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CNN'S AMANPOUR

U.S. to end support for anti-Assad rebels. Aired 11-11:30p ET

Aired July 20, 2017 - 23:00:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


MICHAEL HOLMES, AMANPOUR IN ATLANTA: Tonight on the program shifting sands in the war in Syria, as President Trump reportedly stops US arms support to

anti-Assad rebels.

We get reaction from America's last pop diplomat in Damascus who advocated arming the opposition five years. Plus as Mr. Trump changes U.S. policy on

Syria what are the American pledges to fight famine? A strong Trump supporter and current head of the world food program joins us.

BEASLEY: I have literally zero doubt the United States will stand strong and continue to provide the leadership on humanitarian aid because it's in

the United State's interests.

HOLMES: Good evening, everyone. Welcome to the program. I'm Michael Holmes in for Christiane Amanpour in Atlanta. President Trump has decided

to shut down a covert CIA program to arm and train moderate Syrian rebels fighting President Bashar Al Assad.

That's according to a report in "The Washington Post" citing unnamed U.S. officials. Now, the move puts an end to a controversial policy initiated

by the Obama Administration back in 2013 and reflects a longstanding position held by the president that the U.S. must focus on defeating Isis

rather than seeking the Assad regime's removal.

According to the "Washington Post" it does not impact the Pentagon-led effort to work with U.S.-backed Syrian rebels in the fight against Isis,

and while the anti Assad program was never seen as a game changer, ending it raises questions about whether the U.S. has given up all of its leverage

in Syria to Moscow and Iran, both staunch supporters of the Syrian president.

As a CIA operative with deep experience in the Middle East, Robert Behr is regarded as one of the world's most foremost authorities on the region.

He's now an intelligence and security analyst for CNN, He joins me from Colorado, always good to see you, Bob.

Donald Trump signaling his views on this program when he was a candidate also when he was president-elect. So is this any real surprise to you and

how to you see it in a tactical sense and the message it sends to Russia and the Syrian people?

ROBERT BEHR, CNN INTELLIGENCE AND SECURITY ANALYSIST: Well Michael, what he's effectively done is seated Syria to both Russia and Iran. I recognize

that he's backing the Kurds, which isn't making anybody happy but at this point he's telling the Sunni majority and Syria, forget it. We're not

going to help you. He's abandoned them. This is a 180-degree shift in our policy, Michael.

HOLMES: So that's a symbolic and important symbolic thing, but the program itself wasn't working and it does seem that if was ineffective at best, why

keep it? Should more have been done when it was set up years ago? Was it too little too late?

BEHR: I don't think it was ever going to work because the Syrian Sunnis have translated to the Islamic slate, Jabhat al-Nusra, Al Qaeda branch and

the rest of it. I mean that battle was lost before it was started. But symbolically it was important.

It's also an important piece in negotiating with the Russians and the Iranians and the Syrian regime, for instance, give up your chemical

weapons. They never did give up their Sarin. So he just gave this piece away to the Russians for no particular reason.

HOLMES: So if you think there should have been a quid pro quo, what did the U.S. leave on the table?

BEHR: Again, I'd go back to the Sarin. Bashar Al Assad continues to gas his own people, it's unacceptable, it should be unacceptable to us. He is

a mass murderer, and we should have got the Russians and the Iranians to sit on him to give this stuff up. I mean, this is a humanitarian disaster

and by giving up moderate Sunnis, we're not helping that disaster.

HOLMES: The U.S. of course, continues to back forces that are fighting for the Isis capital Raqqah as we speak. And that force includes Kurdish,

Arab, local tribal elements as well. Are we likely to see the U.S. then if this is what's happened with this program, allow pro-Assad forces to take

control of Raqqah once it's clear of Isis? Do you think that will be part of ceding Syria?

BEHR: Yes, that's exactly the problem though Michael, we have no political solution either for Iraq or for Syria. What we've done effectively is

backed the Shia minority in Syria and the majority or the plurality in Iraq against the Sunnis.

And there are anxieties and the rest of it are not going to go away with out a political solution, but I don't think Donald Trump does political

solutions. He'll bomb Raqqah, into rubble. Let the Assad regime take it over make the alawites and his follow. And this will worsen the problem in

the long run and in the short run.

HOLMES: You know when you look you and I both know well this is more than a decade of the U.S. being at war in the regions. Some would look and say

Iran has Iraq and soon Russia and Iran will have Syria in terms of influence and presence.

Do you see it that way and what does that mean for the U.S.?

