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Russia blames Israel for strikes on Syrian airbase; Trump to make major decisions on Syria. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired April 9, 2018 - 14:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST, AMANPOUR: Tonight, Russia accuses Israel after two warplanes strike an airbase in Syria and denies involvement in

Saturday's deadly chemical weapons attack outside Damascus, saying there's no evidence it even took place. I'm joined by Retired Major General Eitan

Ben Eliyahu, the former commander of the Israeli Air Force and former US Senate Majority Leader and Middle East envoy George Mitchell.

Plus, we have live reaction from Damascus after President Trump warns action over Syria will be decided within the next couple of days.

Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the program. I'm Christiane Amanpour in London.

Amid international condemnation of Bashar al-Assad, President Trump said a major decision is coming on Syria in the next 24 to 48 hours, following a

suspected chemical attack near the capital Damascus on Saturday. It killed dozens of people.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We are studying that situation extremely closely. We are meeting with our military and

everybody else and we'll be making some major decisions over the next 24 to 48 hours.

We are very concerned when a thing like that can happen. This is about humanity. We're talking about humanity. And it can be allowed to happen.

Nothing is off the table. Nothing is off the table.


AMANPOUR: He was speaking during a cabinet meeting at the White House and the president added that whoever bears responsibility for the attack,

whether it's the Syrian government, the Russian president or Iran, is going to pay a price.

They all deny any involvement in the incident, which took place just days after Trump said that he wanted to pull US troops out of Syria.

In this video, which has been broadcast around the world since this weekend, is horrifying and it claims to show the aftermath of the attack,

though CNN can't independently verify the footage which was shot by activists and local doctors.

In it, men, women and children are gasping for air and foaming at the mouth, as emergency responders frantically tried to save their lives, while

many of them lay lifeless on the floor of an underground shelter.

And our senior international correspondent Fred Pleitgen is in Damascus and he joins me now with the latest. Fred, the Syrians are obviously denying

it. The Russians too. What do they expect will be the next moves?

FRED PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think that the Russians and the Syrians, both are going to see what the Americans are

going to do.

But I do think, Christiane, that they're very concerned about some of the things that they've heard from the White House, from President Trump


At the same time, we hear the Russians still saying that they think that all of this is a hoax. They say that they've not detected anything that

would identify chemical weapons having been used there on the outskirts and that despite all those videos that you've just been showing and all of the

things that we've seen in those videos. There's children gasping for air. Those dead bodies laying on the ground.

Now, the Syrian army, for its parts, has come out and said that it had no reason to use chemical weapons. The Syrians do acknowledge that they were

involved in an offensive in that area at the time that this was going on.

But they say that offensive was moving forward so quickly that they would not have needed any sort of chemicals to move it further along even


One of the interesting things and I think one of the most remarkable things, Christiane, is that after this has taken place, the Russians have

essentially taken over that district. The rebels there have been bussed or are being bussed out of the area and the Russians are now in charge of

security there.

So, there's nothing that would prevent the Russians from allowing investigators there onsite. The Russians have said they believe an

investigation is necessary. It seemed as though it's up to them whether or not that can start quickly, Christiane.

AMANPOUR: Fred, thank you. And indeed, the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons wants to conduct that investigation. Fred,

thank you so much.

And early this morning, missiles rained down on a Syrian air base near Homs, 150 km from Douma where that chemical attack happened.

[14:05:01] Iran's Fars News Agency says four Iranians were killed in the strike. Russia and Syria are blaming Israel, though it has neither

confirmed nor denied launching the raid.

But my next guest strongly suspects that it did so. He is the former commander of the Israeli Air Force, retired major general Eitan Ben Eliyahu

and he joins me now from Tel Aviv.

Welcome, general, to the program. Obviously, your government is not in the habit of confirming these missions, but why do you believe and why have you

concluded that it must be Israel?

MAJ. GEN. EITAN BEN ELIYAHU, (RET) FORMER COMMANDER, ISRAEL AIR FORCE: Well, I think this was under question mark until 10 or 12 hours ago, but

now everybody understands that there is no other reasonable alternative, but the Israelis to do that.

We have a combination of two interests. One is in ongoing policy that we are conducting in order to prevent any invasion or any kind of deployment

of the Iranian military into Syria territory.

We have conducted strikes many times in the last two or three years. Every time, it was in order to make it clear that Israel is against any

deployment of Iranian forces in Syria. That's one thing.

