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Tillerson, Russia's Foreign Minister Discuss Airstrike; Nikki Haley Says U.S. Prepared to Do More in Syria; How the Syrian Uprising Ended in Carnage and Civil War; White House Infighting Playing Out in Public; U.S. Carrier Group Heading Toward Korean Peninsula; Aired 8-9p ET

Aired April 8, 2017 - 20:00   ET


[20:00:00] ANA CABRERA, CNN ANCHOR: Targeted by dozens of American missiles and a harsh warning from President Trump's team. That Syrian air base was up and running less than 24 hours after that U.S. surprise attack. Syrian warplanes are even taking off and landing again. This video is new video and it comes as the Trump administration sends a blunt signal to Syria's President Bashar al- Assad that this is not over.

I want to you hear what U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, told CNN's Jake Tapper.


NIKKI HALEY, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE U.N.: He won't stop here. If he needs to do more, he will do more. So really now what happens depends on how everyone responds to what happened in Syria and make sure that we start moving to a political solution and we start finding peace in the area.


CABRERA: The U.S. strikes were retaliation for the brutal chemical weapons attack Tuesday in Syria that killed nearly 90 people including 33 children. Just today more bombs fell on that same town hit by that deadly chemical attack. Sources on the ground say at least 16 people were killed, and it's not clear who exactly is behind these new air strikes but Russian and Syrian planes have gone after rebel targets in that area recently.

This comes as Moscow is sending a warship armed with cruise missiles to Syria's coast. And promising to bolster Syria's air defenses. All just days before Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is set to land in Moscow for his first visit in his new role.

We have a panel of reporters and analysts covering every angle. I want to begin with senior international correspondent Matthew Chance in Moscow.

And, Matthew, we know Secretary Tillerson called his Russian counterpart today to talk about Syria. What are you hearing about that conversation? MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, the

State Department was very tightlipped of what the content, Ana, of that conversation was. But the Kremlin have been, you know, uncharacteristically open about what was discussed. They're giving us a readout saying that -- that the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told Rex Tillerson that when you strike against the government that is fighting terrorism -- of course, that's how they regard the governments of Bashar al-Assad -- it plays into the hands, said the Foreign minister, of extremists.

The Foreign minister also telling Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state, you know, that the allegations there was a chemical attack were without basis in reality. And that of course talks to the version of events the Russians are sticking to, not just that they support their Syrian ally but they deny their Syrian ally carried out any kind of chemical weapons attack, instead saying that the deaths that were witnessed and the chemical poisoning that was witnessed was as a result of rebel chemical munitions being destroyed by a Syrian air force air strike on a storage facility.

And so, you know, a heated exchange. Different opinions obviously between these two figures, these two Foreign minister figures from Russia and the United States. And that conversation is going to continue next week when Rex Tillerson, as you mentioned, comes to Moscow for his first visit as secretary of State and we'll continue that conversation with Sergey Lavrov and meet the Russian President Vladimir Putin as well.

CABRERA: And Ryan, I want to bring you in, has the White House sent any more messages to Syria or Russia today?

RYAN NOBLES, CNN WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Not specifically other than that conversation with Lavrov and Tillerson, Ana, but the public messaging on this issue is certainly walking a pretty fine line. I was in a briefing with Mitch McConnell who is the Senate majority leader and ally of the Trump administration, somebody that's been in close contact with the White House during this strike, and he said it was his impression that this was a one-time thing, that it was just designed to try and send a message about the use of chemical weapons and that we shouldn't expect much more.

But then you played that bit of sound from Nikki Haley that's going to appear tomorrow on "STATE OF THE UNION" where she says that the president is prepared to do more in the event that Syria does not change their tactics there in the country.

So the White House wants to make it clear that they don't want to have to do more if they don't have to but they also want to make it clear to the Assad regime that they're not afraid to if it comes to that point.

CABRERA: All right. Ryan Nobles, Matthew Chance, our thanks to both of you.

I want to bring in our panel now joining me. CNN global affairs analyst and Reuters national security investigations editor David Rohde, CNN military analyst and retired Air Force colonel Cedric Leighton, and our intelligence and security analyst, former CIA operative, Bob Baer.

