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Syria, Russia Condemn U.S. Airstrike as "Act of Aggression"; Trump, China's President Meet Amid Differences Over Syria; Syria, North Korea Test Trump's Foreign Policy; Syria, Russia Condemn U.S. "Aggression"; Russia: U.S. Strike "Significant Blow" To Relations. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired April 7, 2017 - 09:00   ET


[09:00:00] POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: -- Poppy Harlow. We want to welcome our viewers here in the United States and around the world.

And we do begin with breaking news. This morning, Russia and Syria firing off at the U.S. after President Trump's decision to unleash a wave of military air strikes against the Syrian regime.

Russia which, of course, has helped prop up Syria dictator Bashar al- Assad, now calling American military action an act of aggression and warning the risk of a U.S./Russia collision in Syria has, quote, "significantly increased." Overnight, U.S. warships in the Mediterranean launching 59 Tomahawk missiles aimed at the same Syrian air base that the U.S. said President Assad used to launch a deadly chemical weapons attack that killed dozens including children.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Now, the strikes targeted Syrian aircrafts, fuels, ammunition storage. This now marks the very first direct military action by the United States against the Syrian regime during that country's six-year civil war. And in that time, the United Nations estimates that 400,000 Syrians have been killed. Now, also notable, in that time, Donald Trump spoke out against, repeatedly, the same kind of action that President Trump just carried out.

We're covering all the angles with our team of reporters all around the world this morning. Let's begin with CNN's Chief National Security Jim Sciutto.

Jim, this action overnight beginning just before 9:00 a.m. Eastern time.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: That's right, John. The very latest now, we know that U.S. and Russian military commanders communicated after the strike. That's key, those lines of communication open. Two, we're getting the first paddle damage assessments from the Pentagon. They say that 58 of those 59 cruise missiles hit their targets, caused moderate to significant damage.

As you mentioned, this was a very specific operation with a specific target. This air base that the U.S. believes was used to launch that horrific chemical weapons attack, not the whole air base. Aircraft there, those hardened shelters that you're seeing, ammo and fuel depots, but crucially not the runway. That air base is still operational. Also not chemical weapons stores, the U.S. did not want to create civilian casualties by dispersing chemical weapons.

And one more thing, crucially not any Russian forces. We know that the U.S. spoke to Russia before this attack to avoid that very thing. There were reports from the ground that Russian military forces were seen leaving the base before the operation started. The U.S. did not want to create a real danger there of escalation or any military confrontation with Russia. That is key.

That said, there are consequences to this. You've heard very strong reactions from Russia to this. They call it an act of aggression. And this is crucial as well. Russia announcing it will suspend the deconfliction agreement that it made with the U.S.

This is key. This keeps U.S. and Russian military assets from coming nose to nose with each other in the air space, in particular over Syria. That's suspended, not canceled. But while it's suspended, that certainly increases the risk there as the U.S. and Russia decide how they're both going to react to this going forward, John and Poppy.

HARLOW: Jim Sciutto, thank you so much for the reporting this morning. And let's get to what Russia is saying and doing. The President Vladimir Putin calling the U.S. strikes on Syria overnight a serious blow to U.S./Russia relations. Our Paula Newton is live in Moscow with more.

Look, you've got sort of mixed messages, it seems, like coming out of the Russian government because you've got Lavrov saying, yes, this hurts relations but it doesn't completely do away with them, we can get beyond this. And then, you've got, you know, Dmitry Peskov, the spokesman for the Kremlin, saying, things could not be worse.

PAULA NEWTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, absolutely, Poppy. And it's important here to look at nuance and not just to look at the rhetoric, but to actually look at what Russia is doing, what action it is taking.

But let's get to the words, first. I mean, Vladimir Putin felt it was important to get on the record early on his outrage over what happened and through that spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, basically saying that, look, he "regards the U.S. airstrikes on Syria as an act of aggression against a sovereign state delivered in violation of international law under a farfetched pretext." And that's key, Poppy, because they still reject the fact that that chemical attack took place and that the Syrian forces were responsible.

They go on to say, "This move by Washington has dealt a serious blow to Russian/U.S. relations, which were already in a poor state. This move will not bring us closer to the ultimate goal of combatting international terrorism but will instead create a major obstacle to the establishment of an international counterterrorist coalition." Translation, Poppy, that means we can no longer effectively fight ISIS together.

