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U.S. Probes if Russia Complicit in Syria Chemical Attack; U.S. Congress Wants a Say on Syria Strategy; Stockholm Truck Attack Leaves Four Dead, 12 Injured. Aired 1-2a ET

Aired April 8, 2017 - 01:00   ET




ROBYN CURNOW, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): You're watching CNN. I'm Robyn Curnow.

MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): And I'm Michael Holmes. Welcome to this special edition of CNN NEWSROOM as we continue to follow the unfolding developments surrounding the U.S. strikes on a Syrian airbase.

CURNOW: The U.S. wants to know if Russia was involved in the Syria chemical attack that killed dozens of people, including many children.

HOLMES: The Kremlin telling CNN allegations it was complicit are simply not true. Now the gruesome attacks spurred U.S. President Donald Trump to launch those missile strikes against Syria's Assad regime.

CURNOW: And the U.S. is not ruling out further strikes. The latest now on all this from CNN's chief U.S. security correspondent, Jim Sciutto. We must warn you though, some of these images are graphic.


JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF U.S. SECURITY CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The U.S. military is investigating whether Russia was complicit in the Syrian regime's gruesome chemical weapons attack on civilians earlier this week. Specifically whether a Russia warplane dropped a bomb on a hospital treating victims of the attack five hours later, perhaps to destroy evidence.

U.S. intelligence shows that a Russian drone flew over the hospital site just before the bombing.

The probe comes after President Trump ordered a barrage of missiles on a Syrian airbase in retaliation to the deadly attack, the first U.S. military strike against the Assad regime in the country's bloody six- year civil war.

U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley warned of possible further U.S. military action. NIKKI HALEY, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE U.N.: The United States took a very measured step last night. We are prepared to do more but we hope that will not be necessary.

SCIUTTO (voice-over): The target of the strikes was Syria's Shayrat airbase, launch point for the Syrian warplanes that carried out the chemical attacks. The Pentagon says 59 of 60 Tomahawk cruise missiles severely degraded or destroyed their targets, including aircraft, hardened aircraft shelters, fuel and ammunition dumps and air defense systems.

The Pentagon estimates some 20 aircraft were destroyed, though video of the aftermath shows several shelters still standing and military aircraft undamaged. U.S. missiles left the runway intact and avoided chemical weapons storage to prevent civilian casualties.

The march to military action took little more than 48 hours. The planning began Tuesday, the day the world saw the first images of victims, many of them children, of the chemical weapons attack.

On Thursday before President Trump sat down to dinner with the Chinese president, he met with his national security team to discuss military options. Deciding then to order the strike that night.

At 1:40 pm Eastern time, the middle of the night in Syria, the attack began. Two warships launched in the Eastern Mediterranean, the U.S.S. Porter and the U.S.S. Ross, launched 60 Tomahawk missiles toward the Syrian airbase.

Trump sat through dinner alongside the Chinese president as the attack was under way. Then just 35 minutes later at approximately 9:15 pm Eastern time, the president's national security team briefed him on the mission's results.


CURNOW: Jim Sciutto reporting there. Of course, we're monitoring reactions to the U.S. missile strike from around the world this hour.

HOLMES: For more, CNN's Muhammad Lila is tracking events from Istanbul, Turkey, and Paula Newton is in Moscow for us.

Muhammad, let's start with you in Istanbul with. A lot of people in Syria were hoping that something like this would happen. I suppose the -- the risk is if they are disappointed, at least the nothing (ph).

What's been the reaction?

MUHAMMAD LILA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well it's not just people in Syria were hoping something would happen. I think a lot of America's key allies were hoping for years that America would take a more forceful approach to Syria, even if it was just as simple as sending a message to Bashar al-Assad that he can't get away with killing innocent civilians. And so you're sensing -- what we're seeing is really a sense of not just happiness but I would almost describe it as a sense of jubilation, if you will. If you look at a cover of the "Arab News" which is a major English language newspaper published out of Saudi Arabia and the front page has the picture of Donald Trump giving a thumbs up with the caption, yes, he can.

That I think describes very accurately Saudi Arabia's response, Turkey very similarly jubilant but of course, the big question is not just that the airstrikes have happened but what is the next step and does the United States have a next step?

They're starting to see already Turkey for example coming out and saying there needs to be a no-fly zone to prevent further civilian casualties --


LILA: -- and then, of course, across the region you have Iran and Iraq and of course Hezbollah and Lebanon that are all demanding some sort of international investigation into that chemical airstrike a few days ago.

