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Official U.S. Probes If Russia Complicit In Poison Gas Attack; U.S. Not Ruling Out Further Strikes On Syria; 4 Killed In Stockholm Truck Attack. Aired 9-10p ET
Aired April 7, 2017 - 21:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
[21:00:33] ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: Welcome back. There are new details tonight about the missile strikes on Syria. New action to determine whether Russian forces were complicit in the chemical attack that led up to them, new questions about where this operation, which did significant but limited damage to a Syrian air base, fits into any larger strategy. There's a lot to cover in this hour.
Let's start with CNN's Barbara Starr at the Pentagon. So the U.S. military is investigating whether Russia was in fact complicit in the chemical weapons attack. What are they saying?
BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Good evening, Anderson. What we learned here at the Pentagon today is that they want to see if there is credible evidence that Russia was complicit, was Russia involved, how much did the Russian military know about what was going on at that air base and in Syria's chemical weapons program. The evidence may actually be mounting.
What we now know, officials have confirmed, there was a Russian drone operating over that hospital in Idlib before it was bombed. It flew over that hospital taking pictures for a while. The Russian drone goes away and suddenly a couple hours later a warplane comes in and drops a conventional bomb in this area, apparently to try to destroy evidence of the chemical attack.
So it was a Russian drone and they don't know who was flying that airplane. Was it a Russian crew in the airplane? The Pentagon saying, they're now going to investigate all claims, all credible evidence of Russian involvement, but it certainly appears that they are already headed in that direction.
They also say they will aggressively investigate now the Syrian chemical weapons program. A bit of an odd statement, because the world has seen this now for several years. Anderson?
COOPER: And what are you learning about the time line of how the U.S. strike took place?
STARR: Well, you'll recall that, you know, this begins to unfold in front of the world on Tuesday when that attack in Idlib province happened. Shortly thereafter, what we know is throughout Tuesday and Wednesday, the U.S. military, the Defense Department began to move very rapidly to begin to plan what they could do. By Wednesday, they have clear direction from the White House.
President Trump wants to see some options. They keep plowing ahead with the plan. They begin to move ships. They get things into place. The president is finally briefed on the final details on Thursday. He gives the go ahead around 4:30 Thursday and within three hours on Thursday, last night, 8:40 East Coast Time, or a little bit before that, the tomahawks are launched and the president is briefed on the impact of the strike just a short time later.
So, really, a 48-hour planning cycle starts to finish moving very rapidly through this. Limited strike, yes, but it was the message that the White House chose to send that you've been talking about all night, the message to Assad basically, "Don't do this again. You do it again, we will keep attacking."
COOPER: And what do we know about what if any more action may be taken?
STARR: Well, right now, there's no indication of any imminent military action as far as we know. Again, holding in reserve that if Assad does this again, the U.S. may decide to do it again, but there is another wrinkle out there tonight. As you know, lots of U.S. troops in Syria. They want to keep a sharp eye, make sure they're safe.
COOPER: All right, Barbara Starr. Barbara, thanks.
The operation at least is a stand-alone proposition that's drawn mostly praise from a wide range law maker of both side of the aisle. The other questions are being raised about how it fits into a larger strategy for dealing with the Assad regime and how to reconcile it with the policy of keeping Syrian refugees from coming here.
Shortly after the missile strike, Massachusetts Democratic Congressman and Iraq war veteran, Seth Moulton, tweeted, "So, POTUS cares enough about the Syrian people to launch 59 or 50 tomahawks but not enough to let the victims of Assad find refuge & freedom here." I spoke with the congressman earlier this evening.
COOPER: Congressman, you've obviously had some harsh words against President Trump in the past. As a member of the House Armed Services Committee, what are your thoughts on his decision to strike Syria?
REP. SETH MOULTON, (D) MASSACHUSSETTS: Well, we cannot stand by while innocent civilians are murdered by chemical weapons. It's important to send a message that this behavior is not acceptable. And so the initial military action is OK. But the question that we all have to ask now is, what's next? What is the end game? Where is this all headed? Those are the questions we're asking tonight.
COOPER: Do you think this administration has a strategy in place, because it does seem like a major shift for them just even from last week comments that the secretary of state made and even the initial response to the chemical strike on Tuesday.
[21:05:15] MOULTON: If they have a strategy, they certainly haven't briefed it to us. And they seem to be all over the map. You're right. I mean, earlier this week, President Trump seemed to indicate that Assad should stay in power. Now all of a sudden, Assad has to go.
So, there are an awful lot of questions that remain unanswered here. And at the end of the day, it's just not fair to our troops or the American public to start a military action and not have a goal, not have something that you're trying to achieve.