Important, though, what you mentioned before, and that's Sergey Lavrov saying, look, I don't see this as being irreversible in the slightest and also, you know, not saying anything about the trip of Rex Tillerson.

[09:05:02] Rex Tillerson, the Secretary of State, will be here middle of the next week, and it will be very important to watch that meeting. Of course, it is still on, and that may get to more of a normalization of discussions between Russia and the United States, especially when it comes to what's going on in Syria.

BERMAN: And, Paula, that's a significant point. The Secretary of State Rex Tillerson still going to Russia as far as we know next week. The meeting, obviously, carrying new significance. Paula Newton for us in Moscow. Thanks so much.

So the Syrian army is condemning this U.S. airstrike. It says the United States is now a partner of ISIS and other terror organizations. CNN's Ben Wedeman live in Turkey, very near the Syrian border.

And, Ben, this is how the regime of Bashar al-Assad has always framed this. Assad says he's battling terrorists, not innocent civilians.

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, but when you speak to any Syrian, they will tell you that the vast majority of the more than 400,000 people who've been killed in this civil war have been killed by the regime itself. We did see this statement on the Syrian Arab news agency today from the Syrian presidency, calling this action by the Trump administration unjust and blatant aggression, going on to describe it as irresponsible and shortsighted.

The Syrian Arab news agency also putting out a report that, in the strike overnight, that nine civilians were killed, including four children. Obviously, CNN cannot verify this claim. But speaking to Syrians inside Syria, in the opposition-held parts of the country, by and large, the reaction has been positive. Basically, they're saying, finally, after all these years, the United States has taken decisive action against the regime of Bashar al-Assad and going on social media.

For instance, we're seeing pictures of Trump being posted with the words on the picture,"menhebak," which means in Syrian Arabic, "we love you." And some people are praising a man, now, they're describing as "Abu Ivanka al-Amriki," a term of endearment and respect. So certainly, for a President who many people, many Syrians saw as pro-Russian, anti-Muslim, this is a bit of a reversal.

HARLOW: That is fascinating reporting. Ben Wedeman, thank you to you and your entire team right there on the Turkish/Syria border.

Let's bring in our military experts. Joining us now, the retired Rear Admiral and former Pentagon and State Department Spokesman John Kirby, and retired Lieutenant Colonel Rick Francona.

Admiral, let me begin with you. Thank you, gentlemen, both for being here. Just how debilitating is this strike, overnight, for Assad?

REAR ADMIRAL JOHN KIRBY (RET.) FORMER SPOKESPERSON, UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF STATE: Well, in terms of degrading their Syrian air force capability at that particular airfield, all the BDA, the battle damage assessment, that I've seen so far coming out of the Pentagon would suggest that it was actually very, very effective in terms of limiting their ability to fly and to conduct strikes out of that base, which was the base that was used in the chemical gas attack earlier this week, so, all accounts, effective.

It will not shut down the Syrian air force around the rest of the country. It will not shut down Russian military operations in Syria, which has largely been going against opposition groups and not against ISIS and terrorist, as President Putin might have you believe. So I think it was precise. It was effective for the tactical target that it was aimed at, but it will not have a debilitating effect on Bashar al-Assad's ability to continue to propagate violence against his own people.

BERMAN: Yes. Will it deter him or make him think twice from using chemical weapons in the future? That's one question, Colonel Francona. The other is, is there any way for Syria to retaliate? Can Bashar al-Assad affect U.S. interests anywhere in that region?

LT. COL. RICK FRANCONA (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: It would be difficult for him to make meaningful retaliation. Of course, he could launch some sort of a terror attack somewhere. He's got a lot of people on his side. He's got the Russians. But more importantly, if you're looking at some sort of retaliation against American interests, he's got the Iranians.

The Iranians are in lock step with him. They've got a vested interest in his survival. They've got a lot of forces in the country, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard core and their Quds Force, their special operations people, a very effective organization. It could cause a problem. The question is, does he really want to do that?

I think, Bashar al-Assad, if anything, is smart enough to realize that this probably was a one-time blow. It was for punishment for an action that he took. If he decides not to retaliate, I think that's the smarter thing because, unfortunately, I think the paradigm right now in the country is he can kill people almost with impunity using conventional weapons. But if he crosses that line with chemical weapons, he risks irking the retaliation of the entire world, in this case, via the hand in the United States.


