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Nikki Haley Gave a Stern Warning to U.N. Members Pro- Independence Parties Win In Catalonia Election; U.S. Condemns Trump's Jerusalem Decision; Disgrace Cardinal Law Receives Vatican Funeral; Children Suffering In Damascus Suburb Under Siege; NORAD Tracking Santa. Aired 3-4a ET

Aired December 22, 2017 - 03:00   ET


[03:00:00] GEORGE HOWELL,CNN ANCHOR: Strong words from the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. The General Assembly votes to condemn the U.S. decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital.

We have a live report ahead from the region.

In Barcelona the fight for Catalan independence get to boost in regional elections. We'll view what the former leader of that movement had to say in Madrid.

Also, in Australia, that nation ending its air campaign against ISIS as Russia declares victory in Syria, but for many in that country the war is far from over.

Live from CNN world headquarters in Atlanta, welcome to our viewers around the world. I'm George Howell.

Around the world, good day to you.

The U.N. General Assembly overwhelmingly condemned the decision by the Trump administration to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. One hundred twenty eight nations voted to denounce the move, only nine countries, including the United States and Israel voted against the nine -- the non-binding resolution.

Before the vote, the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley warned members that voting against the U.S. will have consequences. Listen.


NIKKI HALEY, UNITED STATES AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED NATIONS: The decision does not pre-judge any final status issues, including Jerusalem's boundaries. The decision does not preclude a two-state solution if the parties agree to that.

The decision does nothing to harm peace efforts. Rather, the president's decision reflects the will of the American people, and our right as a nation to choose the location of our embassy.

There is no need to describe it further. Instead, there is a larger point to make. The United States will remember this day in which it was singled for attack in the General Assembly for the very act of exercising our right as a sovereign nation.

We will remember it when we are called upon to, once again, make the world's largest contribution to the United Nations, and we will remember it when so many countries come calling on us, as they so often do, to pay even more and to use our influence for their benefit.

America will put our embassy in Jerusalem. That is what the American people want us to do, and it is the right thing to do. No vote in the United Nations will make any difference on that.

But this vote will make a difference on how Americans look at the U.N. and on how we look at countries who disrespect us in the U.N. And this vote will be remembered.


HOWELL: All right. And Nikki Haley wasn't finished there. She also took the United Nations to task for quote, "hostile to Israel." Listen.


HALEY: To its shame, the United Nations has long been a hostile place for the State of Israel. Both the current and the previous secretary- generals have objected to the U.N.'s disproportionate focus on Israel.

It's a wrong that undermines the credibility of this institution, and that, in turn, is harmful for the entire world.


HOWELL: Let's go live to Jerusalem. CNN's Oren Liebermann following this story. Oren, good to have you with us. This was a nonbinding vote but the U.S. ambassador to the U.S. says that the United States is taking note of those who voted against it. What has been the reaction there?

OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, she went a step further and said or the State Department said that those countries, 65 countries who either voted against, abstained or were absent for the vote will be invited as some sort of reception in January.

As for the threat of cutting or limiting financial aid or taking names it's doesn't seem like that's been taken too seriously, especially when the State Department walked it back and said, well, this vote isn't the only consideration for doing something like that.

So whether it's an empty threat or not, we'll see, but they've already started sort of walking back the very harsh language the U.S. used against countries that voted for this resolution.

You are absolutely right as you pointed out right at the top, this is an overwhelming vote, 128-4 to 9 against. That's why the Palestinians and many other countries in the region including, for example, Iran are celebrating the results of this vote, saying that it brings them forward in a process to recognize fully a Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital.

But at the end of the say, it is a nonbinding resolution. So, it doesn't change President Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. It doesn't the fact on the ground here. It is largely symbolic in that sense, a stinging rebuke of U.S. foreign policy and highlight that the U.S. and Israel, especially on Jerusalem largely stand alone.

[03:05:08] Strangely enough, George, where a situation where Israel is also celebrating this to some extent and that's because of the number of countries who abstained or voted against, 35, a number much higher than they expected.

So you have a strange and rare situation where you have two sides celebrating the results of the exact same vote.

HOWELL: Has been there reaction or any response from the Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu?

LIEBERMANN: The prime minister, and this was to be expected, first he launched a preemptive strike against the vote even before it happened, and then after the vote he, of course, thanked President Donald Trump, something he's done quite a bit in the last days with the Security Council vote and then this General Assembly resolution. Then he put out this statement moments after the vote.


BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER: Israel completely rejects this preposterous resolution. Jerusalem is our capital, always was, always will be. But I do appreciate the fact that a growing number of countries refused to participate in this theater of the absurd.

