Return to Transcripts main page


U.S. Probes if Russia Complicit in Syria Chemical Attack; Trump Meets with Xi as U.S. Missiles Strike Syria; Kremlin Vows to Respond to U.S. Missile Attack; Stockholm Truck Attack Leaves Four Dead, 12 Injured; U.N. Estimates 400K Killed in Syrian Civil War.. Aired 5-6a ET

Aired April 8, 2017 - 05:00   ET




UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): This is CNN breaking news.

ISA SOARES, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Good morning to our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Isa Soares from London, where it is just 10 o'clock.

HALA GORANI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hello, everyone. I'm Hala Gorani live in Beirut. We're following that airstrike against the Syrian airbase, the Shayrat airbase near Homs.

The United States says that the Syrian regime flew planes from that base and conducted a chemical attack in Idlib a few days ago and there was even a suggestion from the United States that Russia might have been aware or even complicit in this attack.

The Kremlin is denying that it had anything to do with it. The U.S., though, says it is not convinced. It is questioning if Russia helped Syria carry out this atrocity.

Here is Jim Sciutto with the very latest. And we need to warn you, some of the images in this piece are very disturbing.


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


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.


SOARES: Jim Sciutto reporting there.

A Russian warship armed with cruise missiles is now on its way to Russia's naval base in Syria. This as Russia's deputy ambassador to the United Nations told the U.N. Security Council the U.S. strike in Syria will embolden ISIS and other terrorist groups. He says Washington is repeating mistakes it made in Iraq as well as Libya. Take a listen.


RUSSIA'S DEPUTY AMBASSADOR TO THE U.N. (through translator): We describe that attack as a flagrant violation of international law and an act of aggression. We strongly condemn the illegitimate actions by the U.S.

The consequences of this for regional and international stability could be extremely serious.

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. And there it says, it talks about settlement while maintaining international institutions.

Is that the sort of international institutions that you are supporting?


SOARES: The Russian deputy ambassador to the U.N. there.


SOARES: Let's bring in CNN's Paula Newton who joins us from Moscow.

Paula, we know where Russia stands on the strike. We just heard them speaking at the U.N.

But what has been the reaction from the Kremlin to the news that U.S. basically is investigating whether Russia was complicit in any way in this chemical attack?

PAULA NEWTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Four words. "This is not true." That was the answer Dmitry Peskov gave our Matthew Chance in the text message. Of course, the denials will come.

As you heard from that U.N. meeting, Isa, they don't even admit at this point that there was the kind of chemical attack we've been showing for days now, the images we've been showing and also they're saying, look, wait for an independent investigation.

Now the U.N. meeting you just showed, Isa, you really could have on cut the tension with a knife, the looks going back between Nikki Haley and the U.S. deputy envoy, not to be believed, each trading barbs, the Russians saying that you, the United States are afraid of having an independent investigation in this.

And Nikki Haley saying in her remarks that the Syrians struck with that chemical attack because they knew Russia would have their back.

All of this to say as they're trading the barbs back and forth, what they're trying to realize is what is the upshot for both sides.

And what the Russians are trying to figure out is, is this one and done?

Or are they ushering in are a whole new campaign of U.S. intervention into Syria?

SOARES: Yes. That's what everyone is trying to figure out, isn't it, Paula?

Let's talk about that tension between Russia and the U.S. because we know we have Rex Tillerson visiting Russia next week. I believe that hasn't been canceled.

So how awkward will this meeting be and what is likely to be on the table?

NEWTON: It won't just be awkward. It will be crucial at this point in time. We're getting the indications from our White House correspondents that the Trump administration now wants a seat at the table.

And Isa, it's been breathtaking. A week ago, we were hearing from Nikki Haley Rex Tillerson and Nikki Haley that they thought the leader of Syria would stay in place for sometime to come and now you have indications from Rex Tillerson, I'm coming to discuss this with you, first, what went on?

Why were there chemicals there?

You were supposed to guaranteeing, you, Russia, were supposed to be guaranteeing that Syria did not have those chemical weapons.

And if you didn't know they had them, why couldn't you stop their use?

Having said that, the Russians shooting back, one influential lawmaker here, Alexei Lufkov (ph), saying to Tillerson, "Tillerson, U.S. was disappointed by Russia response. Was he expecting something else?" he asked?

