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U.S. Probes if Russia Complicit in Syria Chemical Attack; Stockholm Truck Attack Leaves Four Dead, 12 Injured; Trump Pivots on Syria after Chemical Attack; Trump Meets with Xi as U.S. Missiles Strike Syria; U.N. Estimates 400K Killed in Syrian Civil War. Aired 12-1a ET

Aired April 8, 2017 - 00:00   ET




ROBYN CURNOW, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Hello and welcome. I'm Robyn Curnow.

MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): And I'm Michael Holmes. Let's get you up to date on the strikes on the Syria airbase.

The Kremlin is denying allegations that they may have been complicit in the delivery of chemical weapons.

They are indeed questioning if Russia helped to carry out the chemical attack from the Shayrat airfield near Homs or knew about it and didn't stop it. Let's get the latest now from CNN's Barbara Starr.


BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): This was the message President Trump wanted to send to Bashar al-Assad: attack with chemical weapons, the U.S. will attack you back.

Fifty-nine cruise missiles striking the Syrian airbase, the U.S. says was used to launch aircraft, killing men, women and children Tuesday with a nerve agent-filled bomb.

The Pentagon said the strikes severely degraded or destroyed their intended targets, which included aircraft and aircraft shelters, fuel and logistical storage, ammunition supply bunkers and air defense systems.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The United States took a very measured step last night. We are prepared to do more.

STARR (voice-over): But this was also a message to Moscow which denies the Syrian chemical attack even happened.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): To justify its armed action, Washington has entirely twisted what happened in Idlib. The American side can't not understand that the Syrian government troops did not use chemical weapons there. Damascus simply does not possess it.

STARR (voice-over): Many of these people died of asphyxiation from what's believed to be sarin gas. The U.S. says it will investigate any possibility of Russian complicity, including Russian troops who were at the airbase where this Russian drone captured the aftermath of the U.S. attack.

Did the Russians know anything about the chemical bombing?

Was it a Russian warplane that later bombed a hospital treating victims, perhaps trying to destroy evidence?

And after years of regime chemical attacks, U.S. military officials now say they will now more aggressively monitor Syria's chemical weapons program and potential Russian involvement.

The Pentagon showed what it says was proof to justify the limited U.S. strike, the track of the Syrian plane and imagery of where the nerve agent bomb hit. The Syrian military denied using chemical weapons, blaming terrorist groups.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): This condemnable U.S. aggression confirms the continuation of the flawed U.S. strategy and it undermines the process of combating terrorism.

STARR: The U.S. military had no intention of destroying the airfield. It wasn't their goal.

So the question now is how soon will all of that be back up and running and will the Russians return?

Barbara Starr, CNN, the Pentagon.


HOLMES: The Russian president Vladimir Putin calls the U.S. military strike in Syria a serious blow to relations between Moscow and Washington and he denounced the strike as in his words an aggression and a violation of international war.

CURNOW: Now the Russian defense ministry plans to bolster Syria's air defense system in response and Moscow also threatened to suspend a communications channel that minimizes the risk of midair collisions between coalition and Russian aircraft in Syria.

But it's not clear if it has yet done so. Let's get more on Russia's response to allegations it was complicit in Syria's chemical attack. CNN's Paula Newton joins us now from Moscow.

And there's certainly been a strong response, Paula.

PAULA NEWTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: There is. It's been a short and indeed quite strong. Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesperson, sent a text message to our Matthew Chance, saying this is not true.

We'll hear much more about this later on hopefully if not today or next weekend and into next week when Rex Tillerson arrives here for what's billed as a crucial meeting. It had been in the works for a long time and now they will get down to the heart of the matter which is really annoying the Pentagon, which is why they took the step to, without attribution, tell people, look, why were those chemicals in Syria in the first place, building on the argument that's being made by the Trump administration that, look, was Russia complicit or were they incompetent?

Remember, Robyn, those chemicals, those types of chemicals, were supposed to be taken right out of Syria. Russia guaranteed that they were and that whole process was apparently wrapped up in early 2014.