So I appreciate that, and especially I want to again, express our thanks to President Trump and Ambassador Haley for their stalwart defense of Israel, for their stalwart defense of the truth.


LIEBERMANN: And the Palestinians were just as quick to praise the results of the vote, saying it shows that countries are standing up to what they call the bullying and the extortion of the U.S.

George, at the end of the day, again, it's a nonbinding resolution and the Trump administration seems to say, look, we still have our peace plan that we're working on that perhaps we'll sometime next year.

HOWELL: OK. Two sides seeing this very differently. Oren Liebermann, live for us there in Jerusalem. Thank you so much for the reporting.

A veteran diplomat Nicholas Burns was critical of the Trump administration's approach to the U.S. vote -- U.N. vote, rather. Here's what he had to say.


POLITICAL AFFAIRS: This was a very ill-advised strategy by President Trump and Ambassador Haley because we were isolated on this issue of recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

There was no way that countries were going to take orders from the United States and the type of language that the ambassador used, as well as President Trump was not designed frankly, to gain -- to gain votes and to get people -- the countries to vote for us.

I think it was more political theater for audiences here at home and, therefore, not effective. This is not a good day for diplomacy.


HOWELL: Let's bring in Arash Aramesh, a national security and foreign policy analyst joining us via Skype by this hour from San Francisco. It's good to have you with us.

On what you just heard there, this being called political theater, what are your thoughts?

ARASH ARAMESH, NATIONAL SECURITY AND FOREIGN POLICY ANALYST: Unfortunately, this was a pretty sad day for the U.S. and Israel and the United Nations. President Trump decided to exercise his presidential power to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of the State of Israel, even though since 1995, Congress have recognized Jerusalem, but again, it takes a presidential action to do so according to Supreme Court precedent.

But the issue of Jerusalem becoming or recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel was always a final status issue, meaning all U.S. presidents, all presidents successively from Carter and on, and even before that, didn't recognize Jerusalem because they wanted to say or they wanted to use or sort of leave Jerusalem as the last bargaining chip.

When the two sides, the Palestinians and the Israelis finally reach a peace deal and the issue of east and west Jerusalem are settled, then the United States would go ahead and recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

And as you know, we've been -- we've had sort of a large piece of property in Jerusalem for a U.S. embassy. We're paying a dollar a year as sort of ceremonial rent to the State of Israel, but we've never started construction there. Because, a, we knew that this was a final status issue.

And secondly, it would alienate a lot of our allies and antagonize some of our key allies in the region such as Egypt and Jordan and Saudi Arabia and so on and so forth, whose help, support, intelligence sharing and military muscle we need in the fight against terror.

HOWELL: All right. As far as those allies are concerned, let's talk about the issue of U.S. foreign aid. That was also brought to the fore. America is the largest contributor to the United Nations fund, contributing one-fifth of the U.N. budget. Nikki Haley spoke on that as well. Let's listen. We can talk about it here on the other side.


HALEY: When we make generous contributions to the U.N., we also have a legitimate expectation that our goodwill is recognized and respected.

[03:10:04] When a nation is singled out for attack in this organization, that nation is disrespected. What's more, that nation is asked to pay for the privilege of being disrespected. In the case of the United States, we are asked to pay more than anyone else for that dubious privilege.


HOWELL: All right. As far as contributing to individual countries, I don't know if you can see this but I'll show our viewers and tell you about this. The list of some of the top recipients, including Egypt, that help to spearhead the vote Thursday.

Looking at this -- you see Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, Egypt as I mentioned -- to the president's point, to the threat that's been put out there to cut funding, do they have ground to stand on?

ARAMESH: First and foremost, the rhetoric coming from the White House and also from Ambassador Haley, unfortunately, the language is not one of strength and power. It's one of weakness. You analyze the words and the verbiage they use. It sounds like someone complaining that, hey, I'm spending all this money, but I'm actually getting the short end of the stick here.

This is not typical of U.S. ambassador at the United Nations. Just for the sake of -- you know, for the sake of argument, as an example, think about Stephen Utley (Ph) back at the Cuban missile crisis.

The sort of strength and power language and rhetoric he used to go after the Soviet ambassador and compare that to the sort of position of weakness that the president and his Ambassador, Nikki Haley have sort of places us at the U.N., that's issue number one.

Secondly, except Israel, every other country on that list, Afghanistan, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, Kenya, these are some of the largest recipients of U.S. aid. I highly doubt that the U.S. is going to cut funding to Afghanistan. I highly doubt that the U.S. is going to cut aid to Egypt that is now in a huge fight with Islamist militants in the Sinai Desert.