As far as they have seen and as far as the world has seen, no evidence has actually been produced yet in terms of who is responsible for the chemical airstrike. We know that there were chemical weapons involved but those countries want to see who was responsible for it, saying that, you know, it still may not have been the Assad regime.

So that explains the dynamic here in the Middle East But certainly for America's allies this is definitely something they are celebrating.

CURNOW: OK, stand by, Muhammad. I want to go to Moscow and get the reaction there from our Paula Newton, reaction that's been swift and also strong.

PAULA NEWTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely strong, rhetorically. We had Vladimir Putin through a spokesperson come out and say that this was an act of aggression and noted though he didn't come out and say that himself.

The reaction as we heard from Jim Sciutto was quite strident at the U.N., didn't really use very diplomatic language, Russia saying that the United States was hypocritical in the kind of independent investigation that Muhammad was just talking about. The Russia accusing the United States, saying, look, you are afraid of that kind of investigation, you're afraid of what the results might turn out to be.

Having said that as well, there have been some actions on the part of the Russians. They have suspended what they call the air safety agreement. Now that's an agreement where there's a hotline and the Russians and the United States coordinate those planes in the air in Syria.

That's been suspended and no further action and also perhaps more symbolically a warship that was doing exercises in the Black Sea is now on its way to the Mediterranean.

Having said that, you know, this was not a good week for the Kremlin and they are hoping that in fact when you start talking about a no-fly zone, humanitarian corridors, Russia wants all that talk to end. They were basically unfettered in Syria. They were the only power brokers.

They want to try to see if they can box in the United States. They know there's not a heck of a lot of appetite among Trump administration supporters to have more of an intervention and they will continue to try to play on that through the coming weeks.

They will tolerate, I believe, this kind of airstrike going forward. They will take it. They did not deploy their surface-to-air missile defenses in all of this, even though they had advance warning and they themselves must be scratching, wondering, how did we get involved in this?

Right now Mr. Alexei -- pardon me; the spokesperson for the Kremlin has come out and said that any accusations that we were involved in that chemical attack are completely untrue.

HOLMES: Paula, for people who might not -- who might be wondering, give us a sense of why Syria is important to -- to Moscow.

I mean, it's a geopolitical thing, isn't it?

It's about having a footprint in the region, a warm water port, a base and so on. So it's not necessarily about Mr. Assad.

NEWTON: It's not, although Mr. Assad becomes a willing accomplice in Russia trying to get back a lot of that influence that it lost in the Middle East. And, Michael, you know that, you know, in terms of Russia being able to show off its military might after Ukraine in late 2015, it -- NATO described it as its biggest military showing and deployment in decades.

And that's what it has done in Syria and -- and it continues to say to itself, look, if we want any kind of foothold in the Middle East, if we want to sit -- a seat at the table in this very important region, we need to be able to keep Assad in place or at least keep someone who is very sympathetic to Russia in place.

And with Rex Tillerson coming into town the middle of next week, it will be interesting to see exactly the parameters of that discussion, the Russians hoping that, again, U.S. involvement will continue to just be those airstrikes and some tactical expertise from special forces, U.S. special forces on the ground, again, in the fight against ISIS, not taking on the Syrian regime directly.

HOLMES: All right. Our thanks to Paula Newton in Moscow, Muhammad Lila there in Istanbul, appreciate it.

CURNOW: Well, on Capitol Hill Congress has bipartisan agreement on Friday.

HOLMES: That's right. That's demanding that President Trump consult them on any further action in Syria but they are split over how soon they should open that debate and whether the U.S. should launch another full-scale war in the Middle East.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZ.: We've got choices. If you think the last eight years were a good idea, then let's keep doing it. If you don't, then we ought to back the president but also recognize this is the beginning. This is only the first step. If we want to succeed, we're going to have to, step by step, do a lot more.

SEN. RAND PAUL (R), KY: Our founding fathers gave the power to declare war to Congress because they want to make it difficult to go to war. And this is war --


PAUL: -- by any other name. Dropping bombs on another country is war. And we have to think about, what are the ramifications?

What may happen from this?

You know, will Assad reform?

Will Assad get worse?

If Assad is toppled, will the people that replace him be better than Assad or worse than Assad?


CURNOW: A lot of important questions there.