Having said that, the Russians have been --


NEWTON: -- absolutely ferocious in their response rhetorically. They haven't done so much in their words, in their deeds and, as you were saying, Robyn, while they suspended that air safety defense, it's not exactly clear how long. They used the word suspension. They do have a war ship that was doing exercises in the Black Sea. It's now cruising back to the Mediterranean.

But having said that, the Kremlin at this point hopes -- and you can tell from Sergey Lavrov, who struck a more conciliatory tone yesterday, saying, look, we hope we can get relations with the United States back on track.

They are hoping that this does not mean that the United States will materially be much more involved in Syria than they are right now -- Robyn.

HOLMES: And, Paula, I suppose, the question is going to be when Rex Tillerson goes there, is this airstrike going to give him leverage in conversations with the Russians or is it just going to increase attentions?

The dynamic between these two nations has been up and down really for weeks now but in the last 24 hours it's changed a lot.

NEWTON: Yes, it's strained a lot and it's turned just completely around. You can hardly believe that it was just last week that the Trump administration was saying that, look, Assad is the leader for now and that's what we're going to have to deal with.

You make a good point, though, about leverage. The United States has now decided, look, we'll have a place at the table when it comes to the future of Syria. Last week I had been looking at Russia that had collected the parties in Syria to discuss a cease-fire. The United States was nowhere to be found, Tillerson pointing to what they call the Geneva promotion.

And as you know, Michael, that has to do with trying to find some type of political solution for all this in Syria. And it seems that that is what secretary of state Tillerson will bring to the table here. He'll say, look, you need to help us find a political solution to this, as difficult as it may be, or we will be forced to get involved again.

So he'll hold the threat of more military intervention; as Nikki Haley, the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. said quite clearly and stridently yesterday, we're prepared to do more if we have to.

CURNOW: And Paula, on that point, if the U.S. does do more in whatever form or shape, what are the implications for Russia?

What does Russia have to lose by that?

NEWTON: They have a lot to lose. While the Syrian campaign wasn't really going well for anyone except for Assad, Russia had a lot to gain in the last 18 months. They have been able to mobilize a lot in the region. They have gained their footing again geopolitically in the Middle East.

And they were able to show off that, again, they have a modern -- what they consider to be a very modern army, showing that position of strength throughout the globe and trying to retain its influence again.

Things have been going quite well, especially as the U.S. had really -- had really vacated that political space. Russia moved right in and they had a lot of influence. Russia doesn't want to lose that and they certainly don't want to go to a point where they and the United States tangle over issues in Syria, so severely that they can't get to the heart of the matter.

What matters for Russia is lifting those sanctions and to think that, you know, Donald Trump was applauded here for winning in November, they really thought it would be a turnaround in relations. And here we are in April with really, as Putin himself has described in the last few days, relations are close to zero.

CURNOW: OK. Thanks so much, there in Moscow. It's early morning. Paula Newton. What a week it's been. Thanks so much for your reporting.

Moving on, top Republican members of Congress are praising President Trump's decision to launch the missile strike in Syria. Among them Senator John McCain, the chair of the U.S. Senate Arms Committee.

HOLMES: He spoke with CNN's Anderson Cooper earlier about the U.S. suspicion that Russia might have been complicit in the chemical attack that killed dozens of civilians.


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: A U.S. Defense official tells CNN that intelligence shows a Russian drone flying over that Syrian hospital before the suspected chemical attack occurred.

Is Russia complicit in the chemical attack?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZ.: Absolutely and they are complicit in the precision guided weapons that struck the hospitals in Aleppo. You ask the White Helmets. That's a gross violation of the rules of war.

We have to understand who Vladimir Putin is, what he's all about and what he will do and what he understands. And what he understands is strength. And the best way to avoid further escalation is to show Vladimir Putin that the benefits he might accrue from doing these kinds of things are not worth the penalty that he would pay.


