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AT THIS HOUR WITH BERMAN AND MICHAELA

Obama Administration Putting Boots on Ground in Syria; Is Jeb Bush Campaign on Life Support; Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired October 30, 2015 - 11:00   ET

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


(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[11:00:20]ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm John Berman.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm Kate Bolduan.

We are following breaking news at this hour. CNN news has learned the Obama administration is planning for the first time to officially send Special Operations forces into Syria to help fight ISIS.

BERMAN: To be clear, that is U.S. military personnel on the ground in Syria. The administration, no doubt, will hesitate to call this boots on the ground but it's hard to see this as anything but that.

We're covering these latest developments with CNN's Barbara Starr at the Pentagon; Joe Johns at the White House.

Barbara, let's start with you.

What details are you hearing from your sources?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, John and Kate. Multiple U.S. officials are now telling CNN that the White House is expected to make this announcement shortly. What by all accounts the president has decided is a small group of U.S. Special Operations forces, the most elite, the most highly trained, will go into northern Syria. This is an area controlled by the Kurds, up near the Turkish border. They are going to go there to support both Kurds and the Syrian Arab fighters. There are thousands up there from all of these groups fighting ISIS. But they lack ammunition, equipment, logistics, the real ability to begin to execute a campaign, if you will, to push is out and push is further south. So what are the U.S. Special Operation forces going to do? They are going to help with that kind of planning and coordination, make sure they get ammunition drops, make sure they get the logistics, help them gather intelligence. The U.S. will also be gathering its own intelligence. This will give the U.S. eyes and ears on the ground for the first time in Syria on a regular basis to begin to gather more information about what is happening on the ground. This will be dangerous, make no mistake. U.S. troops are not expected to go into direct combat, walk a patrol, come into close combat with ISIS fighters, but if necessary, we are told they can get the permission to accompany these local fighters into the field. They can go with them on raids, if they get permission and it comes to that. It will be -- it will be very significant, however, because once you have U.S. troops on the ground there, you have to have a way to get them out if they run into trouble. How do you evacuate them? How do you helicopter them out? What do you have overhead to keep them safe? All of this leading to fundamental questions. Once you open the door, how many troops will wind up going? How could this mission grow in the coming days and weeks -- John, Kate?

BOLDUAN: As you lay out, Barbara, what you lay out shows what a significant announcement this really is. Let's continue the conversation. We want to welcome our viewers here in the United States and around the world as we continue covering this breaking news, this announcement coming from the White House. Barbara, you were touching on -- you said Special Operation forces will be going in. Do you have any idea? Are you hearing yet how many?

STARR: I think they're going to start with a relatively small number, perhaps a couple dozen. One of the things you want to do in the beginning is start with a very small footprint, if you will, because have you to build it up. You're going to have these guys paired up with fighters they know, they have vetted. They're not just dropping in. These will be people they trust, that they can work with. But you want to start small because you want to get a feel for what is happening. What is the security situation? What are the needs? And it could grow, then, from that. The smaller the number, clearly the safer you can keep them, but you have to have enough to be able to make a difference. I think it's likely we're seeing just the very beginning of this and decisions to be made, how much and do you want it to grow.

BERMAN: Barbara, stand by.

I want to bring in Joe Johns at the White House right now.

Joe, we know that the president has been considering options, proposals, from the Pentagon for some weeks. They have included the introduction of Special Forces into Syria. We also have learned the White House will make this announcement today. Any sense of what form this announcement will come in? Do we expect to hear from the president himself on this? This is a major shift in U.S. policy.

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Not clear we'll hear from the president himself, but I can tell you that just moments ago we got a statement on background from a senior administration official. I'll just read you some of the most operative language here. I'm reading through it myself. The president has authorized a small compliment and now we have a number of fewer than 50 of U.S. Special Operations forces to deploy to northern Syria where they will help coordinate local ground forces and coalition efforts to counter ISIL. The president has also authorized a number of additional steps, including deploying A-10s and F-15s to Incirlik Air Force base in Turkey, consulting with Prime Minister Abadi and the Iraqi government on the establishment of Special Operations force to further enhance our ability to target ISIL leaders and networks, and enhancing the U.S. counter ISIL or ISIS military assistance to Jordan and Lebanon. That's a little more detail. [11:05:41] I think the most important thing there is the number, the

senior administration official saying fewer than 50 U.S. Special Operations forces. That is the first number we've gotten on or off the record. Yes, they have been laying the groundwork, as it were, to make some type of announcement, but right now, it is not clear when the White House is actually going to come out and talk about this to reporters -- John and Kate?