Cedric Leighton is a CNN military analyst and retired U.S. Air Force colonel. A short time ago I asked him about the military strategy behind the strikes. This is what he had to say.


COL. CEDRIC LEIGHTON (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Robyn, a lot of things can happen next but I think what you're really looking at here is it's either a warning shot to get the Assad regime to do one thing and that is not to use chemical weapons or it is a part of a concerted effort to actually get the Assad regime not only to stop using chemical weapons but to also change its behaviors so that they are more in line with what Washington wants Assad to do, which is not to kill his people and, in essence, not to be as much of a hindrance in the fight against ISIS.

CURNOW: So this was as much political as it was military?

LEIGHTON: Most certainly and it's the old dictum from some of the old military philosophers that basically what you're dealing with here is the fact that war and the use of military force is an extension of politics by the use of that force so it's politics by others means. And that is what we're seeing here. We're seeing the use of force in a very concerted, very deliberate effort to get the Syrian regime to change its behavior.

CURNOW: Also we know and you know certainly yourself the limits of airpower, which is why this was so targeted.

LEIGHTON: Most certainly. The airpower is great to send messages. It's great to help shape the battlefield or the battle space. But it is not something that can win wars by itself. In most cases it is not going to provide that one decisive thing. There are a few exceptions to that in history, such as Hiroshima, Nagasaki and, you know, one could argue Kosovo and the whole Balkans issue.

But generally speaking, airpower has to be used in concert with ground power as well as diplomacy.

CURNOW: And from your experience, assessing the information that we have, how successful was this?

LEIGHTON: This was very successful in terms of its ability to send a message. What the United States did in this particular case was they took a particular airfield. They decided that this was the one that, both for symbolic reasons as well as practical military reasons, needed to be targeted.

And the fact that the it was used in this way as the base from which aircraft went to deliver chemical munitions made it, in essence, the perfect place to conduct and operation like this.

CURNOW: And just take us back to those moment before these strikes. We know that the command was given by the president pretty swiftly. And just take us through what happened next.

LEIGHTON: So when the president gave the command, in essence the Central Command forces launched the TLAMs and the Tomahawk cruise missiles and these cruise missiles were already pre-programmed to hit the airfield and to hit originally 60 aim points, as they're called; 59 were actually hit.

And these are the kinds of targets that they can program. It's very precise. It is designed in essence to go in and cause enough damage so that things like supply depots or aircraft hangars, things of that nature, become unusable.

It is not designed -- these weapons are not designed to actually destroy a landing strip or -- or a landing apron but -- but what they do is they can cause enough damage that the airfield could be rendered inoperable.

So they use this weapon, the Tomahawk missile, because it's very effective in this and they also wanted to make sure that they had an unmanned weapon so that they didn't put any American air crews at risk.

So when they launch those missiles, the attack basically occurred as planned and the -- and results were the ones that we've seen now throughout the day.

CURNOW: A clean, targeted, symbolic strike with many messages. Thank you very much, Cedric Leighton.

LEIGHTON: You bet, Robyn. It's my pleasure.

HOLMES: All right. Next on CNN NEWSROOM, Stockholm showing the world that terror now has a new face in Europe.

CURNOW: Plus, the latest on the truck attack from the Swedish capital.





HOLMES: Welcome back. You're watching a special edition of CNN NEWSROOM and turning now to our other top stories, the attack in Stockholm.

CURNOW: The Swedish police say one suspect is in custody after Friday's truck attack and authorities say he is being held on, quote, "suspicion of terrorist crimes through murder."

HOLMES: At least four people were killed, 12 injured after a stolen truck barreled into pedestrians on the busiest street in the Swedish capital.

CURNOW: Now the prime minister, Stefan Lofven, says everything indicates it was a terror attack.

Linda Flood works near the scene of the attack and she told me earlier about the carnage she witnessed and also 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: CNN's Max Foster now reports from the scene on how the attack unfolded.


MAX FOSTER, CNN HOST: What we've been --


FOSTER: -- 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.


HOLMES: As Max mentioned there, vehicle ramming attacks look like they are almost becoming the norm in Europe.

CURNOW: Nic Robertson looks at the latest use of a vehicle as a weapon of terror.


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.


CURNOW: Certainly People in Sweden waking up this morning, a manhunt across Stockholm and also the fact that many places were in lockdown until very late last night.

HOLMES: And you know the place well. It's such a peaceful part of the world.

CURNOW: It threatens the very essence of an open Scandinavia and really has and I think many people are really having a dark look at their way of life.