You know, when I was on the ground in Iraq, even in the midst of a war that I often disagreed with, I understood what I was there to do. I could go out on just some small patrol in a neighborhood in a city in Iraq, but I understood that that patrol's ultimate mission was to empower the government of Iraq so that ultimately Iraq could take care of its own national security and we could go home. There's no clear direction like that in Syria right now. We don't even know which government we're trying to support.
COOPER: Is it clear to you what this administration's policy is in terms of Bashar al-Assad? Obviously, in the Obama administration, the U.S. policy was officially for the removal of Bashar al-Assad, that Assad had to go. Clearly, you know, red lines were violated and that the U.S. didn't act.
But, again, Secretary Tillerson last week seemed to indicate that it was up to the Syrian people to decide about Bashar al-Assad. Is it clear? Is it still U.S. policy that Assad must go?
MOULTON: I have no idea. And I think it sends a frightening message when I'm sitting here as a member of the House Armed Services Committee and I have no idea what our policy is.
COOPER: You really don't know? I mean, I think that's going to be startling to some folks.
MOULTON: No. No, I don't because on Monday it was one thing and now it seems to be another. We need to understand these goals. President Trump owes that to the American people. We need to understand what exactly he is trying to achieve, especially with any further military action.
Now, look, we can say that the message sent by these 59 tomahawks was don't use chemical weapons. That's fine. But what comes next has to have an intention, a purpose. And, frankly, we awe that to the troops. How are you going to ask young men and women to risk their lives for what, for an uncertain goal? For an end game that you can't even describe, that's why having a strategy is so critical and we have yet to hear it from the Trump administration.
COOPER: Do you foresee or would you support further strikes with tomahawks or, you know, there are some -- Senator McCain has talked about, you know, trying to take out Syria's entire air force so that they, you know, they can't drop barrel bombs, they can't do the chemical attacks that we've seen now.
MOULTON: Well, again, I just want to see what the goal is, what the plan is. And it's going to be a long-term plan. You know, if we're just going to expend munitions in Syria and still find ourselves in the same exact place a couple years from now where we are today, then I don't see the point. So, these are the kinds of things that the Trump administration has to answer.
Representative Steve Russell from Oklahoma and I are both Iraq war veterans. We came together last night just as this -- these events were unfolding and issued a bipartisan statement, basically saying that this initial action is OK. We understand it, but we need to know what's going to come next.
So, this is a place where we should be able to find bipartisan agreement, a place where Congress can do its job to authorize any further use of military force. But it has to start with a plan from the administration.
COOPER: All right. Congressman Moulton, I appreciate your time. Thank you.
COOPER: Let's bring in the panel, Fareed Zakaria, New York Times National Security Correspondent, Matthew Rosenberg, retired Army Lieutenant General Mark Hertling and Clarissa Ward in Turkey, near the border with Syria.
Clarissa, let's start with you. Just, you know, since this attack, 24 hours ago, have you seen or heard talk of a kind of shift in the balance of power or any kind of change on perceptions of the balance of power?
CLARISSA WARD, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think, Anderson, you're not going to really see a major shift on the battlefield in terms of this is unlikely to really reign in the winning streak that the regime of Bashar al-Assad has been on. But where you might see a bit of shift in balance is in this kind of larger proxy war.
And for a long time now, the U.S. has essentially been sitting on the sidelines kind of ringing its hands over what to do and who if anyone to support while Russia has sort of emerged as the dominant force in the Syrian conflict.
And I do think that for better or for worse or with whatever intention there was behind it, these U.S. strikes have certainly forced everyone at the negotiating table, whether it's the Russians, whether it's the Iranians, whether it's Hezbollah, whether it's those supporting the opposition to kind of reassess and take stock for a moment that the U.S. actually does have some leverage and is potentially going to involve itself, maybe not intervening further, but having more of an impact, more of a voice and more of a say. [21:10:21] COOPER: Fareed, you know, General Hayden was on in the last hour and said, look, essentially, you can't go against Assad and Syria at the same time. The U.S. just -- excuse me, go against ISIS and Assad at the same time and that ISIS is the priority for the U.S. Do you agree with that?
FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN HOST, "FAREED ZAKARIA GPS": I think that, you know, one has to remember the problem here is that there are no good guys in Syria. We hate Assad. We hate ISIS. We hate al-Qaeda. We hate Al-Nusra. Those are the choices. And I think General Hayden is right that in the long run our strategy has to be an ISIS first strategy, not an American first strategy in this case because ISIS is the main target. ISIS is the main enemy.