BOLDUAN: They'll be facing questions next time they come to cameras.

Joe, Barb, thank you very much. Continue to work on your sources for more information.

While they work their sources, let's talk about these major developments with senior national international correspondent, Nick Paton Walsh. He's in southern Turkey right now. Also with us is senior military analyst, retired Lieutenant Colonel Rick Francona, who has a lot of experience in just this area.

Nick, you're in Turkey. Part of this announcement talks about deploying more A-10s and F-15s in Turkey where U.S. operations have been working, have been flying out of for their operations in Syria. What does this mean there?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The A-10s are significant. Their primary role is to target armor, that is tanks on the ground. That would provide, I imagine, the Syrian and Kurdish forces this small complement of Special Forces is supposed to be assisting pretty lethal fire power were they to be used against regime armor. ISIS has a lot of weaponry they have taken from the Iraqi and Syrian military as well. The F-15s adding to the complements of other coalition aircraft working out of Turkey as well. That clearly shows the Turkish are on board with this increase of American posturing, which would have to be the case, too.

One thing strikes me about the timing of this announcement, slap in the middle of the sensitive talks in Vienna, clearly showing the United States will not sit on their back heels and await a diplomatic outcome. Russians made it quite clear, do not send troops into Syria, the message to Washington. This is Washington's response. These Special Forces, small in number, I anticipate will mostly be working to the north of Raqqa, to the farthest west part of the territories held by the Kurds, why the YPG. Kobani, we saw highly televised, public, fight for that. There were pictures posted online suggesting a very small number of U.S. Special Forces may have been there assisting, targeting. Nothing confirmed by U.S. Officials at all. This may not be completely brand-new to those Special Operators in question. If they are heading south toward Raqqa, revolutionary brigades of Raqqa, the Syrian Arab group trying to fight to reclaim that city, announced they're declaring that area a military zone because they wanted to move in on it. Most people didn't think they had the capacity or military capability to do that. This may be boosting that, too.

I have to bear one thing in mind as well. To the far west of where ISIS has territory as well, nearer to the north of Aleppo, there are also Syrian moderate forces, too. Potentially, these could get assistance as well and pressure is to its western front, around a town called Marea as well. The biggest question is who precisely are they assisting who aren't the Kurdish YPG forces? The phrase Syrian Arab coalition, that's used here a lot. We really don't know what groups there are. You have to remember, John, Kate, the U.S. tried for nearly every year, spent half a billion dollars to train rebels, a proxy force. That failed. They got 55 together. They had to scrap the plan all together. Here they're looking for different groups. Perhaps ones the CIA vetted for a well-known program they had to arm moderate rebels. These aren't familiar faces. These may well be people who aren't 100 percent known to U.S. Special Operators and that could cause complexity on the ground -- John, Kate?

BERMAN: Nick, you bring up a number of good points. One, a reminder, the Russians are running air operations inside Syria. The Russians have troops inside Syria as well. So, keep that in mind as part of this discussion.

Colonel Francona, you have intimate knowledge of U.S. forward operations, Special Forces troops on the ground. These troops, less than 50, fewer than 50, we've been told, will be helping call in air strikes. They'll be providing intelligence on the ground that heretofore the United States has not had. How many can fewer than 50 really do? How much, I should say, can fewer than 50 really do?

[11:10:17] LT. COL. RICK FRANCONA, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, the numbers belie the capability. These are the best. You're probably going to put 50 U.S. Army Special Forces in there. These guys are trained to do this mission. The Special Forces excel at this. They go in and work with foreign munitions personnel. They set up military units. They provide the communications, the intelligence, and the training and the coordination. They bring the communications and you brought in a key point. They will leverage the U.S. air power to a much greater effect than we've been able to do before. What we provided the Kurds and the Syrians on the ground are GPS units they can pass coordinates to the pilots. Now what we'll have is the ability to have U.S. Army eyes on these targets and actually control the air strikes. This could be much more effective if they're allowed to do that. Now, Barbara listed some of the restrictions they're going to have. So, it remains to be seen just how close they're going to be allowed to get to the actions. But I agree with your assessment, this is a major shift in U.S. Policy.

BERMAN: Colonel Francona, Nick Paton Walsh, stand by. A lot more to discuss. How does this affect the relationship with Russia? How will they de-conflict these operations?

Stand by, gentlemen. We'll talk much more about this after a break.