FRANCONA: So I think it will deter him. But I don't think it changes the situation on the ground at all.

[09:10:01] HARLOW: And, Colonel Francona, just staying with you for a moment because of your experience in the Air Force, you do have some lawmakers, including Senator John McCain and Senator Lindsey Graham, coming out and praising this but wanting to see more. I mean, at the end of their statements, saying the U.S. should take out Assad's Air Force, quote, "completely out of the fight."

Can you just talk about what that would realistically take and just how realistic you think a move like that is on the part of the United States?

FRANCONA: Well, it could be done. I mean, theoretically, if you look on paper what the Syrian air force consists of, they've got quite a few bases, but actually there are only a few really major bases that they have.

Could they be struck? Yes. Could we do it? Yes. But what you're doing then is ramping up. You're escalating a situation that really doesn't need it. Then you're going to go head to head with the Russians because the Russians now believe that any other action, they're going to have to resist.

They've already said they're going to deploy additional air defense assets to Syria. They've got some very capable state of the art air defense systems there. Do we really want to get into a shooting war with the Russians? I think everybody will say the answer is no.

And politically, I don't know that that's our role. Up until now, and I think everyone will agree with me, we've not gone after the Syrians. We're not there in Syria to go after Bashar al-Assad. We're there to go after ISIS. If we're going to go after Bashar al-Assad, that really expands our operations.

BERMAN: You know, Admiral, let me ask you about the Russians because the Colonel just brought up, the Russians have said that they're going to suspend the memorandum of understanding about deconflicting air space. Practically speaking, does that put U.S. pilots at greater risk as of now flying over Syria? And if Russia really is bolstering air defenses there, that too, does that put Americans in danger?

KIRBY: Well, it is ironic that they're suspending the same deconfliction channel that we used to inform them in advance of the strikes so that we could minimize casualties to Russian troops.

I think it potentially could have a negative effect on the safety and security of our air operations, but I think it's really important to remember that this deconfliction channel was the Russian's idea. This is what they wanted. They were the ones who were more worried about conflict in the air since after they introduced significant more forces into Syria a couple of years ago.

So, I think, certainly, there is a risk of that. But I have no doubt that the American military command is going to be working through all those kinds of risk management issues going forward.

HARLOW: All right. Rear Admiral John Kirby, Lieutenant Colonel Rick Francona, thank you very much. Please stay with us because we have a lot more to get to here with both of you.

BERMAN: Yes. The U.S. strike in Syria is sending a message around the world. Or what message is being received all around the world? Take North Korea for instance. Does Kim Jong-un now think twice about some of his actions?

HARLOW: And all of this on Day 2 of the President's meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Florida. This after China comes out overnight and says it opposes the air strikes that the U.S. carried out. How does that impact their talks today?



JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right, this just in to CNN. The House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is calling on House Speaker Paul Ryan to call the House back into session to debate a measure, authorization of the use of military force to offer support or to vote on whether they support Donald Trump, the president's actions in Syria.

Let me just read you a quick statement, "It's heartbreaking as the Assad chemical weapons attacks on his own people was, the crisis in Syria will not be resolved by one night of airstrikes."

She is calling on the House to have a vote, the type of vote they did not have when President Obama was weighing striking out against Assad or striking out against ISIS in Syria. Now the House minority leader is asking for such a vote.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Right. So the big question is will members of Congress be willing to put their name on this. Will they be willing to say that yes, we support the U.S. taking some prolonged military action or not. They wouldn't do it in 2013. Will they do it now?

BERMAN: Correct.

HARLOW: All right, also, we know that next hour the president is meeting once again with China's president. This as China's already voicing opposition to those U.S. airstrikes overnight in Syria.

Let's bring in White House correspondent, Athena Jones. She joins us in Florida where the president is. Good morning. What are you hearing?

ATHENA JONES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Poppy. Well, as you said, that meeting will get underway next hour. There is also a working lunch scheduled for the president and President Xi and there are a long list of issues on the table to be discussed, everything from North Korea's nuclear ambitions to trade, to maritime and territorial issues, especially in the South China Sea.

But as you mentioned, this first direct U.S. military action against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is likely to overshadow this summit, especially given the fact that China has come out in opposition to those strikes.

Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman said the government opposed to the use of chemical weapons but is also opposed to using force in international affairs. That spokeswoman went on to say China advocates to resolving disputes peacefully and they hold that the Syrian issue should be resolved through a political process.

