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Defense Secretary Mattis Briefing Trump On Syria Options; Trump Orders Military Strike Against Syria; 50 Plus Tomahawk Missiles Fired Into Syria. Aired 9-10p ET

Aired April 6, 2017 - 21:00   ET


[21:00:02] BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Late this afternoon here at the Pentagon, the joint chiefs were called in. They were briefed on the options. These are some of the classic signals that one would see before military action is taken.

These things tend to have a pattern of activity. The president -- any president will get that one last briefing from his commanders about what they want to do and what they hope to achieve.

It's been our understanding here at CNN through most of the day that there are basically two options on the table for the president. A limited option if you will. Strike perhaps the airfields that the Syrians use to launch planes to drop those bombs filled with nerve agents on civilians, women and children being killed, those horrific pictures we saw, that would be the limited option. That would send a signal to Assad and to the world that Donald Trump is serious and willing to use military force.

There will be a more extensive option. The military always gives president options to choose from and that would be to take out all of the chemical capability, the delivery systems, the airfields, the helicopters, the barrel bombs, the rockets, the artillery.

But, tonight, if you look at the map there are two U.S. navy warships in the Mediterranean. They are equipped with Tomahawk cruise missiles. These are the kind of missiles that could be launched. They involve no risk to U.S. military personnel. They're unmanned cruise missiles. They fly at low altitudes. They can be adjusted and guided to evade Syrian air defenses.

But there's a big problem here no matter which option is chosen, there are Russians on the ground. The Russian military is there. The U.S. wants to avoid hitting them. Anderson?

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Yeah. Barbara Starr, appreciate that.

I want to go now to our Jim Acosta outside Mar-a-Lago where those meetings that Barbara mentioned are taking place in addition to the president hosting his Chinese counterpart.

Jim, you heard Barbara's reporting, Syria front and center despite all the attention obviously on the Chinese president's visit which has been in the works now for months. President Trump spoke briefly on Air Force One this afternoon. What did he say there and let's -- then let's talk about tonight.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, Anderson. We've seen a dramatic change in rhetoric coming from the president and his administration in the last 12 hours.

Keep in mind, it was just last week when the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley were all talking about what they thought was going to be the Trump administration policy that the U.S. would probably just have to be able to live with Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian leader, in power in Damascus and that all changed after that chemicals weapons attack on those civilians that happened on Monday.

You heard the president earlier today on Air Force One saying something should happen. Here's what he had to say.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Do you think that Assad should leave power in Syria?

DONALD TRUMP, U.S. PRESIDENT: I think what happened in Syria is a disgrace to humanity. And he's there and I guess he's running things, so something should happen.


ACOSTA: Now, in terms of what's happening on the ground here in Florida, Anderson, we do know that the president was planning to meet with his national security team. You heard Barbara Starr say that he was briefed by Defense Secretary James Mattis.

But, Anderson, he also has the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson here who earlier today made some pretty dramatic statements also indicating that the U.S. now believes Bashar al-Assad should go, that the Russians should rethink their policy when it comes to propping up the Assad regime and being involved militarily in Syria.

And, you know, Anderson, the other thing we should point out just from a logistical standpoint and this doesn't necessarily indicate anything, but the Chinese delegation, of course, Chinese President Xi Jinping is here in Mar-a-Lago tonight meeting with President Trump. But the Chinese delegation in just the last several minutes has left Mar-a-Lago.

As Barbara was saying, when you look at the different tea leaves and try to piece together what may be happening tonight that is obviously something that would happen from a diplomatic standpoint to allow the president to, again, huddle with his advisers and perhaps make a very critical decision.

But, Anderson, you were just talking in the last hour, you know, President Trump time and again warned not just on Twitter, but at campaign rallies that the U.S. should be very careful when it comes to getting into Syria.

Of course, when President Obama was in office, he was saying that the U.S. should stay out of Syria. But just before the election last November, Anderson, President Trump was saying out on the campaign trail that Hillary Clinton was threatening World War III by considering military action in Syria with the Russians there.

And so now the president finds himself in a very similar situation and that he is considering the possibility of a very dangerous, very risky move in Syria that could have unintended consequences that nobody has imagined at this point, Anderson.

COOPER: All right, Jim Acosta, thanks very much. We'll continue to check in with you throughout this hour as potentially fast moving developments.

I want to bring in our military panel, retired Lieutenant General Mark Hertling, retired Air Force Intelligence Officer Rick Francona, also retired Navy Rear Admiral John Kirby, former Pentagon Press Secretary and State Department Spokesman, and Gloria Borger as well -- Gloria Borger is joining us as well.

[21:05:12] Admiral Kirby, so the deputy Russian ambassador when asked about potential U.S. military action in Syria said, "You have to think of negative consequences, referring to prior action by the U.S. in Iraq, in Libya."

I'm wondering what you make of that and how does one from a military standpoint calculate the presence of Russian forces on the ground and the potential for killing, you know, accidentally killing, if you're bombing the airfield or targeting an installation and there's Russian military personnel who are there advising in whatever capacity, how do you calculate that in, because that brings it to a whole other level if you've killed Russian military forces.

JOHN KIRBY, CNN MILITARY AND DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: Yeah. I never thought that I would agree with the Russian officials speaking publicly about our options as a military, but I actually do agree with them on this. I think you've got to think through all the consequences, positive and negative, of any kind of military strike.

Look, we are very good at targeting. And as Barbara described, if they in fact do something like this and if it is in fact from destroyers at sea, those Tomahawk missiles are very, very precise and can have a positive disaster effect on a target that they're hitting.

But there is always the day after. So they'll do battle damage assessment. They'll try to figure out whether they got the targets or target that they hit. And then the next day, you've got to look at what the reaction is going to be by the Syrians, by the Russians, even by the Iranians.

And as I said earlier, I think you've got also think about the reaction of the opposition groups now, because you are now entering a phase here, no matter how precise the strike is, you're entering a phase here where you are actually targeting the Assad regime, which we hadn't done before.

So, it does change the calculus of U.S. military operations inside Syria, which is either two just been designed against ISIS. There's a lot to consider here. There's a lot to take in.

