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Trump Launches Military Strikes Against Syria. Aired 5-5:30a ET

Aired April 7, 2017 - 05:00   ET

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


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. This is a special edition of NEW DAY.

And we de begin with breaking news. President Trump ordering military strikes in Syria. Nearly 60 Tomahawk missiles fired at a Syrian air base.

(VIDEO CLIP PLAYS)

CAMEROTA: Strikes in retaliation for President Assad's chemical weapons attack Tuesday on his own people, including dozens of children being killed.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: U.S. officials say the Tomahawk missiles did hit their target, the Al-Shayrat Base, used by Syrian airplane toes carry out that chemical attack.

[05:00:03] There are big political and legal questions surrounding this move. President Trump said there can be no dispute Syria used chemical weapons on its people. Now, Russia disagrees with that analysis.

His call here, a stunning reversal on Syria and Assad. Remember, the president was silent about this attack for over a day and as recently as last week, his administration opposed removing the brutal dictator. He had been outspoken against any action in Syria after the much more serious chemical attack by Assad in 2013.

So, was this a legal move by the president and what happens next?

We have the global resources of CNN covering this story.

Let's begin with CNN's Ryan Browne live at the Pentagon.

What do we know?

RYAN BROWNE, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER: Good morning, Chris.

As you said, those 59 Tomahawk missiles were targeting this air base that the Pentagon believes is linked to that chemical weapons attack. In fact, they showed reporters tracking data, showing the aircraft leaving the air base striking this area and returning.

Now, they attacked radars, the taxiway, aircraft at this base, all designed to disable the base, preventing it from conducting future operations and the Pentagon says this was meant to deter Assad from carrying out any future attacks. Thus, particular care was made to avoid striking any of the Russian personnel that were at that base. In fact, they used an existing deconfliction channel to communicate to Russia the day of the attack that this was coming, helping to avoid any casualties there.

But this is something that the Pentagon really wanted to make sure that this air base was put out of commission, sending that high number of Tomahawk cruise missiles fired from U.S. warships in the eastern Mediterranean, a missile that allows -- prevents any threat to any U.S. pilots, but allows a punishing strike against this air base -- Chris.

CUOMO: All right. Thank you very much, Ryan.

There's a lot to cover on this. There are a lot of ramifications of this move. And they're the immediate impacts to tell you about as we learn that information. We will.

Now, President Trump called these strikes vital to national security. That's going to be key to whether or not they were necessary to stop Assad and whether or not they're legal. Does Syria represent a true threat to the U.S.?

Lawmakers seem split, but there was no move to block the president on this. In just days, politically, we saw a huge change. The Trump administration going from saying Assad's future up to the Syrian people now bombing his regime.

CNN's White House correspondent Athena Jones live in Palm Beach, Florida, with more -- Athena.

ATHENA JONES, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Chris.

Well, the president took this bold action, the first direct U.S. military action against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad to send the message that the use of chemical weapons will not be tolerated.

Now, the president delivered a strongly worded statement last night to explain his action easy in what amounted to a pretty big turn around of his approach to Assad and to the Syrian. Back in 2013 after a similar chemical weapons attack, Trump was vocally opposed to getting involved and to respond to go Assad in this way. Well, last night, he did respond.

Here is what he had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: On Tuesday, Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad launched a horrible chemical weapons attack on innocent civilians using a deadly nerve agent. Assad choked out the lives of helpless men, women and children.

It was a slow and brutal death for so many. Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack. No child of God should ever suffer such horror.

Tonight, I ordered a targeted military strike on the airfield in Syria from where the chemical attack was launched. It is in this vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.

There can be no dispute that Syria used banned chemical weapons, violated its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention, and ignored the urging of the U.N. Security Council.

Years of previous attempts at changing Assad's behavior have all failed and failed very dramatically.

[05:05:02] As a result, the refugee crisis continues to deepen and the region continues to destabilize, threatening the United States and its allies.

Tonight, I call on all civilized nations to join us in seeking to end this slaughter and bloodshed in Syria and also to end terrorism of all kinds and all types.

