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Trump Launches Military Strikes Against Syria; Putin Slams U.S. Strike in Syria; Aired 6-6:30a ET
Aired April 7, 2017 - 06:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
[06:00:00] ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: And President Trump seems to have made a stunning reversal in the course of just one week. Now the president waited more than -- originally the president waited more than 24 hours to speak out against that chemical attack. That was just this week. And his administration had opposed the removal of the brutal dictator of Assad.
Today does President Trump need Congress and/or a coalition of nations to make his next move?
We have the global resources of CNN covering this breaking story. Let's begin with CNN's chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto live in Washington.
What have you learned, Jim?
JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Alisyn. This was a devastating U.S. military strike but a very focused one. 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles focused on that single Syrian air base, the Al Shayrat air base, which is where the U.S. Military assesses those chemical weapons attacks were launched from.
We're seeing our first pictures now of some of the damage from this attack. It targeted aircraft there. Targeted hardened aircraft shelters, fuel storage, ammo storage, air defense, radars. All the things that you would need to use not only for this attack that's already taken place, but if you want to go launch a future attack.
Crucially we should mention what was not targeted with these strikes, not Sarin gas depots. Of course it's believed Sarin gas was used in that attack earlier this week. The concern being, you hit those depots and you release that chemical weapon. Also the runways on that base not hit. But certainly devastating damage there. Reports of six Syrian troops killed as well.
At the same time that these attacks happened, the U.S. military releasing some of its photos, some of its intelligence. The way that it is established that it is the base that was used to carry out these attacks and the way that it established that they believe it was Syrian air forces that carried out these attacks, including the flight path. They tracked the planes from this base as they went on to their target. They looked at the craters, the impacts, known munitions for Syrian Air Forces to use in attacks like this.
I should say that the Russians were given advance warning of this attack. The U.S. did not want to hit Russian assets or certain Russian personnel. There were reports on the ground that Russian military forces were seen leaving this base in the hours of the day before the attack took place. Apparently they heeded that warning.
I should note, however, you know, that Russia has come out calling this an act of aggression. They've also suspended, and this is key. They suspended a de-confliction agreement that the U.S. has had with Russia for a number of months. That's because you have U.S. planes and Russian planes in the air space over Syria. You don't want them to accidentally shoot at each other. That agreement has been suspended for now, that creates some real danger going forward -- Alisyn.
CAMEROTA: That is key. And we need to watch what happens.
Jim, thank you for all that reporting.
President Trump calling these strikes, quote, "vital to national security and necessary to stop Assad from carrying out more attacks." The Trump administration has gone from saying that Assad's future is up to the Syrian people earlier this week to now bombing the Assad regime just hours ago.
CNN's Athena Jones is live in Palm Beach, Florida, where President Trump is. What's the latest from there, Athena?
ATHENA JONES, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Alisyn. Well, this first direct military action by the U.S. against the Assad regime was meant to deliver the message that the use of chemical weapons will not be tolerated. But it represents a major turnaround for a president who was initially slow to respond to this latest chemical attack and who once argued strenuously against military intervention in Syria.
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Tonight I ordered a targeted military strike on the airfield in Syria from where the chemical attack was launched.
JONES (voice-over): President Trump announcing that for the first time the United States has taken direct military action against the Syrian regime.
TRUMP: 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.
JONES: The president again citing the disturbing video of the Tuesday's horrific chemical attack as a major influence on his decision.
The escalation from the White House a dizzying turnaround for the administration that just days ago declared that their priority was not to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power.
REX TILLERSON, SECRETARY OF STATE: Longer term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people.
JONES: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson now saying exactly the opposite. Confirming that steps are under way to organize an effort to oust the Syrian dictator.
[06:05:04] TILLERSON: Assad's role in the future is uncertain. With acts that he has taken, it would seem that there would be no role for him to govern the Syrian people.
JONES: The attack also a startling about-face for President Trump who has repeatedly argued against military intervention in Syria.
TRUMP: Why do we care? Let ISIS and Syria fight. And let Russia, they're in Syria already. Let them fight ISIS.
JONES: Tweeting repeatedly after the last major chemical attack in Syria four year ago that the United States should stay out of the conflict and insisting that President Obama needs congressional approval before taking action. A step Trump did not take before launching last night's strikes.