Same thing with Iraq, same with Jordan. Today, Vice President Pence was in Afghanistan making a new commitment that the U.S. is going to continue the war against the Taliban and the Haqqani Network and radical Jihadis in Afghanistan.

So, it's more empty rhetoric, and unfortunately, the world called President Trump's bluff and that's why many, many countries, even those who dearly rely on U.S. aid, Egypt, Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, and so on and so forth, went ahead and voted against this. On sort of a footnote, but not an unimportant footnote, this issue has given rise to sort of regional players such as Iran -- such as Iran and such as Turkey to once again take advantage of the Palestinian issue. Turkey is yet again trying to exert itself as sort of the Ottoman power and trying to be the leader of hte Muslim world.

We say today that the both the Turkish president, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and also the Turkish foreign minister using some harsh rhetoric talking about don't sell your values to U.S. dollars. Again, trying to position themselves as the leader of the Muslim world. And by that, mind you, Turkey is a NATO ally, yet they are taking these harsh positions.

Now, let's also put this in context. All these countries, India, Russia, Turkey, many European countries that voted against this today.

HOWELL: Right.

ARAMESH: They're not to change their position. While, I definitely have some reservations when they criticize us about human rights issues when the Venezuelans and the Turks, the Iranians, and the Saudis criticized us about human rights violations. Having said that, again, it's not them who have changed this -- the policy on this issue, it's us.

And unfortunately, the president and his foreign policy team have not been a good job selling it, justifying it, and now trying to minimize the damage.

HOWELL: So you're calling -- you're calling it a bluff. You say it's a bluff.

ARAMESH: It is, unfortunately it is, and they called it. And so, speak softly and carry a big stick. This president does not speak softly and his stick is not that is big. And people do call this bluff.

And unfortunately, that has not been the first time.

HOWELL: All right.

ARAMESH: And I don't see the president cutting the aid any time soon.

HOWELL: I want to pose one other question to you. We're short of time. But it's an important question. This is simply about Nikki Haley's claim that the U.S. has an unfair bias against Israel.

Looking at the numbers, the current session of the U.N. General Assembly alone there have been 21 resolutions on Israel, 6 on the rest of the world. So just given those numbers to this claim, do you see this as a valid argument?

[03:14:53] ARAMESH: You know, you can actually look at the numbers, not just this year but the past five or six years. I think there's been more than 86 resolutions or 91 resolutions total at the U.N. Security Council, 70 some of which has condemned Israel. That is a pretty high percentage point focusing on one country, given

that half a million people have been killed in Syria by a brutal seven-year civil war, given that hundreds of thousands of people have been uprooted and thousands killed in a genocide, and in Myanmar the Rohingya, given that there is a daily human rights violations going on in modern-day concentration camps in North Korea, given that human rights is almost nonexistent in Saudi Arabia, and the list goes on and on and on.

There is a valid argument there to be made. I give that -- I give that to Nikki Haley. But again, the way to try to bring the world around to see our perspective and our point of view is not how they handled it.

HOWELL: We are.

ARAMESH: The U.S. is a global and by isolating us we're losing leverage and we're losing power and influence. And it's...


HOWELL: I apologize for interrupting. We're really short for time. Arash Aramesh, we appreciate you joining us though. Thank you so much for your perspective. We have to push the show forward.

Still ahead here, the results are in and Catalonia's latest election just ahead. Why the Spanish central government is less than thrilled with the outcome. Stay with us.


HOWELL: Welcome back to Newsroom. I'm George Howell.

The fight for a united Spain hit a major setback. Voters in Catalonia narrowly backed separatist parties in elections on Thursday. Supporters of the independence movement celebrated after results were announced. You see there.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy had called the regional elections hoping to rein in the country's political crisis.

Former Catalan leaders Carles Puigdemont says the vote sends a strong message to Madrid. The separatist politician watched from Brussels where he has been in self-imposed exile since federal authorities announced they would arrest him for leading this year's referendum to succeed -- secede from Spain.


CARLES PUIGDEMONT, FORMER PRESIDENT OF CATALONIA (through translator): The Spanish state has been defeated. Rajoy and is allies have lost and received a slap in the face from the Catalan people. They have lost the plebiscite through which they wanted to legalize the coup d'etat of the 155, and Catalonia has not helped them to make that possible. Rajoy has sunk in Catalonia.