Now, your question about the Russian is very valid. There are -- what's different -- major difference between now and 2013 is the presence of a large number of Russian military forces scattered throughout Syria. They did -- it used to just be around Tartus, now as Arwa very, very clearly showed, they're all over the country.

And so, you've got the factor that in, as well as the presence of Iranian or Republican national -- Republican guard troops as well. That's clearly going to be a risk that they have to take in.

I would suspect that the planners that are doing this are thinking that through very, very carefully. We were very good about looking at collateral damage and trying to figure out what the best most precise way is to strike if in fact we're going to do that.

COOPER: Yeah. I mean, Colonel Francona, you know, to Admiral Kirby's point, you know, every action there has a reaction and you can't always predict what that reaction is going to be. You know, it's easy to think, well, you send some Tomahawk missiles, you send a message, but there are a lot of players on the ground who will then react in different ways.

LT. COL. RICK FRANCONA, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Absolutely. And before you even launch that strike, before you commit the forces into action, I think it's important that we determine exactly what we're trying to do. Are we trying to send a message or are we trying to defeat a capability? Are we trying to turn our attention toward the Syrian regime?

And the admiral makes a very good point. Up until now, we have stayed away from going after the Assad regime. All of our targeting Syria has been going after either ISIS or al-Qaeda affiliates. This would be a major shift in our policy and we have to make sure that -- are we going to commit our forces to a long term engagement with the Syrians or is this going to be a one-day, two-day slap on the wrist to send a message? That has to be answered before we even get to the -- what happens the day after.

COOPER: You know, General Hertling, you think back to -- I think it was a Colin Powell, you know, who sort of brought up the whole you break it, you bought it idea considering the -- before the Iraq war. I mean, if, you know, replacing Bashar al-Assad what comes in his wake. And given the fractures in the country it is an incredibly complex, you know, chess board.

LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, we have not said anything. I don't think and it shouldn't be part of the planning. It might be. I don't know. That we're talking about a regime -- a head of regime strike. I would doubt that that would be part of the target list to go after Assad in his palace, but here's the thing, Anderson. I was -- as a brand brigadier general, I was in the Pentagon on 9/11. And soon after, we went into crisis action planning and I was the head war planner on the joint staff, so I got involved in quite a few of these things.

What we're seeing is a very quick turn under two days of a plan to attack a sovereign nation that has other sovereign nations providing advice and assistance, both Russia and Iran. There are citizens and soldiers of those two countries spread throughout the city.

I go to what Kirby said, yes, the military is very precise in terms of targeting and precision targeting, specifically, when you're starting to fire Tomahawk missiles.

[21:10:10] But I would say, let's put the shoe on the other foot. Let's assume that maybe this is Russia attacking -- oh, I don't know, the Kurdish forces in Northern Syria and we have advisers with them and an American soldier gets hit by a Russian attack, imagine how we would react to that.

And then let's put it on the other foot and say how is Russia going to react if we hit an air base that has Russian soldiers, Russian airman there, maybe even Russian planes, how are they going to react? And, especially, after giving a warning in both the U.N. and Mr. Putin saying today sort of giving a new warning from Mr. Trump about show us the evidence that this was Syria that dropped these chemical weapons.

This is a very quick turn on crisis action planning. You know, I never doubt the Pentagon when they put some stuff out, but this is quick.

COOPER: Also, I mean, General Hertling, to that point in terms of crisis action planning, in the past we've seen attempts to build coalitions, attempts to have it not the unilateral action, I guess out of the belief that there is strength in that, particularly if it becomes, you know, a longer term action or for whatever the reactions to it are it's better if there's more, you know, more players involved on conducting the strike.

HERTLING: Yeah, we've said that before on this show, Anderson. You know, the only thing worse than having allies is not having allies, you know. And Mr. Trump over the last couple of days has somewhat insulted some of the allies that we have that have joined us before in Middle East activity.

Now, one of the things we're seeing all day today, there have been quite a few nations who have signed up and said, this is a horrific act. Dropping chemical weapons is a crime against humanity. It is a war crime. So there have been several nations that say they support the ouster of Assad.

But that doesn't mean those folks have signed up for a kinetic strike, which it was -- what could be happening tonight. There's a lot of horrifying thought about this chemical strike that's killed -- by latest estimates, 87 people, to include young babies. But, there have been over 400,000 skilled in Syria over the last seven years and it just -- it's kind of surprising to me that there is such a visceral reaction to this one attack after this has been going on for seven years.

COOPER: Admiral Kirby, you know, it's tempting to, you know, in the past we've seen cases where leaders have -- president have decided to fire some Tomahawk missiles to send a message, or at least be seen to be doing something. They don't necessarily have, you know, much of an impact on the ground. No pun intended.

I mean, they don't have, you know, much of a long term impact on changing the situation. It's more of a warning or kind of an attempt to do something as opposed to look like you're sitting around doing nothing. It's unclear whether, you know, if there is a strike tonight whether that would be it. It would be a one off thing and then they move or if this is more of a sustained action.

KIRBY: Right. And I think that's a very difficult thing to rely on. I mean, again, we would be in striking a regime target or targets. We would be now entering into the civil war in a way kinetically we haven't done before.

That changes the calculus, not only for us and what we're trying to do in ISIS and Syria, but it's going to change the calculus for players on the ground in Syria, not to mention including the opposition group, the opposition groups, who now may have certain expectations about U.S. military involvement that they haven't before.

They've been very frustrated in the past that we haven't been more coming in on their side, even through, you know, more lethal arms to them. Now, we're going to be striking a regime target. That sends a very different message to the opposition groups.

And so, are we going to be able to back that up over time? Are we going to be able to do more? If precision strikes are very tempting and they can be very tactically effective, the question is, can they be strategically effective? And what is your strategy going forward? You're going to have to adjust one way or the other.

This -- if we -- if the strike is conducted, it will change the calculus of what's going on in Syria, the civil war as well as our strategy there.

