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Iraqi Deaths Tied to U.S.-Lead Airstrikes; The Fight for Raqqah; Russia's Resurgent Opposition; Dinosaurs Down Under

Aired March 27, 2017 - 14:00   ET


[14:00:00] MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN HOST: Tonight on the program, did an anti- ISIS coalition air strike killed dozens of civilians in Western Mosul? I ask a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition what is being done to protect

the most vulnerable.


COL. JOSEPH SCROCCA, U.S. ARMY: At this point, the civilians should probably take their chances in the city and know that we're going to do

everything that we can and the Iraqi security forces are going to do everything that they can to protect them when they take their chances with

the enemy.


HOLMES: Also ahead, with Raqqah as the next major target in the fight against ISIS, what challenges to retake the de facto capital of the


Also, a show of defiance. Thousands taking to the streets across Russia in the largest anti-government protest in five years. How will the Kremlin


And good evening, everyone. Welcome to the program. I'm Michael Holmes in Atlanta in for Christiane tonight.

Well, grief and anger in Western Mosul where as many as 200 civilians may have been killed, but who was responsible? Was it U.S. bombs or booby trap

triggered by ISIS fighters, or a truck bomb or some combination of the three?

"Los Angeles Times" correspondent Molly Hennessy-Fiske visited the scene and spoke with CNN affiliate today.


MOLLY HENNESSY-FISKE, LOS ANGELES TIMES CORRESPONDENT: The families were leading us through the rubble and showing us remains. Some of which had

been zipped into blue body bags. Some of which were still in the rubble. Some trapped in the rubble. We could see hands and feet.

The neighbors, people who knew the victims were pointing out and saying this is a woman, this is a baby, a boy, a girl. A lot of -- a number of

women and children among those who had been killed.


HOLMES: U.S. and Iraqi defense departments are investigating the incident. If the U.S. is responsible, it would be the largest death toll in an

American-led air strike since the fight against ISIS began.

There are hundreds of thousands of Iraqis still trapped in Mosul, caught in the crossfire between invading coalition forces and ISIS fighters dug in

for a desperate last stand.

Well, as the U.S. military ramps up operations, both in Iraq and Syria, there are bound to be more casualties.

The uptick in civilian deaths since President Trump took office has worried some that his administration has relaxed the rules of engagement. U.S.

military denies that.

Earlier, I spoke to Col. Jo Scrocca. A spokesman for the coalition executing these air strikes to get the latest on the investigation.


HOLMES: Col. Jo Scrocca joins us now to talk about this.

Colonel, thanks for your time. So it appears a strike did happen. We know that much on that day. But there are so many questions that remain. I

mean, were houses hit? Was a truck bomb hit? Were houses booby trapped? Is there any clarity you can offer?

SCROCCA: Well, Michael, thank you for having me today. And I'll tell you that the death of innocent civilians in war is a terrible tragedy, no

matter how many and it weighs heavily on our hearts. And that's why we're doing an assessment right now to determine the validity of the allegation

and to find out the answers to your questions. For sure, we really can't say for sure right now.

HOLMES: How does the U.S. investigate when it's not there on the ground? It's pretty difficult I would imagine. Iraqi forces are there, but one

presumes U.S. investigators are not.

SCROCCA: That's correct. The coalition takes all allegations and a lot of times we don't have specific locations. We get a lot of these allegations

directly from social media and they're not very specific.

Once we determine we have enough facts to conduct an investigation, we'll look at lots of different types of evidence, such as strike videos, witness

accounts, even social media input and any other evidence that is presented to us to determine if the -- if the allegation is credible.

And like you said, we don't have people on the ground. In this case, the area was just recently liberated from ISIS. So the Iraqis have just gotten

some people there. So we'll take any evidence that they are able to present to us as well.

HOLMES: And it's such a difficult environment. One of the Iraqi Vice Presidents Osama al-Nujaifi, he is from Mosul. And he -- he actually said

the other day that there, in his words, there has been a change in the rules of engagement that, again, his words he said it has cost hundreds of

civilian lives.

Has there been any change? Is there any broader discretion to the commanders on the ground?