And in that context, there's only so much we can do to weaken Assad, because let's say we were to keep going on this path. The weaker Assad gets, the stronger ISIS gets. Not tactically, because they're always fighting in the same area, but overall, you know, the two strongest military forces in Syria are ISIS and Assad.
We are now in the next few weeks going to return, I assume, to what the Trump administration's primary focus has been, the war against ISIS, the battle against ISIS. And in doing that, we're going to be going hammer and tongs after ISIS. ISIS is also the Assad regime's main antagonist.
ZAKARIA: So in a strange sense, the Assad regime is then going to be in covert alliance with us, even though we just bombed that.
ZAKARIA: That's the complexity and that's why I think we have to keep in mind, certainly the first priority is the defeat of ISIS. We have actually gotten very close and I suspect the Trump administration will continue do that, which is why it keeps pointing out, this is a one off. We're not going to do more, because their real priority is to get back to that fight against ISIS.
COOPER: And, Matt, you know, Senator McCain was on in the last hour and he's talking about, you know, he would like to see the elimination of more attacks against, you know, the Syrian air force, eliminate their capability and the creation of safe zones. All of that though seems unlikely until, if ever it was going to happen, until the battle against ISIS is completed.
MATTHEW ROSENBERG, NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT, NEW YORK TIMES: Well, there's the battle against ISIS, which you're absolutely right about. And then there's also the fact that Russia set up what they call area of defense and denial systems, radars, missile systems throughout government held areas. There are Russian troops, Russian military, Russian intelligence officers throughout this basis.
So, to set up that no fly zone means destroying the air defenses, means you risk a real confrontation (ph) of taking on Russia and Russian forces. And I find it hard to believe that at this point anybody in the White House or the United States is eager to get into a shooting war with the Russians which you'd absolutely be risking in that situation.
And, you know, then you are into like, you know, I'm talking about -- there's an end game issue here. Once you get there, that's a -- you are at another level.
COOPER: General Hertling, I mean, just from a military standpoint, if you do say you want to do what Senator McCain is recommending, which is, you know, ground their air fleet, even if you're not destroying all their aircraft, just make, you know, shoot one down so you ground it and create the safe zones, if Russia challenges, if Russia decides to challenge you in that, the risk of an escalation to Matt's point is enormous.
LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: It's huge. And I would counter Senator McCain and lean more toward Congressman Moulton in terms of an overarching strategy. Anderson, you know, we've only used at different times elements of our national power concerning ISIS. We have used the military -- I'm sorry, regarding Syria.
We have used the military against ISIS. We have used -- attempted in the Obama administration to use massive amount of diplomacy with the Russians and the Syrians. And those are only two of the powers and they're not synchronized.
If you bring all the elements of national power to bear, diplomacy, military, the economy, information, we're starting to see some informational tools being used against the Russians because they have been the ones supporting Assad.
And the last thing I'd say is, yes, our main fight should be against ISIS. But as long as Assad is there, ISIS will continue to grow. It was just like ISIS in Iraq as long as Maliki was there they were thriving, the same thing as occurring in Syria.
So, we can do two things at the time. Counter Mr. Assad get more of a representative government, bring people to the peace table. And at the same time, fight this terrorist scourge with this ISIS. We can't separate them. They're combined.
ZAKARIA: I think it works in theory. I have a lot of respect for Mark Hertling, but the problem is this. Consider that the situation here, which is if we were to achieve the objective we seek on the Assad front, if we were to be able -- if we were able to oust the regime of Assad tomorrow, what would happen?
[21:15:07] There's a large part of Syria that is ruled by the Assad regime, that is ruled by -- you know, there's a lot of the minorities, the Alawites, the Christians. They would all be in threat. It would be chaos. Most likely, those areas would be penetrated by Jihadis at that point. Syria would go into a free-for-all. And certainly which strengthen the forces of ISIS and Al-Nusra and al-Qaeda. So we're in this very awkward situation.
We don't want Assad in power, but we don't want a power vacuum, either. And the idea that we could carefully choreograph a transition from Assad to a representative government of moderate Syrians that would rule the place in a pluralistic fashion, you know, that hasn't been our experience in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen that, you know, you go from the dictator to chaos.
COOPER: Yeah. And Clarissa -- I'm sorry, go ahead, General.
HERTLING: And that's not what I was suggesting, Fareed. I appreciate that. But, you're talking forced regime change. And, boy, have we learned some really bad lessons about doing that.
But with the power of diplomacy with forcing the Russians to do some things with Mr. Assad, with information and perhaps with some type of federation -- I don't know. I'm not a politician. But I do know there might be a better way as opposed to forced regime change. Please don't misunderstand, I am not into a regime change. We've seen the power that that brings about and it's awful. We can't go that way.