HOLMES: Exactly.

We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll explain why President Trump abruptly changed his position on Syria and ordered a cruise missile attacks against the regime.

CURNOW: Also coming up, U.S. missile strikes overshadow key meetings between the U.S. and Chinese leaders. How China's president learned of the attack in Syria -- when we come back.





HOLMES: Welcome back, everyone. You're watching CNN. I'm Michael Holmes.

CURNOW: And I'm Robyn Curnow.

The Kremlin is denying allegations that its military may have been complicit in the use of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians earlier this week. But the U.S. is not convinced.

HOLMES: It is questioning if Russia helped Syria carry out the chemical attack from the Shayrat airfield near Homs or knew about it and didn't stop it. Early Friday the U.S. bombed that airfield in retaliation and President Trump's decision to hit that airfield with cruise missiles marked an abrupt about-face.

CURNOW: Certainly for years Mr. Trump opposed any U.S. military action towards the Syrian regime. CNN's Brianna Keilar has that story.


BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN SR. WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): President Trump has long said the U.S. should keep to itself.

TRUMP: I'm not and I don't want to be the president of the world. I'm the President of the United States.

KEILAR (voice-over): That was before his decision to attack Syria in response to horrific pictures of a chemical weapons attack on civilians there.

TRUMP: Tonight I ordered a targeted military strike on the airfield in Syria from where the chemical attack was launched.

These heinous actions by the Assad regime cannot be tolerated.

My attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much.

KEILAR (voice-over): In fact, it has completely reversed. In 2013 when it was first confirmed the Syrian government was using chemical weapons on its own people, as pictures came to light of an attack much like the ones we've seen this week, President Obama weighed whether to make good on an earlier threat.

BARACK OBAMA, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: A red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.

KEILAR (voice-over): At the time Trump tweeted repeatedly opposing action. "To our very foolish leader," he said, "do not attack Syria. If you

do, many very bad things will happen and from that fight the U.S. gets nothing. There is no upside and tremendous downside."

And he told CNN...

TRUMP: Why don't -- we can't let ISIS and Syria fight. And let Russia, they are in Syria already, let them fight ISIS.

KEILAR (voice-over): Then Thursday an about-face.

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.

KEILAR (voice-over): And Trump's decision to strike Syria was a unilateral one after once chastening President Obama for considering a go-it-alone approach.

"The president must get congressional approval before attacking Syria. Big mistake if he does not," Trump tweeted in 2013.

President Obama was ultimately unable to and scrapped plans to strike Syria until 2014, when Arab countries also participated in military action. But perhaps this is also classic Trump, championing the element of surprise in foreign policy.

TRUMP: I'm not saying I'm doing anything one way or the other.

KEILAR (voice-over): And obsessed with appearing strong.

TRUMP: If President Obama's goal had been to weaken America, he could not have done a better job.

KEILAR: It also changed the narrative long plaguing the Trump administration, the drip, drip, drip of the stories about his campaign officials, ties to Russia and their meetings, oftentimes undisclosed, with Russian officials during and after when Russia attempted to interfere in the 2016 election -- Brianna Keilar, CNN, Washington.


ROBYN CURNOW, CNN ANCHOR: Russia is adamant it was not involved in that deadly chemical attack on Syrian civilians.

MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN ANCHOR: It's also slamming the U.S. military strike on the airbase. Russia's deputy ambassador to the U.N. says the strike will embolden ISIS and other terror groups in Syria.


RUSSIA'S DEPUTY AMBASSADOR TO THE U.N. (through translator): Clearly it's not difficult to imagine how much the spirits of these terrorists have been raised after the 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: To get a sense what have might happen next, let's bring in CNN national security analyst, Steve Hall. He's also a retired CIA chief of Russia operations.

Steve, great to speak to you again.

Why would -- what is the possibility of Russia being complicit in this chemical weapons attack?

What's the likelihood of that?

STEVE HALL, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: You know, there's a lot of stuff that's going on right now in Syria and we're going to have to wait a while, I think, until we see more of the facts and perhaps even some of the intelligence, if that comes out. We'll have to see.

I can certainly tell you that, you know, for all of the deputy ambassador's quotes about international law, all of those things are quite ironic given some of Russia's activities in the past.