(END VIDEO CLIP) HOWELL: Our Isa Soares has been covering story from the start. Joining us live in the London bureau, good to have you with us tis hour. Isa, from what you've seen here, the people have spoken. The results are in and critics now pointing to the prime minister's handling of the whole situation. What can you tell us?

ISA SOARES, INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT, CNN: Good morning to you, George. And you know, the votes have come in, but it's important to point out that it seems Catalonia continues to be divided because, although the pro-independence parties they won enough to form a majority, three of them.

[03:20:02] The pro-unity party, Ciudananos really calling for united Spain, they had as a single party had the most votes. In other words, they won the popular vote. But even if they formed alliances, let's say, with the other two pro-unity parties, would not give them enough really for a coalition for a majority in parliament.

So, here you have a picture, continuing picture that we have seen throughout this year of a very much divided Catalonia. But what we have right now is three parties hoping for that coalition, hoping to lead Catalonia. Two of those leaders are really in a pickle, let's say, George, in a very different situation, awkward situation.

Because Carles Puigdemont who we just heard there, he's a former Catalan president, he's in self-imposed exile in Belgium speaking last night, and he was praised by so many people last night, calling President Puigdemont. He didn't really address the question that everyone was asking, which is will you be coming home to Catalonia.

And because if he does, of course, George, he might be arrested. The other leader of the other parties, Oriol Junqueras, and he is on prison on charges of sedition, misuse of public funds, as well as rebellion what relates to that October 1st referendum.

So, you're starting to see a very complex picture that you have two leaders that in a very -- a very awkward situation and a very divided Catalonia. George?

HOWELL: Isa Soares covering the story, live for us in London. Isa, thank you.

Now let's bring in journalist Sara Canals, joining from Barcelona to give some context and perspective on all of this. It's good to have you with us this hour. So, we've seen...


SARA CANALS, JOURNALIST: Thank you. Good morning.

HOWELL: We've seen this before. And you know, a European leader calling the snap election, the results didn't quite go the way they expected. Did this backfire, would you say, on the Spanish prime minister?

CANALS: Well, I think that it definitely backfired him because these results are showing a big defeat for Mariano Rajoy. Actually, he got the worst results for years. He lost -- he went from 11 seats to 3 seats. So, he's not even going to have a representation of his own party in the Catalan parliament.

So, now we're all waiting to see how will he react, how will he actually read these results. We've been seeing Maria Rajoy kind of giving his back to the Catalans who support independence by not being eager to negotiate or to talk about a possibility of a referendum.

We've been seeing Mariano Rajoy doing everything in his hands to stop the October referendum. We've seen government officials in jail. We've seen former Catalan President Carles Puigdemont having to being in Belgium.

The question is also if Carles Puigdemont would come back, will he be immediately be arrested? And will the three pro-independence parties be able to form government? Those are questions right now. And the feeling here is that we have to move on. We have to start a dialogue. We have to kind of move on from this situation.

HOWELL: All right. Let's talk about the numbers. You pointed this out, the popular party of the Prime Minister Rajoy reduced to three seats from 11. The pro-independence parties took 70 of the 135 seats in the regional parliament maintaining their majority.

Given this new landscape, what does it mean for the region? This is a very important region for that economy.

CANALS: That's right.

HOWELL: What does that mean for the region, and what does that mean for the movement for independence?

CANALS: For the pre-independence, Catalan, it is a good news because they have shown the world, Europe and also, of course, the Spanish government that they are still supporting the independent's cause, they are still supporting Puigdemont.

We're talking about the economy, of course, this situation that has been ongoing is creating a lot of instability, so that's why also both pro-independent people and Catalans and unionist Catalans want -- they want this to be over. But it's a very complex situation and it will took a lot of time to manage to solve this.

Because as you have said, rightly said, the Catalans are divided, even if there is a big majority, an absolute majority of pro-independent Catalans in the parliament. There's also a lot of people, 45 percent of people who want to remain in Spain.

So it will be interesting to see what will happen on the upcoming months.

HOWELL: Our Isa Soares just described it as these two leaders in a bit of a pickle. She described it one, a pro-independent leader in jail in Madrid, the other the former president of the region now in self-imposed exile cheering from Brussels as these results came in. [03:25:09] CANALS: Exactly.

HOWELL: Do these leaders have any better ground to stand on to demand, push for demands given the results?

CANALS: Well, I think taking the results into consideration, I think personal opinion over here, I think that the Spanish government should try to consider if that's -- you know, if they should maybe address this issue in a different way, if they should reconsider the cases of these people who are still in jail.