COOPER: You know, Clarissa, I mean, just as you're on the ground there, on the border, I mean, just the sheer complexity of all the different actors inside Syria and kind of the ever shifting areas that they are operating in and control, it's hard to kind of overstate just how complex a scenario it is.
WARD: It's incredibly complex. I mean, I have spent six years studying this and spending so much time inside rebel held Syria and I can barely get my head around all of the different groups who are operating on the ground with different proxies.
I certainly did not imagine this time a week ago that we would see President Donald Trump emerging as some kind of a hero to rebel forces on the ground who have now given him his own nom de guerre, Abu Ivanka al-Amriki. So, we're in kind of uncharted territory there.
COOPER: Abu Ivanka al-Amriki?
WARD: It doesn't seem to me that there is --
WARD: Abu Ivanka al-Amriki, which literally just means Father of Ivanka the American. And it's a nom de guerre like many of the rebel fighters used. We've also seen them posting as their avatars on Twitter and social media, pictures of President Trump and underneath that just this nahn nuhabuk, we love you.
So, this is a really unusual situation. I do think though if we just look for one second at the micro here, if we just look at the idea that potentially this series of strikes may, and I hasten to say, may have stopped the regime or at least caused them to think twice about using chemical weapons, again, and killing dozens and dozens of children, surely that is something to be embraced.
COOPER: All right. I want to thank everybody on the panel. Coming up next, the politics surrounding all of this, specifically, of course, to mentioned President Trump's sharp change of mind since his inauguration about U.S. military involvement in Syria.
And later, how Syria and the world got here. The long and brutal road from what started out as peaceful mass protests against the regime to atrocities to missile strikes last night.
[21:21:06] COOPER: As we've been reported, the president's decision to strike Syria marks a big change for the administration's policy. You can certainly make a case that it simply reflects the fact that the Oval Office changes you.
That said, this is quite a drastic change from let's say 2012 when as a citizen Donald Trump was not only against U.S. involvement in Syria, he was also loudly warning that any U.S. strike would be for cynical motives.
Here is a tweet from October of that year, "Now that Obama's poll numbers are in tailspin, watch for him to launch a strike in Libya or Iran. He is desperate." That was then.
Right now, we're joined by Jason Miller, Errol Louis, and Maria Cardona. You know, I've been seeing on Twitter, Jason, people pointing to that tweet today saying, well, is that the situation now? I happen to think that's unfair, because I think any -- as I think that tweet was unfair acts.
Now, do you think the office -- being in office is a lot different than being a civilian and reading about the stuff in the paper or even as a candidate. When you hear people asking that for, you know, wag the dog theory, what do you think?
JASON MILLER, FORMER SENIOR COMMUNICATION ADVISER, TRUMP CAMPAIGN: Well, the first thing I tell them is let's take a step back and recognize that President Trump passed his first test on the world stage. He was challenged. He stood up. He was decisive. He was moved quickly. And I think he had excellent results.
Now, when we talk about the previous comments that he would made -- that he had made, I would say that what he is faced with terrors in humanitarian crisis and had to send a message that no longer are we going to lead from the back when it comes to issues like chemical weapons and regimes like Assad.
And I think not only that we send a message to Assad, but I think also there's some other folks that were sent a message as well. I'm talking about North Korea. I think Kim Jong-un was sent a serious message that President Trump is not to be trifled with on these matters and I think also the U.N. was sent a message as well. One that if they're going to continue to coddle regimes like Assad, then the U.S. will go it alone and get it done themselves.
COOPER: Errol, it is, though, a change in policy, essentially, from what Donald Trump talked about during the campaign, you know, when he was asked about humanitarian interventions. He was asked about, you know, just recently said, you know, I'm not the world, you know, "We're not the world's policemen. I'm not president of the world." And yet, this is clearly taking a leadership role on the world stage as a standing up for a moral principal.
ERROL LOUIS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I don't know if I would call it a change in policy so much as a deviation from a stated policy. Just as you laid out during the campaign and even after being sworn in, he sort of put humanitarian concerns off to the side that this wasn't going to be the use of soft power. He ridicules Hillary Clinton for that during the campaign. He -- when asked about it, he said he didn't intend to make active use of it, a policy that he might want to rethink now.
He's got to use all the tools that are out of his disposal in this very tricky part of the world. He sent a message. I think Jason is right to a lot of different players. The message to Russia remains to this e-mail. We will have more on that, I guess when the secretary of state meets face to face with Putin and they try and discuss this.
