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AT THIS HOUR WITH BERMAN AND MICHAELA

John McCain Speaks About Russian Air Strikes in Syria; Russia Begins Air Strikes in Syria. Aired 11:30-12p ET

Aired September 30, 2015 - 11:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[11:30:00] SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, (R-AZ), CHAIRMAN, SENATE ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE: Mr. Ignatius quotes Ryan Crocker, one of the great diplomats that I have ever had the honor and privilege to know. Ryan Crocker says, quote, "Russia has played a horrible hand brilliantly. We folded what could have been a pretty good hand, argues Ryan Crocker, a retired U.S. diplomat who has served in nearly every hot spot in the Middle East and is among the nation's wisest analysts of the region. Quote, 'The Russians were able to turn a defensive position into an offensive one because we were so completely absent'." Ryan Crocker is right.

I would also remind my friends that because of American inaction, the countries in the region are making their own accommodations. Syria -- excuse me -- Saudi Arabia, UAE and Qatar have all been to Russia and arms deals. The Saudi Arabians have built the -- bought $17 billion worth of weapons from Russia. UAE, $7 billion. Qatar, $5 billion. Would that have ever happened ten years ago? Of course not. But they see America leaving, and they are accommodating. And we have -- and we have, of course, refused in many ways to give the kind of weapons particularly that the Kurds need.

I won't go on too much longer. I will summarize by saying that this is a very, very, very sad day for America in the world. The world is watching. It's not confined to the Middle East. We see Vladimir Putin continue to dismember Ukraine. And now some phony separatist elections are going to be held in the area that he now controls.

The Chinese leader made some nice comments about how they would stop the hacking that is -- that they have been able to compromise our most important industrial military and other secrets. We'll see if that happens. But they're also continuing their expansion of the islands in the South China Sea. Throughout the world, an absence of American leadership is very visible and very understood by nations throughout the world.

And today, we see Vladimir Putin attacking with his airplanes, not just ISIS, but others who are enemies of Bashar Assad. And I'd like to also add that these air strikes are indiscriminate in nature, and there has been no attempt whatsoever to stop the horrible barrel bombing, as General David Petraeus recommended before the armed services committee just a few days ago.

So this is a bad day. And it's a time for American leadership. And it's a time that President Obama woke up to the realities in the world and reassert American leadership. And that does not mean that we're going to send thousands of ground troops back into Iraq or Syria. But it does mean that we develop a policy -- in the case -- I am told that these bombings that the American government has said that American planes should not fly and that we have somehow approved of these air strikes. I do not know if that's true or not. I hope that it's not true. What we should be saying to Vladimir Putin is that you fly, but we fly anywhere we want to when and how we want to, and you'd better stay out of the way. That's the message that should be sent to Vladimir Putin.

So I hope that the American people understand how serious this is. And that this rogue dictator named Vladimir Putin who is a thug and a bully can only understand a steadfast and strong American policy that brings America's strength back to bear.

We are still the strongest nation in the world. Now it's time for us to act like it.

Mr. President, I suggest the absence of a quorum.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The clerk will call the roll.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Senator John McCain wrapping up statements on the Senate floor, a scathing assessment of the Russian action inside Syria. Russian warplanes bombing targets inside Syria today. He called Vladimir Putin a rogue dictator, a thug and a bully.

[11:35:04] KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Also saying already we're seeing the true intentions of Vladimir Putin in Russia's actions in Syria.

We're going to take a quick break. Much more to discuss with the breaking news.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BERMAN: For the breaking news now for the very first time, Russian warplanes hitting targets inside Syria. Targets not believed to be connected to ISIS. This is a major development in that war-torn region which complicates things much, much further for the Obama administration.

Let's go to our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr.

Barbara, what's the very latest?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: John, Kate, what U.S. officials are telling us is, where the Russians struck in west central Syria near the city of Homs, this is an area that is not an ISIS stronghold. This is an area of anti-regime, anti-Assad forces. The first thing is the political agenda of the Russians by all accounts, according to the U.S., appears really to be to try and prop up the Assad regime by striking in this area where these anti-regime militias are fighting Assad's forces. This is not what the U.S. wanted to see. But let's look at the broader picture for the U.S. military, for U.S. Pilots in the air over Syria. Right now, U.S. warplanes are striking pretty far away from this area. U.S. warplanes are in the north and east of Syria where it is an ISIS stronghold. They are not where the Russians are. So for the moment, nobody expects the two military forces to really encounter each other, but that's not good enough.

It was 48 hours ago that President Obama and president Putin said their militaries would sit down and talk about de-confliction. So if they do encounter each other, there isn't some sort of inadvertent disaster. The Russians appear to have tossed that out the window. They've gone ahead, they've started air strikes.