The White House did inform more than two dozen lawmakers before taking action. But legislators on both sides of the aisle are urging the president to involve Congress if the administration decides to do more.
The president's stated concern with the humanitarian situation on the ground in Syria also starkly different from his campaign rhetoric.
TRUMP: If I win, they're going back.
JONES: In which he argued against allowing Syrian refugees into the United States.
TRUMP: I always say Trojan Horse. Watch what's going to happen, folks. It's not going to be pretty.
JONES: The administration's stance toward Russia also evolving in the wake of last night's strikes. America's top diplomat telling reporters last night that either Russia has been complicit or incompetent in its ability to deliver on the promise to destroy chemical weapons in Syria.
JONES: Strong words for Russia from the secretary of State. And Secretary Tillerson is set to travel to Moscow next week to meet with his Russian counterpart there, Sergei Lavrov, the Foreign minister, to talk about a number of issues. But Syria will certainly be on the agenda. That meeting was announced on Wednesday -- Chris.
CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: Boy, Athena, what a difference a day makes.
Russia now back on its heels condemning the U.S. missile strike in Syria as an act of aggression. That is basically a phrase trying to undermine any legal justification for this. But the bold move was President Vladimir Putin calling the strikes Trumped up. This would be first apparent insult of President Trump by Putin. How big will this missile strike be on future relations?
CNN's Matthew Chance live in Moscow with more -- Matthew.
MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Chris, thanks very much. That's right. There's been on the face of it a furious response from the Kremlin. A statement issued on behalf of Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, saying, "President Putin regards the American attacks on Syria as aggression against a sovereign state in violation of the norms of international law and," and this is crucial, "under a farfetched pretext."
Because the Russians still hold to their version of events, which is there was no chemical weapons strike carried out by the Syrian military against this area in southern Idlib Province of northern Syria. Instead it was a regular airstrike carried out by the Syrian military, but against the storage facility in which rebels were keeping their chemical munitions. And that's what caused the staggering horrific loss of life. And that's the version of events that the Russians are apparently sticking to. The Kremlin statement saying the Syrian army has no chemical weapons.
There has been action taken, though, by the Russians in response. It's not just strong words. The Air Safety Agreement, which is crucial in Syria, between the United States and Russian militaries to prevent their airplanes from coming into contact with each other in the skies as they carry out their different airstrikes. That's now been suspended. It was an important conduit by which the Russian military was warned by the U.S. of these forthcoming Tomahawk cruise missile strikes. That telephone will no longer ring. There won't be the mechanism in the future for the United States to warn the Russians if they are going to strike at targets inside Syria at their main ally in the Middle East -- Chris.
CAMEROTA: I'll take it here, Matthew. Thank you very much for all that reporting.
Jim Sciutto is back with us. Also joining us is CNN political analyst David Gregory. Associate editor and columnist at RealClearPolitics AB Stoddard and CNN military analyst, retired Major General James "Spider" Marks.
Great to have all of your expertise with us this morning. We need it.
AB, let's talk about the big political picture right you now. People are just waking up to this news. It happened less than 12 hours ago. But members of Congress are already weighing in. Is it your impression that there is a consensus thus far in the U.S., basically, and that both sides of the aisle and Congress think that this was the right move?
AB STODDARD, ASSOCIATE EDITOR AND COLUMNIST, REALCLEARPOLITICS: Yes, I think there is a bipartisan consensus that this was a reversal for President Trump as he campaigned obviously as an noninterventionist, but he acted swiftly in that he narrowed it not as an attack on the country to take out the President Bashar al-Assad, but to speak directly to the use of chemical weapons in violation of international norms.
[06:10:10] And I think that -- you know, so far -- you know, it's been applauded. It's that question of escalation in the days to come as our allies in the region applaud this and urge like Turkey that we, you know, begin no fly zone and stuff like that. That's where the concern will come in and again that's the debate in Congress over whether or not they just want to complain or actually have a hand in approving any further military escalation.
I think the talk from Secretary of State Tillerson about the possibility of organizing a coalition to topple Assad will make some voters very nervous. And really it's true you could see last night on social media that many Trump supporters are very upset. They saw him as noninterventionist. They didn't think he would do something like this. They think that he's been captured by the, you know, hawk Republicans like John McCain and stepping into a situation that will escalate out of control.