But, you know, make no mistake about it, this is not something that was expected. So many of the political supporters of the president have said, "Hey, this wasn't what we wanted. This isn't what you promised." You know, the Russian president (inaudible) that, you know, sort of saying, this is very much at odds with campaign rhetoric.
If there's going to be a change, if there's -- if this isn't just a deviation, but indeed a change or a transformation, it's going to need to happen from the secretary of state, from the president himself, from the national security apparatus sort of saying, you know, we started out with one set of intentions, situation on the ground changed, now we're going in a different direction.
COOPER: But, Maria, I mean we've seen this with many presidents. You know, I think George W. Bush who campaigned, you know, against the idea of nation building and then ends up, you know, after 9/11, understandably, ends up in Afghanistan and we have the nation building in that country for a very long time now. President Obama who campaigned on closing down GTMO and that didn't happen.
MARIA CARDONA, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Right. And certainly, you know, you give a new president leeway when it comes to these issues that he is challenged with on the world stage.
[21:25:03] But I think the cynicism comes in for Donald Trump because this wasn't just a change in a grade of a view or a slight change, like you said. It was a -- this is now foreign policy by whiplash. It's literally a 180 degree change in where he was.
And look, I am glad that he was moved by the images of dead babies and said that the world cannot turn away. He's right about that, but guess what? There were more dead babies in 2013 when he was tweeting at President Obama that it would be stupid to go into Syria, calling him a fool to be considering the kind of action that he himself took on yesterday.
And then when you also have somebody who has talked about banning refugees from Syria whose families have suffered those same exact dead babies and who want to come here to be able to save the rest of their children, that's where you have the cynicism and the hypocrisy involved. We need a strategy. We need what he is going to do there long-term.
COOPER: Jason, Senator Rand Paul is obviously been critical of the strike. I want to play something that he said earlier.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. RAND PAUL, (R) KENTUCKY: Our founders in the original days believed that war should be declared by Congress. So I think before you even get into the debate of whether we should or shouldn't, we should start out with the law. And the law says that the president does not have the power to declare a war, does not have the power to take this to war.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
COOPER: What do you make of that because, again, as a civilian, Donald Trump also tweeted about President Obama needing to seek permission from Congress on military action?
MILLER: So I think it's important to point out that this isn't a regime change. This is a targeted, very specific strike to try to make sure that Assad did not have the capability to deliver those chemical weapons and kill more of his own people. But it goes even beyond that.
These are important to point out how this is a national security issue for the United States directly. Not only our interest in the region, but they could easily go and try to deploy those weapons to Israel, to go to Turkey, go to Kurdish, to our allies in Iraq. I mean, we had to take action here. And I think it was good that he took such a decisive step.
I think that respectfully with regard to Senator Paul, I think he is just wrong here. I think this was a national security threat. Now, if there are additional strikes that are coming up and there's a longer term engagement or if there are issues where we decide we have to do something about Assad directly, then, yes, we need to go to Congress. But this, the president was fully within his bounds to go and do so.
COOPER: Errol, it doesn't seem like this goes beyond this initial strike, at least for now.
LOUIS: That seems to be the case, but we really don't know. We don't know how the Russians will react. We don't know how their puppet Assad will react. We don't know what other humanitarian crisis may come up. We don't know once again if the president is going to avail himself of a very easy tool which is to say, you know, when there are people who are fleeing this murderous regime, we will welcome them into the United States.
If he closes off all of those different options, then, yeah. I mean, you can send a lot more tomahawk missiles. I think your military guests have made clear that they can pinpoint whatever they want. They can hit whatever they want. And sort of send message after message after message, but that's not the same as changing the policy.
COOPER: Yeah. Jason Miller, appreciate it. Errol Louis, Maria Cardona, thank you.
Just head last night, U.S. missile strike in Syria came six years in concern crisis. We'll show you how we got to this point, the history of this crisis. Also, the last American ambassador of Syria and his encounters with Bashar al-Assad shortly before the carnage began.
[21:31:53] COOPER: Well the breaking news tonight, the Pentagon investigating whether Russia was involved in the chemical attack in Syria that prompted president Trump to launch a first direct military assault against the Assad regime.
Now, Tuesday's poison gas attack killed at least 86 people, injured dozens more. President Trump's decision just two days later to order a missile strike on a Syrian Airbase has put the crisis front and center, certainly on the world stage six years after the carnage began. Here's Randi Kaye with how we got here.
RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): They call it the cradle of the revolution. This is Daraa, Syria, a small town about 50 miles from Damascus. Here is where graffiti containing anti-government slogans sparked the start of the Syrian uprising.