A startling statement but with a purpose. It builds leverage before the visit. That is the point here. The United States is trying to set this up so that, when they arrive, if they want to discuss humanitarian corridors, they want to make sure that Russia -- they're trying to get Russia on board with that.

If they want to discuss a no-fly zone, again, Russia would vehemently oppose that. But they want to understand what the parameters are for discussion and that's what they're trying to put together right now.

SOARES: Paula Newton for us in Moscow this hour, thanks very much, Paula. Very good to see you -- Hala.

GORANI: Thank you, Isa.

The Syrian government was unsurprisingly very unhappy with the missile attack on one of its airbases. They called it an burnyus (ph) American strategy. But Turkey has a very different view of the whole thing. In fact, they hope this is the beginning of more to come. Here is President Erdogan as a rally.



RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN, PRESIDENT OF TURKEY (through translator): By adopting a common resolve, the international community has the capability to stop the regime and terrorist organizations. I hope the active stance that the United States displayed in Idlib is a beginning with regard to such developments.


GORANI: Ben Wedeman joins me now live from Antakya, Turkey.

I understand there's been a phone call between the vice president, Mike Pence, and his Turkish counterpart, the Prime Minister.

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SR. INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right. Binali Yildirim, Turkish prime minister, spoke with -- by phone with Mike Pence, the U.S. vice president, obviously Syria the top of their discussion.

We understand from this statement that Yildirim told Mike Pence that we expect the U.S. to weigh more on the Syrian issue and we are ready to give all kinds of support.

He also stressed the need to set up safe zones inside the Turkey government because the regime is worries there would be more refugees coming out of Syria as of this latest strike. Keep in mind, Turkey hosts nearly 3 million Syrian refugees, the largest Syrian refugee population on Earth.

At the same time, however, we're learning that there have been more airstrikes in Idlib province --


WEDEMAN: -- where, of course, on Tuesday morning at about 6:30 in the town of Khan Sheikhoun, more than 80 people were killed in this suspected chemical attack.

We understand from an activist news network in Idlib province that the town of Haish (ph), which is just 10 kilometers north of Khan Sheikhoun, was hit by aircraft. Not clear if they were Syrian or Russian, resulting in the death of 10 people -- Hala.

GORANI: And, Ben, for many months, the primary concern and objective of the President of the United States, which he stated publicly many times, was the fight against ISIS.

Right now, this is shifting his attention to the Syrian regime. And we haven't heard necessarily much about ISIS in the last few days.

Is the expectation somehow that the attention of the United States will now be not solely focused on the terrorist group?

WEDEMAN: Well, the irony or the complicated nature of the situation here really comes home when you consider that the United States in fact has conducted thousands of airstrikes against ISIS targets since 2014 in Syria alone. I think the number is around 8,000 airstrikes.

And we're talking about -- we're focusing on just one cruise missile strike on one Syrian regime airbase, which, it's not altogether clear if this is going to make much of a difference. So, yes, the United States is very much involved, for instance, in the

battle to drive ISIS out of Mosul; American troops are on the ground in Syria, supporting the effort to retake the city of Raqqa as well.

And, of course, when you consider the fact that there's now, as a result in the aftermath of the Khan Sheikhoun attack, there's been so much discussion about perhaps an attempt to undermine or weaken the Syrian regime.

What does that mean?

You weaken the Syrian regime, somebody fills the vacuum.

And, of course, what is the largest and most dangerous military force in Syria after the regime?

ISIS. And ISIS is always very good at taking advantage of other forces' weaknesses to fill the vacuum. So, yes, we're focusing on the Syrian regime. But ISIS is still very much a threat to Syria, to Iraq and elsewhere -- Hala.

GORANI: I'm sure it's looking at the situation very closely, trying to see how it can play it to its advantage.

Ben Wedeman in Antakya, Turkey, thanks very much for joining us. We'll speak to you a little bit later.

Fawaz Gerges of the London School of Economics is in London and joins me now live.

Fawaz, let's -- with Ben, we were discussing the bigger picture there, of course, you have rebel groups in a large part of the countryside in Syria. You have ISIS all still holding major parts of the territory, including Raqqah, though they're under pressure and now the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad feeling the heat a little bit after that U.S. strike.

How does this change the picture, this U.S. military intervention, the overall Syria picture?

FAWAZ GERGES, DIR. MIDDLE EAST CENTER, LONDON SCHOOL OF ECONOMICS: I don't think the limited and targeted attack by the Trump administration will make any strategic difference in Syria.