[14:05:00] SCROCCA: No, Michael, there has been no changes to the rules of engagement. There's no -- there's been no additional authorities given to

commanders here in Iraq or Syria.

I'll tell you what's interesting is that we keep looking at, you know, whenever we have one of these allegations of civilian casualties, you know,

we're going to take it seriously. We're going to look at it.

But the real question is, what is ISIS doing to contribute to this? You know, ISIS is the one that is using humans as shields every single day.

ISIS is fighting from people's homes. ISIS is using schools, and mosques, and hospitals as weapon storage facilities and fighting their positions for

their terrorist acts. You know, they are the cause of the civilian casualties.

HOLMES: I'm curious, though, when it comes to the protocol for calling in an air strike, particularly in a close, tight urban combat environment, you

know, even if the target is a suicide vehicle, obviously a major threat to forces on the ground, is the word of Iraqi forces enough for the U.S. to

strike, or does the U.S. need to have eyes on the target, its own evaluation before engaging?

SCROCCA: Michael, all coalition air strikes are approved by both an Iraqi officer as well as a coalition officer. Both officers have to agree before

the strike takes place.

And in many of these cases, we have to ensure of course that the strike is proportional. We don't want to use ammunition that is oversize to the

target. If we're trying to take out some ISIS snipers perhaps on the roof, we're not going to use a large bomb that's going to destroy a building.

We're going to make sure that we use a proportional ammunition that will destroy -- kill the fighters, but leave the building standing. We want to

return Mosul to the people of Mosul, you know, in one piece.

HOLMES: One of the problems is the Iraqi government has more than once encourage civilians in Mosul to stay put, to not leave their homes. And

then, you know, you see the civilian casualties start to mount. I mean, that's problematic in and of itself isn't it if they have to stay.

SCROCCA: We fully support the Iraqi government's decision in that matter. And in fact, you saw this on the west side of Mosul recently, where

civilians trying to flee the fighting were actually targeted by ISIS, shot in the back by snipers when they were trying to get out of the city. So

there's no sure bet for civilians anywhere.

Yes, they're in harm's way right now, but we are trying to protect them. We will never target civilians. But we can't say that for our enemy

because we've seen recently where the civilians trying to leave were killed by the Iraqis.

You just have to take a look at how many mass graves are surrounding Mosul right now, with thousands, thousands of dead civilians in them. You know,

I think the civilians should probably take their chances in the city and know that we're going to do everything that we can and the Iraqi security

forces are going to do everything that they can to protect them and take their chances with the enemy.

HOLMES: Colonel, before I let you go, I wanted to ask you about reports -- there are other reports that I'm sure you're familiar with. Dozens of

people were killed when an air strike hit a school near Raqqah. Of course, Raqqah is the next target.

There are various reports blaming the U.S. for that, and saying the school actually had refugees in it and had fled fighting in Palmyra. I'm just

wondering if any further information on that investigation or is that ongoing.

SCROCCA: Michael, I'm familiar with the report that you're referring to, and that case is currently under an assessment right now. As I said

before, ISIS is known to use schools, mosques and hospitals as fighting positions or weapons storage positions.

So, you know, it wouldn't surprise me if that was the case here. But we have not been able to determine yet the validity of that allegation.

HOLMES: All right, I appreciate your time, Colonel. A very difficult sort of battlefield and terrain there for all concerned, not to mention the

civilians most of all.

Col. Jo Scrocca, thanks so much.

SCROCCA: Thank you, Michael.


HOLMES: And as you heard there, the next major target in the fight against ISIS is Raqqah in Northern Syria, taken by ISIS three years ago. It is now

the group's operational command headquarters.

The U.S.-led coalition is carrying out air strikes. And the French defense minister said last week the battle could begin within days.

Earlier, the U.S. announced the Tabqa Airfield, which is some 50 kilometers away, has been retaken by an American-backed rebel group. But retaking the

city will be far from easy.

Aaron Stein senior fellow at the Atlantic Council joins me now from Washington and thanks for doing so.

Let's start with how different this battle will be compared to Mosul. I mean, for a start, you've got a state army in Iraq. You do not have that

in Syria leading the charge.