It was March 2011, and more than a dozen children had been arrested for drawing that graffiti. Protesters demanded the release of the children and democratic reform. It quickly turned violent, with protests spreading and Syrian security forces opening fire on crowds.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): If it is bomb every day, thousand people died. This is our land and we will not leave.
KAYE (voice-over): Protesters targeted the government, the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
PRESIDENT BASHAR AL-ASSAD, SYRIA (through translator): If our enemies are working daily and scientifically in order to undermine the stability of Syria.
KAYE: The regime's response was swift, a brutal crackdown, massive arrests and casualties. The president made promises that never came.
NICK ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (on camera): The level of anger and passion here is absolutely palpable. We're just a few miles from the central Damascus and this is a crowd here. (FOREIGN LANGUAGE)
ROBERTSON (on camera): Thank you. Thank you. This is a crowd here of perhaps several thousand people. They're taking over this whole area.
KAYE (voice-over): The government militias continued to torture and murder their own people, using tanks and surprise raids.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): I'm not the only one whose life has been destroyed or whose husband is missing. Everyone in this country has a missing person or a destroyed home or is displaced. We have been through so much. We have suffered and have come to hate life because of all these problems.
KAYE (on camera): E-mails obtained by CNN apparently from the Assad's private e-mail accounts show throughout it all, they continue to live a life of luxury. One day in February 2012, the same day fighters in homes reported more than 200 killed, Mr. Assad's wife was e-mailing a friend about shoes she liked that cost about $7,000 a pair.
(voice-over): In another e-mail in which Syria's first lady used the fake name Alia, she contacted a London art dealer about art that cost as much as $16,500. All of this during the senseless slaughter of Syrian civilians. The U.N. estimates about 400,000 Syrians have been killed since the war began in 2011.
[21:35:04] And as of last December, nearly 5 million Syrians have fled the country, only adding to the refugee crisis in the Middle East. Many in Syria have lost hope.
ZAIDQUN, SYRIAN ACTIVIST: We are not scared at least there's ground pack now. I'm not scared of the chemical weapon. I mean, does it look difference to die with a bullet or chemical weapon?
KAYE (voice-over): Randi Kaye, CNN, New York.
COOPER: Robert Ford was the last American ambassador to Syria. He met twice with Bashar al-Assad. Ambassador Ford left Syria in 2012 when the U.S. closed the embassy. In 2014, he resigned when he found himself unable to defend and support the Obama administration's policy on Syria. He joins us tonight.
Ambassador Ford, you were the last U.S. Ambassador to Syria when there are already few Americans who actually sat down with Bashar al-Assad. Just -- as a person and as a leader, what were your impressions of him?
ROBERT FORD, LAST FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO SYRIA, OBAMA ADMINISTRATION: He was charming, actually. His English is fluent, because he had studied medicine in Britain. He is not stuffy. He is not stuck-up. But he does get angry when I raised human rights with him in that meeting, you just showed the photo. He got quite angry at me. And I think what most struck me is that several times during my conversations with him, he just out and out lied about things they were doing. And he knew that I knew he was lying and he did it anyway.
COOPER: He has lied repeatedly in interviews that I have seen. I mean, he has lied about the nature of the demonstrations against him and that began -- peacefully, that began in Daraa because of the arrest of some children who had sprayed some graffiti.
And from the beginning, he has been cracking down on his own people and labeling them terrorists and it did ultimately, obviously, ISIS grew and, you know, he released extremists from Syrian prisons and kind of created the enemy that he was originally calling the peaceful protesters.
FORD: President Assad best understands the language of force. I don't think he is worried, his credibility when he tells falsehoods, when he tells lies. To him, it's all about balance of fact and the balance of military forces on the ground, that's how he operates. That's how the Syrian government operates.
COOPER: Is it clear to you right now what the Trump administration policy is to Syria, whether it continues to be as it was in the last administration that Bashar al-Assad has to go, because the secretary of state just last week seemed to indicate this is up to the Syrian people. And then clearly, you know, the administration, President Trump has had a change of heart to respond the way he did last night.
FORD: Well, the administration has been all over the map in the past week. As you mentioned for a while, they said Assad is a reality and he is going to stay and we have to accept it. Then earlier this week, Secretary Tillerson said there are efforts under way to gather a coalition to remove Assad. So I don't -- I'm not sure I understand what the policy is. I think we'll let it play out.
I think in terms of this particular military strike and it was a hard strike, but it's only been one strike. I think the purpose was to re- establish deterrents against the use of chemical weapons. And I think back in the worthy goal.