First I want you to hear more of Jake Tapper's revealing interview with U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley. Let's watch.


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Is regime change in Syria now the official policy of the United States?

HALEY: So there's multiple priorities. It's getting Assad out is not the only priority. And so what we're trying to do is obviously defeat ISIS. Secondly, we don't see a peaceful Syria with Assad in there. Thirdly, get the Iranian influence out. And then finally move toward a political solution because at the end of the day this is a complicated situation.

[20:05:06] There are no easy answers and a political solution is going to have to happen but we know that it is not going to be -- there's not any sort of option where a political solution is going to happen with Assad at the head of the regime. It just -- if you look at his actions, if you look at the situation it's going to be hard to see a government that's peaceful and stable with Assad.

TRUMP: Well, of course it's hard to but is it the position of the Trump administration that he cannot be ruler of Syria anymore, regime change is the policy?

HALEY: Well, regime change is something that we think is going to happen because at all of the parties are going to see that Assad is not the leader that needs to be taking place for Syria.


CABRERA: Now, Bob, I want to come to you first. Candidate Trump said again and again removing Assad was not his number one priority. Trump even suggested the U.S. fight ISIS with Assad. So how confident are you that President Trump will stick with this apparently new position on Syria now?

ROBERT BAER, CNN INTELLIGENCE AND SECURITY ANALYST: Well, it seems to me a big shift here, this attacking Syria. We've never done that before in Syria's history, period. I mean, we've always avoided that country. There is an ethnic sectarian divisions there. We were always afraid to touch. This goes back to World War II, in fact. People -- just the French could never control that country. And, again, I go back to the fact that Assad -- Bashar al-Assad is merely a spokesman for the Alawite minority.

You can remove him today and you might get somebody that's much worse. Much more ready to use chemical weapons. I don't think this administration, the Trump administration, understands the complexity of Syria. And you know, we are wandering into a quagmire here just enormous consequences with Iran and Russia on the ground. This is not going well. CABRERA: Colonel Leighton, the U.S. has opened this door with those

U.S. airstrikes. Do you see any downside to having launched those strikes?

COL. CEDRIC LEIGHTON, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, there are certainly downsides to it. I mean, the idea that you can act with force and do it in a very decisive fashion is something that's very attractive to most presidents, but there are possible downsides in that it could, if things go wrong, it could definitely galvanize the Syrian government against us and it basically already has.

What's worse is if something had happened on the civilian side, if we had killed innocent civilians as part of this then, of course, the Syrian population, even those opposed to Assad, would have been against us. And as things ramp up, that is one of the big risks that could happen is that you get civilian casualties, unintended civilian casualties, and that could definitely be a downside. Other downsides would include, you know, some type of conflict with Iranian forces in Syria and Russian forces in Syria, so there are absolutely potential pitfalls here.

CABRERA: Right. It's not just about Syria but about some of these other countries that you just mentioned, Russia and Iran, who are also backing Syria.

David, at what point do you think President Trump needs to get Congress to sign off on some kind of military action in Syria?

DAVID ROHDE, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: Well, I think if there are more strikes, you know, and it continued over a long period, you know, that would be the key. And one of the things that Ambassador Haley mentioned that struck me with that phrase about getting rid of Iranian influence in Syria, I agreed with both the other guests. I mean, it's really about the Alawite minority and Iran has backed them and sort of saved them with more ground forces than any other country. Iranian support has been much more important to Assad and the Alawites than the Russian support.

That's a very ambitious goal that she mentioned. She may have misspoke. I don't want to overread it. But, you know -- so what is the policy going to be here? Is it to stop chemical weapons attacks? If it is, maybe this one strike has set a precedent. Is it to push Assad out and Iran out, that's much more difficult to do and much more complicated.

CABRERA: As far as any retaliation from those missile strikes that the U.S. has already launched, it seems like there's been a lot of rhetoric, a lot of vocal pushback from people like the Russian Defense minister there that we know spoke today to Rex Tillerson, but how do you see the dynamics between the U.S. and Russia in light of the action the U.S. took, Bob?