BAER: All I think that there's a Iranian hegemony. I think the Iranian's right now are more rationale than the Islamic state of course but there is

a hegemony and it runs from Lebanon through Syria through Iraq.

And by the way it's very dangerous for the Israelis because you have now a supply line between a land row, a row from Iran to Lebanon to supply

Hezbollah. And this is why the Israelis are -- they don't like it this status quo is unacceptable to them.

HOLMES: what does it mean for the U.S.?

BAER: You know we are losing influence in the Middle East by the day when we abandoned politics and we invaded Iraq in 2003. This is going to turn

out to be the biggest catastrophe at least for the Middle East, the entire century.

This war is going to go on for a hundred years, I just don't see any way without a diplomatic political solution in place.

HOLMES: A sober assessment from Bob Baer. Thank you so much, good to see you, appreciate it.

BAER: Thank you. Last ambassador to Syria from 2011 to 2014 Robert Ford was the last American diplomat to serve at the U.S. embassy in Damascus.

He was awarded the secretary service award, the State Department's highest decoration for his work in the region.

Ambassador Ford is now senior fellow at the Middle Institute. I spoke with him earlier from Berlin. Ambassador Ford thanks for being on the program.

It was just three months ago the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley said, the quote was "In no way do we see peace in that area with Assad at

the head of the Syrian government."

But is this the final acceptance his decision that anti-Assad Syrian rebels are incapable of defeating the regime?

AMBASSADER FORD: It has been evident for a long time that Syrian rebels who have been fighting the Assad government with American support has not

been making progress, have been losing ground impact and that Assad has largely won the Syrian civil war and that he will remain in power.

HOLMES: Mr. Putin has long wanted the U.S. to do -- well precisely this and to be fair to Donald Trump he campaign on doing this. He campaigned on

saying that he would back away from this. But is Mr. Putin the winner here?

FORD: Well I think the biggest winner is Bersha Watha in the Syrian government itself as an allied to Bersha Watha the Russian government is

also a winner. But so is the Iranian government but I think it's also just an acceptance of a reality that the Syrian rebels backed by the United

States were not making progress on the ground.

We can talk about why but that's the grim reality.

HOLMES: Has the United States given up on Syria in terms of having influence? Have they basically given that influence strategically in view

of politically to Russia to Iranian?

FORD: Well I think the American focus for a long time dating back to 2014 and about our Obama administration the focus has been fighting the Islamic

state not fighting the Bashar al-Assad and his government and so the American focus will continue against the

Islamic state.

Think administration officials have been very clear about that, but as far as the question --the broader question of the Syrian civil war and the

future of the Bashar al-Assad government they are leading that to something much longer term and they are basically seeding to Russia and Iran the main

influence for the question of the future Syrian government.

HOLMES: I'm curious of your thought on this many people are already saying that failure or otherwise of the arming it's self aside, this also reflects

in many in ways Donald Trumps interest in find way to work with Russia which say the anti-Assad program as an insult on it's own name.

FORD: Candidate Donald Trump made clear during the 2016 campaign that he wasn't interested in getting involved in other countries civil wars and he

certainly wasn't interested in nation building.

And Syria has a civil war and it's largely a broken state in need of nation building and so there's a consistency here that dates back to the

Republican campaign.

HOLMES: What's the danger, though, geopolitically of ceding that influence to Russia and Iran?

FORD: Well, the biggest danger is that Bashar al-Assad's government, its oppressive, brutality, its corruption feeds jihadi recruitment. And so,

while be may say we're not going to get involved in the Syrian civil war, the Bashar al -Assad government itself helps groups like the Islamic state

and Al-Qaeda, which are present in Syria, get new recruits, get new fighters.

And so we would like to finish the war against the Islamic state and end our military operations there, but instead we're in a sort of forever war

because the Bashar al-Assad government helps the recruitment of the extremists that we are fighting.

HOLMES: As we often say, this is a complicated web when it comes to players in this war, but when it comes to Russia and Iran in particular,

how do you see that partnership and how do you see it going forward?

FORD: So the Iranians have big interests in Syria. They have had good relations with the Bashar al-Assad government from the beginning. They

used Syria as a strategic depth for its Lebanese ally Hezbollah which is fighting against Israel. They ship arms into this Lebanese Hezbollah from

Syria. Iran has huge interests there.

The cease-fire deal in southwestern Syria, the new one that president trump talked about, really has nothing in it for Iran. In fact, it actually says

that Iranian forces and Hezbollah forces are to stay away from that border, which means they'll have to withdraw back in a few places. whether or not

the Iranians and Hezbollah will respect that, we have to see, and whether Russia will take action against Iran and Hezbollah, if Iran and Hezbollah

violate the terms of that southwest Syria's cease-fire, we'll also have to see. Russia has never done that.