COOPER: Colonel Francona, I mean, I think back to Jordan, you know, launching air strikes against ISIS in the wake of what, you know, what many in Jordan considered their 9/11, which was multiple bombings, particularly at a several hotels in Oman killing people at a wedding party and, you know, horrifically one of the pilots of -- in one of the Amsterdamian planes went down. The pilot was captured by ISIS and then, you know, burned to death in a propaganda video by ISIS.

You know, God forbid, that is also something military planners have to take into consideration. This is more than Tomahawk missiles and it's actually involves, you know, aircraft on repeated (inaudible). There's the potential given that there are large swaths of the country in control of ISIS or under their sway that you have a plane going down and a U.S. personnel falling into the hands of a terror group. [21:15:13] FRANCONA: Yeah. I think that's a valid consideration. But, you know, as we've been talking I suspect that the primary weapon system here is going to be a cruise missile of some type, either the Tomahawk or the air launch cruise missile. We've got a lot of aircraft that can fire these from us a long stand off distance. It doesn't put the cruise at risk and it achieves a limited objective.

And, of course, I go back to, you know, what are we actually trying to do? If we're trying to send a message as we did with Gaddafi where you try and change his behavior with this shock treatment and say we're not going to tolerate this, the problem is once you start down that road, you don't get to determine where that road ends, because if the behavior doesn't change, do you keep going down that road?

COOPER: Also, if my memory serves me --

FRANCONA: Well, it starts out to be a raid, ends up being a war.

COOPER: Right. If memory serves me correct though on that missile strike against Gaddafi it ended up, I think, hitting a tent -- I think according to a report killing a member of his family, but not, you know, he obviously stayed in power for decades after that.

FRANCONA: Those were actually manned aircraft.


FRANCONA: And maybe fighter -- yeah.

COOPER: OK. Actually, I want to go to Arwa Damon, who's standing by at the map. Arwa, if you could just give us a sense of, you know, where, obviously the word Damascus is, which is where the leadership is, where the gas attack was and also some of the key installations that might, you know, be on the -- in the bull's-eye.

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, if you look obviously the areas that are under ISIS's control, which is a different aspect of this already complex battlefield, they're in red, ISIS support is in the lighter grayish tones.

Now, there are a couple of areas that the U.S. could choose to strike depending on the kind of message it's trying to send. Shayrant Airfield, this is where it is believed that the strike originated from the one that was carrying that deadly chemical with it. That strike, of course, taking place up here in Idlib province, a couple of other areas taken to consideration as well.

Dumayr Airbase, right here, this is where a lot of strikes against opposition areas originated from. Saiqal, also very critical for the regime, a lot of support aircraft are there as well.

If we move to the coast, you have of course Tartus. This is where the Russians have the vast majority of their aircraft. This is also where they have their naval base, that probably up for a lot of reasons not going to be a target. But to the north you have Latakia. This is where you have Latakia International Airport in there. You also have a number of the potential anti-aircraft weapons systems that are under the Syrian regime's control.

But, there are also challenges in taking on these kinds of strikes, because if we go down here to Mezze, Mezze airfield was actually in the city of Damascus (inaudible). It also is believed to have a number of air defense systems capabilities, but a strike against Mezze airfield would potentially result in a lot of civilian casualties and that is not something that the U.S. can afford at this stage.

It is, however, incidentally an area that the Israelis have struck in the past when they have wanted to send the Syrian regime, Anderson, some sort of message.

COOPER: And just -- General Hertling, is it a fair assumption to believe -- I mean, is it a safe assumption that there would be Russian personnel at most of those major airfields?

HERTLING: I would make that a safe assumption.

COOPER: Actually -- I'm sorry. I've got to interrupt you. I got to go to Barbara Starr who's standing by the Pentagon. Barbara, what are you learning?

STARR: Good evening, again, Anderson. We are now able to report that U.S. air strikes have been launched against Bashar al-Assad's chemical weapons capability.

We are being told by a senior official at this hour that approximately 50 Tomahawk missiles from two U.S. Navy warships in the Mediterranean launched earlier this evening. They are striking, we are told, airfields.

This was the limited option that you and I spoke about earlier, the airfields where Bashar al-Assad's air force launched those war planes that struck and killed those people in Northern Syria in that horrific attack.

So these Tomahawk cruise missiles have a particular military advantage. They can fly to evade Syrian air defenses. You don't put a pilot at risk. They're not manned. This was one of the two options presented to the president.

There was a more extensive target list, but this is thought in military circles that we're talking to be the option that essentially sends a message to Assad that Donald Trump is -- and the U.S. are now willing to use military force. So, will it be enough right away to get him to change his behavior? We don't know.

COOPER: So, Barbara, let me just -- I just -- for those just joining, you're saying -- the bottom line, you're saying 50 Tomahawk cruise missiles have been fired?

[21:20:04] STARR: We -- yes. We are getting very early word from officials. I will tell you, there is a briefing going on and this hour. We expect more information shortly, but a U.S. official telling CNN that 50 tomahawk cruise missiles from two U.S. navy warships in the Mediterranean have been launched against these targets in Syria.

Because they are cruise missiles, there are no American pilots at risk. They don't have to fly over the airspace of any other country. It's really the most expeditious, if you will, option that the president could pick.

COOPER: Barbara, do we know what time the cruise missiles were launched.

STARR: I am going to tell you that some time ago. You know, these have a range depending on the model of the missile use. We have a thousand miles plus. They fly relatively fast, but not as fast as you might think that some other missiles do. So they would have launched them some time ago. I cannot tell you exactly when.

And one of the reasons is these missiles --

COOPER: But is it safe to assume they have already struck their targets or at least --

STARR: Yeah. Well, I don't know that all 50 have, but they are telling us that they launched 50 and that you raise a very good point.


STARR: We need to find out --

COOPER: All right.

STARR: -- if they all actually struck the targets they aimed at. Sometimes these missiles go astray.

COOPER: Barbara, I'm going to let you continue your reporting. I'm going to check back with you in just a moment.

Joining us right now from the capital is former Republican Senator Marco Rubio. He's a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and he's been a critical in the administration approach to Syria in the past up to this point.