BAER: Right now the Russians are concerned. I mean, the Russians do not want to get into a fight with us in Syria. We have to deconflict the airspace there. There's a lot of American flights going east of the Euphrates. You know, at any time just like the Turks shut down a Russian airplane, we could, too. And that's the major concern. And that should be a concern at this point is we have to continue talking to the Russians.

[20:10:03] There's still an open channel with the Russians but the cooperation is not there. And the Russians right now, I do not see Putin in a position to withdraw, to stand out in the Assad regime nor will the Iranians. And don't forget there's the sheer precedent that they are in control of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. We are up against some formidable foes here and I agree with David, you know, talking about getting the Iranians out of Syria is a nonstarter. It's the road to conflict so, again, I'm very concerned.

CABRERA: So, David, does the U.S. have any leverage over Russia or Iran in this situation?

ROHDE: The only sort of thing it could do is to restart the CIA training program that was fairly effective and actually the Russians came in because, you know, the so-called moderate rebels were making gains against the Assad regime. But the Russians were -- you know, were quickly able to use airpower with Iranian support on the ground and most importantly Hezbollah fighters came in as well to help Assad. So you only win conflicts with force on the ground having, you know, willing to put in ground troops and have them die in large numbers.

Iran is willing to do that. Hezbollah is willing to do that. Russia has risked its pilots. So is the U.S. ready to arm proxy force for many months and years to come to win this, you know, effort in Syria? That's the big question.

CABRERA: Colonel, do you agree with that? I mean, does the U.S. need to put U.S. boots on the ground in Syria or is there another option if the U.S. wants to have a real impact on that country?

LEIGHTON: Well, I think, Ana, if we want to effect regime change very quickly then the only way to do that is to put boots on the ground but having said that I think regime change comes about quickly may not necessarily be in our best interests and the best solutions are usually the diplomatic solutions, the solutions that would allow us to achieve some kind of accommodation with the Iranians and with the Russians that would allow for some kind of transfer to somebody else, but that somebody else would have to be agreeable to us in a way that would allow us to not necessarily control them directly but would somehow prevent them from using chemical weapons against their own people. I think if we could achieve something like that, that could be very different but that is perhaps a very idealistic position.

CABRERA: David, back to the American appetite for more involvement in that region. Do you think Republicans like Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell would stick with Trump if he tries to go deeper into Syria?

ROHDE: I think it depends on, you know, I think ground forces -- U.S. ground forces will be like a red line that many Republicans wouldn't support, but there is the -- you know, the one possibility here is where there's a use of military force to, you know, hopefully bring about a diplomatic solution. I'm not sure that would work in Syria. This would be possibly, you know, increasing this effort to arm the Syrian opposition, but your goal should be not to win a military conflict, not to drive Assad out or for the Iranians out completely. It would be just a way to pressure them militarily to bring them to the table.

I'm not sure that would even work. But that's a much more kind of focused, limited effort than, again, as Ambassador Haley said, removing the Iranian influence in Syria. That will never happen. At best there could be some sort of compromise.

CABRERA: All right, David Rohde and Colonel Cedric Leighton, as well as Bob Baer, thank you all for staying with us this evening.

A quick programming note, you can catch Jake Tapper's full interview with U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley tomorrow morning on "STATE OF THE UNION" right here on CNN at 9:00 a.m. Eastern and Pacific.

Coming up, new details about tensions in President Trump's inner circle. The message the president had for his chief strategist Steve Bannon and his son-in-law Jared Kushner.


[20:18:04] CABRERA: As we covered the U.S. strike in Syria this week, we want to take a moment to remember how we got to this point.

CNN's Randi Kaye takes us back to 2011 when this uprising began.


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): It is bombed every day, thousand people died. This is our land and we will not leave.

KAYE: Protesters targeted the government, the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

BASHAR AL-ASSAD, SYRIAN PRESIDENT (Through Translator): 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.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR (on camera): The level of anger and passion here is absolutely palpable. We're just a few miles from the center of Damascus and this is the crowd here. Thank you. Thank you.