Not only just the leader of the second big pro-independent party. There's also two grassroots leaders who are in jail since more than two months. Also two former Catalan government officials who are still there and who will be spending the Christmas holiday -- the holidays right there.

But I think the Supreme Court is still opening causes and sending summons to leaders, Catalan leaders who are accused of sedition, of rebellion. So it looks like the Spanish government is still working to address these causes, and it looks as if they analyze pro-independents movement as a rebellion.

And I think that this way of addressing the topic is just fueling independents. We've seen also with these results of the election that year by year the independent moment has been growing slightly.

Two years ago, it was a one point million, now it's 2.1 million. So if Spain doesn't do anything to change that situation, there is the possibility that the independents will just fuel the region and the problem will just get worse day by day.

HOWELL: Sara Canals, live for us in Barcelona. Thank you so much for the insight. We'll stay in touch with you.

CANALS: Thanks for having me. Thank you.

HOWELL: In Cuba, that nation's dynasty, the Castro dynasty isn't giving up quite yet. Official say that President Raul Castro is delaying his retirement in the wake of hurricane Irma.

The 86-year-old was to step -- was set to step down, I should say, in February but the storm stalled Cuba's single party election process. State media now report his successor won't be named until April. Mr. Castro took over the presidency from his older brother, Fidel. In 2008, the elder Castro seized power in a 1959 revolution.

Around the world, you are watching Newsroom. Still ahead, the Russia probe has become an increasingly polarized issue in U.S. politics, but new polling from CNN shows at least one interesting consensus.

Plus, haunting image of war by people around the world are sharing photos of themselves covering one eye. Stay with us.

[03:30:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK) HOWELL: Welcome back to our viewers around the world. You are watching CNN newsroom. It is good to have you with us. I'm George Howell with the headlines we are following for you this hour.

The U.S. President Donald Trump decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel was denounced Thursday, in a vote in the United Nations, 128 nations condemned the move, only 9 countries including the U.S. and Israel voted against the nonbinding resolution. 35 nations abstained.

Spain's prime minister was dealt a major political set back after voters in Catalonia narrowly back separatist parties in new elections. The Spanish leader called Thursday's vote hoping to subdue the independence movement. Catalan former president said the vote sends a strong message that Madrid has been defeated.

Pope Francis is under fire for his role in the funeral of disgraced cardinal. The Pope gave a short benediction at Cardinal Bernard Law's funeral on Thursday. The former archbishop of Bostin resigned 15 years ago amid allegations that he covered up for a pedophile priests. Church officials say the pope was simply following protocol.

The U.S. government narrowly avoided a shut down on Thursday night. The senate approved the short term spinning measure that push deadline back now to January 19. That gives congress more time, I should say, but it doesn't fix the larger disagreements that have made the long- term solution difficult, including a replacement for DACA, the immigration program Mr. Trump ended with a six-month delay in September.

The question, do you trust Donald Trump, or the man investigating the election that made him President? CNN's latest polling looks at the reaction the way special counsel Robert Mueller is doing his job. A little less than a third of people responding, 32 percent, approve on how Mr. Trump is handling the investigation in to Russia's attempt to influence the 2016 Presidential election. Mr. Trump has repeatedly denied any collusion with Moscow and his campaign.

As for the special counsel, Robert Mueller, he gets 47 percent approval. Significantly higher than the President. So far, Mueller has brought charges against four people who were once connected to the Trump campaign or the administration. His investigation continues.

Australia says that it will end its air campaign in Iraq and Syria. Iraq declared victory over ISIS earlier this month. Australia defense department says its six super hornet fighter jets will return home in January. They had been in the Middle East since 2014 as part of the U.S. led effort against ISIS. We'll talk more about this now with our senior international correspondent Fred Pleitgen following the story for us in Moscow. Fred, pleasure to have you with us. The news of Australia leaving Syria and Iraq likely to come up in the meeting between the British foreign secretary and his Russian counterpart.

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hi, George. Well, Syria is certainly going things that these two are going to be talking about. But there are also a lot of other issues that they have at hand as well. A lot of them are actually bilateral issues between the United Kingdom and Russia, of course, some of it having to do with what the Brits have been describing as an information war, essentially, being led by the Russians inside Britain. Something that Boris Johnson has been very, very vocal about and says he wants to confront the Russians with that meeting actually just got underway a couple minutes ago. Some of the other very big topics that are going to be discussed in those meetings are going to be the crises in Ukraine, the Crimea conflict of course, as well. The issues around Crimea, so there is a lot for the two leaders to talk about.