HOLMES: Let's bring in military analyst Rick Francona, joining us from La Quinta (ph) in California via Skype from California.

Always good to see you, sir.

When you look at this operation from a purely military standpoint, what do you make of it?

What did it achieve?

The runway wasn't even taken out.

LT. COL. RICK FRANCONA (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, of course, the runway wasn't one of the targets.


FRANCONA: The Tomahawk missile is really not the weapon of choice to take out runways. It's a great weapon; it's a very accurate weapon. A 1,000-pound warhead but the charge of that warhead isn't really designed to break up a concrete runway.

So they went after the facilities on the airbase that could be struck, the warehouses, the repair facilities, the fuel, the ammunition and the aircraft themselves, 20 aircraft destroyed in a strike is a major blow to the Syrian air force. Twenty aircraft doesn't sound like much when you're talking about a modern large air force. But you're talking about an air force that's been under pressure for years, has atrophied for decades; 20 aircraft will make a big impact on that.

But more importantly, this was a symbolic target because this was the airfield that launched the aircraft that did this chemical strike. And the United States was able to home in on that airfield and basically not put it out of commission but destroy a lot of facilities there. The runway, not important.

HOLMES: I guess a lot of people would say well, then, what's the point if you're not going to put it out of commission, then it really similar to -- I suppose the dilemma for the U.S. if it hits seriously hard, then Moscow and Assad are almost compelled to respond.

But if the U.S. only half hits, then Assad and the Kremlin can say a few words of outrage and carry right on with barrel bombs.

FRANCONA: Well, I think that's probably what's going to happen. But this was a signal to the Assad regime that you can't use the chemical weapons, you've crossed over the norm. Many of us are looking at this, Michael, why did Assad feel that he

had to use chemical weapons?

He's not in a position where he's down on his luck. The Russians have propped him up. The Iranians have provided forces. Hezbollah has provided forces. They are slowly taking back their territory. The use of chemical weapons only put -- placed this red meat in front of the United States and caused this reaction that didn't need to be. He didn't have to go through this. He was doing quite well just using conventional weapons.

That said, this was a blow to the Assad regime and now we have to see if the message got through to Damascus.

If not, then the United States is in a real quandary; if he does this again ,do we respond again?

And do we start this tit-for-tat and then pretty soon we've got a shooting war with the Syrian.

Somewhere the United States does not want to be, somewhere the Russians don't want us to be.

HOLMES: Again, you've watched Syria as I have for the last six years and if it's a warning sign, this strike after a chemical attack, what about tomorrow, when he drops barrel bombs on women and children and kills even more than he did, as he's been doing for many years?

We've seen more video of dead women and children.

Would that not then require a response?

FRANCONA: And there's the dichotomy that no one can seem to understand. It's OK to kill as many people as you want, as you can, as you need to with conventional munitions. But cross that one line into chemical munitions and you irk the ire of the world and it demands a response from a superpower.

It just doesn't make any sense and I don't know why Assad would go the process of doing this, forcing the United States into action. I think if you look at what the Russians want to do -- and I think this will come up in Tillerson's talk in Moscow on Tuesday.

Why are we here?

Why don't we just back off this a little bit?

Let's put the Assad problem on hold for a little while and --


FRANCONA: -- let's focus on ISIS. And let's hope that there's a political solution determined for the Syrian regime, the Syrian people. And of course, we become more pessimistic every day as these incidents begin to happen more and more.

HOLMES: And the alternative isn't good, Lt. Col. Rick Francona, it's always great to get your perspective. Thank you, sir.

CURNOW: For more now on the regional reaction to the U.S. strikes in Syria, CNN's Muhammad Lila joins us now from Istanbul, Turkey.

We heard the lieutenant general there speaking about opposition groups being emboldened.

What is the reaction in the region?

MUHAMMAD LILA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Robyn, the reaction is very much along predictable lines. We know for example Assad has come out strongly condemned this, calling this part of a continuation of an unjust and misguided American policy. And of course Assad has vowed to carry on what he terms his fight against the terrorists and escalate that fight.