The question now for U.S. pilots, should they encounter the Russians, what are the rules of the road? They have the right of self-defense. U.S. troops always have that right. But if they encounter the Russians, what happens next if the Russians inadvertently perhaps appear to be a threat to the U.S., what happens? What are the rules of the road? And just consider this. As one official was saying to me, what if a Russian pilot were to be shot down or go down over Syrian territory? Nobody wishes the Russian military ill on this, but if a Russian pilot goes down, do the Russians then come to the U.S. and ask for help in rescuing their troops? A million questions. This is where the two sides were supposed to sit down and talk to each other. But instead, this morning, a Russian general turned up at the embassy in Baghdad and said, here we are.

[11:41:30] BOLDUAN: Huge questions, Barbara, with potentially deadly consequences and fallout from any of those actions.

Barbara Starr getting great reporting from the Pentagon. Barbara, thanks so much.

Let's discuss all of this and the implications of this and what happens right now with CNN military analyst, James "Spider" Marks. He is with us. And former U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford.

Ambassador Ford, we heard Barbara's reporting and we also married from Senator McCain earlier. He said there's no love lost between Vladimir Putin and John McCain. You know, no mistake there. He also said that these actions, just these actions just today, are going to prolong and complicate this conflict, this war, this crisis in Syria. What's the impact of this not only in military terms but huge diplomatic implications here?

ROBERT FORD, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO SYRIA: The Obama administration and our allies in the region, countries like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, allies in Europe, like France, Britain, Germany, we've all hoped to get to a negotiation, a serious negotiation, that would involve serious compromise on all sides. The Russian actions will probably give Bashar al Assad the sense that he doesn't need to make serious compromises and therefore makes getting to a political settlement all the harder.

BERMAN: Why should I talk when I have Russian planes doing my bidding what I want them to do?

FORD: Precisely.

BERMAN: Spider, I'm going to ask you to put on your political hat. You're a retired general, a retired diplomat, but I'm going to ask you to be political. Senator John McCain said that what happened today or is happening right now, as we speak, is the result of the United States sounding the retreat in the Middle East, pulling out its forces, withdrawing some of its influence in the region. If you buy that side of the argument, can the U.S. Then reassert this influence at a whim now?

MAJ. GEN. JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, it can reassert it. It's not at a whim. It's going to be very, very difficult. Look, when we left Iraq in 2011 after a very concerted effort by our administration to try to retain, to establish some type of status of forces agreement so that we could maintain a force strength in Iraq, we couldn't get that done with the government of Baghdad, so we left. Very precipitously. That was suddenly a turn. That was a scenario that we weren't entirely planned for. We declared victory with that. We said that's exactly what we want to do. Yet there has been a constant drumbeat that we left way too early. Now, we are where we are right now. The United States can insert itself, but what we have is in this vacuum, we've had the Russians now coming in, and they have now started to assert themselves very, very aggressively at a tactical level, but it has immense strategic implications. They are at the table now for any next steps moving forward.

BOLDUAN: Exactly with that in mind, what is Secretary Kerry to do right now with this new reality, with this essential game changer in terms of what's happening on the ground in Syria?

BERMAN: Ambassador?

FORD: I think Secretary Kerry needs to do two things, he and his team. The first is, of course, to maintain contacts with the Russians because we are going to have to talk to them. They are operating in Syria.

(CROSSTALK)

BERMAN: More now than ever.

FORD: And they have interests in Syria. Let's be fair to the Russians on that. But at the same time, now more than ever, it is urgent to talk to our allies in the region, especially countries like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the Saudi foreign minister yesterday said Bashar cannot stay. If he will not go, we will send in more military assistance. So he's talking about escalating. Maybe in the end that you do need to have a little more escalation in order to get to the negotiation I was just talking about. But it certainly behooves the United States to re-establish strong lines of communication with our allies as we go forward and this gets more complicated.

I'd like to make one other point. What the Russians have done is also energize the international jihadi. Right before I came into your studios, I was on Twitter looking at tweets that are coming in around the world. Boy, you see the word "jihad" more than I saw it two days ago, three days ago.

[11:45:38] BERMAN: Inspired.

FORD: And that makes getting to a settlement even harder because it's not just about Assad and the moderates that the Russians bombed today. What are you going to do about the Islamic State which has not had much trouble getting recruits? This will make it even easier still. I don't think the Russians thought that through very well.

BERMAN: Diplomatic problem for a lot of countries.

BOLDUAN: Huge military problem, too.

BERMAN: Ambassador Robert Ford, Major General Spider Marks, thanks so much for being with us. We appreciate it.