Senator Rubio, I'm wondering what your reaction tonight as to the news of this strike President Trump has launched.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO, (R) FOREIGN RELATIONS COMMITTEE: Well, my first reaction is to congratulate the skill, the courage, the bravery of our men and women in uniform. The second is -- and I saw it's kind of the report was being outlined. I don't believe this is a message. I believe this is actually a tactical action that furthers an objective, which is important.

My guess is and then I think you'll see confirmation of it shortly. Shayrat Airfield which is where these chemical attacks were launched from a fixed winged aircraft just a couple of days ago is going to be the target and that is the airfield from which the chemical attacks were launched.

It's also a critical point in a part of the country where they are battling rebels, non-ISIS rebels in the northern part of Syria. So, as I said, I think this is an important decisive step that was taken. It is not a message. It is the actual degrading of the capability of the Syrian regime to carry out further chemical attacks against innocent civilians.

This will degrade their capability to launch those attacks from the air and I think it was important step and hopefully it's part of a comprehensive strategy moving forward to bring to a close -- this chaos that is happening in Syria.

COOPER: When you talk about a comprehensive strategy, would you like to see more air strikes. I mean, as you said, this is very possibly degrading. It is not completely eliminating -- as far as we know, air capabilities in Syria, which as you know very well Bashar al-Assad has used, degrade effect with barrel bombs and all manner of atrocities over the last many months.

RUBIO: Well, first of all, I mean, it is a significant step. Again, I am not saying that this accomplishes everything, but I am telling you that this is the area from which those chemical attacks were launched. It's the place you are going to see future attacks come from, particularly targeting innocent civilians and in area where the regime felt that was losing territory after making significant gains.

And so, there's a messaging component to this, I'm sure -- not most definitely, but it is more than just messaging. This actually achieved the strategic objective and it's a significant degrading of their capabilities in the air. I mean, they don't have 100 airfields that they can launch operations from.

And so, again, we'll learn more details of it. I imagine the president will address the nation here fairly soon. But, again, I would say to everybody, this is not just some symbolic measure. It is a strategic objective and that when they appear to have dedicated the necessary resources to achieve a specific strategic objective and then that's the way you conduct these things.

COOPER: The deputy Russian envoy to the U.N. a short time ago warned the U.S. of what he's called negative consequences in military action in Syria, referring to prior action in Iraq and Libya. I'm wondering how you respond to that and what concerns you have about the potential for Russian personnel on the ground, military personnel on the ground.

RUBIO: Well, I imagine -- yeah. I imagine they were not the ones targeted, but, again, if the Russians are there on the ground assisting Assad in the commission of these heinous crimes, war crimes, they should answer for that. And they certainly have put themselves into harm's way.

The second point that I would make with regards to all of this is the absurdity of the Russian position. I mean with a straight face they are arguing that these chemical weapons are actually because of the rebels, which is absurd. And the third point is, Russia should be embarrassed and ashamed. They are the ones that are telling the world that there were no nerve agents, that there were no chemical weapons left. We know that for the better part of this year, Assad has been using chlorine bombs against the innocent civilians and population centers and now, yesterday, or a couple of days ago, a nerve agent Sarin.

[21:25:04] And so, the Russians have been covering for Assad and -- we're not for the Russians, Assad would not still be in power. And if it were not for the Russians, Assad would not have the capability and much less the gall to conduct the sort of attack that we saw just a couple of days ago. So, they have no standing to say anything about this.

COOPER: And as far as you understand, is it still U.S. policy, is it the policy that Trump administration that Bashar al-Assad must go, because as you know last week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that it's really up to the Syrian people to decide what happens to Assad.

RUBIO: Well, again, I would leave it to the White House to tell you what their policy is. I can tell you two things. Number one, I am convinced and I know the president was deeply impacted by the images and news and the reports that he got from what happened there. I think he acknowledge this much.

No matter how you may feel about the president, I know there are people out there that don't support the president, but if you watched yesterday when he was standing next to the king as they spoke about it, that was real. That was not politician up there talking, that was a real person who had just seen and heard and then briefed on this horrifying attack and it clearly impacted him. I think you saw it again today.

And I would say that I'll let them speak for their policy, but tonight's actions show that the days of being able to act with impunity are over when it comes to Bashar al-Assad and that there is now an American president prepared to do what it takes to ensure that he does not have the capability or that his capability to conduct these sorts of heinous war crimes is diminished and that he's held accountable.

COOPER: Senator Marco Rubio, I appreciate your time tonight. Thank you.

RUBIO: Thank you.

COOPER: I want to go next to CNN Jeff Zeleny who's outside of Mar-a- Lago where the president is. Jeff, what are you hearing tonight?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Anderson, I am told that President Trump will be addressing the nation at some point coming up shortly about these strikes on Syria.

Now, he met with his national security advisors, his national security team shortly after arriving here on the ground in Florida. And, Anderson, it was about 2:00 p.m. or so this afternoon when the president was flying from Washington on Air Force One here to Florida where we were asking him, I was one of the reporters on the plane, asking him about Bashar al-Assad.

And he's -- when he said something has to happen, the look in his eye, he paused before answering that question, of course he -- we do not believe he had made that decision at that point, but once he reached the ground here in Florida, he didn't meet with some of his advisors. The Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was here on the ground as well as the Defense Secretary General Mattis.

So, this -- all was going under -- happening at the same time he was having a dinner with the president of China here. But we do expect, Anderson, the president to explain his position here.

And I think Senator Rubio, you know, said a moment ago that the president was moved by those pictures and that was his message to us earlier today on Air Force One that he said, you know, this was a heinous act that something had to be done here.

So this without question is the biggest and most significant military action of his young presidency here and we are expecting him to explain it to the nation at some point coming up this evening, Anderson.

COOPER: Jeff, I mean, it really is a remarkable turn of events for President Trump who, you know, as a -- before he was in politics, you know, often commented on President Obama saying do not have military action in Syria, saying that if there was military action he would have to go to Congress in order to get approval for any sort of action, but not to --

ZELENY: Right.