Also, it just so happens CNN has had Clarissa Ward, our CNN International reporter, inside northern Syria reporting from the front lines, talking to some of these forces that, perhaps, U.S. forces will now be working alongside. What do they say about the introduction of U.S. forces? Do they want U.S. troops there? This is CNN special breaking coverage continues right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[11:15:57] BOLDUAN: Want to welcome our viewers around the world. CNN's special breaking news coverage. The United States will be sending for the first time officially, sending Special Forces into Syria to fight ISIS. In the ongoing fight against is. This as the U.S. expands its role against is. Kurdish fighters on the front lines in ISIS -- in the front lines against ISIS in Syria already. They're already battling the terror group, trying to reclaim much of its lost territory.

BERMAN: These Kurdish forces have already pushed ISIS out of the city of Hasaka and may be preparing another move forward.

Our senior international correspondent, Clarissa Ward, was up close, on the front lines with these groups and got a real sense of what they're up against, what their goals are in northern Syria. Watch this report.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CLARISSA WARD, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): These men are at the core of America's latest strategy to defeat ISIS, manning positions along a vast and desolate front line with is entrenched in villages just through the haze. They're fighters with the YPG, a force of roughly 30,000 Syrian Kurds which, backed by coalition air power, has dealt decisive blows to Islamic State militants across northern Syria.

Commander Vahus (ph) is in charge of this front-line position in the city of has Hasaka.

COMMANDER VAHUS (ph), YPG UNIT (through translation): They tried to attack us again ten days ago. We were prepared so they don't reach their target.

WARD: But they keep trying.

(on camera): ISIS has control of the next village along, which is just over a mile in that direction, but the men at this base tell us that ISIS fighters often go at night to that building just over there so that they can launch attacks on these positions.

(voice-over): The U.S. hopes the YPG will soon move from defense to offense, taking the fight to ISIS's stronghold in Raqqa, but at makeshift bases across the front lines, the fighters we saw were lightly armed, poorly equipped and exhausted by months of fighting.

And Senior Commander LaWand knows the battles ahead will be even tougher.

(on camera): Can you take Raqqa without heavier weapons from the coalition?

SENIOR COMMANDER LAWAND, YPG UNIT (through translation): The weapons we have are not high-quality. For this campaign we'll need new, heavy weapons. WARD (voice-over): The most important weapon they do have but don't

want to talk about is this device, which helps the YPG get exact coordinates for enemy positions. Those coordinates are sent to a joint U.S.-Kurdish operations room, and minutes later, fighter jets come screaming in.

(EXPLOSION)

WARD: Rezan told us he was given a week of training before using the device.

(on camera): Who trained you how to use this?

UNIDENTIFIED YPG FIGHTER (through translation): Believe me, I can't say. When you finish the training, it's a secret, but they weren't speaking Kurdish.

WARD (voice-over): A mystery, as is so much of the unfolding U.S. strategy in this critical corner of Syria.

Clarissa ward, CNN, Hasaka, Syria.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BERMAN: Back with us CNN military analyst, retired Lieutenant Colonel Rick Francona.

Colonel, thanks for being with us.

One thing Clarissa told us about this report, which she was speaking to forces on the ground inside Syria, they really didn't want U.S. troops alongside them. How sure can the U.S. be that these troops, whether they be these Kurdish fighters or some so-called friendly Arab groups, that they can be trusted?

FRANCONA: That's always the big question. We've had agency -- CIA officers making these contacts. There's a lot of behind-the-scenes negotiations going on with the Kurds. Now, the Kurds in Iraq are also talking to the Kurds in Syria, so we're using that as a conduit to find out who we can work with. Now, the Kurds don't want American fighting forces right with them, but they do want the capabilities these Special Forces troops can bring. It's a synergistic effect. I think they're going to welcome what the air power -- the increased capability of the air power will be. As you saw that report with Clarissa, they were holding up a GPS device. That requires offset targeting, which is really not that accurate. When you get U.S. Special Forces there with the real targeting -- target-designated equipment, it can be much more effective. It remains to be seen just exactly what they'll be allowed to do.

[11:20:37] BOLDUAN: That's a key question something the White House and Pentagon need to answer. But I guess we do need to hear the specifics of the arrangement of what they're allowed to do, but regardless, does it now mean with this announcement, colonel, that the U.S. has forces that are now in combat in Syria? FRANCONA: Yeah. I'm sure the White House is going to parse those

words in a specific way. But you're going to have 50 people inside Syria. You're also going to have to be able to support them. Now, they're going to need some sort of emergency air lift they need to get out of there. They're going to need increased support. Now, where's that going to come from? Obviously Turkey.