This is a crowd here of perhaps several thousand people. They're taking over this whole area.

KAYE: 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.

[20:20:04] 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 opposition fighters in Homs 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. And as of last December, nearly five 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 of him, at least there's ground pack now. I'm not scared of the chemical weapon. I mean, does it make a difference to die with a bullet or with a chemical weapon?

KAYE: Randi Kaye, CNN, New York.


CABRERA: Our thanks to Randi and we'll be right back.


[20:25:42] CABRERA: The Trump White House has been downplaying the reports of shake-ups and infighting, and now the president apparently tired of the fighting telling his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, chief of staff Reince Priebus and son-in-law Jared Kushner to, quote, "cut it out." A source tells CNN a meeting between the three key players in the president's orbit went well, with Priebus telling the president afterwards they had a good talk.

Joining me now CNN political commentator and former Reagan White House political director Jeffrey Lord and CNN contributor and former Obama White House ethics czar, Norman Eisen. Jeffrey, what's your take on this meeting between Bannon, Priebus and


JEFFREY LORD, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Ana, if you go all the way back to George Washington, the first president of the United States, he had this kind of situation going on with no less than Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, and it has persisted in every administration throughout to this moment.

There's nothing unusual about this. These are normal tensions. They can revolve around personalities, they can revolve around points of view. They're there. But the important thing for everybody involved to remember is the single most important person here is the president of the United States. And that case -- in this case it's Donald Trump. This is Donald Trump's administration. He gets to run it. They get to make their points of view. God bless them. Go to it. But just remember at the end of the day it's the president.

CABRERA: Of course, Norman, do you think people should care whether there's infighting going on as Jeffrey points out? It's nothing new that there might be staff shake-ups in an administration?

NORMAN EISEN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Good evening, Ana. I do think it's important and while White House rivalries are as old as the presidency itself, and sometimes they can work, Lincoln's famous team of rivals, I do think that we should care about this it because of the exceptional bitterness of the knife fight this early in an administration. We've had a proxy battle of apparent leaks in the media increasingly vicious from Team Bannon and Team Kushner all weeklong and so like so many things about the Trump administration this level of animosity is very unusual.

It matters because it's yet another distraction. That said it's a good sign that the chief of staff -- you need a strong chief of staff to harness people. It's a good sign that the chief of staff Priebus brought everybody together today to bury the hatchet. Let's just hope they don't bury it in each other's back.


CABRERA: So let me just throw this out there as part of the conversation. CNN now reporting that there's a short list of people under consideration to possibly replace Reince Priebus as the White House chief of staff if President Trump decided to go forward with that personnel shake-up and one of the names on this list, you can see, is Gary Cohn, he's of Goldman Sachs and reported to be very close to Ivanka and Jared.

Jeffrey, how would that change the game inside the White House?

LORD: Well, I mean, just in a pure political sense, you know, in this particular situation I think there would be conservatives who are up in arms. But the point is it's not conservatives or liberals here, it's the president. The president. And I can tell you, I mean, as a veteran of the Reagan White House, I was in the second term but I was on Capitol Hill during the first term and worked in the Reagan re- election campaign and I can tell you the rivalries between then chief of staff Jim Baker, who was the Reince Priebus figure, Ed Meese, who was the sort of counselor and strategist, the Steve Bannon figure, and Mike Deaver, who was like a son to the Reagans and therefore the Kushner figure, were intense.

And when we got to the second term and all those folks were gone, it was Donald Reagan who was the secretary of Treasury and outsider if you will. He brought his own staff. They were derisively called in the day the mice by their internal enemies. This just goes on and on. And the only thing I would just suggest is, you know, this is -- A, this is normal. B, this is good to the extent that you don't want to homogenize the atmosphere of people giving president -- the president, whomever that is, the same advice.

[20:30:03] You want creative thought. So good for them. But just, you know, work it out. Work it out. Make it about the president and ideas and not about personalities. That's all.


LORD: I should say, Ana, one other thing, I don't know any of these people well, but I've met them all at one point or another. They're good people. They're really good people. They're smart people. So let -- you know, let them go through it. The president is well served for their being there.