We ask for God's wisdom as we face the challenge of our very troubled world. We pray for the lives of the wounded and for the souls of those who have passed and we hope that as long as America stands for justice, then peace and harmony will, in the end, prevail.

Good night and God bless America and the entire world. Thank you.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

JONES: And so, after being initially slow to respond to this chemical attack, the president delivering that very strong statement last night, taking this action against the regime air base. One of the big questions now is, what will this mean for U.S.-Russian relations?

Secretary of State Tillerson had strong words for Russia, which had agreed to remove Syria's chemical weapons three years ago. He said that Russia clearly has failed in its responsibility to deliver on that commitment. Either Russia has been complicit or Russia has been incompetent in its ability to deliver.

So, strong words for Russia there -- Chris, Alisyn.

CAMEROTA: Athena, thank you.

And Russia has strong words for the U.S., as well. Russia denouncing these strikes in Syria as, quote, "an action of aggression." Russian President Vladimir Putin says it is a serious blow to U.S.-Russia relations.

CNN's Matthew Chance is live in Moscow with that part of the story -- Matthew. MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right.

On the face of it, at least, the Russians are absolutely furious that these strikes were carried out by the U.S. military against their main ally in the Middle East, Syria.

A statement issued from the Kremlin says this, "President Putin regards the American attack owes on Syria as an aggression against the sovereign state in violation of the norms of international law and under a farfetched pretext." The statement goes on that "the Syrian army has no chemical weapons."

So the Russians are sticking to their version of events that these allegations against their ally, Syria, are made up. There was no chemical weapons attack is their position.

There has been action, too, important action, because the Russians have also announced they're suspending an air safety agreement between the U.S. and Russian militaries in Syria. It's a deconfliction measure which is meant to prevent the aircraft of both those countries carrying out air strikes in Syria from coming into dangerous contact with each other. That's now suspended. There will be no contact between the militaries on the ground.

But this is interesting. There are also signs that Russia is prepared to take this U.S. military action on the chin. It didn't have any of its forces involved. They were warned in advance. They didn't lose any personnel. Otherwise, we would be having a different conversation.

They also did not use their highly complex S-400 surface-to-air missile system to take out those cruise missiles. They're designed to take out those missiles. They could have easily heavily disrupted those strikes, but they didn't do it.

And now, we've had this statement Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov saying, "I'm particularly disappointed by the way this damages U.S. relations, but I don't think it will lead to an irreversible situation." That was the statement of Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, clearly leaving the door open to an improvement in relations with the United States and, obviously, he can discuss that further when Rex Tillerson, U.S. secretary of state, comments here to Moscow next week.

Back to you, Chris and Alisyn.

CUOMO: An interesting dynamic evolving, Russia deciding to stand down, the United States decide to go step up. And that takes us to the United States president.

Did President Trump have the right to do this legally? And was it the right move? Two very different but equally important questions.

We have CNN political analyst David Gregory to discuss. CNN counterterrorism analyst and former CIA counterterrorism official, Phil Mudd. And CNN military analyst, Lieutenant General Mark Hertling, and retired Major General James "Spider" Marks. General, having you here in the studio is a big benefit to us this

morning. Let's the talk about what actually happened. Where were these ships, what was used, what do we know about what happened?

MAJOR. JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS, ADVISORY BOARD MEMBER, ACADEMY SECURITIES: Yes, the two destroyers, Porter and the Ross were in the eastern Mediterranean just off the coast.

[05:10:03] They launched 59 cruise missiles, TLAMs, Tomahawks, and they landed at that al-Shayrat Airfield.

Now, the importance for that is that's where the chemical attack originated from. And there were fixed wing aircraft, as well as helicopter, rotary winged-aircraft that were routinely stationed there. The added advantage is this airfield is kind of the middle of nowhere, so we didn't have the normal collateral damage concerns of civilians being damaged as a result of this strike.

So, I think there's a benefit in term of proportionality, although they can talk about proportionality and whether that makes since here and what we think might happen later. But we went against chemical weapons capabilities, where they were when they launched the attack and we limited to a very narrow type of focus.

CAMEROTA: General Hertling, I can we have new video we're about to show everyone. This is Russian state TV showing, they say, the aftermath of this missile strike. So, it sure looks like damage was done.