And that's going to be interesting to see in the days to come. Just how much the criticism of his own most fervent supporters affect the debate as well.
CUOMO: Strong point, AB. It was interesting to see diehard Trump folks saying there's no proof, there's no proof, this is all fake. This is all fake news, it never happened. Now you have the president, you know, full throated, saying Syria did this and I'm going to act. That's one political dynamic we'll have to watch.
Jim Sciutto, does this tailored attack politically mitigate, minimize the "well now what" question? That was the concern right that you'd start something that you didn't want to finish. Was this a good compromise in that way, keeping a tail?
SCIUTTO: Well, of course, it all depends on what happens next, right? This was a very -- it was a targeted attack in military terms. Right? Based really just parts of that base. You didn't go after the runways. You went after the aircraft. You went after the fuel depots, et cetera. You also certainly didn't go after the Sarin gas because that would have spread that around, you know, hurt civilians, et cetera. Very focused in military terms but also strategically it's very focused, right?
Because the Syrian military's ability to wage war in its country has not been significantly altered here. So it doesn't change the course of the war at least based on this one strike. If this signals a bigger change in U.S. intervention in this conflict, that's a different question. But it doesn't in military terms and I know General Marks knows more about this than me. Fundamentally change the course of the war on the ground unless there is a decision made to do that. To repeat strikes, to target other military capabilities of the Syrian government.
The other point I would note, Chris, is this. You know, as this is all happening, remember the Chinese president is here in the U.S. The message here, I think you could reasonably say, is not just to Syria, not just to Russia, but perhaps intended for a broader audience in the world that this is what this new -- there's a new sheriff in town. This administration, if pushed, will use force to respond.
CAMEROTA: Spider, how do you see what's happened in the past 12 hours?
MAJ. GEN. JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Very significant. Although we have to keep it in perspective. Again this is a very limited, very narrow strike. But this opens the door for additional strikes that I would anticipate that we would see over the course of time.
CAMEROTA: Additional strikes by the U.S. on air bases?
MARKS: By the United States. There are a whole host of targets. There are a whole host of targets. Where we could go after multiple capabilities that Assad has used in the past and has available to use again. What the United States will probably do is simply be reactive. We're in a punching match. They punched with chemical weapons. We decided we're going to punch back. What's going to happen next?
We lose if we do that ultimately. But if Assad is weakened by this in any way, and I'm not suggesting he is immediately. Over the course of time, he might be labeled a pariah or too tough to bolster. Russia may say, you know, you're really -- you're really making it tough for you, man. Let's stop. Iran, however, would probably not. But that could over the course of time weaken Assad. The United States should and must take advantage of that.
CUOMO: David Gregory.
DAVID GREGORY, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: If you are waking up this morning, the obvious question is what is next? Where does this go from here? So we have to take a step back. For all the president's bluster, blaming Obama and all the rest, let's -- that's all theater. The policy was the same.
President Trump, when he was candidate Trump, was opposed to getting involved in Syria. He supported Obama in not striking. He's got cover now. Today, Tony Blinken, our colleague at CNN, a former, more hawkish member of the National Security staff under Obama, praised this action. Hitting Assad over the use of chemical weapons. So the question is, is the goal here to stop Assad from using chemical weapons again? That's more leadership on the world stage.
[06:15:06] President Trump wants to do what President Obama was unwilling to do and what Congress is unwilling to do. Does he want to go a step further? This morning the secretary of State is signaling that this administration will push to get Assad out. How are they going to do that? It's going to involve some tough diplomacy with Russia which wants to keep Assad in because the larger strategy heretofore has been not to really mess with Assad or that six-year civil war or to do anything meaningful about all the refugees, millions of them created by targeting by Assad, it is to fight ISIS. And now what we have to wonder is, does Trump want to go bigger? Does
he want to fight ISIS? Take on Russia over Assad and take out Assad? That's the question.
CUOMO: You know who we're not talking about? Who's got the biggest say in all of this, is Assad. How is he going to respond to this?