The other - and this was a like a window of opportunity for us to do that and this is exactly what we are doing every once in a while. That's one


The other thing is the specific target, T4 airfield, is, as we know, that two months ago, on February 10, they deployed the UAVs, drone into Israel,

which followed by retaliation by the Israeli Air Force against this specific target.

But this time, the attack was spread all over the field, meaning that it was aimed against the Iranian forces, the infrastructure of the airfield

and this specific airfield is used also for airborne platform to takeoff in order to use a chemical - in case they want to use a chemical weapon.

AMANPOUR: General, that's your strategic -

ELIYAHU: If I look at the whole picture -

AMANPOUR: Yes, sorry to interrupt you, but you've given us the strategic vision of Israel. But do you believe there was any notion of responding

for the chemical attack?

ELIYAHU: Well, as I said, this was a combination of responding to the chemical attack. Morally, we must do something. This is our next door.

We also decide our interest in order to prevent the Iranians.

We also have to be clear that we will not allow and we will do anything we can do in order to prevent any use of chemical weapon in the Middle East.

You can imagine what can happen if we let it go.


ELIYAHU: So, as I mentioned, this was - the two reasons were in place this time.

But, also, if I may, I would like to mention the fact that we have done it like 12 hours ago and we're listening to the American president is now

talking about 48 hours that they need - a lead time to make the decision, to deploy the forces. Israel is capable to respond very quickly.

AMANPOUR: Right. You are. And apparently, you believe that they did. But what is the strategy? What do you think should happen? What should

the United States do? And if there is a more expanded military effort, are you concerned that it could stir up, I don't know, a shooting war between

the United States and Russia or whatever in that complicated country now?

ELIYAHU: Well, I would say that we have to be careful. Every notion should be under control. As of now, we are not that close to any clash

between the Russians and Americans.

But I have to say that if the United States will launch a singular attack, one attack, it will over - after 24 hours, they use for casualties and they

use for disasters in Syria for the last six, seven years. It will make nothing.

If they do want to launch an effective strike, it needs to be more than one time or at least to join with the Israelis and support Israeli. We can do

that. We can continue and we do that. But with a very close support from the United States, we can we can launch more and more and more attack and

this will be the change between every once in a while, every two or three months, if you do it only almost on a daily basis.

AMANPOUR: OK. So, let me ask you quickly - very, very quickly, do you believe what many are saying that all the air fields should be taken out?

[14:10:09] ELIYAHU: Well, yes, I do. I certainly do.

AMANPOUR: On that very conclusive note, Major General Ben Eliyahu, the former commander of the Israeli Air Force, thank you for joining us


Now, the US Defense Secretary James Mattis echoed President Trump's remarks today saying that the United States will carefully assess who is

responsible and respond.


JAMES MATTIS, US DEFENSE SECRETARY: Now, the first thing we have to look at is why are chemical weapons still being used at all when Russia was the

framework guarantor of removing all the chemical weapons. And so, working with our allies and partners from NATO to Qatar and elsewhere, we are going

to address this issue.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you rule out taking actions, launching airstrikes against Assad, Mr. Secretary?

MATTIS: I don't rule out anything right now.


AMANPOUR: And you just heard the Israeli major general say that they should take out all the air fields to stop this capability once and for


Now, in this time of heightened tension, I did have the good fortune today to speak to the former regional envoy for the United States and a bona fide


George Mitchell who served as architect for the Good Friday Accord and he was also, of course, the Senate majority leader and he did bring peace to

warring sides in Northern Ireland. He is in Dublin today, celebrating the 20th anniversary of that peace process. And as I said, he also served as

President Barack Obama's envoy to the Middle East.

I asked him about this administration's next steps in Syria as they are currently considering what to do and about lessons to be learned from his

years of building bridges and bringing warring sides together.

Sen. Mitchell, welcome to the program.


AMANPOUR: So, before we get to the Northern Ireland and your key role there, I just want you to focus a little bit on the terrible news of the

day, the chemical attack in Syria and what President Trump has said that there will be a big price to pay. And he singled out Syria, Russia, Iran.

What do you think is the next step?

MITCHELL: Well, I don't know because, just last week, the president announced that we were pulling out of Syria. So, the policy will have to

be completely different from what it was last week.

And I think President Trump is caught in the same bind that President Obama was in, a recognition that the overwhelming majority of American people and

the Congress don't want the United States to get deeply into another conflict in the Middle East given the experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And yet, at the same time, facing the horrific situation where a government in Syria remains in power by bombing its own citizens and by using gas on

its own citizens.