CABRERA: Well, there's a lot of good people but when it comes to addressing the nation and advising the president of the United States that's a huge responsibility obviously.

LORD: Yes.

CABRERA: But let me show you this picture that's gotten a lot of attention in the last couple of days, a photo from inside the situation room at Mar-a-Lago and just looking at who was at the table versus in the back. You have Bannon and Stephen Miller sitting in that back corner, also one person pointed out earlier, Norm, where is Kellyanne Conway?

EISEN: Well, the president's team has not served him well and there are some consequences for that, Ana, and I have to disagree slightly with my friend, Jeffrey, although he's right about the rivalries and indeed when Don Reagan came in, he had a rivalry with Nancy Reagan. So the rivalry --

LORD: Yes, indeed.

EISEN: But the president has not been well-served by the people you've seen pushed to the back of that picture, Mr. Miller and Mr. Bannon and Miss Conway who has been pushed out of the picture. They have him bad advice on the Muslim travel ban that's been struck down twice by the courts. A very divisive battle, a losing battle over health care, pushed by Mr. Bannon. Mr. Priebus some blame there as well. So now there's a natural pivot to try to find a team that works. We've seen this over and over again with Donald Trump, not just in the

campaign where he brings people in, casts them aside until he finds the right combination but his whole career he's done that. And so he's experimenting. It would be the upper hand. Kushner and Ivanka have been pretty smart in stepping back and not getting dirtied in these losing battles of squandered first 100 days. It would be a pretty shrewd strategy if now they step in, Mr. Cohn, their ally, is named the chief of staff, put some oil in the water.

You need a strong chief of staff to control these rivalries. There's a great book out by Chris Whipple called "The Gatekeepers" that explains the modern history of the chief of staff. His thesis, and I think it's right, White Houses only work in the modern era if you have a strong chief of staff and interestingly, H.R. Alderman, Nixon's chief of staff, is the one who designed the model, although the Nixon White House became a crapper, the model has worked thereafter.


LORD: Yes --

CABRERA: All right. Gentlemen, we'll let Norm have the last word because Jeffrey, you got the first word for this segment. Thank you both for joining us.

A quick break. We'll be right back.


[20:37:08] CABRERA: We have this just in to CNN. A U.S. Navy aircraft carrier group is now heading for waters near the Korean Peninsula. A Pentagon official telling CNN the deployment is in a direct response to North Korea's recent military moves particularly the launch of a unique type of extended range scud missile.

On the phone with me is CNN Pentagon reporter Ryan Browne.

Ryan, fill us in on what U.S. military officials are now saying about this carrier group movement.

RYAN BROWNE, CNN PENTAGON REPORTER (via phone): Hello, Ana. That's right. This is the USS Vincent. It's one of the aircraft carrier -- it was just in Singapore. It actually was just in the Korean areas of operations conducting an exercise. It's big deployment. And you said the military has classified it as directly in response to the provocation including that recent extended range scud missile test as well as various sets of bendable exploded in flight. But this is just -- that was the latest of a series of tests by Pyongyang, as (INAUDIBLE) responses from the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in the wake of that test, saying that the U.S. would no longer going to speak about these items. So this is -- I guess we can say this is an action being taken in response to those provocation.

CABRERA: What are they hoping to accomplish by this action?

BROWNE: Well, you know, the military does this from time to time. It's a show of force. You know, sometimes they'll have a -- you know, one of their bomber aircraft do a fly over the peninsula in response to tests. A demonstration to Pyongyang that the U.S. commitment to South Korea's defense remains steadfast. So it's definitely kind of part of the diplomatic game between North Korea and the U.S. and South Korea, but you know, a carrier strike group, there is only about 10 of them so it is a -- it's definitely a considerable show of force this time around.

CABRERA: All right, Ryan Browne reporting.

I want to bring in CNN's Matt Rivers joining us on the phone from Beijing and, Matt, do you see this as a response to that aggression that North Korea showed or provocation during the visit with the Chinese president to the U.S. just ahead of that initial meeting with President Trump?