In Iraq, you've got, what, Kurd, Arab, Turkmen, Armenian militias, Americans in support. You've got Syrian regime forces with Russian

backing. The Iranians in the mix. It's a potentially messy alliance, is it not?

[14:10:00] AARON STEIN, SENIOR FELLOW, ATLANTIC COUNCIL: Yes. I mean, Iraq is extremely complicated. I mean -- and it differs considerably from

Iraq because as you've said Iraq has a central government.

And as the previous segment shown, you know, we've worked through the Iraqi security forces that being the United States. Syria is really complicated

because the United States does not have relations with the Syrian government led by Bashar al-Assad and is working with what's called the

Syrian Democratic Forces or SDF with the primary force comprising the SDF being the Syrian YPG, which is mainly made up of Kurdish forces.

HOLMES: And then let's talk about that, the involvement of the YPG, problematic for neighboring Turkey who sees them as an enemy, really, and

yet you've got the U.S. backing them in this fight at least in the context of Raqqah.

How might Turkey play into this battle?

STEIN: Yes, this is what makes Raqqah even more complicated on top of the fact that there's no central government that the U.S. works with. The

primary ground component is linked to a Kurdish group inside of Turkey that's been waging insurgencies since the 1980s.

So this has led to delays within Raqqah and problems about what will Turkey do if the U.S. deepens its involvement with the SDF YPG. And the concern

is Turkey can do any number of things. Send troops across the border to try and slow down the operation, to complicate U.S. war plans.

HOLMES: The Syrian Defense Forces you mentioned is, as we pointed out, such a disparate grouping in many ways. What are the chances of Raqqah

being retaken, ISIS defeated militarily. And then those who did the taking turning on each other, some elements of the Syrian Defense Forces have

already been clashing.

STEIN: I think what's important is that once the United States and the Syrian Democratic Force decide to really push inside the city rather than

just shaping operations outside of it. I don't think the outcome will be in doubt. It will just a matter of how long it will take and what the U.S.

have to put in its involvement throughout the thing.

But the SDF has been clear that they will turn it over to Arab fighters along in their coalition. I think that coalition can survive so long as

the U.S. stays.

I think the question is, if the U.S. packs up and leaves, what comes -- what comes after that? And then on the other side you also have the regime

to worry about. And what will -- how will this figure into an endgame scenario inside of Syria if possible.

HOLMES: We were talking about Raqqah being different than Mosul, because this operation isn't happening under central government control per se,

unlike Iraq.

You know, when we talk about the complications that brings, who will be in command of this battle for Raqqah, tactically and on the battlefield. Who

is going to be taking? Who is going to do the holding?

STEIN: It will be the Syrian Democratic Forces. As I said being the backbone of that is the YPG, this Kurdish militia. And there are groups

within that, or at least the leaders within that I should say, that the United States works closely with.

The U.S. has been involved considerably in the planning for Raqqah, has been arguably since the U.S. got involved in October of 2015. So I think

there will be a heavy U.S. presence there, I should say, overseeing operation, similar to what they are in Mosul where U.S. operations embed

with these forces as they push into the city and advise call in air strikes and artillery, and stuff like that.

HOLMES: There are those, though, who say, I mean, they don't want the YPG marching into Raqqah, certainly Turkey is not either. I mean, how

important is it for the Arabs are taking the lead on that?

STEIN: I think it's important. I mean, the Syrian Democratic Forces, there's no way around it. Primarily made up of the YPG. But within that,

there are Arab elements that the YPG have been recruiting into the forces and they will be the sort of counsel that's left behind to administer the


I think the rub for Turkey is that council will still have connections into the YPG. And so even though they're ethnically Arab, they're still

subservient to a Kurdish group that is at odds with Turkey.

HOLMES: It's interesting, too. We haven't discussed the civilian aspect in Raqqah. There are civilians there. I mean, I was outside Mosul in

October, November. There are camps there. The U.N. has camps. Other aid groups have camps for the displaced. That doesn't look like the case in


What sort of situation are they going to face?