And there is some evidence on the ground that they are continuing their operations around the country.

For America's allies, it's a predictable response. Saudi Arabia referring to this decision by President Trump to undertake this military operation as a, quote, "courageous decision."

In fact, the front page of the "Arab News," which is a Saudi-run newspaper, today has a photo of President Trump giving a thumbs-up with the caption, "Yes, he can."

Of course, Turkey is even taking it a step further, saying it's a positive response. But both Turkey and the Free Syrian Army, which work hand in hand, are calling now for the implementation of a no-fly zone hand. And that's something they have been calling on for years, that the Obama administration refused to implement.

They are hopeful now that, with this initial strike from the Trump administration, that the Trump administration is willing to take that a step further. That's as far as America's allies are concerned.

And then you have the other countries in the region, for example, Iran, Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon, all of them taking a very different approach and all of them saying that there needs to be an international investigation.

Of course, they condemn the alleged chemical strike but they say, look, if this was done by the Assad regime, then show us the evidence, show us the proof. And so far it's been more than 24 hours after this Tomahawk strike. And still those countries have not been provided any proof, any conclusive proof, for who is behind the chemical strike.

You know, in the region there has been a widespread perception, Robyn, that the United States hasn't been serious about taking on ISIS and I think what this missile strike reinforces for those people who hold the perception is that, once again, America is targeting the Syrian army at a base that's actually used as part of the front line to fight ISIS.

And so the worry is not only that this will this embolden the groups that are working to topple Assad, for example, the Free Syrian Army, but this could embolden ISIS as well and that would actually be a setback, not only for the United States but for all of the countries here in the region.

CURNOW: Complicated indeed. Muhammad Lila, laying it all out for us, thank you so much, coming to us there from Istanbul.

HOLMES: Straight ahead here on the program, a manhunt underway for the driver in the Stockholm truck attack.

CURNOW: Yes. We'll have the latest on that and a look at why terror has a new face in Europe.

Also, President Trump's swift action in Syria is a major shift in policy towards the nation and it's taking place amid a growing fracture inside the White House. Stay with us.




HOLMES: Welcome back. You're watching a special edition of CNN NEWSROOM. Right now it's dawn in ,Sweden where a manhunt is still underway for the driver of Friday's Stockholm truck attack.

CURNOW: Police have arrested one suspect. At least four people were killed and 12 wounded after a stolen truck barreled into pedestrians on the busiest street in the Swedish capital.

Now the beer company that owns the vehicle says it was hijacked outside a restaurant where it had been making a delivery. Prime minister Stefan Lofven says everything indicates it was indeed a terror attack.

Well, Linda Flood works near the scene of the attack and she talked to me a little bit earlier about the carnage witnessed and the aftermath.


LINDA FLOOD, EYEWITNESS: I was leaving my workplace which is like a few hundred meters, a quarter of a mile, from where the attack took place. And when I came out in the streets, it was like chaos. And then I saw injured people, a woman, especially a woman without feet and (INAUDIBLE). So -- and she was like carried away towards an emblem (ph).


HOLMES: And CNN's Max Foster tells us now how the attack unfolded. He reports from the scene.


MAX FOSTER, CNN HOST: What we've been told is that a beer delivery truck was hijacked by someone wearing a mask. It was then driven down Sweden's busiest shopping street, up there behind me, and it careened through this street.

Imagine it teeming with shoppers, with tourists and also with office workers, who were just around the corner here from the main train station.

The truck came to a halt in the department store up behind me. It's been taken away overnight. You can't quite make it out but you've got these buses here that were abandoned in the frenzy.

The whole area was locked down at the time and trains in and out of the city were cancelled and it's still cordoned off, as you can see. Now border patrols have been strengthened, that suggests that there is an ongoing investigation at least there may still be a threat. But we're not expecting more updates from the police overnight, at least not until the morning.

This attack falls into a tragic pattern that we've seen here in Europe. There was Nice in France, there was Berlin in Germany and London in the U.K., where vehicles were used to mow down people and get some sort of message across the same sort of stories from eyewitnesses as well.

