strategy to take on ISIS in Syria and in Iraq. We're going to hear much more of that to come.

We're also getting some additional reporting from our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, who was told, obviously, early on, as John's been reporting, that administration officials say where the Russians were targeting was no strategic purpose in combating ISIS in that area. She's also learning from a senior defense officials saying that the Pentagon was -- in this official's words -- "taken aback" by the Russian actions.

BERMAN: That's right. Given one-hour warning. A Russian general apparently walked into the U.S. embassy in Baghdad one hour before the bombs started falling to alert them that the targeting would begin. Again, not to emphasize too much here, but the target's not ISIS inside Syria.

We're joined by former Major General Spider Marks right now.

Spider, thanks so much for being here.


BERMAN: When you hear targets inside Syria are not ISIS targets, it just goes to show that the Russian mission, which is very much to support Bashar al Assad, not in line with the U.S. mission at all.

[11:15:15] MARKS: And we're not surprised by that, correct? We're all in agreement. This is not a surprise.

BOLDUAN: But it seems the administration was, if not surprised, taken aback by these actions. This comes on the heels of a meeting between the president of the United States and the president of Russia.

MARKS: And Putin, right. I would say -- I would suggest that the national security level within DOD, there's probably legitimately no surprise that this is taking place. The challenge is, how do you coordinate at a very tactical level with the Russians with whom we have no experience at all? Now, we have had for years hot lines and red lines at very senior levels and general officers can talk to general officers. But I'm talking about ground controllers and pilots and aircraft that are moving at the speed of sound, in excess of that, and potentially going after similar targets. We don't have any experience with that.

BERMAN: Similar, but different. There's weird alignment. The United States and its allies are targeting ISIS inside Syria.

MARKS: Right.

BERMAN: The Russians, sure, they'll target ISIS, I imagine, if they see them or they're nearby, but they'll also target anyone else fighting against the Assad regime. Those don't exactly line up.

MARKS: They don't, John. This seems to me very indiscriminate on the part of Russia. They have multiple targets to go after as you've suggested. The only ones they're not going to go after are regime targets which are from the Med from Damascus up to Aleppo. They'll go up to where ISIS is located, but they haven't done anything against ISIS yet. So we should be very concerned. But we've got a really ham-handed rough way to try to execute coordination at the very edges of an organization when a general officer walks into our embassy and says hey, guys, back off.

BOLDUAN: I've got to ask you, what do you make of that element of this? He walks into -- bangs on the door, walks in and says, "In an hour, we're going to be conducting air strikes. Not going to tell you where. Don't fly any fighter jets." What do you make of that announcement?

MARKS: Kind of the worst characterization of Russian behavior you can have. It's very unfortunate, because it kind of sends this back to Cold War stereotypes that we're not going to get rid of with behavior like that. And the United States has never been in a hot conflict with Russia. That hasn't happened. A whole bunch of proxy wars, but we have not done that. So we are going to back off until we figure out how we're going to work this out at the very tactical edge of all this so that we don't have some catastrophe that could occur.

BOLDUAN: There's potential there.

BERMAN: There really is.

Spider, stick around for a moment because we're getting a lot of new information coming in just as we speak.

Senator John McCain, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, will speak from the Senate floor in just a few minutes about what is now a burgeoning crisis inside Syria, an even greater crisis than it was one day ago. So stay with us. We'll hear from Senator McCain coming up.


BERMAN: Right now, on the Senate floor, Senator John McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, speaking out about the Russian air strikes happening right now in Syria. Let's listen to the Senator.

[11:20:02] SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, (R-AZ), CHAIRMAN, SENATE ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE: The latest information is that the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reports that at least 27 people were killed and that six children were among the dead. These strikes near the city of Homs is not under control of ISIS, of the Islamic State. So already we are seeing the true intentions of Vladimir Putin, which is to maintain a strong position in Syria, his foothold in the Middle East, and his propping up of Bashar Assad. Bashar Assad, who has killed at least 250,000 of his own citizens through the horrible process of barrel bombing, has driven millions into refugee status, with the full and complete support of Iran and Vladimir Putin.

I said to my colleagues over the past six and a half years, President Obama has sounded retreat across the Middle East. In fact, it was one year ago at this time when the president of the United States said, "Our strategy is to degrade and destroy ISIS." A report yesterday, some 28,000 European and some Americans have come into the fight on the side of ISIS. Mosul and Ramadi remain in the hands of ISIS. And, of course, the continued advances of ISIS in Syria are well known. In short, a year ago, after the president made that statement, there is no strategy, there is no success.

In fact, we now see the result of this failure which is a flood of refugees out of Syria and Iraq because they have given up hope of ever returning to their homeland. Our hearts go out to those who are victims and have had to flee their homeland. We see these refugees, and it breaks our heart when we see a little baby's body washed up on the beach. It didn't have to happen. It didn't have to happen.