MATT RIVERS, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (via phone): Yes, I think that's exactly right. I think this is the U.S. reasserting its presence in this part of the world. I mean, it is important, as Ryan said, to mention that, you know, this is the kind of thing that the U.S. does from time to time. In addition to the fact that there are tens of thousands of U.S. troops permanently stationed in both Japan and South Korea.

But yes, this is absolutely a direct response and don't forget this comes right on the heels of President Trump giving an interview to the "Financial Times" about a week ago now shortly before that visit where he was talking about North Korea. And he said if China won't solve the North Korean problem we will.

[20:40:04] And what he meant by that is that, you know, the Trump administration really thinks that China should be doing more to rein in what Pyongyang is doing with its weapons development program. And he's not happy that China isn't doing more and right after this meeting, I mean, the symbolism is pretty stark here right after the meeting that he had with the Chinese president the very next day or within 36 hours or so this aircraft carrier group now moves toward the Korean Peninsula, the symbolism, Ana, is pretty striking.

CABRERA: Is there any response right now from China?

RIVERS: Not yet. Nothing official yet. We have put out calls to our government contacts here in Beijing. Haven't heard anything back yet. However, I can tell you that they're not going to be pleased with this. China will view this move as provocative. They don't like the fact that the United States does these show of force things from time to time, and what they're going to say is that this only makes the situation in North Korea worse. They say it only serves to provoke the North Korean regime further and will only further destabilize a region that is already very unstable.

So the Chinese are not going to be happy with this. They're going to make their displeasure known very public but whether that dissuades the Trump administration from doing this kind of thing in the future, probably not. CABRERA: We understand that North Korea was a topic of discussion

between President Trump and President Xi when they met just a couple of days ago. And the readout from the U.S. side is that the two were focused entirely on both countries' previous commitments to denuclearize the peninsula. This is Rex Tillerson, a quote from him specifically.

What was the readout from China on the path forward regarding North Korea and the U.S.-China strategy?

RIVERS: Well, both sides have been very, very diplomatic in talking about this meeting. Even in Chinese state media there was a lot of praise put on the Trump administration for recognizing the importance of this bilateral relationship as one newspaper put it. But when it comes to moving forward with North Korea, you know, even though both sides were very diplomatic in their readout, there are some stark differences. As I just mentioned, the U.S. wants China to use its economic leverage to force Pyongyang to stop doing what it's doing but China has a very different opinion.

China thinks that the United States needs to directly negotiate with the Kim Jong-un regime. And that would be the only way to effectively solve this problem in the long term. That's China's long-held position and they're not backing away from that anytime soon. So both sides were very friendly, very diplomatic after that meeting. But the view in China remains the same, is that onus is on the United States in Beijing's view to solve this problem through direct negotiations.

CABRERA: The U.S. secretary of State also said this week that North Korea has reached a very serious stage in its development of nuclear weapons. What is the latest in terms of that advancement?

RIVERS: Well, what they're trying to do in North Korea is to miniaturize a nuclear weapon and get it on top of one of their -- one of their missiles, one of their long-range missiles. And what they're trying to move forward towards is the kind of ballistic missiles that could reach the United States. What has not happened so far is they have not been able to successfully test the intercontinental ballistic missile. They have not, as far as Defense officials in the United States believe been able to miniaturize a nuclear warhead and put it on top of one of those missiles. That's their ultimate goal.

But what they have been making stride most recently is the kind of ballistic missiles that they can launch and the way they're launched specifically, so they're using now what appears to be solid fuel rocket, which can be launched from the back of a truck. And obviously that means the missiles are mobile. That means they can be hidden. You know, and that means that they're a lot harder to track because they he can be fired on short notice.

And so even when there are failures, like we saw with this latest advanced scud missile, the North Koreans are making progress with the missile development program and they seem very determined, and in the face of some pretty strong international condemnation, they're going to move forward and they are making progress in that front. CABRERA: So when you talk about the scud missile versus we've heard

the word rocket previously and then we've heard this intercontinental ballistic missile which is obviously the biggest fear because that's the one that theoretically could eventually harm the mainland U.S., why so many different types of missiles? Is it just one advances to the next, or are they for different purposes?