They said that they hope that under these circumstances that Assad remain calm and don't escalate tensions further. But this is another area of potential disagreement and tension between the U.S. and China.

The White House was already playing down big announcements out of this meeting, which they described as an introductory meeting to begin building the relationship. We'll have to see if that changes. President Xi is heading back -- scheduled to depart Palm Beach later this afternoon -- John, Poppy.

HARLOW: Athena Jones, thank you very much in Florida where the president is right now for those critical meetings. The president's decision overnight to launch these airstrikes, how powerful of a message is it sending to North Korea? That is a major question right now.

[09:20:02]CNN's Ivan Watson is live in Hongkong with more details. Obviously, this sends a message. The question is how does Kim Jong-un see it?

IVAN WATSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, and we haven't seen any real response yet from Pyongyang to these airstrikes, to these cruise missile strikes in Syria. But make no mistake, the sympathies of North Korea are very much aligned with Syria.

Hours before the cruise missile strikes, Poppy, North Korea put out a congratulatory statement to the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, congratulating him on the 70th anniversary of the founding of the ruling party in Syria.

And going one step further calling for solidarity between the two countries and saying that the Syrian government, the regime is, quote, "resolutely struggling to courageously shatter the vicious challenge and aggressive moves of hostile forces."

So North Korea seeing itself at least ideologically as an ally of the Syrian regime. It was only two days ago that North Korea was firing a ballistic missile and the question about how it will respond maybe comes into analysis of whether or not the U.S. -- what would happen if it carried out some kind of preemptive strike against North Korea.

The Syrian regime has been fighting a civil war for six years, have lost vast amounts of territory, kept alive by the Russian and Iranian militaries. North Korea has been firing ballistic missiles on an almost weekly basis.

It has conducted five nuclear test and just last weekend, the former defense secretary, Ash Carter, warned that if the U.S. was to attack North Korea, then it would likely retaliate with an invasion into South Korea.

So the equation, the formula, the potential consequences much, much more dramatic if the U.S. was to move against North Korea than what has happened in Syria where the government is in no position to really strike out against a close U.S. ally.

BERMAN: Different regimes, different capabilities, to be sure. Ivan Watson, thank you so much. We did get some news just in to CNN, the United Nations Security Council will be meeting in open session at 11:30 a.m. Eastern Time, about two hours from now, to discuss the events in Syria and presumably the U.S. air strikes as well. Most nations around the world have come out and praised President Trump for the actions over Syria. China notably not. Russia notably not.

HARLOW: You know, Russia and the U.S. directly at that table at the U.N. Security Council, with some harsh words traded, I would expect.

BERMAN: It will be very interesting to hear what happens to that meeting. Back with us now, John Kirby, Rick Francona and joining the discussion, CNN global affairs analyst, Aaron David Miller.

Aaron, let me start with you here. One question I think a lot of people are asking is why did Bashar al-Assad risk this? Why this week? When Assad seems to have been getting what he wants in Syria, why would he carry out a chemical attack on his own people?

Was it something domestically? Was it the thought expressed by Rex Tillerson and Nikki Haley just within the last week that maybe the U.S. policy towards Syria had changed and they weren't looking for regime change?

AARON DAVID MILLER, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: I mean, there are a couple different explanations. First of all, you have to assume that this was basically sanctioned by the regime and not under a sort of general operating order to use chlorine gas, which is the Syrians have been doing, or in this case a nerve agent, probably sarin.

If Assad did authorize it, then I think it is part of the same sugar high. The man has a certain sense of immunity and after all let's be clear no one anticipated seven years into this war alone among those challenged by the Arab Spring, goodbye Mubarak, (inaudible) and Yemen, Gadhafi, (inaudible) of Tunisia.

The only guy left standing is Bashar al-Assad. That's largely because he's backed by the Russians and by Iran. So I think there is a sense of immunity, a sense of confidence, a sense that the support that he gets, particularly from Moscow. He's basically taken for granted. As I said, I suspect that explains more or less his calculation.

HARLOW: Admiral Kirby, if you are an ISIS fighter in Syria, if you are the head of ISIS, what does this mean for you?

JOHN KIRBY, CNN MILITARY AND DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: I don't think it changes my strategic calculus. Obviously, any strike against the regime can have an indirect positive effect on ISIS because obviously they are against the regime and the regime is against them.