If the administration, the Trump administration, does not really follow up, if there is no strategic vision, no political roadmap, I don't think the Trump administration has any particular clear ideas about a sustained diplomatic engagement inside Syria.

We keep talking about chemical weapons and poison gas. These are evil weapons. I doubt it very much, Hala, if Assad will ever use chemical weapons from now on, given the fact that the message has been received in Damascus and Moscow and Tehran.

But remember, there are about 400,000 people that have been killed in Syria in the past six years. Only 1,000 of the 400,000 have been killed as a result of chemical weapons.

Assad has a massive arsenal to continue to kill his -- what he calls the terrorists and his enemies and he has reiterated in the past two days that he will do so.

So the reality is that regardless of how you view this particular attack, it will not change the complex dynamics inside Syria unless the Trump administration really follows up with a sustained diplomatic and political vision.

GORANI: And for that, they would need Russia as a partner, right?

Have we reached that stage where at least the beginnings of a discussion can take place between the two countries on how to achieve some sort of political --


GORANI: -- stabilization there?

GERGES: Well, I mean, Russia, as you know, Hala, controls the skies and the land in Syria. It's the most, really, powerful player inside Syria. Anything you need to do inside Syria, you need Russia. Not only you need Russia, you need Iran, another major player inside Syria.

My fear -- and this is my fear and I could be wrong, Hala -- that what this administration has done is a really limited and targeted attack unless there is a kind of a political strategy. You're going to see more escalation in the next few weeks and next few months.

The Trump administration has taken on a formidable coalition. It's not just about Assad. You're in Lebanon now. Hezbollah has about 5,000 skilled fighters inside Syria. Iran has 1,000 fighters. Russia has some of the most advanced anti-missile forces inside Syria.

So the reality is, unless there is engagement with Russia and the regional players, Turkey and Iran, you're going to have more proxy war and more escalation in the next few weeks and the next few months inside Syria.

GORANI: So I want to ask you one question that has come up again and again and again and about this airstrike against Shayrat near Homs. Many people -- and you see it on social media, on Twitter and Facebook, even everyday conversations, they say if President Obama had only done something similar in 2013 when Russia wasn't involved, we wouldn't be where we are today.

This was 250,000 deaths ago and it could have had an impact. And some of the people here I have to say support Donald Trump's decision to bomb that airbase.

Do you agree with any of that statement, that we could have avoided so much of the misery in Syria had President Obama acted after the chemical attack in 2013? GERGES: My reading, Hala, does not really support this particular hypothesis. The Syrian conflict is very complex. Multiple conflicts have collapsed in one. It's a civil war, an ideological war, you have Al Qaeda, you have ISIS, you have regional war by proxies and you have a global war by proxy between the United States and its allies and Russia.

This is a very complex conflict. I think we in America in particular and in the region basically would simplify and distort a great deal. We think that the United States has a magical wand by which really it can move things, whether in Iraq or whether in Syria; it does not.

Neither Barack Obama nor Donald Trump can make a strategic shift in the overall dynamics in Syria and Iraq unless there's pressure on the local players and the regional players.

I think the region has changed a great deal in the past 20 years or so, in particular since 9/11 and I think we don't take into account the persistence and the determination and the fanaticism of local players and also the major role played by pivotal regional powers, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia; they're trying to fill the vacuum of global leadership.

The United States is no longer the undisputed and unrivaled superpower that it used to be.

GORANI: Fawaz Gerges, as always, a pleasure talking to you. Thanks for your take on this.

We're going to have a lot more of our coverage live in Beirut in a little bit.

But for now, Isa, back to you.

SOARES: Thanks very much, Hala.

Next, on this special edition of CNN NEWSROOM, we'll bring you up to date with the other top story we're following and that's Stockholm. New developments in the investigation into that deadly truck attack. We're live there.

Plus, vehicles used as weapons, not new. What terror looks like now in Europe. We'll have both those stories for you after the break.



SOARES: If you are just joining us, welcome. You are watching a special edition of CNN NEWSROOM. Let me bring you up to date on our other top story and that's that deadly truck attack in Stockholm.