Everybody knows that when the president of the United States said we had drawn a red line with Syria and didn't do it, it had a profound effect on the Middle East, including Sunni Arab states as well as Shia. Everybody knows that when the president turned down the recommendations of his secretary of defense, his secretary of state which happened to be Secretary Clinton at the time and his secretary of defense to arm the Free Syrian Army, and he turned it down, was another seminal moment.

This is a series of decisions or non-decisions which has led to the situation we see today where Vladimir Putin may have inserted Russia into the Middle East in a way that Russia has not enjoyed since 1973 when Anwar Sadat threw the Russians out of Egypt. He's still on course to repeat this nightmare by withdrawing nearly all U.S. forces from Afghanistan as well as we see in the last couple of days, the Taliban capturing the strategic city of Kunduz. And that is terrible in the respect that Kunduz is in the northern part of Afghanistan where it was believed was fairly stable, showing the ability of the Taliban and the effects of our withdrawal.

But I come back to Syria and the Russian activities today. After four years in Syria, the United States has stood by as Bashar al Assad, his war on the Syrian people goes on and on and on. And as this slaughter, it's been the single greatest contributor to the rise and continued success of ISIL. Have no doubt, it was Bashar Assad that gave birth to ISIL. The president has said for years -- for years -- that Assad must go. But he has done nothing that has brought us any closer to achieving that outcome.

My friends, it's not that we have done nothing. But what it is, we have not done anything that would reverse the trend and in any way further the goal that the president articulated a year ago that we would destroy -- degrade and destroy ISIL. In short, this administration has confused our friends, encouraged our enemies, mistaken in excess of caution, for prudence and replaced the risks of action with the perils of inaction.

[11:25:16]Into the wreckage, into the wreckage of this administration's Middle East policy has now stepped Vladimir Putin. As in Ukraine, as elsewhere, he perceives the administration's inaction and caution as weakness, and he is taking full advantage. Over the past few weeks, Vladimir Putin has been engaged in a significant military buildup in western Syria, deploying strike aircraft, and by the way, he's also deploying aircraft that are air- to-air, not air-to-ground. My friends, ISIS has no air force. This is a significant buildup of bombers, tanks, Russian military personnel.

Meanwhile, our secretary of state calls Lavrov frantically and asks him what's going on. Not once, not twice, three times. My friends, it was obvious what Vladimir Putin is doing, and these air strikes are a logical follow-on to his ambition, which he is realizing to, one, play a major role in Syria, preserve the port, prop up Bashar Assad and play a major role in the Middle East. And all of this is not lost on countries in the region.

The last time I -- today, Vladimir Putin escalated his involvement as Russian pilots carried out their first air strikes in Syria. Initial reports, as I mentioned, are that they are hitting targets which are not controlled by ISIL. That should control -- that should fool no one because Vladimir Putin's primary authority and responsibility and ambition is to prop up Bashar Assad against all of his enemies. The White House has said, quote, "It's unclear exactly what Russia's intentions are." My friends, I am not making that up. The White House has said it's unclear exactly what Russia's intentions are. If the White House is confused about Putin's intentions and plans in Syria, then the United States is in even worse trouble than many fear because it's not hard -- it's not hard to discern what Vladimir Putin wants. In fact, from Russia's military buildup in Syria to its recently announced military and intelligence coalition with Syria, Iran and Iraq, remember, Iraq is a country where we lost thousands of American lives, and now the Iraqi government announced is sharing intelligence with Syria and Iran. Amazing. Amazing. Putin's ambitions are blindingly obvious, my friends. He wants to prop up Assad, play kingmaker and any transition undermines U.S. policy and operations and ultimately expand Russian power in the Middle East to a degree, as I mentioned, unseen since 1973.

This week, at the United Nations, President Obama said, quote, "The United States is prepared to work with any nation including Russia and Iran to resolve the Syrian conflict." It requires self-delusion of tremendous scale to believe that Russia and Iran have any interest in resolving the Syrian conflict. They seek only to keep the murderous Assad regime in power. Russia's intervention in Syria will prolong and complicate this horrific war. And the main beneficiary will be ISIL, which has fed off the ethnic divisions fed off the Assad regime.

It is tragic -- it is tragic, my fellow Americans, that we have reached this point, a Syrian conflict that has killed more than 200,000 people, created the worst refugee crisis in Europe since World War II, spawned a terrorist Army of tens of thousands, and now created a platform for a Russian autocrat to join with an Iranian theocrat to prop up a Syrian dictator. It did not have to be this way. But this is the inevitable consequence of hollow words, red lines crossed, tarnished moral influence, leading from behind, and a total lack of American leadership.

My friends, today, in "The Washington Post" is an article by David Ignatius. Mr. Ignatius quotes Ryan Crocker, one of the great diplomats that I have ever had the honor and privilege to know.