But I think it's a stretch to say, you know, that like the Iranians did, that all of a sudden now we're fighting on behalf of terrorists with this strike. I mean, there is a 66 nation coalition, a raid against ISIS that the United States put together under leadership of General John Allen.

[09:25:08]And that coalition is still vibrant, strong and conducting lots of military activities in Iraq and Syria against ISIS. If I'm Baghdadi, I don't think this one strike on this one airfield, which is designed to retaliate against a specific chemical attack by the regime is going to make me feel a whole lot more comfortable.

BERMAN: That's ISIS view, Colonel Francona. What's the view from North Korea, Kim Jong-Un? Is this a deterrent for his actions? We just heard Ivan Watson talking about that.

LT. COLONEL RICK FRANCONA (RETIRED), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, I think this truly is a case of apples and oranges because it is a much different situation whereas Bashar is looking at the Russians as his ultimate guarantor. I think the North Koreans are looking at China.

But I think the North Koreans pose a much bigger threat to the neighborhood than Bashar al-Assad does. This was a slap against Bashar al-Assad. It is very limited and it is very contained. We get involved in an operation against the North Koreans, I think that sets off a much larger chain of events in motion.

Of course, the South Koreans, Chinese, Japanese, much bigger geopolitical stakes at play there. I think what we see in Syria is very contained right now and hopefully it will stay that way.

HARLOW: So Aaron, Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state is going to Moscow on Tuesday. As far as we know, nothing has changed. The Russians have not rescinded that invitation. Two full questions, how does this change that meeting? And the second part is this is really the first time we have seen this administration use very, very tough language and action against the Russians. This is a sea change, is it not?

MILLER: I think it is. And unpacking the mysteries of the Trump administration is like reading tea leafs or golden trails. It is not so easy to do. But there are clarifying moments in the presidency in which presidents rise up the chatter of the political divisions in a moment.

Now is this Donald Trump's moment? Did he look at those pictures? He was obviously briefed by intel. They probably described in horrific detail the impact of these nerve agents on women and children.

And it seems that the America first risk aversion that seemed to characterize rhetoric on the campaign trail and rhetoric as recent as last week seems to have surrendered to a risk readiness where he's prepared to use force.

The question, Poppy, about Moscow hinges on one fundamental fact that I don't know, you don't know and I'm not sure the Trump administration knows. Is this an effort simply to punish -- not necessarily a one up?

To punish, to restrain, to send a message to the Russians that the use of these weapons, which they are enabling, are simply prohibited or are we on the verge of a process in which the president of the United States, 75 days into his presidency is going to be laying an American hand on the battlefield balance in Syria in an effort literally to change the equation and create a political transition which will be against in my respects Moscow and Iran's interest. If that's the way the administration wants to go, I think the Tillerson, Putin, Lavrov conversation is going to be a very, very difficult one.

BERMAN: Let's be clear. That would be a dramatic reversal from what Candidate Trump campaigned on. It would be a dramatic reversal from everything Donald Trump said dating back to 2013. But that again, this military action in Iraq was dramatic reversal of all those things as well.

Admirak Kirby, to you, on Russia, explain to me the calibration in their response today. On the one hand, they suspended the de- confliction of the airspace. On the one hand, they call this an aggression action and Vladimir Putin has spoken out against it.

On the other hand, Sergey Lavrov, the foreign minister has said, you know, this doesn't end our relationship. What line are they trying to walk here, Admiral?

KIRBY: I think Sergey Lavrov is the quintessential diplomat and it doesn't surprise me that he took a softer tone than President Putin in terms of what this means for the relationship because he has to manage that relationship and because the Russians still want to have a bilateral relationship with the United States that they could try to manage situations like Syria through.

So they suspend the deconfliction channel. I think that is ironic since we use that channel to help inform them about the impending strike and I think they really stand more to lose by not having that deconfliction channel than the American military.

But it is a demonstration, that, hey, we're not happy about this. But I'm not surprised that they are looking for a way through this. They have to express their anger and shock, but they are not going to abandon all relations with the United States because they are looking for a way eventually out of Syria.

The whole reason they're there is to prop up the regime, not Assad necessarily, the regime, to protect their national security interest in Syria. They don't want to see that (inaudible) under. They don't want see that (inaudible) under through radical regime change.

So they are there for a very pragmatic, practical reason and they don't want to see that stuff --