Syria however is going to be one of those major ones. Which obviously the operations against ISIS as we've been seeing with e Australians pointing out as sort of coming to an end or at least winding down and now many people are saying what is the future of Syria going to look like. And that is certainly something where these two nations which are of course, both members, permanent members of the U.N. Security council, they are going to be having a lot of weight in the way this moves forward. But it is very significant that the Australians are pulling out of Syria and Iraq are pulling out of that anti-ISIS fight, because they were actually one of the most active nations, aside from the United States and France probably be the most active nation. As you mentioned, those six hornet aircraft, the tanker plane and radar plane as well. It shows how the conflict is winding down and shows how important the political sphere and the meetings like the one we see in Moscow are going to be moving forward.

[03:35:09] HOWELL: Russia certainly has declared victory in the situation there in Syria. Russia also calling for the United States to end its presence in that nation. What more can you tell us about that?

PLEITGEN: It really seems as though right now the sort of intentions that the U.S. and Russia had while they were both still fighting against ISIS, it really seems as though that compact, if you will, seems to be coming to an end. The U.S. says the Russians are intentionally violating a military agreement that these two nations had which has to do de-conflicting in the skies above Syria especially. That essentially means that Russians and U.S.-led planes stay out of each other's way. There have been some incidents in the past couple of days, the past couple of weeks where the U.S. said that increasingly Russian planes are going into areas where the U.S. is supposed to be operating and where the Russians are supposed to tell the U.S. If they are going to fly through those areas. The Russians deny that any of that is going on. We certainly see that there does seem to be more conflict in the skies above Syria than there was before. And then there is some of the statements that we've been hearing from Russians officials like, for instance, one of the Russian's chief negotiators for Syria who is essentially telling the U.S. to leave Syria. Here's what he had to say.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE (TRANSLATOR): The Americans continue to refer to humanitarian issues, that their presence in the north of the country in the Kurds region is necessary to prevent further bloodshed, to prevent the revival of the Islamic state. But these, as we all understand, are only words, and the rationale for its further location at the territory of Syria. We believe that there are no legitimate reasons for their presence there at the moment.


PLEITGEN: So, that certainly seems like it might be a source of conflict of course the U.S. played a pivotal role in ousting ISIS from places like Raqqa. The U.S. had no intention of pulling some of the forces on the ground and of course especially in the skies over Syria of pulling those out. It essential seems as certainly seems as though the fight against ISIS itself seems to be winding down, that these two nations that operated side by side which are by far the most important players in that region, that these two nations seems to be losing that compact that they've had before to stay out of each other's way, George.

HOWELL: Fred Pleitgen live for us in Moscow. Fred, thank you.

In Syria, we just mentioned this, Russia declaring victory. It is pulling out part of its military forces from the country, but that has not meant any relief for one part of the eastern suburbs of Damascus. 400,000 people suffering from contained -- continued, rather, bombardment. The U.N. said the already grim situation there is reaching a critical point.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I hope there will be a cessation of facilities in for eastern Gupta. That will also certainly help us in getting in supplies before hunger grips the whole population and also get wounded and out. In December we haven't reached a single soul. All our attempts have gone away. We haven't gotten permission from the government or from the parties concerned to go to a single area. So far in December. So, we are ending with the worst month. It seems since we start, our work in February of last year.


HOWELL: As is often the case in this war are children are paying the price. CNN's senior international correspondent Nick Payton Walsh reports, but we do warn you the images that you see are disturbing.


NICK PATON WALSH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: On the edge of existence in a war you may have thought was over, besieged by Russian air power and the Syrian regime. With ahead long dash into dust and rubble has become something routine. There are still children mostly forgotten. Yet here, feeling the things they will never forget. This is Charlton in eastern Gupta, Syria, where Moscow has declared victory. Tiny bodies were abandoned. Anonymous, no parents at hand to whisper their names. Some must urgently get out. Charlton lost a chance of a normal life and his mother on December the 3rd. Intensive care, under intensive bombardment. One of the grotesque norms of this war, he is among the 137 children who the U.N. said this week urgently need evacuating from medical treatment.

[03:40:09] Another is Kareem. He lost an eye in another bombardment and his mother, too. His injury took half of his sight, yet drew the attention of international community. The outside world powerless and exhausted by this war. Now reduced to a hashtag and gesture. This at the U.N. Security council is pretty much all they can do.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (TRANSLATOR): We see many respiratory and intestinal problems in children due to lack of hygiene, unclean drinking water and clean air from cooking smoke. We have 50 children with sign of mental illness. We can't offer them anything.