COOPER: A lot of people I think are asking why would Assad do this now. I mean, he basically, you know, he has had the Russia -- the backing of Russia. He has Iran and he had an administration in the U.S., which seemed to be kind of taking a hand off approach to Syria until this chemical attack. Obviously, he has used chemical weapons before. But does it make sense to you that he would risks doing it again?
FORD: Oh, sure. He has been using chemical weapons continuously since 2013. This isn't new. There have been lots of reports about Syrian use of chemical weapons. Assad does this, Anderson, to intimidate civilians, to try to scare them from supporting opposition fighters. And in some cases, he uses chemical weapons in a tactical military way to compensate for his shortfalls in manpower. Not so different from the way the Germans used gas in World War I.
COOPER: So what should, in your opinion, happen next?
FORD: What I would urge the Trump administration is to stick to a limited military goal of deterrence against the use of chemical weapons. Also, boosts U.S. credibility with countries that mean us harm and other parts of the world.
But I would caution the administration against plunging into deep military involvement in the Syrian civil war unless they are prepared to draw up a very detailed plan to manage the politics and to manage the reconstruction and to marshal a bit coalition and to marshal a resources
[21:40:15] Otherwise, we're just going to get a repeat of Iraq 2003.
COOPER: Ambassador Robert Ford, I appreciate your time. Thank you.
FORD: My pleasure.
COOPER: Up next, is a picture from last night tells the story of a White House shakeup about to happen? Details on that ahead.
COOPER: All day, we'll be getting new details about how last night's missile strike unfolded. This photograph shows the president, cabinet members, Jared Kushner and others being briefed at about 9:15 last night in a makeshift situation room at Mar-a-Lago. The figure closest to the president there on his right, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, next to him, Secretary of State Tillerson on the president's left, Steve Bannon almost out of frame behind the president, practically under a lamp. Maybe he chose that seat. We don't know.
What is clear though is that, tonight there's growing speculation that some in Trump's inner circle may be heading for the door, at least being reassigned. Sara Murray has details.
SARA MURRAY, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Some of President Trump's top staffers are in tenuous territory, as an ideological battle rages in the White House.
Trump's Chief Strategist Steve Bannon is facing an uncertain future and has become increasingly isolated in the west-wing. Sources tell CNN, the president's concerns about his brain trust coming as Trump took an unexpected leap on the foreign policy front this week, in ordering a military strike in Syria.
DONALD TRUMP, U.S. PRESIDENT: We hope that as long as America stands for justice, then peace and harmony will in the end prevail. [21:45:05] MURRAY (voice-over): The move highlighting the fault lines emerging between the nationalist wing of the Trump White House led by Bannon and the more moderate crowd, including Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
The President's decision to intervene in Syria, appear to be the latest indication that the America first group is losing some sway.
TRUMP: I now have responsibility and I will have that responsibility and carry it very proudly.
MURRAY (voice-over): It's in abrupt change in tone from Trump on day one when he relied heavily on Bannon to craft a speech hammering home this message.
TRUMP: From this day forward, it's going to be only America first, America first.
MURRAY (voice-over): But Trump has grown frustrated within fighting among top aides and his inability to make more progress on his domestic agenda. The relationship between Bannon and Kushner has grown especially strained, sources say. With Bannon even lamenting to someone that he is locked in an unwinnable battle with Trump's family.
This week, it was Bannon who lost ground. Trump removed him from the National Security Council's principal committee. This as Kushner was brushing up on foreign policy, recently returning from a trip to Iraq. But the chief strategist isn't the only Trump team member who could be on the ropes. Trump once heaped praise on his chief of staff.
TRUMP: He is a star and I knew that a long time ago.
MURRAY (voice-over): Now, Trump's confidants are floating names of potential replacements for Reince Priebus. Among them, Gary Cohn, Trump's top economic adviser who has close tie to Jared and Ivanka. Also on the list, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, he has quietly built a relationship with Trump and has experience on the hill. But a source cautioned there have been no serious talks about him taking the job.
On Thursday, the president shrug decide that shake up rumors aboard Air Force One, insisting he's already shaking up Washington.
TRUMP: I think we have shaken them up, but I think we've had one of the most successful 13 weeks in the history of the presidency.
MURRAY: Now, coming off one of the most consequential moment of Donald Trump's young presidency, it's clear he is not entirely happy with his team. Of course, the big question is whether he is actually going to take action and do something about it, Anderson.
COOPER: What's the White House saying about these reports?
MURRAY: Well, the official word from the White House is a lot of there is nothing to see here. I want to read you a portion of what White House Spokeswoman Lindsay Walters said. "Once again this is a completely false story driven by people who want to distract from the success taking place in this administration." But obviously, many sources are telling us, think about entirely happy there, Anderson.