And so, American presidents typically have talked tough and done very little. And that's the bind that the president is in and complicated, as I

said, by the fact that just a few days ago he announced that we were pulling all of our troops out of Syria and going to leave it up to others

to solve the problem, which is obvious that they can't do so.

AMANPOUR: So, senator, let me just drill down on that one issue first. So, do you agree then with Sen. John McCain, who tweeted, "POTUS pledge to

withdraw from Syria has only emboldened Assad, backed by Russia and Iran to commit more war crimes in Douma. POTUS responded after last year's

chemical attack. He should do so again and make Assad pay the price for his brutality."

MITCHELL: Well, the problem is, of course, that the attack last year had virtually no effect. Less than 24 hours after the attack struck an

airfield in Syria, Syrian planes took off from the very same airfield to bomb the very same place that they had attacked the day before.

It was a feel-good moment, but it had no effect whatsoever on the balance of power or in the conflict that's continuing there.

AMANPOUR: Do you believe that Congress would respond to President Trump galvanizing some kind of alliance to face down this wickedness?

MITCHELL: Yes. I think that's what the United States should do. This cannot be an America-led war. The American people don't support that and

we live in a democratic society.

At the same time, there is worldwide revulsion at the Assad regime and at the actions of Russia and Iran in supporting that regime. And it seems to

me that the proper policy all along should have been a much broader, sustained American effort to organize and maintain a worldwide coalition of

forces to deal with the issue under American leadership, but not make it an exclusively American or even a principally American in terms of troops


[14:15:22] AMANPOUR: So, you were leader of the majority, Senate majority leader. If this president, and he has a Republican-controlled Congress,

decided to do that, would Congress back him?

MITCHELL: I hope they would. I don't know if they would do. I can't predict it. It depends, of course, upon what the policy actually is, the

extent to which there is action beyond words and the extent to which we're able to rally allies around the world.

One of the problems President Trump faces is he spends so much time denigrating alliances that it makes it tough when you do need allies, when

you do want to organize a worldwide alliance to get people on board.

I believe they will do so because I think the horrors inflicted by the Assad regime on their own people - think of it, a government dropping bombs

on its own school children, using poison gas against its own citizens including school children - I think that there is worldwide revulsion about


And I think they will respond to a clear strong American plan, not just a single missile attack, not just words, but a sustained effort to see to it

that Assad does not remain in office. And to the extent possible, and I don't underestimate the difficulty or the complexity here, there can be

peace reestablished or at least the absence of violent conflict in Syria.

AMANPOUR: Do you think Russia can be brought into the tent because, right now, the foreign minister of Russia, the president of Russia is basically

warning the United States to keep its hands off, to the extent that they're saying there was no chemicals used.

MITCHELL: I believe that Russia's interest in Syria are longstanding, far deeper than those of the United States. Keep in mind that Russia has had a

large military base in Syria for over a half century. There are thousands of Russian men in Syria, security officials, military officials, others,

married to Syrian women. They have a deeply-embedded interest there.

At the same time, I think it's clear that they are aiding, abetting and propping up a brutal and murderous regime. I don't think they will come

into a coalition that intends to do anything serious about Syria.

I think their purpose in coming into any coalition will be to sabotage its efforts as they have done at the Security Council at the United Nations, to

sabotage any effort to do anything about Syria.

So, my view is that we are better off creating a coalition outside of the countries that now are the principal supporters of the Assad regime.

AMANPOUR: Are you not concerned that the United States and Russia could get into a shooting war in that case?

MITCHELL: Yes, of course. That's a concern. There is no course of action that is free of risk. There is no course of action that can guarantee

success. You can take any possible proposal regarding Syria and think up a dozen objections to acting that way.

And that's, of course, what's happened. The fears of failure, of complications have led to inaction that have resulted in the horrors that

we've seen.

I'm not advocating an American military invasion. I know the American people don't support that. And a policy that is not supported by the

people in our democratic society cannot be sustained.

What I am suggesting is an American-led worldwide effort with countries in the region - Saudi Arabia, others, Turkey - who have an interest there and

trying to organize an effort to end the dramatic displacement of people within Syria and the dramatic outflow of people from Syria that is so much

a burden on the surrounding governments and is causing so much turmoil in Europe as millions of people flee there from the Middle East as well as

from Africa.