General Hertling, we had lots of lawmakers on yesterday before they knew the president would be doing this saying, it would be very simple. You just take out the runways and thereby debilitate the air force. It sounds like it went a little further than that.

LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, no, I think you're going to see any kind of strike against an airfield not only cratering the runway, which is important, but also going after, in this case, hardened facilities. You want to make sure that this airport, this airfield cannot be used again. So, they did crater the runways, they did the strike the aircraft targets. They did strike the refueling facilities.

When you're talking about 59 Tomahawks in the air, Alisyn, you're going to go after multiple targets with each missile -- I'm sorry, single targets with multiple missiles. So, you're going to hit those facilities two or three times in an attempt to make sure they're not used again. If there are aircraft underneath, you want to break through the top of those. I've seen many of these in combats where there's a hole right in the top of the hardened facility, and then a second missile goes in and perhaps destroys an aircraft.

But as Spider will tell you, we're pretty sure there was probably not a lot of aircraft there that Assad would have moved those in anticipation of these strikes. But this was a very bold tactical retaliatory strike. If we listen to what both H.R. McMaster and Secretary Tillerson are saying, this is not part of a campaign plan, not a part of a strategic objective, but a one-time strike to send a message.

And I would suggest that that message knot only physical in terms of the damage of an airfield where chemical strikes emanated from, but also very strong political, we're seeing the result of that from many nations this morning to include NATO, which Secretary Mattis told about the strike beforehand, but also psychiatric logical.

This is a game changer. People are saying what is going to happen next, even though both McMaster and Tillerson said nothing is going to happen next. We have done the strike we wanted to do to retaliate against this chemical weapons attack in Idlib.

CUOMO: Right. But, you know, NATO and allied countries liking it doesn't mean it was authorized by the U.N. Security Council, which it wasn't, and doesn't mean it's going to qualify legally in the United States as retaliatory because this was done by President Trump in what he called self-defense.

David Gregory, that's going to be an interesting legal discussion, but at the end of the day, Congress allowed the president to do it and that takes us to the politics of it. It seemed the biggest resistance to this would have been Trump's pre-existing position.

DAVID GREGORY, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Right.

CUOMO: There are tons of tweet toes look at back in 2013. The time marker of another and more horrible chemical attack, if even imaginable to people right now, the numbers much huger.

Then, citizen Trump said to President Obama, don't go in, it's not worth it. And he was saying the same thing now, Tillerson. Haley saying Assad is for Syria to deal with, and then in the span of 24 hours, everything changed.

GREGORY: You know, and President Trump who right out of the gate blamed President Obama's inaction in 2013 for emboldening Assad and the Syrian regime, had his own hand in emboldening him just in the past few days by saying there was no reason to displace him from power from the United States perspective. Those comments from Secretary Tillerson.

Well, now, looking at these strikes from within the Oval Office was different from outside the oval office and the populist America first president has now decided that he wants to be the moral leader astride the world stage.

But it's still a question of what the end game is here. I don't think we can say with any certainty that this strike, yes, it might have gotten everybody's attention, does it really degrade Syria's ability to deliver another chemical weapons strike?

And, by the way, why were the chemical weapons still there? I thought there was a big agreement to get them out of the country.

[05:15:01] What happened with that? And was this is a prelude, as the generals were saying, was this one-

time strike? Look, Syria, other countries in the Middle East, we've been at war here since 2001. I think people understand the United States is not going to commit ground forces to try to affect regime change. And all that would require in the middle of a six-year civil war.

So, what is the objective ultimately? To degrade the use of chemical weapons, topple Assad? One thing that is clear this morning is now there is more of a collision course between President Trump and President Putin. What's the ask? What's the demand of Russia when it comes to reining in Assad or trying to move him out politically? These are now the questions that we move forward with.

CAMEROTA: Phil, how do you see it?

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: I think you've got to look at a couple pieces on the chess board. Look at the options the president had. He chose a narrow option against one airfield. You've got to believe there are a couple of other options on the table and some of the news reports out of Mar-a-Lago indicate that.