The trump administration is hoping to divide Russia from Iran. It is hoping that Russia and Iran are competing for influence in Damascus and

that the Americans can drive a wedge between Russia and Iran in that Russian Iranian competion in Damascus. My sense is that you can divide

them a little bit, but essentially, Russia and Iran are on the same side in the Syrian civil war and they will not completely split. That is too

difficult.

HOLMES: I'm curious about what your thoughts are on a personal level, though. You were heavily involved in this and supported the arming of the

so-called, you know, moderate forces such as they are at the moment. You sound a bit resigned, if I can say that. How do you feel about this?

FORD: I think what is sad in Syria is that you had a population that took to the streets in 2011, in a very peaceful way. I saw the peaceful

protests with my own eyes. My diplomatic team saw them. And people were demanding respect of their basic human rights. Freedom of expression,

freedom to assemble peacefully and they have been crushed. They have been crushed.

The people that we wanted to help in 2012, 2013, have largely been marginalized, and it's really just a tragedy that Bashar al-Assad and his

government will continue. There will be no accountability for the war crimes that he and his government have committed, whether it be chemical

weapons or bombing hospitals or bombing schools or -- I think Syria is just a tragedy.

HOLMES: Can it be put back together again? A lot of people think that, you know, Syria as a contiguous state under central government control

could be done. What are your thoughts?

FORD: I think it will be very hard for the central government in Damascus to retake the entire country in the next year or two even if the CIA stops

giving weapons to a couple of the fighting factions and putting the broken Syrian state back together across its entire territory, will take a long

time. And it will involve difficult negotiations.

HOLMES: difficult days ahead indeed. Ambassador Robert ford, a pleasure to have you on the program. Thank you so much.

FORD: Thank you, it was my pleasure.

HOLMES: Well, Donald trump vowed to put America first with the country's foreign policy, but when it comes to the risk of famine around the world,

the U.S. president striking a different tone.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HOLMES: We'll hear from the head of the World Food Program and former Republican Governor of South Carolina, David Beasley when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

HOLMES: Welcome back to the program. Today marks six vomultuous (ph) months in office for President Trump. Beyond the headlines, some

traditional American causes do carry on for now.

Among them, fighting hunger, to which President Trump has now pledged $639 million. It's more important now than ever. Twenty million people across

four countries are at dire risk of famine.

The U.N. calls it the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II. And the man leading the charge against it is David Beasley, head of the World

Food Program and former Republican Governor of South Carolina.

He was the President's ear after supporting Mr. Trump during the campaign. The President nominated him to lead the U.N. agency this spring. As David

Beasley told Christiane Amanpour, fighting famine is in America's interest.

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

AMANPOUR: David Beasley, welcome to the program. We have some pretty horrendous statistics that there could be about 20 million people around

the world facing famine. Is that how you see it, and what does it actually mean in lives?

BEASLEY: Oh, it's terrible. Twenty million people just in four countries alone, South Sudan, Somalia, northeast Nigeria, and Yemen. That doesn't

even get into the question of Syria and Iraq and the other areas of conflict around the world.

Eighty percent of our expenditure countries right now are conflict-based, man-made. Ten out of 13 of our countries where we spend the most money,

man-made conflicts.

AMANPOUR: And your job is made more difficult because of A (ph) the proliferating number of these conflicts and crisis, but is it funding? Is

it your administration? Or is it access?

BEASLEY: The first problem is conflict. If we can resolve the conflicts, we'd have the funding we'd need. But without the conflict being resolved

in countries as (ph) we just mentioned is going up.

Last year we fed about 80 - give or take million people. This year, the need's (ph) up to 108 million people, it's a 35 percent increase. Once we

get the funding -- and this is what I tell the countries of major donor nations, if you're not going to stop the wars, then provide us the funds

that we need and then help us provide the access we need in these areas of conflict, so starving children don't suffer.

AMANPOUR: So the majorest (ph) of donors is, of course, the United States the.

BEASLEY: Oh, the United States.

AMANPOUR: . biggest country in the world.

BEASLEY: Yes.

AMANPOUR: And President Trump, the U.S. Administration pledge an additional $639 million to fight the famine in those four.

BEASLEY: Yes.

AMANPOUR: .countries that you just talked about, which will bring it somewhere to about 1.8 billion. But - I mean that's the good news, but I

wonder what you can say about the Administration's desire to "Reduce or end direct funding for international programs and organizations whose missions

do not substantially advance U.S. foreign policy interest. The budget also renews attention on the appropriate U.S. share of international spending of

the United Nations, of the World Bank, and for many other global issues where the United States currently pays more than its fair share."