They didn't know what the vehicle was doing.

Was it out of control?

They didn't realize it was terror until it was too late. It doesn't feel as if we're learning thing anymore. It feels routine. Just feels as if we have to learn to live with this -- Max Foster, CNN, Stockholm, Sweden.


CURNOW: Thanks to Max for that report.

And there have been several recent terror attacks where vehicles were used as weapons.

HOLMES: Yes, from Nice to Berlin and London and now Stockholm. Nic Robertson --


HOLMES: -- now looks at the latest use of a vehicle as a weapon of terror in Europe.


NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: Eyewitnesses say the attacker put his foot on the gas and rammed through the crowd, his killing spree began mid-afternoon on one of Stockholm's busiest shopping streets, the murder weapon, a truck he had stolen in the hours before the attack. Terror has a new face now. In the past year Nice, Berlin, London, Jerusalem and now Stockholm

have all fallen victim to this new virulent style of attack; in each city, without warning, attackers using stolen or rented vehicles set out to cause as much carnage as they can.

Nice, first of these and the worst. Bastille Day last week. People celebrating on the seafront when Mohamed Lahouaiej, a Tunisian living in France, stole a 19-ton truck, driving at speed into the pedestrians crowding the promenade. By the time police shot him dead, 86 people slaughtered, more than 300 injured.

Five months later at Berlin's fabled Winter Market, Anis Amri, a failed Tunisian asylum seeker with ties to ISIS, stole a huge truck, killing its driver, then plowing into holiday shoppers, killing 12 people, injuring more than 40 others.

He went on the run, was shot and killed in Italy a few days later.

Early January this year, in Jerusalem, a Palestinian man drove a flatbed truck into Israeli troops, killing four, injuring at least 10. The attacker shot and killed, ending his murderous rampage.

In the heart of London, two weeks ago, an older man, Khalid Masood, with ties to extremists, drove his rented off-road vehicle at over 70 miles per hour into tourists and residents strolling over Westminster Bridge, killing four.

He then jumped out and killed a policeman before being shot to death by diplomatic protection officers. ISIS tries to claim connection to all, whether true or not, their slick PR machine grinds out their killing narrative, "Don't come to Syria and Iraq. Stay at home and kill. Use a vehicle."

And now Sweden, thrust in the path of ISIS' killing propaganda drive-- Nic Robertson, CNN, London.


HOLMES: Still to come here on the program, now that the U.S. has launched a military strike against Syria, what is President Trump's next move?

CURNOW: Stay with us for that.




HOLMES, (voice-over): You're watching CNN. Welcome, everyone. I'm Michael Holmes.

CURNOW (voice-over): And I'm Robyn Curnow. President Trump's missile strike in Syria is a huge shift in policy toward the war-torn country but from what we've heard, it was not a decision the president took lightly.

HOLMES: The president met with his security council several times before authorizing the strike which came ahead of his meeting with the Chinese president. Here's senior White House correspondent Jeff Zeleny


JEFF ZELENY, CNN SR. WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): President Trump's biggest commander in chief moment, launching airstrikes in Syria, dramatically changing the tone for his first meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The relationship developed by President Xi and myself I think is outstanding. We look forward to be together many times in the future and I believe that potentially a lot of bad problems will be going away.

ZELENY (voice-over): Meeting at his Mar-a-lago resort, the president letting the missile strikes speak for themselves.


TRUMP: Thank you very much.

ZELENY (voice-over): The president's decision to strike Thursday evening was a dramatic turnaround in his posture towards Syria.

TRUMP: It is in this vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.

ZELENY (voice-over): White House aides say the decision unfolded like this over a three-day period this week.

At 10:30 am Tuesday the president learns of the chemical attack in Syria.

At 3:00 pm Wednesday the president is briefed on options by his national security team.