COOPER: -- strike at Syria. And even as we said with Senator Rubio as, you know, early as last week Rex Tillerson was saying that essentially it's up to the Syrian people seeming to indicate that the U.S. -- that the Trump administration was fine with Bashar al-Assad remaining in power and sort of taking hands off approach. That has clearly changed tonight.

ZELENY: Right. Anderson, it has change and it is, you know, quite a reversal and a quick reversal here. And you're absolutely right, you know, we have so many comments from, you know, by Mr. Trump before he ran for office and you're right about that tweet in 2013. He said this, he said the president must get congressional approval before going into Syria here.

So, all of those discussions will come in the coming hours and coming days here. But I think this is a president who, you know, is inclined to act decisively on this. And, of course, he is consuming all this information now, you know, differently and more than ever before. When he was saying those other things as a private citizen, he was largely just basing his --

COOPER: Jeff, I got to -- ZELENY: -- opinions on news accounts.

COOPER: Yeah. Jeff, I guess I got to interrupt you. You can just hang on. Just stay there. I want to bring back in Barbara Starr who's learning more information. Barbara at the Pentagon.

STAR: Anderson, what we are now learning is somewhere between 50 and 60, more than 50 tomahawk missiles were launched from those two U.S. Navy warships in the Eastern Mediterranean. It happened between 8:00 and 9:00 tonight, East Coast Time. So it was well into the hours of darkness in Syria.

They launched at a single airbase called Shayrat, which is in Western Syria. The assessment was that that was the base that the Syrians used to launch the aircraft, their aircraft, that carried those deadly bombs that resulted in those people being killed by a suspected nerve agent.

[21:30:09] So it was a very focused strike with a very specific goal of essentially retaliation for that strike, something very narrowly militarily focused. So we know more than 50 tomahawk cruise missiles launching at the Syrian regime airbase. We don't know at this hour were there any Russian forces there or there are other forces there.

The tomahawk can be very precisely programmed. If they want to hit the airfield, a runway, they can program it to hit that point. It's guided to its target by satellite. So it can-- GPS, so it can be very, very precise. But we should know in the coming hours, some assessment of the damage they caused and what the impact they think may be to the Syrian regime if any at this point, Anderson.

COOPER: All right. So, Barbara, again, the headline right now 50 to 60 tomahawks fired from two vessels in the Eastern Mediterranean between 8:00 and 9:00 p.m. East Coast Time in the United States.

All targeting -- I just want to make sure that we're clear on this, all targeting that one airbase?

STARR: At the moment, that is what defense officials here are telling us, that they were targeting this single airbase called Shayrat, if I'm pronouncing that correctly. That's how they're pronouncing it. A regime airbase in Western Syria that they believe was directly tied to the nerve agent attack and the aircraft, the Syrian aircraft that flew from that base.

Now, what we don't know is if in the coming hours we will see additional U.S. military action against additional targets. Nobody is saying that but, you know, you can never really close the door to that possibility, because when they present options to a president, the military always presents a range of options. Here's the list of things you can do based on what objectives you want to accomplish.

So, we don't know if this is just the starting point or if this is going to be it and will it change Assad's behavior. Having one airbase bombed, will it changes behavior? What signal will it send about a Trump presidency to the rest of the world? COOPER: And, of course, reactions from Russia, as well, Iran as well who have also been propping up the Assad regime.

I want to check with in our military analysts in just a moment, but first I want to go back to Jeff Zeleny standing by at Mar-a-Lagos. So we're learning more information from Barbara Starr breaking news from the Pentagons tonight, Jeff.

ZELENY: We are indeed, Anderson, and much of that information that Barbara was just reporting I was likely conveyed. After that dinner, we are being told right now that Defense Secretary James Mattis gave a full briefing to the president about these air strikes and what indeed had transpired basically updating him on the order that he had approved earlier.

So they were discussing that, in fact, they are discussing that at this hour. And the president we are told will be making a statement to the nation at some point coming up soon this evening explaining these actions here.

And, again, as we are mentioning earlier, he had been on record of course saying that he believed that Congress should approve of this. He was critical of this. But then, again, this is a different moment and the president has said he will be flexible about things.

This is a Donald Trump who is now getting his information off of security reports and based on briefings, not simply reading things in the newspaper here. So the old Donald Trump versus the new Donald Trump a different situation here. He may have to square that at some point going forward.

But he did make this order tonight and we'll be hearing from him I'm told later and then his advisors will certainly be explaining this in the hours to come, Anderson.

COOPER: OK. Jeff, we're going to continue to check in with you throughout the evening as you develop more information.

I do want to bring in our military analysts. Colonel Francona, from your understanding, from your expertise, 50 to 65 tomahawk cruise missiles targeting this airbase. How-- I mean, that sounds-- I mean, I'm (inaudible), that sounds like an off a lot targeting one base that can do significant damage.

In a case like this, how much intelligence would the U.S. actually have about what kind of aircraft are still on the ground, what kind of weapon systems are still on the ground in terms of how effective this would be in, to use Senator Rubio's term, degrading the air capabilities, the future air capabilities of Bashar al-Assad.

FRANCONA: Well, this is a small airbase. I've actually been to this base in my tour as air attache in Syria. This is not a big installation. It's got two runways. It's got two squadron areas, each area enough to house in Hardened Aircraft Shelters. A squadron Sukhoi-22, that's the type of aircraft that was used in this attack and there's an administrative and maintenance area. It's not that large, 50 tomahawks will send a real message it will do a lot of damage.

Now, will it actually do damage to aircraft? I don't know. It depends on the ability of the tomahawk to penetrate these Hardened Aircraft Shelters. So, I suspect there's still be a lot of damage.

[21:35:08] COOPER: I would assume that it would also depend on whether or not the Syrian air force had actually moved the jets, because if they were going to -- I mean, if they were concerned about an attack, they might assume the air base where they had launched the initial attack from the gas attack they might have moved aircraft. And I assume the U.S. would know that.

FRANCONA: Well, they would know at a certain point in time, but there's always that left between your last image, your last intelligence information and the actual time you launched your strike. And they could have moved aircraft. You know, I would have moved the aircraft, it makes sense.