PATON WALSH: Bombs are not the only weapon. Amira is age one, only five kilos in weight. Nor is four, but only 10 kilos. The U.N. in a rare new superlative in this war said child malnutrition here is the worst it's ever been in the war. And they are not starving from terror, or poverty, but from a siege. Food purposely denied the defenseless by the regime. Here, a time of cheer and plenty elsewhere does not even spell even a pause in this war. Nick Payton Walsh, CNN, London.



HOWELL: Welcome back. The Japanese coast guard said almost 100 boats in North Korea have washed up on its shores this year. That is a record number. And the boats are often found with bodies inside. Those of North Korean fishermen and sailors. CNN's Ivan Watson has this report for us.


IVAN WATSON, SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT, CNN: On Japan's northwestern coast, winter is harsh and the sea unforgiving. This wild shoreline is also the scene of a disturbing mystery. North Korean boats, sometimes called ghost ships, keep washing up on these beaches. Look at this, a little fishing boat like this has no business being out in these stormy seas, and the men on board, they paid the ultimate price. The authorities say they found the bodies of four men on this wreck and on a similar fishing boat which both washed up here on the same day. Hours after we filmed here, Japanese authorities found two more bodies buried under this second wooden boat when they tried to drag it of the beach.

The Japanese coast guard detected a record number of close to 100 North Korean ghost hips in 2017. They have also found dozens of bodies aboard these drifting vessels. Their appearance all the more striking when you consider Japan is around a thousand kilometers, more than 600 miles, from North Korea.

[03:45:03] Japan's coast guard accuses North Korea fisherman of poaching in Japanese waters, sparking hundreds of confrontations like this, this year alone. Sometime Japanese authorities find surviving North Korean fishermen on the drifting boats. But in November police accused ten men on this boat of looting a fishing station on a Japan island. They arrested three North Koreans. In a small fishing port along the Olga peninsula, veteran fisherman it is madness to take such small vessels so far to sea.

Only an idiot would fish like this says Akira. The North Korean government must be forcing them. Aboard this ghost ship, we find fishing nets, a radio, and a flashlight in a cupboard. On the day this boat washed up, police also found two bodies nearby.

Locals deal with the dead as best they can. This Zen Buddhist temple prays before the cremated ashes of 15 unidentified North Koreans brought here by the municipality.

They'll be buried without a funeral and not according to the religion he says. I feel so sorry for them.

The sad fact is that for every dead North Korean who washes up here, there are probably many more sailors never make it dried land. Something must be terribly wrong in North Korea to make a fisherman's catch one worth dying for. Ivan Watson, CNN, Atika, Japan.


HOWELL: In South Korea, officials are investigating the nation's deadliest fire in nine years. At least 29 people were killed just as flames ripped through this eight-story building on Thursday. Most of the victims were found in one area, a public bath. Officials believe the fire came from a vehicle parked on the ground floor. The President of the nation Moon Jae-in, visited the site earlier, and the city canceled the Olympic torch relay that was supposed to be passed through today. In London, it's been six since the fire that consumed the Grenfell tower apartment building and many families are still asking how that tragedy could ever happened. CNN Phil Black has this report.


PHIL BLACK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Christmas in London is a truly joyful time, but not here. In this pocket of west London, you'll find some efforts to mark the season, but they're rare. Overwhelm by a monstrous dark presence. The black husk of Grenfell tower looms on the streets where there are no decorations just memoirs to 71 people suddenly taken in one horrific night six months ago. Messages and tribute to people whose family must endure their first Christmas without them. Tabernacle Christian Church is one of the place for the fire survivors come to collect donated clothes. Volunteers here are making a real effort with the decorations. They haven't given up on trying to make people feel some happiness.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Parents will try to make Christmas for the sake of their children, but the elders like me, I don't have Christmas this year of anything.

BLACK: (Inaudible) lost two cousins in the fire Mary and her daughter.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'll miss the gentleness, the warmness.

BLACK: The Johari family Christmas is special, but it's never been about faith. Muslims who fled Afghanistan and lived in Grenfell more than 15 years. Fatima escaped the fire and she is cried every day since. Her husband Ali was overcome by smoke as the family fled.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The ambulance couldn't save him, he passed away. I celebrate my birthday on was born on Christmas.

BLACK: You were born on Christmas?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes. And then my dad was born on the first of January. So, we still celebrate.

BLACK: Ali San Hamad stood outside as the fire consumed the building. Helpless, desperate, knowing his father was somewhere inside, this 33- year-old man is now too traumatized to sleep in the dark. His mother is terrified of tall buildings.