RIVERS: Well, each one serves a different purpose in terms of the potential target and so, you know, obviously a missile that would -- the intercontinental ballistic missile could obviously reach the United States and the scud missile obviously a much shorter range missile. They want to have a wide variety of weapons for them to choose from.

[20:45:04] Why they choose to test the missiles that they do when they choose to test them it's very unclear. It could be that they just don't have an intermediate range missile ready to go at that particular moment that they want to test, or they were just trying to send some other signal by just shooting a scud missile this time. It's really hard to tell but they do have a wide variety of weapons that they can choose from and it just -- for them it just comes down to strategy, it comes down to being able to use what missile for what purpose.

CABRERA: I want to bring back retired U.S. Air Force colonel, Cedric Leighton, also CNN's intelligence and security analyst Bob Baer with us, and also bringing in CNN's Alexander Field who will be joining us from South Korea.

But let me start with you again, Colonel. When you hear this news that the U.S. Navy is moving a carrier group into the Korean Peninsula, what's your initial reaction?

LEIGHTON: Well, my initial reaction, Ana, is that this is obviously a show of force and it was designed, I believe, to not only put North Korea on notice but also to put China on notice. Very interesting timing as Matt Rivers was talking about from Beijing. You have the fact that President Xi of China and President Trump met in Florida. That meeting is over. And the other interesting thing is that the United States and South Korea just concluded exercises, joint military exercises that sometimes have within them the deployment of a carrier strike group like the one with -- associated with the USS Carl Vinson.

But that exercise ended on the 23rd of March. And that, you know, is clearly one of those things now where we're showing not only China but North Korea and our allies in the region that we are there to actually watch what's going on in North Korea and potentially act on it.

CABRERA: And we heard Matt Rivers mention again that "Financial Times" interview that we were talking about last weekend with President Trump saying that if China won't intervene in North Korea the U.S. is ready to go it alone, Bob Baer. So what message is this new move sending, do you think?

BAER: Well, I compare it, Ana, to what just happened in Syria with these attacks with Tomahawk missiles. And this administration is very clear. For a very long time we depended on the Chinese collect intelligence on North Korea, to hem the North Koreans in and this meeting in Florida with the Chinese premier obviously didn't go well, otherwise we wouldn't be sending this battle group into that area.

North Korea is a very unpredictable country. We don't know their reaction. And I would hate to see us just leave the Chinese by the side, and see what we can do, because we simply don't know what that regime will do. So this is again we are in a bit of peril involved in this military, you know, gesture.

CABRERA: Do you see this as an escalation, Colonel, with a possible confrontation of some kind between the U.S. and North Korea?

LEIGHTON: It's certainly possible, Ana. I don't want to get too far ahead of our skis here, but the basic idea is that when you deploy a carrier strike group you are telling them that we are going to put our forces near you. And the fact that they are near means that they are potentially within range of some of these North Korean missiles.

Now, of course, as you mentioned earlier some of these North Korean missiles are supposed to be at least a medium range if not an intercontinental variety, so it's really a kind of notice that we're giving them that says if you continue to develop the missile technology, the rocket technology as well as the nuclear technology, we're going to respond to it, so we're seeing not only that there is rhetoric about this issue but there's also a lot of force that is backing up the rhetoric that the Trump administration has been talking about in the last few weeks.

CABRERA: I just want to update our viewers who are just joining us right now as we continue to follow some breaking news right now out of the Korean Peninsula where the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier led strike group is now headed toward the western Pacific Ocean we're told near the peninsula. This is according to a U.S. Defense official who says the move is in response to recent North Korean provocation, and we do know that they had filed off -- fired off another missile test just prior to President Trump's meeting with the Chinese leader.

And so now let's bring in Alexander Field who is joining us on the phone from Seoul, South Korea.

Alexandra, what can you tell us about the reaction to this new move by the U.S. there in South Korea?