AMANPOUR: So, let us go back 20 years then to Northern Ireland. It was the intractable violent conflict of the day. And many people thought

exactly perhaps what they are thinking today that there was no way it could end, that there was nothing to be done, that this was just going to play

its bloody way out, if I might say.

But you guys came in, the Americans. You were the special envoy. Tell us how you did it and what is the result 20 years later?

[14:20:08] MITCHELL: Well, the truth is it wasn't me or President Clinton or any outsider who did it. It was the people and the political leaders of

Northern Ireland.

The people strongly supported the effort to achieve agreement. They were exhausted and fearful after a quarter century of bitter sectarian conflict,

of a great deal of violence, many deaths, many people being permanently maimed and crippled and they wanted to resolve their differences

peacefully, not through violent means.

And so, we provided the vehicle by which they could come together. And we talk about political leaders in our society mostly in a critical way, and

certainly much of that is deserved.

But we don't pay enough attention or tribute to those occasions when political leaders demonstrate courage and vision when they rise to the

occasion and do the right thing, and that's what the political leaders of Northern Ireland did 20 years ago.

Those ordinary men and women who had spent their entire lives in conflict, they are the heroes of the process. And what they brought about was not an

end to all of the problems of Northern Ireland. It's a society like any other. There continue to be many disputes.

What they brought about was an end to violent conflict, an end to the notion that the way you deal with political problems is to fight wars and

they establish the principle that the way you deal with political problems in a democratic society is through democratic and peaceful means.

AMANPOUR: What does that tell you about the need for the US as an honest broker? And I guess, I ask again because in the Middle East, for instance,

there's Syria, but there is also the Israel-Palestine conflict where President Trump has come down, many believe, sort of throwing away the

honest broker had, recognizing Jerusalem as the sole capital of Israel, moving the US embassy. What is the long-term impact of that do you think?

MITCHELL: First, I would say, Christiane, that no two conflicts are the same. Each is unique to the history and culture of the area in which it

occurs. Each requires a specifically unique situation.

The common thread to which you refer is that the United States is the world's dominant power, will be for as far in the future as human beings

can see and the United States has played a critical leadership role in establishing the institutions and patterns of trade and efforts at

governance around the world over the past half century, from which we have benefited enormously.

President Trump takes the view that the United States is always giving in alliances and gets nothing back. I respectfully disagree. I think we have

benefited enormously from the alliances into which we have entered. They serve as force multiplies for us. And that's going to be necessary in the

Middle East as well.

I believe that the United States is indispensable to the resolutions of conflict, even though, ultimately, if you are narrow it to Israel and to

Palestinians, they will have to act on their own.

And I believe they will because circumstances are changing there in a manner favorable to a resolution and because it is so much in the interest

of the two societies.

There is no real alternative to that conflict other than a two-state solution. And the sooner the two societies recognize and accept it, get

into meaningful negotiations with the assistance of the United States, the sooner they'll do what's best for their people.

AMANPOUR: And, I guess, the final question then. Today is the first day on the job of national security adviser of John Bolton, a notorious hawk on

all these issues that we've been talking about as well as on North Korea.

How do you think the Trump administration foreign policy is going to develop under a National Security Adviser John Bolton, a Secretary of State

Mike Pompeo and President Trump, all of whose views seem to coalesce?

MITCHELL: Well, I hope that Mr. Bolton succeeds because I am an American and I want our nation's politicians to succeed, but I think he must reverse

his prior positions, expressing his favor of bombing Iran and his favor of bombing North Korea.

I think it's a reflexive, get-tough-guy policy that puts military action first and scorns diplomacy and private efforts and I think also his policy

of opposition to the US agreement with Iran on nuclear weapons, which, in my judgment, was a very positive step in the region because it deprives

Iran of the enormous influence it would have, increasing its efforts in the region if they possessed a nuclear weapon and this defers that for a very

long period of time and allows the United States to create the kind of international coalition needed in opposition should they decide to violate

the terms of that treaty.

[14:25:32] So, I hope he reverses his policy on bombing Iran. I hope he reverses his policy on bombing North Korea and I hope he reverses his

policy on tearing up the Iran agreement.

AMANPOUR: Sen. George Mitchell, thank you so much. Great to get the benefit of that wisdom.

MITCHELL: Thank you.

AMANPOUR: And as we await President Trump's decision on Syria, that is it for our program tonight. Remember, you can always listen to our podcast

and see us online at and follow me on Facebook and Twitter.

Thanks for watching. And goodnight from London.