Swedish media say a bag of explosives has been found in the truck used in Friday's attack. Authorities also say the man arrested is likely the driver of the vehicle and is being held on suspicion of terrorist crimes through murder. At least four people were killed and 12 wounded after stolen truck

barreled into pedestrians on the busiest street in the Swedish capital. Prime Minister Stefan Lofven says everything indicates it was a terror attack. CNN's Max Foster is on the ground for us. He joins us now from Stockholm with the latest.

Max, what more do we know about those explosives and indeed about the man they believe was the driver here?

MAX FOSTER, CNN HOST: Well, they're talking about sources being SBT which is state broadcaster and that explosive. So that's interesting in that it does make this attack different from the other ones we've been comparing it to, the ones in London and Berlin and Nice, as well, because they were an attacker in a truck.

This is an attacker in a truck with explosives. That does suggest there is some intelligence to be had there. And the authorities looking very closely into that. They've actually asked people not to come down here to Central Stockholm, not because of any danger but to allow them to carry on with the investigation.

Focus, of course, on the street where all of this happened. If you look behind me, this is the main shopping street. It's pedestrianized. The truck would have been thundering towards us if we were there at the time. And you can see how narrow it was.

And to think that this would be at its busiest, full of shoppers and people going home from work, it's amazing to think, really, that there weren't more casualties and more deaths and eventually the car, the lorry, crashed into that department store on the left. You can see all the damage done there.

That's where all the forensic research is being done, as well, at the moment as well as wider investigations.

The country today really feeling as if their man is probably locked up and they're trying to come to terms with actually what this means for the nation. So this barrier behind me fast becoming a makeshift memorial. People coming down, putting flowers, praying, just staring at the scene. And one of those was the deputy prime minister.


SWEDISH DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Of course, this is at the heart of the capital of Sweden and this is our hometown and lots of people from Stockholm yesterday reacted very openly, with their arms open, to welcome strangers and those that had problems in getting home last night because all the subways and the public transportation was closed off.

So lots of people had problems. And I think we can never protect ourselves from this type of violence with no -- let's say, no limits to what the perpetrator is willing to do with no human or normal, let's say, calculations.

But if you are willing to sacrifice your own life and you're willing to sacrifice others' completely innocent people's lives, that's very difficult to protect yourself from.


FOSTER: It's a frightening reality, Isa, and another country really learning that lesson here in Europe.

SOARES: Absolutely. And, Max, I know you know Sweden very well.

How rattled is everyone by this?

Give us a sense of the mood.

FOSTER: Well, I think the mood is often expressed, isn't it --


FOSTER: -- by monarchs in the situation. The crown princess came a moment ago just before we came to you and she laid the big bunch of roses there, the red roses lying on the floor.

And she was almost incapable of saying anything at all. She was very emotional, full of tears and just sort of raising the question about why Sweden was targeted. And it's a question the police are trying to get to the bottom of, too.

SOARES: Yes, yes. It's a question that we're constantly asking why. Max Foster in Stockholm there for us in Sweden, thanks very much, Max.

Well, using big because (ph) you heard Max there as weapons has become really a clear trend in terrorism. From Nice to Berlin to right here in London and now, unfortunately, Stockholm. Nic Robertson has the story for us.


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.


SOARES: Well, still to come, we'll bring you up to date with a top story. The U.S. has launched a military strike against Syria.

But what now?

What is President Trump's next move?

We'll ask an expert to weigh in next, stay here with CNN.




UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): This is CNN breaking news.

SOARES (voice-over): Welcome back to our viewers in the United States and around the world. You are watching CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Isa Soares in London.

GORANI (voice-over): I'm Hala Gorani. We continue our breaking news coverage of the U.S. airstrike against the Shayrat airbase in Syria. I'm in Beirut, Lebanon.

The bird's-eye view distance between where I am standing and central Syria is less than 100 miles. This is a region where the distances are sometimes very small geographical but, politically and strategically, they feel like they might be a million miles apart.

Speaking of what is a million miles apart, well, it is Donald Trump's position, two positions with regard to the Syrian regime in the space of 48 hours that are very different. On the one hand, we heard just about three days ago from the highest

representatives of the U.S. government that the objective of the United States is not regime change and that it's up to the Syrian people to decide the fate of their president, Bashar al-Assad.

Only two short days later and we're seeing a U.S. strike against a major military installation in Syria.

What led to the change for President Donald Trump?

With that story, here is 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 --


ZELENY (voice-over): -- 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.