[20:50:09] ALEXANDRA FIELD, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (via phone): Look, we haven't had any official reaction from the leaders here in South Korea at this point. But it's certainly a well-known fact that the South Koreans here depend on the support of the U.S. in terms of their security when it comes to South Korea. This is of course a very longstanding alliance, 60 years, and you've seen these joint military drills over the last month or so which have infuriated North Korea.

This is something that raises the ire of North Korea year after year, but the U.S. and South Korea have stood firm insisting on the necessity of conducting these drills. Certainly it sends a message to North Korea and it's also a time for the South Korea and the U.S. to work together in a preemptive and a preventative way in case of an escalation of some kind of conflict with North Korea.

That said, the future of this alliance is certainly debated here in South Korea. I think it's fair to say that South Koreans as a whole certainly recognize the importance of the U.S. military support when it comes to protecting themselves against a North Korean threat. But you have had some controversial moves lately specifically talking about the beginning of the deployment of this bad missile defense system.

You've had the U.S. impressing upon South Koreans that it is essential to the defense in the region against a North Korean nuclear threat but certainly it has caused some debate within South Korea with some saying that this is a move that could further irritate or anger the North Koreans. Could ratchet up tension here on the Peninsula. So now you've got this move that we're talking about today with the USS Vincent coming in, coming closer.

Certainly this is a significant move, as your analysts have pointed out, but the U.S. has been very clear, leaders have been very clear on their point that they will do whatever is necessary to protect against this North Korean threat. And what we've seen here on the peninsula we can't say it enough is just this ratcheting up of missile testing. Some 24 or more than two dozen missile tests in just the last year from North Korea. But certainly an acceleration of their missile testing program.

Then you've got analysts saying that there are signs, that there's evidence suggesting that we could be seeing another nuclear test from North Koreans. So these are all moves that the U.S. and the South Korean counterparts are taking seriously and clearly trying to respond to -- Ana.

CABRERA: All right. Alexandra Field reporting. All of us stay with us. All of my guests I hope you will continue to be with us. We're going to take a quick break and we'll be right back with our continuing breaking news out of the Korean Peninsula where the U.S. has moved in a Navy aircraft carrier group into the Korean Peninsula in response to some provocations they say by the North Korean government. Stay with us, we're back in a moment.


[20:57:05] CABRERA: We are continuing to follow breaking news. Right now at this hour a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier-led strike group is heading toward the Korean Peninsula. This we are told by Defense officials is in response to the recent military action taken by North Korea. They launched a scud missile just at the beginning of the meetings between the president of the U.S. and the president of China as we look at some of the video of past tests and past military exercises as well happening recently between the U.S. and the South Korea.

Let's bring back Colonel Cedric Leighton and Bob Bear who are joining me now. And I want to ask you first, Colonel, given this new action following

the recent missile strikes in Syria, do you make any kind of connection with the timing of all of this? We do recall that -- remember last weekend it was President Trump telling the "Financial Times" that if China wasn't going to help with North Korea we'd go it alone then we see this unilateral action by the U.S. in Syria. What does that tell you?

LEIGHTON: I think, Ana, what it says is that we are getting into an area where we could potentially see a lot of unilateral U.S. action. So we're -- there are connection between Syria and the western Pacific and Korea is tenuous at best but I think it's basically a reassertion of U.S. power in both regions.

CABRERA: Bob, I want to get a final thought from you. Do you have any sense of what history tells us about how North Korea might respond to aggressive action like this?

BAER: They're totally unpredictable, Ana. Let's don't forget what was a month ago that the North Korean leader assassinated his half brother in an airport, Kuala Lumpur. This regime is capable of reacting in a very irrational way and I think we're going to find out just how irrational they are.

CABRERA: All right. Bob Baer and Colonel Cedric Leighton, thank you both for being with us.

That's going to do it for me. I'm Ana Cabrera. Coming up next is Arwa Damon's special report, "RETURN TO MOSUL," and I'll see you back here tomorrow night at 5:00 p.m. Eastern. We'll continue to follow breaking news out of the Korean Peninsula. Stay with and with us right here on CNN. Thank you. Good night.