One of them would have been a broader airstrike against the air capability in Syria, other airfields, to prevent the Syrian air force from attacking civilians. Note that he did not -- that is the president did not authorize evidently any attacks against regime targets, for example, presidential palaces. So, you have a message that was clearly sent against a narrow set of targets.

Meanwhile, the comments by the Russian foreign minister, I would say, fairly restrained in advance of Secretary Tillerson's visit next week.

So to pick up on David Gregory's point, the president didn't go after regime change. He went after a specific message on chemical weapons.

I have to believe the talking points for Secretary Tillerson are quite forward. They don't have to do with the strike. They have to do with next steps. What are we going to do about Assad?

One final point on this: the Russians have paid virtually nothing for their interference in Syria so far, and I do not believe they will see this as a serious price they paid for being there. So, if we believe these strikes will accelerate conversations with the Russians about ousting Assad, I don't think that's true.

CAMEROTA: Panel, please stick around. We will rely on you throughout our rolling breaking news coverage.

There was swift reaction from Assad to the U.S. strikes. We will tell you the reactions from the Middle East and more, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[05:21:22] CUOMO: We are following breaking news.

The U.S. firing 59 Tomahawk missiles aimed at a Syrian government air base where U.S. officials say that's where the Assad regime took off from and carried out that deadly chemical attack. At least six people are reportedly dead from the strikes. That's coming from Syrian authorities.

The Syrian army condemning the U.S. strikes saying America is now a partner of ISIS and other terror organizations.

CNN's Muhammad Lila is live in Istanbul, Turkey, with more.

What do we know?

MUHAMMAD LILA, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Chris.

You know, the Syrian army responding in a very predictable way, in a statement they called it part of America's misguided strategy in Syria, pointing out this effectively puts America on the same side as ISIS and al Qaeda who are also trying to topple the Assad regime.

Of course, reaction in the region, Saudi Arabia calling this a courageous decision. Turkey saying now is the time to implement a no- fly zone to keep more civilians safe.

You know, we can talk about the strategy all we want, what really matters oftentimes is the reality on the ground .how people are reacting to this and whether more people are being put in danger's way. Well, CNN did speak to an activist recently. This was an activist that was actually at that site of the alleged chemical attack who was helping document it.

He pointed out that the opposition activists on the ground were surprised at the airstrikes. They were happy at the airstrikes, but now they are also afraid. And that is because they don't know how the Syrian government and the Syrian army is going to respond. For example, will they retaliate in a major way against these opposition groups on the ground in response to the Trump airstrike and that's what people are afraid of over the next 24 to 48 hours.

CAMEROTA: Thank you very much for reporting from the ground there.

Let's bring back our panel to discuss. We have David Gregory, Phil Mudd, Lieutenant General Mark Hertling, and retired Major General Spider Marks.

David, we've heard after the strikes from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson who has basically used the strongest language against Russia that we have heard thus far in this admin vacation.

Let me play that for everyone.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REX TILLERSON, SECRETARY OF STATE: There is no doubt in our minds and the information we have that supports that Syria, the Syrian regime under the leadership of President Bashar al Assad are responsible for this attack. And I think, further, it is very important that the Russian government consider carefully their continued support for the Assad regime. Assad's role in the future is uncertain clearly. And with the acts that he has taken, it would seem that there would be no role for him to govern the Syrian people.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CAMEROTA: My mistake, I think that was just before the strikes. But how do you interpret that, David?

GREGORY: Well, I think it's interesting on a couple of levels. First of all, the secretary of state has been largely missing in action thus far in this administration. Now, he is about to get on the world stage in a big way in this meeting they'll have next week in Russia.

Tillerson, as you recall, knows Vladimir Putin well from his time at ExxonMobil. And one of the things I've picked up from Tillerson talking to him over the years is that his criticism, Tillerson's criticism of President Obama was that he didn't know how to deal with Putin from a position of strength. He says and believes, Tillerson does, that Putin really responds to strength and to power.

Well, here is a big change in the dynamic. You know, after threats and a red line from President Obama, this administration wants to look very different by comparison.