BERMAN: Don't forget, of course, Master Sergeant Joshua Wheeler killed, U.S. Special Forces, Delta Force, killed in an operation inside Iraq a little more than a week ago. You can see the risk these Special Forces will be taking with this new deployment, with this dramatic development in the --

(CROSSTALK)

BOLDUAN: And the White House knows, too.

BERMAN: Indeed.

Colonel Rick Francona, thanks for being with us.

We'll get back to our special coverage in a moment.

But first, Jeb Bush admits, he says, I screwed up, this week. He's talking to supporters, reassuring them things are OK. He has a new slogan and new game plan against his one-time protege.

BOLDUAN: Plus, knifes, guns, blood and chaos. Stunning new videos come out of the deadly shoot out between biker gangs in Waco, Texas. You want to see this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[11:26:23] BOLDUAN: There might be something wrong in the presidential race when you have to say this, your campaign is not on life support. But that is what Jeb Bush had to say while he was in New Hampshire yesterday.

BERMAN: His campaign unveiled a new slogan inside that said, Jeb can fix it. Was he talking about America or his campaign? If it is his campaign, at least one influential establishment thinker thinks it's too late. Peggy Noonan writes in the "Wall Street Journal," "It's just hard to see how this can work." By hard, I mean for me, impossible.

Let's talk about this with CNN political reporter, Nia-Malika Henderson.

Nia, a lot of bad signs coming from Bush world today.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER: Bad signs. He was on a conference call yesterday with his donors trying to ease their fears, sparked by their lackluster debate, saying he can do better, he will do better. That new slogan, as you said, has a double entendre. We'll see him in Florida. He's going to ramp up in New Hampshire as well. They'll be pouring a lot of money in that state. Meanwhile, they're trying to go after Marco Rubio as well. I think that's a theme we saw him hit yesterday and they think Marco Rubio, who's on the rise in some ways, if not in donor but certainly in buzz, so that's going to be an interesting twist for this campaign.

BERMAN: Nia-Malika Henderson laying out the troubles, not even ahead, but the troubles right now in the Bush campaign.

Thanks so much, Nia.

HENDERSON: Thank you.

BOLDUAN: Thanks.

Joining us now, Ron Brownstein, CNN senior political analyst; as well as Brad Woodhouse, former communications director for Democratic National; Committee; and Doug Heye, who holds that very same title with the Republican National Committee.

Great to see all of you.

Ron, you followed a lot of campaigns. Can Bush turn it around?

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: I think, in theory, he can but I think it's a very, very difficult road. There's nothing in his performance so far that gives confidence he can. To me, the overriding factor, here's a guy who has not run for office since 2002, who has not had a hard election since 1998. Since day one, he has shown that. He has been out of step --

(CROSSTALK)

BROWNSTEIN: He has just been out of step I think with the party from the beginning. Part of the challenge he's got, in his bracket of the center right establishment bracket, there is a good choice emerging for a lot of Republicans in Marco Rubio, you also have Kasich. Different from John McCain in 2007, which is probably the one example they would point to of someone who came back with similar difficulties. When Rudy Giuliani flamed out in 2007, there was nobody else for voters to go to in that lane. Now there is. I think that --

(CROSSTALK)

BERMAN: John McCain was running on something and Jeb Bush is trying to figure out --

(CROSSTALK)

BROWNSTEIN: Right. I mean, he is running almost to be the nominee of a different party than exists today. He has struggled from day one to adapt who he is, Jeb will fix it, a reformer with results, which was his brother's slogan in 2000 --

(CROSSTALK)

BROWNSTEIN: In, 2000. But he's always -- it's been difficult for him right from the beginning to be in step with where the party has gone. I think he's struggled to adapt. Rubio has had problems, too. He has to renounce his immigration position. He's had other issues. But I think Jeb has been especially a man out of time.

BOLDUAN: You talk about Rubio having his own issues. Jeb Bush's campaign seems to want to help that along and suggesting what some of those issues should be.

Brad, now that Bush campaign is digging up dirt that Rubio points out that liberals are the ones that dig up this dirt normally.

BRAD WOODHOUSE, FORMER COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR, DEMOCRATIC NATIONAL COMMITTEE: Exactly.

BOLDUAN: How is he going answer this?