You can see the other bases there on the map. They could have easily moved them to those bases, but there are enough Hardened Aircraft Shelters on the base to protect the aircraft.

Now, you remember the Syrian airbases are not airports. These are real airbases, because Syria has been a country at war with the Israelis for decades. They build things to fight wars from.

So, I'm not sure how much damage 50 tomahawks will do, but anything that's not in a Hardened Aircraft Shelter will probably be easily damaged by that amount of ordinance. And it was good base to pick. Its 25 miles South of Homs. The fact that it got hit will be easily visible to the civilian population of Syria.

COOPER: And do you think that was part of the calculus?

FRANCONA: Well, you know, Dumayr is kind of out in the desert and far away from prying eyes, Saiqal is way out in the dessert. It's put out there for a reason. Shayrat is fairly close to the main highway, the main Damascus Homs highway. In fact, you can see it as you drive by. So, explosions are going off there, it will be seen in Homs and you can bet that that's going to be relayed quickly all over the place.

COOPER: Yeah. Arwa Damon who's by our map, if you could just kind of circle the base for our viewers at home to get a sense of exactly where the base that was targeted according to Barbara Starr.

DAMON: Sure. And its right here, the Shayrat Airfield and it is Homs province. As you see, it is from here that-- just to give an idea, the chemical strike took place up in Idlib province.

Now, some of the other areas that are being mentioned is being significant in terms of whether or not the Trump administration then decide, but it does wants to take greater action to try to even further degrade the Syrian regime's capabilities, those are down here.

Dumayr and Saiqal Airfield, but then you also have other installations. The headquarters for the Republican guard, for example, they are on the outskirts of Damascus. They contained quite a bit of the Syrian regime air defense capability.

You have Mezze Airfield, although targets like this would potentially be quite tricky because it is actually in the capital itself. But, again, the target for those tomahawks that were launched right here, Shayrat Airfield, and it is as we've been hearing a fairly small installation.

And from here, again, this is specifically where the Syrian regime launched those aircraft but then carried the bombs that had that chemical substance on them that caused those horrific deaths of-- in Idlib province, Anderson.

Cooper: All right. I want to go back to Barbara Starr who's standing by the Pentagon. Barbara, do you have more information?

STARR: Some additional details, Anderson. So we talked about the fact 50 to 60 tomahawk cruise missiles. We now know that the impact time, those cruise missiles hit that airfield at 8:45 tonight East Coast Time in the United States. And they were specifically programmed to target key things at that airfield and that includes the runways, some of the aircraft at the airfield and the fuel points, essentially, where the airplanes get their gas from.

So, what you had was a decision to go after the airplanes themselves, but also their ability to fuel up and take off yet again. They put them out of commission, they believe at this point. But, of course, what Arwa was saying, it is so crucial to all of this. This is just one spot.

So we asked U.S. official, will there be more air strikes? Are we done now? Is the president done? And this official said, yes, but then quoting this person said, "until another decision is made."

So, perhaps, not done just yet. We frankly don't know the answer to that. We don't know what else is on the table for Mr. Trump to decide on. Anderson?

COOPER: And, Barbara, we'll continue to check in with you. And according to Jeff Zeleny, the president is going to be making an address to the nation. We will, of course, carry that to you live. Those are the -- that's what a visual graphic is there of the tomahawk missile. Barbara Starr reporting 50 to 60 tomahawks were fired in this attack impacting around 8:45 Eastern Time, U.S. time.

Jim Acosta, is getting some new information on what moved the president to change his mind on Syria. Jim joins us now. Jim, what have you learned?

[21:40:03] ACOSTA: Anderson, as we know, the president has long been opposed to military action in Syria. We've gone through that time and again. But I was told by a senior administration official who was with the president in the aftermath of that chemical weapons attack in Syria and this official told me that the president was affected, was moved by these images of dead children among the civilian casualties and that was the reason why he felt compelled to act. Obviously, when you are a candidate or even just somebody out there on the national stage making comments about foreign policy, you can say just about anything that you want, but when you're the commander-in- chief, things change. And when you see images of dead children, that obviously is something that can change your calculus and what I'm told by senior administration official is that that is indeed what happened with this president.

Now, you also -- you mentioned just few moments ago, Anderson, that the president is getting ready to talk to reporters at Mar-a-Lago. That much is true. What we can also point out is that at the press hold area, as we call it, just outside of the Mar-a-Lago Resort where I'm located at right now, my colleague Jeff Zeleny is also located, I can tell you that inside that briefing room where reporters are staged, there is another area being set up for what appears to be a separate briefing that occasionally happens where senior administration officials will come in, brief reporters after a president speaks on a national crisis or some sort of big foreign policy development that's come up.

And so in addition to hearing from the president tonight, it appears Anderson, we can't say this for sure at this point, but it appears, just based on the preparations that we're seeing, that you're going to hear from other administration officials talking later on tonight about what occurred over there in Syria.

ANDERSON: I just want to point out to our viewers, those images we were showing you were from the attack on Monday by Syrian forces in the Idlib area, an attack which was launched from the base that, according to the U.S., that was struck tonight by 50 to 60 tomahawks. So those photographs were from the attack earlier this week, on Monday, the horrific attack using chemicals.

Jim, you said it's likely to be both the president and other officials briefing the nation?

ACOSTA: It appears that we're going to get some kind of briefing from senior administration officials. We don't know that for certain at this point. All we can tell you is that they're making preparations over here, where the press is holding for some kind of presentation to reporters. And that usually is because the president will come out and I expect that we'll see this here in the next several minutes. They will come out and he'll a make a brief statement about what has occurred in Syria tonight. He's not going to present all of the details that these other senior administration officials can provide.

You know, the president is not only traveling with his Press Secretary Sean Spicer, but there are also national security officials who tend to talk to reporters from time to time. Those officials presumably, if the scenario holds and it looks like it's going to hold, would come in and give us additional details about what, you know, what the president was doing when he received these briefings from national security officials earlier on this evening.