It would certainly not be inconsistent, I would say, with Russian values to be somehow involved or to look the other way in using those types of chemical weapons. You have to remember that despite Russia's consistent claims about counterterrorism and the threats that the Islamic State makes, this is simply the sort of verbiage used to get the West's attention and to get the West and the United States worried.

That's not what they are in Syria for, it's not really what they are all about. But it makes a very good sound bite on the deputy ambassador's part.

HOLMES: But if this was sarin and it was dropped from an Assad plane, the Russians have got to have egg on their face regardless. They were the ones in 2013 who were charged with getting rid of Syria's stockpiles --


HOLMES: -- and they said it's done, everything is cool. So one imagines that if it's it is sarin, then the Russians have got to be looking bad.

HALL: I agree. I think that's either -- this was stated earlier today, you know. It's either the Russians are incompetent, in other words they didn't know what the Assad regime that they were supporting was up to.

Or they knew about it and either agreed and looked the other way. I think it's much more likely the latter than it is the former. So yes, this is not a good day for Russia on two parts. The first is the use of the chemical weapons and the fact that they were the ones that guaranteed that they helped get rid of it not too many years ago,

And secondly the strong American response also must have -- what we've seen -- has Moscow upset, concerned and worried.

CURNOW: So with the strong American response and also the inconsistency and unpredictability of this administration, what does that mean next?

There's certainly a lot of rhetorical threats thrown about.

How serious is what we're seeing now?

HALL: Well, it's serious but, you know the question --

CURNOW: Where do we go here?

HALL: Yes, you're absolutely right. This is a new president, a very different kind of president, a very unpredictable president, one who seemingly doesn't have any issue whatsoever with reversing his positions on these types of things.

That could be written off to candidate Trump versus President Trump, as I've heard a number of analysts talk about today. But it's relatively easy to order a cruise missile strike. It's, you know, low risk for -- not only for the military but also low political risk, as we've seen.

The real political risk comes with the next question, which this administration and many previous American and other Western administrations have wrestled with, which is what do you do in a situation like Syria?

And that's what they're really going to have -- they're going to have to come up with a policy, this administration is.


CURNOW: But broadly, sorry, just to interrupt -- but broadly, the relationship between the U.S. and Russia in many ways is also a real focus here.

What happens next with that in terms of the at least rhetorical threats that are being thrown around?

How disappointed are the Russians?

They had a lot of expectation about this relationship which might not play out the way they hoped.

HALL: Yes, I'm trying to imagine what things are like in meetings with Putin these days. It must go something like this. OK, so we got the guy that we wanted in the White House. It's Trump. But all that talk about the possible lifting of sanctions and maybe Crimea wasn't such a bad thing when Russia annexed it, all of those things that they were hoping was going to happen now ironically are not happening probably because the Trump administration is concerned that if they lean towards Russia, even just a little bit, they will come under incredible domestic political pressure because of the questions about Russia's involvement in the election.

So it's a sort of a -- you know, it's a bittersweet thing for the Kremlin. They have the guy that they thought they wanted but, ironically, he can't do a lot of the things that they hoped he was going to do at the very beginning of the thing.

HOLMES: The risk, I supposed, for the U.S. is if they hit too hard, Moscow might feel it needs to retaliate, let alone but Bashar al- Assad. But if they don't hit hard enough, then they look really impotent.

I mean, they didn't even take out the airfield per se. They were apparently flying jets out of it the next day.

So it's a matter of the balance of this.

How much does Russia need Assad?

Or do they not need him?

They just like having a warm water port and base?

HALL: Well, here's what Russia needs. Russia needs a seat at the table. Russia needs to be part of the conversation. Russia needs to be perceived as a great power.

That's really what it's all about for them. If you look at Syria from a Russian perspective, it's not the oil. I would argue it's probably not even the port of Tartus that they really need. What Syria is for them and what really many of -- Assad is for them, it's just the situation is for them, it allows them to play in the worldwide game despite the fact that they are really punching way above their weight class in terms of their actual relevant geopolitical strength.

So that's what it's all about. I once had a Russian intelligence officer tell me, look, we're not that wedded to Assad. But if not Assad, who?

So that is indeed the big Syria question. But really for Russia, it's more than just Syria, it's being a big guy at the table. That's what they really want.

HOLMES: Wow, yes, interesting. Steve Hall, thanks so much, CNN national security analyst, retired CIA chief of Russia operations. Great to get your expertise on this.

CURNOW: Yes, Thanks for joining us on the show.