BOLDUAN: We'll be back right after a break. Much more of our coverage coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[11:49:47] BOLDUAN: Welcome back. We are following the breaking news, and the first air strikes that Russia is now committing in Syria. The Russian military says that they were targeting ISIS equipment, other ISIS targets. The U.S. military quickly saying that is does not have any strategic purpose, and ISIS is not in this western city of Homs that the Russians targeted. This is setting up a huge, huge conflict right now in how to take on ISIS, and what are really Russia's intentions in Syria happening in real time, setting up huge implications and not only diplomatically and militarily, but politically as well.

BERMAN: We want to discuss with CNN commentator and former President Obama adviser, Van Jones; and conservative commentator -- I should say retired Army colonel as well -- Kurt Schlechter.

And, Van, we just head from Senator John McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, saying that what's happening inside of Syria, as we speak, Russian war planes bombing targets that are not connected to ISIS. It is because the United States and the White House sounded the retreat across the Middle East.

President Obama met with Vladimir Putin, what, yesterday or two days ago? They met for 90 minutes which is longer than the Russians gave the U.S. warning that they were about to bomb in Syria.

VAN JONES, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR; Well, listen, first of all, we have to say that our hearts and the prayers are with the innocent people in Syria whose lives just got worse, and before we run down the streets trying to politicize it, this is a human rights catastrophe ongoing. They got worse not better because of Russia's reckless and disrespectful actions. That said, I'm sad to hear John McCain attacking the U.S. president in the middle of this. He's attacking the U.S. president more than he's attacking President Putin. We are in a situation in which people like John McCain can cover their base easily. If it were up to him, we'd be in 10 countries right now on the ground with troops, because his answer for every problem has been send in troops, start bombing people. That -- I don't think in the situation right now where the U.S. troops were in the middle of the mess in Syria, people would be happy in the United States. So it is easy to sit back when you have lost the election, and every Sunday show you go in to say that we should be invade another country, and blame the president. And we need to stand with the people of Syria and find some solutions. It is easier to speechify than to fix it.

BOLDUAN: So, Kurt, what is the appropriate response if you hear what van saying, it is hard to come up with the workable solution, as many of the Republicans say that what is need is to arm the rebels, which has not happened and also then send in the potential ground forces.

COL. KURT SCHLECHTER, CONSERVATIVE COMMENTATOR & U.S. ARMY, RETIRED: Well, Kate, it is easier to attack Barack Obama because the utter incompetence has led to the problem. This is a strategic disaster of major proportions. Before we focus on the fact that American foreign policy is at the lowest, we need to look at the tactical problem. We have multiple forces operating in the same air space and on the ground, and the United States and allied forces flying missions and operating on the ground according to open source report, and we have Russians flying missions, and if the we don't somehow coordinate that, we are going to have a fratricidal problem against people who are not our a fraternal friends, but we don't want to be flying into the Russians themselves. So we are the take care of the tactical problem, and as soon as we do that we can look at the strategic problem which is the utter problem of the Obama administration to perform adequately in the Middle East and this dictator has rushed in, and John McCain is absolutely correctly, and until the Obama administration understand how they have screwed this up, they can't begin to fix it.

(CROSSTALK)

BOLDUAN: Van?

JONES: And that sort of tone and approach is exactly why we have not been able to come together the as a country and get it done. We got rushed into war by people who would not listen to anybody, and when people very good people, including President Obama said that let's not go over there to kick over the hornets nest, and now we are trying to get the hornets back into the nest of that people like what we just heard got us into the situation in the first place. This is a much more complicated situation, much harder to resolved. It's very easy to sit back and point fingers at the president.

(CROSSTALK)

JONES: I think we have to get together now.

BOLDUAN: And at the very least, the Russians going in committing air strikes only complicates the conflict, and prolonging the civil war in Syria even longer.

Van Jones, Kurt Schlechter, thank you so much.

And coming up for us, tropical storm now a hurricane. Will Joaquin hit the United States? It is a huge question on everyone's mind. We will have breaking news on this storm's track, coming up. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[11:57:52] BERMAN: Breaking news out of South Dakota. The police there are investigating shots fired at a high school in Harrisburg in Lincoln County in the southeastern part of the state.

BOLDUAN: We're told fire trucks and ambulances are there on the scene, and a perimeter has been put up. No word of victims or what has happened. And obviously, breaking news there, and a lot of information still needs to be coming out. But again, for everyone, reports of shots fired at a high school in South Dakota. We will have much more coverage of that and the breaking news of course out of Syria. That is a lot to come in the next hour of CNN NEWSROOM.

Thank you all so much for joining us AT THIS HOUR.

BERMAN: "Legal View" with Ashleigh Banfield will start after a quick break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)