When he precisely made that decision to go ahead and launch these air strikes, did he consult with other foreign leaders? Did he consult with members of Congress? Did he brief the Speaker of the House Paul Ryan? Did he talk to the Gang of Eight up on Capitol Hill? These are the leadership members up on Capitol Hill.

My assumption is, Anderson, is that yes, the administration is going to explain all of those things have occurred and obviously, you know, these things are kept very tightly under wraps. But my expectation is that we're going to get those details later on this evening after the president speaks.

COOPER: All right. Jim, we'll continue to check when he will obviously bring any public remarks set from Mar-a-Lago tonight or anywhere else to you through CNN, either in this hour or when it happens live.

I want to bring back in retired Lieutenant General Mark Hertling, retired Air Force Intelligence Officer Rick Francona, who is actually visited the base that was hit, retired Navy Rear Admiral John Kirby. Admiral Kirby -- also, Admiral Kirby is the former Pentagon Press Secretary and the State Department's Spokesman as well. Also, David Axelrod, former Obama Senior Advisor and Gloria Borger, Chief Political Analyst.

Admiral Kirby, just in terms of what you have heard so far about what we know of this strike, 50 to 60 tomahawks targeting this one airbase, what stands out to you? What questions would you like most to have answered at this point?

KIRBY: Well, I think right now, I think what I'm most curious about is the battle damage assessment and what -- how much damage they think they did, whether they hit actually what they were aiming at and what the effect is. I'd also really like to know whether there were any civilian casualties, particularly if there were any Russian casualties as a result of this strike.

This is a classic sea-based cruise missile launch operation and everything that I've heard from Barbara's' reporting is very typical. That's the way these things are planned and usually executed. It is not dissimilar quite frankly from the kinds of plans that we had teed up in 2013 when President Obama was considering similar strikes against Syrian targets ashore.

[21:45:09] It is interesting to me that this hit one airfield and multiple sites of the airfield. That doesn't surprise me that's why you have so many tomahawks and you have, you know, usually a multiplied effect of multiple missiles on target.

I'm a little interested to know, you know, why no storage facilities or any specific chemical weapon storage facilities might have been hit. Now, maybe they didn't know where they are or maybe they're deep underground.

But when you talk about degrading his capability to conduct those kinds of attacks, yes absolutely, if you hit an airfield like that, a tactical field, you're going to degrade his ability to fly out of that field, but you're not necessarily going to completely eliminate his ability to visit these sorts of attacks in the future on other targets, based from other fields.

COOPER: And, Admiral, you know, Colonel Francona talked about the hardened of hangars that these aircraft are in at this base. How important -- I mean, how strong are they? I mean, does a repeated strike by repeated tomahawks degrade that or, you know, overcome it?

KIRBY: It certainly could.


KIRBY: Yeah, it certainly could. I think he's right about those hardened hangar facilities and that would explain I think to some degree why so many tomahawk missiles because, you know, you can pound away at them over a period -- span of time with multiple missiles and have a more dramatic effect. You know, you're initial wave sort of weakens the target and then you can keep hitting it to try to penetrate it a little bit more deeply.

COOPER: General Hertling, you talked about your experience, you know, in planning this kind of possible strikes, what do you make of this one?

HERTLING: Well, this is launched at 8:45 our time, by my calculation that's about 3:45 in the morning, Syria time. 50 targets is a pretty good, pretty hefty retaliatory strike on one airbase. And as you just said, and as Mike just mentioned, you're probably going to get a salvo on the base with each target being hit two, possibly three times, depending what the target is.

I've lived in an airbase in Iraq that had been hit prior to us moving in there and each one of the shelters had one or two holes on the roof of it. They come in and then damaged the plane that's underneath. But as Rick Francona said a minute ago, a smart commander would have moved those planes. But this was a fast action.

Again, Anderson, it occurred within two days. But when you launch 50, 59 missiles at one base, it's going to get people's attention very quickly. It will have the effect of the limited retaliatory strike. The course of action one, which is probably the lightest course of action was conducted. And it seems like a lot and it's a lot of ammunition going down at 1,000 pounds apiece of ammunition, those 59 rockets. But I tell you, it will send a message.

Number one, you asked what we're concerned about. Mike just said, the BDA, bomb damage assessment, what did it hit? Was there any civilian casualties? I would be interested in that too. But what I'm more interested in is what's going to happen tomorrow? What happens next?

What kind of reaction is this going to get from the world, not just our friends but perhaps from our foes and how are they going to -- especially, the Russians and the Iranians and how they're going to react. And not only how they're going to react in the press and what their politicians are going to say, but what other actions might be taking place around the world?

You know, we've got a lot of forces deployed for Europe right now that are countering Russian malign action. What's going to happen there? Are there going to be other areas where Russians and Iranians are going to take action to counter some of the things that we might anticipate, you know.

COPPER: I want to bring in our Jim Acosta, who is also learning some more information. Jim?

ACOSTA: Right, Anderson. We are waiting that tape of President Trump speaking to reporters. That should be coming in, in just a few moments. But we do have a read out, because this is not happening live instantaneously over at Mar-a-Lago, we're getting a read out of those comments and you're going to get the tape shortly. But this is what the president said to reporters just a few moments ago.

He only spoke for about three minutes, but he said, "Assad choked out the helpless." "Slow and brutal deaths for so many, even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this barbaric attack. No child of God should ever," and then the quote ends, but we're going to get a fuller quote here in a fee moments. But no child of God should ever have to deal with this something like this or something along those lines is what the president said there.

"There could be no dispute" is another quote from the president, "that Syria used banned chemical weapons and ignored the urging of the U.N. Security Council. The refugee crisis continues to deepen and the region continues to destabilize threatening the U.S. and its allies." That is essentially what the president said verbatim, but he also talked about how he ordered this air strike from the area where the weapons were launched.

So, it appears that the president is indicating in these comments. We're going to hear in just a few moments that he ordered this attack on the site where these weapons were launched by the Syrian government against those civilians on Monday.