STEIN: I mean, certainly, there are civilians there. One of the big gun reported stories is that as the SDF pushes out, civilians move into their

areas or they move into areas, you know, regime-held areas inside of Turkey -- sorry, inside of Syria. And so you have this second area effect for

sub-state actors are being pressed on IDP issues of refugees moving out of war-torn cities and how will the international community respond once the

bomb stop dropping and stabilization begins?

HOLMES: And one final thing, Aaron, before I let you go. We saw the attack in London, a British-born person behind that terror attack. When

you're talking about a place like Raqqah and the foreign fighters that have been involved in this battle militarily in Iraq and Syria, what happens

when they head home? What happens when the military battle is over? You've got some pretty hardened people heading back home.

STEIN: I mean, I think that's one of the major concerns. I mean, luckily the border with Turkey has been sealed off as has the Jordanian border.

But obviously people can still get through if they really push hard. No, but no intelligence service is perfect.

I think that at least here in Washington is pushing the impetus to go as fast as we can with Raqqah -- with the SDF in trying to disrupt ISIS as

much as we can to prevent terror attacks around the world.

[14:15:00] HOLMES: And very quickly, do you see a contiguous Syria under central government in the future given all the interested parties that

we've been discussing?

STEIN: I mean, that's the million dollar question. I have no idea, but certainly it looks like whatever comes next in this fight is you'll have an

empowered Kurdish movement in the northeast of Syria. Whether that leads to secondary conflicts or peace with the regime or at least some sort of

pass at the escalation with Turkey or the regime I think is anybody's guess.

HOLMES: Aaron Stein, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, thanks so much. Appreciate your expertise.

STEIN: Thank you.

HOLMES: We're going to take a short break. And then we go to Moscow where protests have rocked Russia's capital and seeing an opposition leader put

behind bars. We're going to delve into the corruption scandal that triggered the country's biggest demonstrations in five years. That's

coming up after the break.


HOLMES: And welcome back to the program, everyone.

From the outside, it seems unassailable that Russia's government has just seen its biggest challenge in half a decade. On Sunday, some 8,000

protesters sweeping through the streets of Moscow, defying a ban on public demonstration. Thousands more joined them in cities as far east as Siberia

in a rare nationwide show of strength by Russia's opposition.

Hundreds of people were arrested, including the event's organizer, Alexei Navalny, who was sentenced to jail on Monday.

Now earlier this month Navalny had released a video, the one you see there, claiming that Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev used his political power to

secretly amass vast sums of wealth.

He even alleged that tracking shipments for a pair of Medvedev's running shoes helped tie him to a hidden real estate portfolio. Protesters waved

shoes and other items featured in Navalny's video as symbols of Medvedev's alleged corruption.

I'm joined now by Maria Lipman, editor-in-chief of "Counterpoint" journal.

And thanks for being with us.

This was as we said the biggest protest in years.

Was the size of the turnout a surprise and perhaps more crucially does it have momentum?

MARIA LIPMAN, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, COUNTERPOINT: On the turnout, of course, was a surprise. And I think such events, mass protests, not by a political

force but driven by mood, such incidents are always unpredictable.

What is striking is not the sheer numbers but the geography. According to various estimates, up to 90 different cities in Russia, some as far as the

far east in Siberia, are source scenes of public protests. Some larger, some smaller. But this geography is really stunning.

It is unexpected in the way the Russian government and the Kremlin responds indicates it was unexpected to them, too.

HOLMES: Yes. I'm curious Mr. Putin really faces no credible opposition other than that mobilized by Mr. Navalny. How strong is that opposition,

such as it is? How organized?

[14:20:00] LIPMAN: It's not organized at all. It's not a movement. It's not a political party. It doesn't have a name.

It's just a one-time event at least for now. The way it probably raises concern in the Kremlin is not because it's a direct challenge. The Kremlin

still has overwhelming control over politics, but next year Putin will stand for re-election for his fourth term. There are messages reportedly

the Kremlin wants around 70 percent turnout and about 70 percent vote for Putin, but given this mood, it may be difficult to gain the vote especially

in large urban centers.