Jim Sciutto, I mean, this is a guy who just a few days ago thought the U.S. was functionally giving him a pass. This is a guy who watched him do something much worse in 2013 and the United States gave him a pass.
CAMEROTA: And Senator Marco Rubio basically suggested that the chemical attack was a result of the secretary of State saying we're not -- we no longer prioritize getting rid of Assad.
SCIUTTO: Listen, you know, it's possible Assad doesn't do much different, right? I mean, this was a -- again a targeted attack on one air base. Specific to chemical weapons capabilities. Assad still has tremendous power to inflict damage and death, frankly. The principal way he's killed people was barrel bombs. Right? Not chemical weapons. And none of that has been affected by this. Now there's certainly a warning but in terms of waging war on his own people, that hasn't changed unless, as General Marks said, David, you know, unless something follows.
I mean, it certainly -- certainly it does make him think well, if I push too far, I might pay this price. But again if it's isolated, doesn't change what he does -- well, it certainly doesn't change his capabilities and it may very well not change the way he's waging war at home.
CAMEROTA: Yes, speaking of here at home, in the U.S., AB, this changes how Mr. Trump's critics and even his diehard supporters see his relationship with Russia. This is obviously a bold move that many people wondered if he'd ever be able to take and Secretary of State Tillerson using very strong language. He said either Russia has been complicit or incompetent in its ability to deliver on the promise to destroy chemical weapons in Syria. People didn't know that Secretary Tillerson would ever be willing to say something like that.
CUOMO: Interesting. The administration had been putting that on Obama, too. Now they shift it to Russia which is where the blame properly belongs.
STODDARD: I really think the Russia aspect is the most -- is the biggest headline of all of this. That not only that Trump and Tillerson are standing up to Russia like this and Tillerson's comments are very bold, basically saying they are either complicit in helping Assad hide chemical weapons that they pledged to get rid of in 2013 or they can't control him. So I imagine when Tillerson is in Moscow next week for these meetings, the push, the ask, because in the document that Josh Rogin saw last night, basically the government says that the Russian posture into Syria must change.
And so we are imagining now that Tillerson is going to ask them, look, you either clean up the rest of the weapons in that country or you do this and that to control Assad. I don't think the Russians are going to listen. And I think the fact that they -- that they want to get out of this de-conflict agreement is potentially that's the most dangerous thing because that's where there's a potential for rapid escalation if we have an accidental strife on a Russian, they are embedded all throughout the country. And I think that's -- that's really the danger. Even though domestically, politically, this posture against Russia is going to win over skeptics of Trump, and calm people in the Republican establishment, but militarily this reaction from Russia really is where the danger lies in some kind of mission creep and escalation.
CAMEROTA: Panel, thank you very much for being part of all of our rolling and continuing coverage on this.
CUOMO: All right. We have new information coming in consistently as we get it and process it. And we're bringing it to you. So please stay with the special edition of NEW DAY. We'll be right back.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN Breaking News.
[06:23:22] CAMEROTA: We have breaking news this hour. Russia's Defense minister, announcing moments ago that it plans to bolster and increase its air defense system in Syria. The U.S. fired nearly 60 missiles last night at Syrian government air base. That is where U.S. officials say the Assad regime launched the deadly chemical attack on Tuesday.
CNN's Ben Wedeman is live on the Turkey-Syria border with all of the breaking details. What is the latest, Ben?
BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Alisyn, well, we've heard some positive responses to the strike from Turkey. Turkey which said that the foreign minister said it is a positive response to what happened in Khan Sheikhoun on Tuesday morning. The Foreign minister of Jordan, Ayman Safadi, said it was an appropriate and necessary measure following that attack.
Now I've been in touch with Syrians who are in Turkey watching all of this. And some of them are saying that yes, this was a necessary measure to retaliate against this for this chemical attack, but some worry that it is just sort of a media response to the incident. Others do believe that it is a fundamental change in American policy.
Keeping in mind, of course, that for the last six years as the civil war raged in Syria, no measures were taken. No action was taken against the regime. They say finally something has been done against the regime of Bashar al-Assad -- Alisyn, Chris.
CUOMO: Ben, appreciate it.
Let's bring back our panel. David Gregory, Jim Sciutto, AB Stoddard and retired Major General James "Spider" Marks. [06:25:03] Jim Sciutto, Russia, all over the map since this happened.