[21:50:07] And, you know, he also says in his comments to, "End terrorism of all kinds and all type, we ask for God's wisdom, and we face the challenge." And so, the president making some very brief comments, Anderson, but as I was saying earlier, he -- this is just the president really kind of setting the stage, giving the broad highlights in terms of what happened tonight. We do expect to hear more from other senior administration officials throughout the night to get those details.

But, Anderson, this is not a situation where the cameras go into the White House and everything is able to come out live into all of our viewers out there instantaneously and so that is why you're seeing the president make these comments to reporters, full of reporters there at Mar-a-Lago.

That video is now in route to some kind of feeding operation where you're going to see these comments shortly. But the president, just the last few moments, making reference to beautiful babies cruelly murdered in a barbaric attack by the Syrian government. And so the -- as I was saying earlier talking to his senior administration official, you do get the sense from these comments tonight, Anderson, that he was deeply affected by these images that the whole world was shocked by earlier this week.

COOPER: Right. So these comments have just been given by the President of the United States as Jim just said to a pool of reporters. As soon as we get the tape of that, it's not broadcast live, it's not going to be the live address to the American people, we will obviously play that. (Inaudible) will play that for you soon, the second we get it.

David Axelrod, as you are watching all of these -- I mean, with your experienced in the White House in the Obama administration obviously, in Obama administration which, you know, we talked about a red line which would consider military action which went to Congress, what do you make of tonight?

DAVID AXELROD, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, obviously, this sends -- if the intent was to send a message to Syria, there's also a message to the rest of the world attached, which is that President Trump is willing to order this action. There will be whole host of secondary questions as to -- under what authorization he did it, what was the impact of it really, what are the secondary impacts on us. That was mentioned in the discussion earlier. But, certainly, there is the impression of swift action here and I think that's part of what he wanted to communicate.

But what's so interesting about the statement that Jim Acosta just described is that he reacted so differently in 2013 to an attack that was just as heinous, except much larger, and his advice was don't go in.

And it's interesting to see the transformation of someone who is now the President of the United States and having to make these decisions from a different perspective because this is a vastly different approach than the one that he once and not so long ago recommended in response to Syria.

COOPER: Yeah. Even during the campaign, he said, you know, "Let Russia deal with Syria. Let Russia deal with ISIS. Let Bashar al- Assad fight ISIS." He seemed very content to not have the U.S. being involved. But, clearly, he didn't want to have the U.S. to be involved and, as you said, tweeted that repeatedly. But as president, obviously, this has been a huge change for this president just in the last 24, 48 hours or more.

Jeff Zeleny is standing by outside Mar-a-Lago where the president is tonight along with his team. Jeff, what are you hearing?

ZELENY: Anderson, I'm being told by U.S. official that the Trump administration and the president himself informed what I'm told as a broad list of nations and garnered their support for this. One nation not on that list was the Russia and Vladimir Putin.

That was a question we asked the president earlier this afternoon. Have you spoken with Mr. Putin about this? And he said, "I have not yet. I may in the future." But I am told by U.S. official that the United States did not indeed give a heads up, if you will, to Russia. Of course, so many Russian forces on the ground in Syria there, but I am being told by a U.S. official that the administration did get the support and implicit agreement, if you will, from what we're being told as a broad list of nations.

We will find out more specifics on that shortly. As my colleague, Jim Acosta, was just saying, they are setting up here near Mar-a-Lago for a briefing of some sort, perhaps with the new National Security Adviser General H.R. McMaster and other officials. And we will be seeing the president's own words shortly here, Anderson. But this was just not the president's decision alone tonight. They did inform other countries, Anderson.

COOPER: Jeff, in a moment, I'm going to back to Colonel Rick Francona, who has actually been at the base that was hit because I just want to get some more details about what the base is like given that it's rare to have somebody who is actually there.

But, Jeff, just in terms of who the president has around him at this point, you talked about the National Security Adviser General McMaster. General Mattis is there as well. Do you know who else?

[21:55:07] ZELENY: Well, certainly, I mean he is surrounded by most of his, you know, top national security team. The secretary of state, of course, the defense secretary, his new national security advisor, you know, other members of the cabinet as well from the treasury secretary and onward. Of course, he is in Mar-a-Lago not for just any old weekend, he is here to have his first face-to-face meeting with the Chinese president. So, this, of course, also has ramifications for that visit.

But we also saw earlier this evening the vice president going back into the White House, so we got a sense there that he may be also getting some information here on that. But the president is surrounded, Anderson, by most of his top advisors, Reince Priebus, the President's Chief of Staff, Steve Bannon, the Chief Strategist who is just removed from the National Security Council. They are here in Florida as is Jared Kushner, of course, the son-in-law and top advisor. Ivanka Trump, the daughter and a senior advisor as well, all here.

So, Anderson, most of the president's staff is actually here in Florida. He calls it the Southern White House and tonight it certainly is a White House that's quite busy, Anderson.

COOPER: Yeah. I want to go back to our military panel. Admiral Kirby is joining us. Admiral, as a former state department's spokesman, you got experienced coordinating with other world leaders. How does that play out? How does that work?

KIRBY: Well, normally that's -- something like that is done, you know, obviously you're doing this in a hurry so it's usually done over the phone and you pick those countries that are most invested in this that have a stake. I would suspect some of our gulf allies were consulted as well as key partners in Europe. I'm not surprised that there wasn't deliberate outreach to the Russian government at least in Moscow anyway to give them any kind of a heads up about this, because you don't know what they were going to obviously do with that kind of information. But you do want to try to clear the decks, if you will, diplomatically as best you can before you do something this major and this significant that is going to have. As Mr. Axelrod said so well, it's going to have ramifications starting very, very soon.

I'm frankly a little surprised that we haven't seen a reaction from Moscow yet. That's the thing I'm looking for the most right now. I think they'll probably be the very, very early out of the gates.

COOPER: Any moment we expect to have a tape of the president who spoke to reporters just a few moments ago that has not yet been broadcast. We're going to give that to you as soon as we get it.

50 to 60 tomahawk cruise missiles fired from two vessels in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea fired at a particular base believed to be the airbase where the attack -- the gas attack in Idlib was actually launched from