HOLMES: And of course he's got approval ratings in the 80 percent range and they have been there for a long time. But how solid are those numbers

can we trust them. How real is that support? And how much in that context what we saw on the streets actually worries Vladimir Putin?

LIPMAN: I think it should worry the Kremlin and Vladimir Putin. Of course, I'm guessing here. I don't know what his feelings are. We heard

from Putin's pressman, but there's been very little response from the Russian authorities. And by the way the Russian state media almost ignored

the event.

However, I think it should raise concern. And the 80 plus percent approval rating of Putin in some way can be interpreted as there is no alternative

to Putin. There hasn't been for such a long time. He is a leader of no alternative and suddenly this turnout and these young people and lots of

the protesters were very, very young. Some of them are high schoolers are showing there is another Russia. And maybe there is an alternative not to

Putin personally, but in general to the political order to this infallibility and to this unchallenged nature.

HOLMES: You know, we have a graphic I'm just going to put up to show people and just some of the Kremlin opponent, Putin critics killed or hurt

in recent times.

It's a pretty dangerous thing to be an opposition figure. What does what's happened to these people suggest about nervousness of the Kremlin?

LIPMAN: Well, the most -- well right now it is very important what will happen to Alexei Navalny who is indeed a unique figure in Russia. A very

talented public politician, a people's man who knows how to be charismatic and funny, and worked with the crowd. He's also fearless, who also is very

good with modern communications.

This documentary that your report mentioned about -- or making allegations of corruption against the prime minister had -- about 10 million people

watched it already, at least maybe even more, so he is truly unique.

The only figure of nation scale that is recognizable, that people are aware of and now emerged as an organizer of this event, of these mass protests.

So it will be really interesting what will happen to him and I think the government is now facing a dilemma once again.

Is it better to locked him up finally? Or leave him at large? And both solutions come at a cost.

HOLMES: Of course. They're trying to make sure that he doesn't run in the next election as well. Before I let you go, the documentary you mentioned,

the corruption allegations, a lot of people would say this isn't so much about that, it's about dissatisfaction overruled. But how much evidence is

there against Mr. Medvedev and might his job be on the line? May he be a sacrificial lamb.

LIPMAN: Well, of course, they are always talks in Russia that whatever appears that is critical of high-ranking officials that this is a product,

the by product of interest and feud among the Russian elites.

This is a documentary. This is not a court case. And the interesting thing is that the prime minister did not respond. He hasn't appeared a

single time to respond to the allegations even not to dismiss it, which in itself is kind of interesting.

This is not a court case and will not become one, but these allegations and the way Alexei Navalny went to building them making it as he usually does

his trademark, he knows how to speak about these complicated economic financial things in an easy and simple way and make it look funny hence the

sneakers and the little ducklings, all of them mentioned in the documentary.

So it was enough to stir this protest. To capitalize on the sentiments that probably have been there for a while among the young people, but

nobody was paying attention.

HOLMES: Indeed. We're out of time. Maria Lipman, thanks so much. Editor-in-chief of "Counterpoint" journal.

LIPMAN: Thank you.

[14:25:00] HOLMES: Well, a break from the chaos and complexities of the modern era, next, as we take comfort in the fact that one day it will all

be ancient history. We dig up the distant past in land down under -- next.


HOLMES: And finally tonight, we imagine a prehistoric world in the land of Oz, in western Australia. In fact, my home state. They have just made a

discovery of Jurassic proportions.

This beautiful and unassuming coastline proving to be a stumping ground for thousands of dinosaurs.

Queensland University found 21 different types of tracks down the coast on (INAUDIBLE). The diversity of footprints left by the ancient animals,

unprecedented and some of them have existed for 140 million years.

Scientists are calling it Australia's very own Jurassic Park. Palaeontologist also bought to the surface the world's largest dino print

or dino print depending on anyone who say it on record.

A Sauropoda step measuring in at a whopping 1.7 meters. And the treasure trove doesn't end there either. The site also proving for the first time

that Stegosaurus once roamed the Australian shoreline.

And that's it for our program today. Remember you can listen to our podcast. See us online at, follow me on Twitter @HolmesCNN.

Thanks for watching, everyone. Goodbye for now from Atlanta.