Coming up here on CNN, U.S. missile strikes overshadow also that key meeting --


CURNOW: -- between the U.S. and Chinese leaders. How China's president learned of the attack in Syria. That's when we come back.

HOLMES: Also, will the strike on Syria make North Korea's leader reconsider his next move?

CURNOW: We ask the experts, weighing in on that question.




HOLMES: Welcome back, everyone.

The U.S. missile strikes on Syria came as the Chinese President Xi Jinping met with U.S. president Donald Trump in Florida.

CURNOW: Mr. Xi reportedly learned of the attack as the two leaders finished their dinner, just as the missiles reached their target. Nevertheless U.S. officials insist the meetings went well. The two presidents reportedly discussed ways to resolve the North Korea nuclear issue and how to improve trade ties.

HOLMES: CNN's Matt Rivers backing this story for us from Beijing and joins us now for more on all of this.

Mr. Xi, a lot of people, including you, were saying, was hoping that this would end with the status quo in place and nobody gets embarrassed and nobody tweets anything out.

So he pretty much got what he was hoping for?

MATT RIVERS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes. At this point this appears to be a really friendly conversation between these two leaders. And if you remember candidate Trump, the fact that there was such a diplomatic meeting between these two, the first time they ever met, that was certainly not guaranteed when you remember the way Donald Trump has talked about China in the past, sometimes using crude language when discussing when he called China's unfair trade practices when dealing with the United States.

There's obviously a range of issues these two men could have talked about here but what we were told from the White House that they discussed was trade. The President of the United States apparently telling President Xi of China that there needs to be had a more level playing field for American workers. They obviously discussed North Korea, not giving any specifics of how they would work together to solve the ongoing crisis --

[01:45:00] RIVERS: -- with the nuclear weapons development program of the Kim Jong-un regime but both sides committing to work together there. And then we're also told from the White House that the president also brought up the issues surrounding the South China Sea and China's aggressive expansion in that part of the world.

But, you know, when giving this readout, it does appear that it was a friendly meeting between these two sides and the only real concrete thing -- and even that might be a bit of a stretch to call it concrete -- is that they agreed on what they are calling a comprehensive dialogue, a new framework for high-level negotiations between both sides.

But for all intents and purposes this appears to be a meeting that was really quite friendly. The only thing that I thought was very interesting and I'll show you a quick statement released by the White House talking about President Trump.

He said he also noted the importance of protecting human rights and other values deeply held by Americans. So a longstanding tradition of American administrations to bring up human rights with Chinese leaders because China is objectively one of the worst offenders of human rights abuses in the world.

And yet that's very far down in the statement and only one line there. Activists about human rights certainly not happy that the president chose really to not seemingly push that issue very hard.

CURNOW: There we see it, the two leaders sauntering across, looks like Astroturf, doesn't it, but I mean, the tone and perhaps the chemistry here is what both men hoped for. But the issue of North Korea certainly looming large over this meeting and we also understand with that in mind, Donald Trump spoke with South Korea's acting president on Saturday morning.

What more do we know about that?

RIVERS: Yes. We know that there's about a 20-minute phone call according to the South Koreans local time Saturday morning and that the president said that he told President Xi that he reiterated the United States' position on the THAAD deployment, that anti-missile defense system that has China very upset.

The United States' position is that that is needed to protect South Korea from the North Korean threat and the United States is very strongly allied with South Korea in the deployment of that system sooner rather than later. China hasn't been happy about that but apparently the president did make his position clear.

CURNOW: Matt Rivers, thank you so much. Really appreciate it.

HOLMES: Thanks, Matt.

CURNOW: Well, Kim Jong-un has aligned himself with Bashar al-Assad.

HOLMES: But will the U.S. missile strike against Syria stop the North Korean leader from pushing President Trump too far?

Paula Hancocks with that.


PAULA HANCOCKS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: North Korea is not Syria. North Korea has nuclear weapons. It is technically at war with its southern neighbor and its leader, Kim Jong-un, has made it very clear that he wants to be able to hit mainland United States with a nuclear-armed missile.

So a similar strike on North Korea is unlikely, according to most experts.

But would this U.S. strike on a Syrian airbase actually make Kim Jong- un think twice before his next move?

If recent history teaches us anything, it's that very little deters Kim Jong-un.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This may actually provoke him even further. And that's what's very dangerous and highly volatile right now, is that there's basically dry gunpowder on both sides. Any little thing could trigger something that goes past the perceived or actual red line when it comes to U.S. and North Korea security policy.