At 1:30 pm Thursday the president convening a meeting of his top advisers before Air Force One before coming back to tell reporters this:

TRUMP: I think what happened in Syria is a disgrace to humanity and he's there and I guess he's running things. (INAUDIBLE).

ZELENY (voice-over): And at 4:00 pm Thursday after arriving at Mar- a-lago, he gave the authority to strike after his fourth meeting with his national security team. The most consequential decision of the young Trump presidency unfolding against a deepening fracture inside the West Wing over Syria and the broader direction of the White House.

Chief strategist Steve Bannon demoted from his seat on the National Security Council earlier this week argued against the Syria strikes CNN has learned. He's increasingly at odds with Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law and senior adviser, who now has a more prominent seat at the table as these behind-the-scenes photographs show.

The strikes in Syria are a departure from the president's America first agenda, crafted by Bannon. While widely praised for taking action, Republicans and Democrats today called on the White House to explain its new stand toward Syria.

SEN. RICHARD SHELBY, CHAIR, SENATE BANKING COMMITTEE: I don't think they have a policy yet but they better have one because things probably are not going to get better in the Syria area there.

ZELENY: And the Trump administration is indeed crafting that policy now but also keeping a close watch on Syria. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says the U.S. is watching to see what Syria does next. Of course, if they respond or do more chemical attacks, the U.S. is likely to respond in kind.

This is all testing the president's America first agenda. He once said Syria was not the problem of United States. Now it clearly is. The ball is in his court to see what happens next -- Jeff Zeleny, CNN, Palm Beach, Florida.


HOLMES: Russia and the U.S. clashing as the U.N. Security Council debated President Trump's military strike against Syria. Russia calling the move a mistake.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Clearly it's not difficult to imagine how much the spirits of these terrorists have been raised after the --


UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): -- support from Washington. Immediately after the attack, there were massive attacks by ISIL and Al-Nusra against Syrian military sites.

You've destroyed Iraqi military, Libyan military bases and see what's happened. In fact, these actions contradict international decisions, including the Geneva communique, which we designed together with you.


CURNOW: The U.S. ambassador fired back saying Russia bears responsibility for the gas attack in Syria that prompted Trump's military strike. Take a listen to that.


NIKKI HALEY, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE U.N.: Every time Assad has crossed the line of human decency, Russia has stood beside him. We had hoped the Security Council would move forward but Russia made it known, as it has done seven times before, that it would use its veto once again, covering up for the Assad regime.

Further delay by compromising with Russia for a watered-down resolution would have only strengthened Assad. Strengthening Assad will only lead to more murders. We were not going to allow that.


CURNOW: We know the strikes were applauded by many Western nations which said Mr. Assad crossed the line with the gas attack.

Joining me now to talk more about this is CNN global affairs analyst David Rohde.

David, thank you so much for joining us. And the question we're asking a lot of people and a lot of people are struggling to answer is, the question is, of course, what's next?

DAVID ROHDE, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: That is you know, the big problem here. Is this sort of the beginning of a major initiative by the Trump administration to sort of somehow create a political settlement that would end the war in Syria?

Or is this just a one-off, a way for President Trump to use force early in his term and keep his enemies guessing?

And I honestly don't know. And I'm not sure that that clear decision on this inside the Trump administration, either.

CURNOW: Because what we saw, 59 Tomahawks don't change the balance -- the military balance on the ground

ROHDE: No, they don't. Iran has invested a huge amount of resources and advisers and money. Hezbollah has played a critical role in sort of turning the tide and saving the Assad regime and then Russia as well.

So that's a deep commitment by supporters of the Assad regime, outside supporters, to secure that government and they have largely won the conflict.

The rebels just don't have that kind of support. The Gulf States are putting in money and the United States is not going to commit ground troops to this conflict.

At the most, Trump could sort of reignite and expand the training programs that were carried out by the CIA by the Obama administration. But, you know, that's a very long process.

So, you know, that's not clear, you know, what Trump could do that would change the calculus other than a major long-term intervention. And I don't see that happening.