[05:25:08] A condemnation of this strike now by President Trump, his own line, red line, and then immediate action followed up by Tillerson, who I think is going to then initiate pretty muscular diplomacy against Russia, which is let's get rid of these chemical weapons, at least, but as you heard him say there, we've got to talk about the future of Assad and whether the U.S. can pressure Russia now to get Assad to move out. Lots of questions about the consequences of that, but that's the diplomatic that I'll be watching for.

CUOMO: And, also, Phil Mudd, we saw that the Trump move already scored a win, not just by taking out the air base, according to the pictures and reports, but by getting Russia to stand down. They did not do anything to stop these missiles as they came screaming in from the Mediterranean. So that is a show of strength and a leverage win.

How does that play into this dynamic? We know what Tillerson just said. We know his counterpart Lavrov called this an act of aggression by the United States and that it had a contrived pretext.

MUDD: Boy, in America this morning on Friday morning, we're going to take this as a huge move. I do not think it is, Chris.

The Russians are better at the art of long view than the Americans. Let me tell you why I think this is just a first move on a chess board that I don't think is significant unless there are further moves. The Russians have been at this for years. We have fewer than five minutes of air strikes on one airfield.

If I'm Vladimir Putin, in this tough world, I'm saying, if that's the price I've got to pay for a foothold in Syria, not a big price.

There are other questions the Russians will ask. Will you initiate no-fly zones for Syrian civilians? Will you strike other targets including other air force targets and regime targets? Will you commit to changing the Assad regime and try to bring in other players, for example, the Turks and the Iraqis to change the regime?

I'm going to bet that the Russians look at us and say, the Americans are short-term. They staged some relatively small strikes against one airfield, but they don't want in this game after what happened in Afghanistan and Iraq and if the Russians gamble that we will once again step away.

Interesting step for Friday. I don't think it's a huge step for the future unless we toll up.

GREGORY: Can I add let's not forget is. ISIS s going to be happy about this air strike. We know the opposition groups are going to be happy that the United States is finally getting involved. Russia and Trump are going to agree that they want to take out ISIS. You just had this attack in St. Petersburg last week.

To Phil's point, Putin gets up in the morning and thinks about his Muslim enemies, in his mind, the terrorists in his midst who want to undermine his own regime. That's one of the reasons why he supports Assad. He doesn't want to give any room to ISIS and I think that's part of the chess game.

CAMEROTA: Spider, do you agree this is just the first move in the chess game?

MARKS: I think it's the first move to the United States. I am a little more sanguine what the United States will -- has established a plan that has a sequence or a series of options that are available.

CAMEROTA: And what does that look like? What would happen next?

MARKS: Well, at least we've opened the door in terms of conducting military operations in Syria. We've not gone that before, except at a very, very small level. Significantly, we have, obviously, Special Forces doing very precise targeting and we have an artillery capability so that we can support the resistance forces with precise fires. But then we can go back across the bothered into Turkey.

So, this opens the door for us to continue to poke away significantly at Assad. I think the long game is, the United States does want a regime change. We're just not going to do that in the short-term.

I totally agree with Phil. We're novices at trying to get beyond the length of our nose, but I think this opens the door and I'm optimistic that we have some additional capabilities, certainly, and options certainly that have been reversed that we can use.

CUOMO: General Hertling, I want you to take on something that Spider was saying earlier, that it's a very different time now than it was in 2013 because by comparison, if you wanted a chemical attack to act on, that was the one. You had over a thousand people by most counts killed, but Congress wasn't willing then. Yes, Rand Paul and others are saying, hey, this is illegal, what President Trump just did. This overshoots his Article 2 constitutional authority. And that's a legitimate question to be had.

But they didn't block him and it is a different time now than it was then right on the heels of getting out of Afghanistan and what had happened in Iraq. The next step has to include some kind of interchange with Congress, doesn't it? And how do you think that goes for this president?

HERTLING: Yes, well, I'm not a great legal mind, Chris. You probably have a whole lot more information on this than I do. But I do know there are a couple of things -- I don't believe that Mr. Trump can use the AUMF that was cited against terror -- use of military force that was designed in 2001 to fight terrorists as part of Mr. Bush's plan. He could use, however, there's a very obscure -- I think it's 1923 or 1925 act against chemical weapons that all nations were signatories to after the great World War I where chemical weapons were used in mass.