SOARES: U.S. lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have been broadly supportive of President Trump's decision to strike Syria. But one House Democrat says she's skeptical the Assad regime was even behind the chemical attack and calls the president's actions reckless. Take a listen to what she had to say.


REP. TULSI GABBARD (D), HI.: What I believe, what you believe or others believe is irrelevant. What matters here is the evidence and the facts. If President Assad is found to be responsible after an independent investigation for these horrific chemical weapons attacks, I'll be the first one to denounce him, to call him a war criminal and to call for his prosecution in International Criminal Court, make sure that those consequences are there.

But the key is now with President Trump's reckless military strikes last night, it flew directly in the face of the action that the U.N. was working on at that time to launch an independent investigation, to find out exactly what the facts are, who was involved and who was responsible so that the appropriate consequences could be levied.



SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R), FLA.: The airfield in Shayrat which is where Assad launched his chemical attack was severely degraded and I think in the short to midterm degrades his ability to conduct future attacks.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How do you think the president did not need congressional approval to do the strike?

RUBIO: He did not. He is the commander in chief. We had American troops in Syria. He has an obligation to protect them. I think the presence of sarin gas and a regime willing to use it is a clear and immediate threat to those troops.


SOARES: Joining me now is Jacob Parakilas, he is the assistant head of the U.S. and Americas program at Chatham House.

Jacob, thank you very much for joining us. I'm looking at the British papers here. "The U.S. Tells Assad Never Again," one of the many headlines in terms of the warning to Assad.

What is your assessment of where the U.S. goes from here?

Because I know we haven't heard yet a clarity on foreign policy when it comes to Syria.

JACOB PARAKILAS, CHATHAM HOUSE: The problem is that this is a very, very rapid turnaround. Last week, Trump and his foreign policy team were talking about sort of stepping away from encouraging Assad to stand down or trying to push for a political solution that didn't include him.

They were basically willing to let Russia be in the driver's seat in terms of determining Syria's political future. This week, completely different picture. You have rhetoric used by Trump that you could imagine another Democratic or Republican president using, you know, that this was an attack on values, that there's an international norm against chemical weapons used.

So this was a just and proportionate response to withhold that. That's not really something that you've seen Trump -- that's not rhetoric that you've seen Trump use before. So it was a very interesting shift. It's not yet -- it's early days but it's not yet contextualized within a broader sense of what he'll do here in Syria where a.

SOARES: So it's a major pivot. No one actually saw that coming.

But what does it mean in terms of U.S. foreign policy when it comes to Syria where a. If, let's say, Assad does the same thing again, let's hope he doesn't, but if he does, what the does the U.S. do?

Does the U.S. intervene again and will the -- have some airstrikes if there are barrel bombs or other bombs?

Where do you draw the line?

PARAKILAS: There's a scenario where this doesn't fundamentally change anything. If Assad looks at this and says, OK, we're not going to use chemical weapons anymore, we're just going to proceed with the usual means of repression that we've used, the airstrikes and the barrel bombs, the U.S. has largely ignored that for five or six years now and, you know, could continue conceivably doing that.

And the situation in Syria would continue on the track it was on before this week. But if there's another use of chemical weapons, then the U.S. is faced with a very, very stark choice of does it escalate, does it engage in a more thorough air campaign to not only sort of --


PARAKILAS: -- punish the Syrian regime for, one, chemical weapons used but to degrade its ability to use those weapons again in the future?

And that's a much more expensive, much more complicated prospect with a much higher chance of drawing Russia in to a much greater degree.

SOARES: And I suppose you're dammed if you do and you're dammed if you don't been I suppose at this stage, we do not know what the president thinks in terms of the biggest strategy. Is it about, do you think, Jacob, taking out Assad, replacing Assad with someone else or is it about ISIS?

PARAKILAS: Well, I don't think it's yet about replacing Assad. A single cruise missile strike against a single airfield is not a regime change operation. It's signaling. It's about getting rid of some of the capabilities that were used for this particular strike without manifestly changing sort of tactical picture, without sort of encouraging either regime elements or anti-regime elements to consider a leadership change.

That's that's a sort of stand-alone thing. The question, as you say, is what happens next and whether there's another use of chemical weapons. We just don't know yet.

SOARES: We need policy. We need (INAUDIBLE).

Jacob Parakilas, thank you very much.