CURNOW: Syria is complicated. Mr. Trump is learning that this week very, very clearly. What is the key warning you would give this president as he makes his

decisions going forward?

ROHDE: That this is -- there are other parties here that are willing to commit ground forces, Iran primarily and Hezbollah, and are you ready to commit American ground forces?

Be careful what you promise to do. President Obama with the famous red line, you know, made a threat he wasn't prepared to back up. So Trump needs to think very, very carefully, you know, about what he's going to say because, you know, his bluff can be called.

So he needs to sort of step back, you know, and be very careful in what expectations he raises unless he's really willing to make a long- term military commitment.

CURNOW: Many foreign policy watchers; in fact, many people around the world, (INAUDIBLE) whiplash this week because at the beginning of the week there was a suggestion from this administration that Assad didn't need to go.

By the end of the week there has been some suggestion that he's certainly in a more vulnerable position.

Either way should Assad be the focus here?

ROHDE: He should in terms of this one attack that was clearly a brutal attack but I don't think Assad's position has dramatically changed. He's still in a very strong position militarily. He still has very strong foreign backers.

So any talk of Assad being forced out or leaving anytime soon is completely premature as far as I'm concerned. Again, this has not changed the major military balance in Syria, I think, in any significant way.

CURNOW: So what is the significance then of this attack?

ROHDE: At best it's, again, the international community and the United States saying you cannot use chemical weapons in --


ROHDE: -- attacks against civilians. But beyond that it's not a great statement. It doesn't change the dynamics. It won't change the dynamics of this very brutal conflict in Syria.

CURNOW: David Rohde, thank you so much for your perspective.

ROHDE: Thank you.

CURNOW: And Michael, what's so interesting about this?

We heard Nikki Haley saying that this was a measured step and it would deter Assad but the U.S. was and is prepared to do more and that's the question. Is there a plan, a political plan?

HOLMES: A lot of people wonder if there is a policy here because if you go too far and you unseat Assad, the vacuum will favor the insurgency. But the thing that's interesting -- and this is what people are saying in Syria, too, is this action was taken, you know, because a few dozen people were killed in a chemical attack.

How many people have died in Syria over the last six years?

400,000 people. Tomorrow they will be dropping barrel bombs and why doesn't that get a response?

And that's what a lot of people are asking.

CURNOW: Stay with us. You're watching CNN. I'm Robyn Curnow.

And it wasn't all missile strikes Thursday for Mr. Trump. What we know about his talks with China's president. That's ahead.




HOLMES: Welcome back.

The U.S. missile strikes in Syria overshadowed the meeting somewhat between U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

CURNOW: Mr. Xi was a guest at the U.S. president's Florida estate. Mr. Trump reportedly told him of the attack as they finished dinner as the missiles struck their target.

Nevertheless, U.S. officials say the two leaders discussed North Korea's nuclear program and trade ties. CNN's Matt Rivers is tracking the story from Beijing and he joins us now.

Matt, besides all the diplomatic niceties, did anything concrete, tangible come out of this meeting?

MATT RIVERS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, I guess it depends on your definition of a tangible item. What we're hearing from the White House is that both sides --


RIVERS: -- agreed to what they are calling a new framework for future negotiations that they have titled the United States-China comprehensive dialogue that will include four different pillars, including the diplomatic and security dialogue, the comprehensive economic dialogue, the law enforcement and cyber security dialogue and the social and cultural issues dialogue. In other words, they have just figured out a way to talk moving forward, which is a good thing, given that this relationship is far from guaranteed, given what you heard from candidate Trump throughout the campaign trail.

China was his -- one of his most popular targets. But like you said this was a very diplomatic meeting and really nothing concrete, though, I think, came out of it. What we know was talked about was North Korea, very high on top of the list and both sides interestingly didn't provide any specifics as to how they want to work together on North Korea, they just said they agree that North Korea is a problem.

We're hearing from the White House that President Trump brought up some of his concerns over things like the trade deficit and what he called an unequal playing field for American workers in China. They pledged to work together on that moving forward.