We're told that they were forewarned. They have given the range of standing down even though they have capabilities in Syria to shoot down missiles like Tomahawks. They didn't do it. They've said basically this shouldn't affect our overall relationship. Then Putin called this "Trumped up." The first apparent insult of the American president by Putin. And now we have this message from the Defense Ministry, from the Kremlin, saying we're going to boost our capabilities basically to shoot things down in Syria. What do you make of it all?
SCIUTTO: Listen, you always have to be conscious. You know this as well as me. As the public message and the private message here. Right? There's a public audience that Vladimir Putin has to speak to. Certainly at home he has to show strength. But there -- I'm sure, and we know this, there were private communications yesterday because the U.S. made it very clear to the Russians that it did not want to kill or injure or hurt or strike Russian capabilities or people on the ground there. That was not part of this plan and the U.S. wanted to make that very clear. And there reports from the ground that Russian forces in that area were seen leaving there yesterday before these strikes took place.
So Russia has to say something. And it does have an effect because the U.S. has taken military action against its client state, Russia's client state, on the ground there. In addition, Russia had Syria kind of to itself. Right? I mean, a big show of military force tie Russia in recent years, really Russia's first deployment of military sources in the post-Soviet era away from its borders, in Syria, war planes, et cetera.
Now the U.S., I mean, in a very limited way, there have been troops on the ground, but in a very limited way is taking military action against its client state. It has to react. It will have an effect. But I think that the U.S. in limiting the strike and warning the Russians and in some of that language from Russia that both sides aren't going to want this to entirely blow up the relationship. It has real dangers but I have to think that neither side wants this to escalate too far.
CAMEROTA: Spider, this meeting that is previously scheduled with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Moscow has just gotten a lot more interesting. At the moment, it is not canceled. It is going to be happening next week.
CAMEROTA: How do you now decipher this relationship?
MARKS: Well, you certainly change the agenda. You walk in the door, you're going to have some different topics immediately to talk about. Number one. The fact that the de-confliction charter, this capability that the United States and Russia agreed to where there would be open communications delegated down to the military commanders on the ground. So that would allow you to, if you were going to conduct an operation, to call up your counterpart, and say, look, I'm about to -- I need you to stand down for 15 minutes. We're about to go do something. That's very important.
Now that was suspended. We want to make sure that that thing is not completely pulled out of the wall and thrown in the crapper. The other thing that is I think very, very important is Russia now has indicated that it's increased its air defense capabilities in Syria. My view of that is they have a very robust air defense capability already. Any place where Russia goes. Any place where we deploy. If we have aircraft, if we have soldiers. If we have one soldier on the ground, we put a bubble over that guy.
CAMEROTA: They could have shot down our missiles.
CAMEROTA: So them saying we're not going to bolster is it just bluster?
MARKS: No. They might try to thicken it, but they've already got a capability that's sufficient for the task. What this is, is a political message that's going back to the United States saying guys, we hear you.
CUOMO: Spider, what do you make of this? I'm reading something that's coming out of the Kremlin right now. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov. He seems to be heightening expectations of negative outcomes. The risks of conflicts in the air. You know, it's hard to see that it could get any higher. That this was being carried out for the benefit of ISIS and other terrorist organizations. So let's leave the political propaganda aside. Obviously U.S. has zero interest in doing anything for the benefit of ISIS.
But we're going to hit each other in the air. They suspended that non-conflict channel for right now. How big a deal is that? Who loses in the event that there is actual conflict?
MARKS: First of all, the -- the de-confliction capability was an all priority capability. I'm about to do something, I want to coordinate and let you know. That's important. But in terms of our running into or bumping into Russians in the air space over Syria or in the contiguous areas, as they say in the military, that ain't going to happen.
MARKS: We have an ability to reach much farther. Our capabilities allow us to see much more deeply and much more clearly than the Russian counterparts. And if there was a choice to engage, we could -- we would have immediate overmatch. We could strike them at much greater distance. We would win that kind of engagement.
CAMEROTA: Go ahead, David.
GREGORY: There may be an agreement between Russia and the U.S. to limit the use of chemical weapons. That might --