So this is the Trumpian logic, we shouldn't be paying more; everybody's taking us for granted and taking us for a ride. Do you buy that or is

there something wrong with that picture?

BEASLEY: I have literally zero doubt. The United States will stand strong and continue to provide the leadership on humanitarian aid, because it's in

the United State's interest.

As I've said some - to many of my friends in the United States Senate, in the United States House, if you want to spend another half a trillion

dollars on military operations, cut the World Food Program because we're the first line of offense and defense against extremism.

The first evidence that the United States was not backing down was - were the United States House and the Senate passing $990 million Famine Relief

Act. Democrats, republicans coming together in an atmosphere of conflict in Washington D.C., I think they were looking for something to come around.

The second thing was when President Trump - for him to make that announcement was a major breakthrough, for him to recognize this is

important, it's in the world's interest - in the best interest of the world and for U.S. interest as well. I've always said "Pay less attention to

what he says and more to what he does."

AMANPOUR: You were a supporter of Donald Trump during the campaign; presumably you are a supporter of him as President. How do you best lobby

him? You've been lobbying Ivanka Trump, a lot of people have, but it hasn't made any different on climate for instance.

BEASLEY: Well I've been working very hard in all areas. I mean, it's (ph) a big world, we have many donors. I mean, the top five donors are for

example United States - which is the big one, $2 billion give or take, Germany second, the E.U. third, the U.K. fourth, Canada fifth, then the

Norwegian and Arctic states, Japan.

So we're working on all of them but when you have a $2 billion donor, the United States obviously has an impact on anything that it does. So we've

been working all of or friendships in the House, the Senate, both sides of the aisle, and the White House.

All of our friends that I've known over the years that have access of the President's ear, explaining to them why this is important, that America

should lead and President Trump should lead as well.

The biggest difficulty you face in the first six months of an administration though is so much information, so many things coming. You

have to press extra hard, use every avenue you can, unturn every stone you can to make sure that the President ear receives the information he needs

to make the right decision.

AMANPOUR: Do you think this crisis is actually getting through to the right people? I mean.

BEASLEY: Well the $639 million announcement was a major breakthrough. It lets the world know that President Trump is now - is now a leader in this

issue. I think that's a huge deal.

AMANPOUR: How worried are you that the four countries we've been talking about actually will sink into official famine?

BEASLEY: Well, it's a very serious problem. I've been saying over the past three weeks that we have 600,000 children that literally will die over

the next three to four months if we don't receive immediate funding.

So when the President stepped forward with this $639 million, it's saving hundreds of thousands of lives. But, that's a short gap filler. We still

need help. And so I'm calling upon the other countries to step up even more, because lives are at stake, and these are innocent lives.

And if you're not willing to step up with the funds, then apply the pressure necessary to end the wars. In other countries that are not

giving, ought to be giving. The Saudis (ph), the Gulf States.

AMANPOUR: Well President Trump is very fond of them.

BEASLEY: I think.

AMANPOUR: Maybe he can put some pressure on them.

BEASLEY: Well I sure am hoping so.

AMANPOUR: Are you going to tell him to?

BEASLEY: I've already done that.

AMANPOUR: David Beasley, head of The World Food Program, thanks for joining us.

BEASLEY: Thank you very much.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

HOLMES: Well from famine and a lack of resources, to a gluttony of discarded plastic. After the break, we imagine a world overflowing with

plastic trash.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

HOLMES: Welcome back and finally tonight imagine a world where mankind replaces planet earth with a plastic planet. Warnings about plastic waste

are nothing new but for the first time scientists have actually calculated the total amount ever made and it is staggering, 8.3 billion tons of

plastic.

Most of it stuffed in landfills or clogging the natural environment. Yet mass production of plastic is a relatively new phenomenon. It dates back

to just 1950. And, consider this, by 2050 it is predicted there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. In turn birds are mistaking plastic

for fish and fish are consuming chemicals and toxins from plastic.

This means decaying plastic is now a part of our food chain and water cycle with unclear consequences for our own bodies. "You can't manage what you

don't measure", says the scientist who led this project. Well, we now have a measurement and almighty challenge ahead.

That's it for our program tonight. Remember you can listen to our podcast. You can see us online at amanpour.com, follow us on Facebook and at

Twitter. I'm at home CNN. Thanks for watching everyone and goodbye from the CNN Center.

END