COOPER: All right. Sara Murray, thanks very much.
Coming up at the top of the hour, the CNN Films' "Unseen Enemy". It's really fascinating to look at what a lot of people think is inevitable, a global pandemic. That's at 9:00 p.m.
But up next, we have breaking news from Stockholm, Sweden where a stolen truck barreled into people killing at least four and arrest has been made, but is it the driver? Could that person still be on the run tonight? We have details ahead.
[21:51:26] COOPER: More breaking news, now a stolen beer truck barrels into pedestrians in one of the busiest streets in Stockholm, Sweden killing at least four people, injuring dozens. The scene captured by people on skyscraper, high above the street as people fleeing, running for their lives. Well, it appears to be the latest use of a vehicle as a weapon of terror. One arrest has been made but it's unclear if it's the driver. Max Foster joins us now from Stockholm.
So, these attack being investigated as terrorism. What's the latest?
MAX FOSTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, what we know is that a beer delivery truck, Anderson, was hijacked by someone in a masked. It was then driven down Sweden's main shopping street, really, out there crossing behind me, careering through crowds and ended up landing in a department store just behind me.
You can't see it, but you got these buses here which were literally abandoned in the frenzy. The whole area went into lock down. All trains into the capital were canceled. And you can see here still cordoned off was well.
Now, several people injured, several people killed. And we know that the police released this image of someone who they were seeking. And then, shortly afterwards, they arrested someone that matched that image. We don't know anymore than that at this point.
We also know that the borders have been secured as well, Anderson, so just suggest that some sort of ongoing investigation, some sort of ongoing threat potentially. But the police are calming things down somewhat by saying they (inaudible) anymore updates tonight.
COOPER: So just to be clear, the driver of the -- the person who stole the vehicle, the driver of it ran away from the scene, got away?
FOSTER: Well, yeah. There's lots of sort of anecdotal evidence like that, but the police aren't just confirming anything at this point. I think because of this idea that the boarders have been secured and they're investigating something at this point. We don't know quite what it is.
COOPER: This certainly does follow, you know, a pattern of vehicles being used as deadly weapons whether it's in Nice, in Berlin, London and now this.
FOSTER: Yeah. And I reported all those places, Anderson. I think what's frightening about this, it does fit into this pattern, a very low-tech attacks. And, again, the same sort of eyewitness testimony, you've got people describing how a truck looked like it was out of control. No one really knew what was going on. They didn't realize it was terror until it was too late.
It's a low-tech attack and it works effectively time after time and that's what's frightening about this. And if feels -- actually this time, it feels routine, the reporting after this. It doesn't feel as if we're going to learn anything knew from it, apart from, you know, like learn to live with it.
COOPER: How unusual is this for something like this in Stockholm? I think there had been an incident in this very area a while ago, no?
FOSTER: There was. It's a failed suicide attack and actually frightening. It could have caused huge amounts of casualties, but it was failed. It was botched. So, it has happened here. That was actually seen as the first sort of plot that nearly transpired.
It was inspired by Islamic extremism and actually this country, a lot of criticism of government that they're hadn't been doing enough. So they're under a lot of pressure tonight so the prime minister saying he's doing what he can to keep the country safe. He's actually saying it was a place to what I saying earlier, it could happen again.
COOPER: All right. Max Foster, thank you very much.
Up next, a preview of the CNN Films' "Unseen Enemy." We'll look at how Ebola, the flu, other viruses can cause massive chaos and deaths and how health experts on the front lines are trying to prevent it.
[21:58:44] COOPER: In a moment, CNN Films presents "Unseen Enemy", a look at where the next outbreak of something like Ebola, or Zika, Bird Flu or any other of deadly diseases could claim more lives. We're going to meet the historic and heroic doctors and virus hunters in the front lines who are trying to prevent the next outbreak. Here's a quick preview.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DR. LARRY BRILLIANT, EPIDEMIOLOGIST: Over the last three decades, there have been about 30 newly emerging diseases that have the potential to be pandemics. If we do nothing, it's not a matter of if there will be a global pandemic. It's just a matter of when and which virus and how bad.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The world changes around us at increasing speed. We cause a lot of that change, migrating to cities, stripping the earth of its resources and altering primeval jungle.
LAURIE GARRETT, GLOBAL HEALTH JOURNALIST: We are seeing whole entire ecologies, that which you can see with your eye and that which you can only see with a microscope. One system after another completely reshaped. In every case, this affords opportunities for viruses and bacteria to seek out new homes, cause new havoc, including disease for human beings.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
COOPER: That starting just in a moment. Thanks for watching "360." Have a great weekend. "Unseen Enemy" starts right now.