[03:50:02] His young son is scared of birthday candles. There is some solace in community. On the 14th of every month, the day of the fire, crowds walk silently through the street surrounding Grenfell. Biggest yet. The event's quiet power is a demand for justice from ongoing investigations. It is a respectful tribute and an act of mutual support. He is grateful, but it can't fill the absence left by his father.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: One hour, two hour, 24 hours.

BLACK: Grenfell stands above much of the London sky line as a monument to suffering. After six months, most of the people who lost their homes are still in temporary accommodation. Those who lost the people they love are still grieving. Surrounding community remains traumatized by all scene. Through all these people, their 1st Christmas since the fire will be a day of dark memories and precious little hope. Phil Black, CNN, London.


HOWELL: Six months since that terrible fire. We will be right back.


HOWELL: The Vice-President of the United States, Mike Pence, made an announce visit to Afghanistan on Thursday. He visited American troops and had more praise for the president. Donald Trump usually his own biggest fan, but Mike Pence has taken the role of cheerleader and chief to another level as CNN Randi Kaye reports.



MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENTIAL-ELECT OF THE UNITED STATES: He is a man known for a large personality, a colorful style and lots of charisma. And so I guess he was just looking for some balance on the ticket.


RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That was Vice President Mike Pence during the campaign, boosting up his boss while playing the role of self-deprecating side kick. All this months later, Pence is still what some have called a permanent pat on the back.


PENCE: We'll look back and say it was President Donald Trump who led a tremendous renewal of the American spirit.


KAYE: there are a lot of good jobs and way to go, but there is also a lot of shoulder talk.


PENCE: President Trump's got broad shoulders and a big heart.

Donald Trump showed you can have broad shoulders.

Broad shoulders and a big heart.

The broad shouldered leadership of Donald Trump.


KAYE: CNN Dana Bash ask Pence to explain.


DANA BASH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: What do you mean by that?

PENCE: I think Donald Trump really embodies the American spirit. He is strong, he is freedom loving, he is independent minded, he is willing to fight for what he believes in.

BASH: Think it represents masculinity there?

PENCE: Not a bit.


KAYE: Even when he was grilled during a trip to Asia about policy, it always came back to the boss.


PENCE: As the President says, it's time for them to behave. The policy that President Trump has articulated, the President's vision for this is very straightforward.

(END VIDEO CLIP) KAYE: Yesterday it was more of the same (inaudible). Ask to say a

few words at a cabinet meeting, the praise-o-meter turned up to 11.


PENCE: Congratulations and thank you. Thank you for seeing through the course of this year an agenda that truly is restoring this country. You have restored American credibility on the world stage. I am deeply humbled as your Vice-President to be able to be here.


[03:55:13] KAYE: It didn't go over well on twitter. This Mike Pence prayer of thanks to Trump is excruciatingly stomach churningly uncomfortable to watch. Another tweet read, Mike Pence praised Donald Trump 14 times in three minutes during Wednesday's cabinet meeting. That is once every 12.5 seconds. And this. Did the licking of his shoes and kissing the ring on his finger happen before or after the speech? Camera seems to have missed that. Showered with compliments, Donald Trump is feeling the love, and that seems to suit the both of them just fine. Randi Kaye CNN, New York.


HOWELL: All right. Christmas just around the corner and children around the world are anxiously waiting for Santa Claus to climb down the chimney with bag full of gifts. But just to make sure that old Saint Nick and his trusty reindeer crew are on the right track, NORAD has got you covered.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's a decades old tradition. Tracking Santa progress as he delivers presents to boys and girls around the world. For the rest of the year. NORAD monitors aircraft in and around U.S. Air space, but for a few days in December, NORAD's Santa tracker keeps children up to date on his progress.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They are asking where Santa is, when is he going to come to my house. What kind of cookies does he like, should I feed the reindeer, did he like eggnog versus milk, and is he gluten free or lactose intolerant. Tons of fun questions we get every year from all these kids from all around the world.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Last year volunteers at the NORAD call center answered questions from children from nearly every country on the planet. But in addition to the phone app and website there are now some new options this year to help you keep up to date.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We are partnering with Alexa. We also partner with on-star and Cortana. There is tremendous amount of ways you can track Santa besides just the website.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So, the Santa tracker might be a little more high- tech, but will still do the same job, reassuring children everywhere that Santa is on his way and that their presents will be waiting for them on Christmas morning.


HOWELL: Plenty of ways to keep up with Santa. Thank you for being with us. You can keep up with Max Foster next live in London. Thank you.