Now coming up, U.S. missile strikes overshadow key meetings between U.S. and Chinese leaders. How China's president learned of the attack in Syria when we come back. We'll take you live to Beijing -- next.




GORANI: Welcome back, everybody. I'm Hala Gorani. I'm live in Beirut, Lebanon, continuing our coverage of the U.S. strikes against a military airbase in Central Syria. One thing --


GORANI: -- those strikes in Syria did achieve is they managed to somewhat overshadow a very important visit in the United States by the Chinese president, Xi Jinping.

This is something that was very important, very hotly anticipated. The leader of China, especially after some very harsh rhetoric from President Trump against China and what the president considers unfair trade practices.

So what's been the reaction in Beijing?

Matt Rivers joins me now from the Chinese capital.

So what have people been saying, officials, state-controlled media, saying about this visit and what was or was not achieved, Matt?

MATT RIVERS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, generally speaking, state media here has completely ignored the airstrikes that went into Syria, instead, really heaping a lot of praise on this visit, on the Trump administration, saying that it's clear that the Trump administration, despite what candidate Trump used to say about China, has now come to recognize, as one paper put it, the importance of the U.S.-China relationship.

To be fair, this meeting was very diplomatic. It seemed very friendly. It was a stark departure from what we heard from Donald Trump throughout the campaign season and it marks a big turnaround from the way he used to talk about China.

We do know that there were differences brought up, according to the White House, they talked about how President Trump brought up what he believes are unfair trade practices with China, making it an unlevel playing field for the American worker.

We also know that both sides talked about North Korea, that of course being the most urgent threat for both countries right now. The ongoing weapons development program there. Both countries had differing views as to how best to stop that crisis.

But the only thing that came out in the readout from the White House is that both countries simply agreed to work together on it without giving any further policy proposals.

Finally, in this readout, they discussed the South China Sea. China has aggressively built up artificial islands there over the last several years, has militarized those islands, much to the dismay of the United States. But basically in this readout, both sides are just saying, look, we

are going to work together to resolve our differences, very diplomatic overall. And one major sticking point between the United States and China recently has been the deployment of an anti-missile defense system in South Korea to counter the North Korean threat. China has been very, very upset about that.

But we're hearing from the South Koreans that President Trump actually had a 20-minute phone call local time Saturday morning with the acting president of South Korea. And in that phone call, he said that he reiterated to President Xi that the United States would move forward with that deployment. They're sticking to their line there.

And that's very important to the U.S. But overall, a very diplomatic meeting, something very different from what many were expecting from the first meeting between these between two men -- Hala.

GORANI: Right. We didn't talk much about it, it has to be said, with that surprise U.S. strike in Syria. There's always that touchy subject of human rights, you know, a lot of criticism directed at China because of its poor human rights record.

In this particular case, was that topic brought up at all?

RIVERS: It's been a longstanding tradition of U.S. administrations to bring up human rights when they meet with their Chinese counterparts. And it does appear that the Trump administration sort of brought it up.

So in this statement I'll show part of the statement. It read in quotes, "He," meaning President Trump, "also noted the importance of protecting human rights and other values deeply held by Americans."

That's it. So it doesn't appear that they really talked that much about it and that's buried way down in the statement. They talk about the economy, they talk about North Korea, they talk about the South China Sea. And then they put in one line about human rights and other values.

So we don't know what those other values are but it does appear human rights is not very high up on this agenda.

GORANI: All right, Matt Rivers, live in Beijing, thanks very much.

When we come back, we are live in Beirut, Lebanon.

How did graffiti lead to one of the bloodiest civil wars in the Middle East?

It was the first of what kickstarted, the first event that kickstarted the revolution. And then a bloody conflict. We'll take a look back at the origins of the Syrian uprising. We'll be right back.





SOARES: Welcome back to CNN NEWSROOM.

Now the Syrian civil war is now in its seventh year with no clear end in sight, unfortunately. During that time, about 400,000 people have lost their lives and millions have fled the country. CNN's Randi Kaye explains how it all 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): 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 --


KAYE (voice-over): -- 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 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.


GORANI: That's going to wrap up this hour of CNN NEWSROOM. Thanks for watching. I'm Hala Gorani. We are live in Beirut.

SOARES: And I'm Isa Soares, live in London. For viewers in the U.S., "NEW DAY" is just ahead. For everyone else, "CNN STYLE" starts right after a check off your headlines. Do stay right here with CNN.