HANCOCKS: President Trump reacting to a chemical weapons attack may resonate in North Korea. Kim Jong-un's half brother, Kim Jong-nam, was killed by an internationally banned chemical weapon, VX nerve agent, in Malaysia's international airport, according to Malaysian authorities.

South Korean intelligence blames Kim Jong-un but his regime denies involvement. It is universally accused (ph) North Korea has a significant stockpile of chemical weapons.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If we give the clear sign that, if you use chemical weapons, the punishment will be very, very severe, if we give that sign, North Korea cannot use their weapons.

HANCOCKS: North Korea has been very clear as to which side it's on. In a Thursday article, state-run media said that Kim Jong-un has sent warm congratulations to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad on his party's 70th anniversary.

Speaking of his full support for the Syria regime's, quote, "just struggle." This U.S. strike is being seen in very many different ways. Irrelevant for North Korea, a wake-up call for Kim Jong-un or simply a red rag to a bull -- Paula Hancocks, CNN, Seoul.


HOLMES: Still to come here on the program, punitive strikes by the U.S. are nothing new.

CURNOW: We'll take a look at past warnings and retaliations launched by the U.S.




CURNOW: Welcome back.

Russia denies it had any role in a deadly chemical attack in Syria, a massacre which prompted President Trump to launch strikes against the Assad regime. Well, the Pentagon is looking for evidence the Kremlin knew about or was complicit in the chemical assault.

HOLMES: Early Friday local time, U.S. warships launched missiles at a Syrian airfield believed to be the base for warplanes that carried out the gas attack. Now the U.S. has launched strikes in the past as warnings and as punishment most often for the murder of civilians.

CURNOW: Gary Tuchman looks back at some of these punitive attacks.


GARY TUCHMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Five years before the 2003 war against a U.S.-led coalition, Saddam Hussein's Iraq was punished by bombing and Tomahawk missile strikes, a punitive four-day campaign ordered by President Bill Clinton following Iraq's refusal to comply with U.N. Security Council resolutions.

Much of Iraq's military infrastructure destroyed. Iraq said hundreds of its troops and civilians were killed. It wasn't the first strike designed to punish the Iraqi regime.

In 1993, two years after the first Gulf War, 23 cruise missiles were launched into downtown Baghdad. A warning after an assassination plot was uncovered in Kuwait and former President George H.W. Bush, who was visiting the country he helped liberate during the 1991 Gulf War.

Colin Powell was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time.

COLIN POWELL, FORMER CHAIRMAN OF THE JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF: Should Mr. Hussein even dream of retaliating, we have more than enough force in the region to deal with it.

TUCHMAN (voice-over): The missiles hit a building believed to have housed Iraq's intelligence service. Punitive attacks have also been used in retaliation for murders of Americans.

In 1986, Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi was said to be behind the bombing of a disco in West Berlin; two U.S. servicemen were killed. The U.S. military reply: 60 tons of munitions --


TUCHMAN (voice-over): -- rained down on Gadhafi's compound in Tripoli.

RONALD REAGAN, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: My fellow Americans, at 7 o'clock this evening Eastern Time, air and naval forces of the United States launched a series of strikes against the headquarters, terrorist facilities and military assets that support Moammar Gadhafi's subversive activities.

TUCHMAN (voice-over): And the result...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Back there is the building where his wife and children resting when the bombing came on Monday night. Two of them were injured, the smallest child, an adopted daughter was killed.

REAGAN: Today we have done what we had to do. If necessary, we shall do it again.

TUCHMAN (voice-over): Gadhafi survived; he wasn't at the site. Dozens of Libyans died, as did two U.S. Air Force pilots.

Another punishment for the murder of civilians came in 1998. Operation Infinite Reach led the strikes against Al Qaeda targets in Sudan and Afghanistan, after the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were bombed. More than 200 people were killed, over 4,000 wounded.

These punitive strikes have been used by a long line of U.S. presidents to punish or to warn others when their actions are deemed a threat to American interests.

REAGAN: I said that we would act with others if possible and alone if necessary to ensure that terrorists have no sanctuary anywhere. Tonight, we have.

TUCHMAN (voice-over): Gary Tuchman, CNN, Atlanta.


CURNOW: Thanks to Gary for that report.

I'm Robyn Curnow.

HOLMES: And I'm Michael Holmes.

And we'll have more news after the break. Do stay with us.