They did discuss maritime security issues in the East and South China Seas, which is something that's is definitely of concern to the American military.

And finally, I want to bring up one more thing here and it was the last thing that they were specific. There was a statement given out by the office of the press secretary for the White House and it read in part, quote, "He," meaning President Trump, "also noticed the importance of protecting human rights and other values deeply held by Americans."

That was kind of down towards the bottom of the statement. One line about human rights which many people would hope would be higher up and more prominent, given that China is pretty objectively one of the world's most egregious offenders of human rights.

But that doesn't appear to be a priority of the Trump administration.

HOLMES: You know, Matt, we've been talking with you all week in the buildup to this meeting and one thing that you said pretty consistently was that Mr. Xi would like to leave the United States with the status quo largely intact; no major embarrassments, no clashes and no post-meeting tweets. So he must be pretty pleased.

RIVERS: I think he's going to be. He went there and really the status quo between China and the United States from this meeting appears very much to be unchanged, aside from the fact that this meeting was completely overshadowed by the airstrikes in Syria, nothing out of what we have learned about this meeting would seem to ruffle the feathers of this relationship at all.

And it is worth noting again that, during the campaign, President Trump was wildly critical of China. He was crude in many respects in the way he talked about China. And it's one of the reasons why he won.

His message against China really resonated with blue collar workers. But since the Trump administration has taken power, they have not taken China to task really about any of these issues, security issues in the South China Sea, economic issues, human rights.

And this meeting really seems to have gone off without a hitch. And that was what President Xi wanted. He wants the status quo to be maintained. No major international issues between the two so that he can now focus on domestic politics of which a lot is at stake for him later on this year. There is a transition of power that begins later on this year here.

President Xi trying to consolidate his power ahead of that big congress later this year. And he largely got through this meeting unscathed, which many analysts will tell you is exactly what he wanted to do.

HOLMES: Yes, exactly. Appreciate it, Matt, thanks so much. Matt Rivers there in Beijing.

CURNOW: Yes, thanks so much for that.

Still ahead here at CNN, how did graffiti lead to the one of the bloodiest civil wars in the Middle East?

When we return, we'll take a look back at the origins of the Syrian uprising. Stay with us.




CURNOW: Welcome back. The Syrian civil war is now in its seventh year with no clear end in sight.

HOLMES: During that time about 400,000 people have lost their lives and millions more have fled the country. It all began in 2011 with children writing anti-government graffiti and quickly escalated into a brutal government crackdown. Here's CNN's Randi Kaye.


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 bombed every day, a thousand people die. This is our land and we will not leave.

KAYE (voice-over): Protesters targeted the government, the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

BASHAR AL-ASSAD, PRESIDENT OF SYRIA (through translator): It is our enemies are working daily and scientifically in order to undermine the stability of Syria.

KAYE (voice-over): 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: The level of anger and passion here is absolutely palpable. We're just a few miles from the central of Damascus and this here is a crowd here --


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (Speaking foreign language)

ROBERTSON: -- thank you.

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

KAYE (voice-over): The government militia continued to torture and murder their own people, using tanks and surprise raids.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): I am 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: E-mails obtained by CNN, apparently from the Assad's private e- mail accounts show, throughout --


KAYE: -- it all, they continued 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.

KAYE (voice-over): In another e-mail in which Syria's first lady used the fake name "Aliya," she contacted a London art dealer about art that cost as much as $16,500, all of this during this 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 5 million Syrians have fled the country, only adding to the refugee crisis in the Middle East. Many in Syria have lost hope.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We are not scared of these persons. I'm not scared of the chemical weapon. I mean, does it take a difference to die with a bullet or with a chemical weapon?

KAYE (voice-over): Randi Kaye, CNN, New York.


CURNOW: Such never-ending heartache. HOLMES: Exactly. Years of it.


Thanks so much for joining us. You've been watching CNN NEWSROOM.

HOLMES: Our coverage continues in just a moment.

CURNOW: Stay with us.