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The West weighs up strikes on Syria; Macron claims "proof" Syria used chemical weapons. Aired 2-2:30p ET
Aired April 12, 2018 - 14:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST, AMANPOUR: Tonight, the waiting game. Britain, the United States and France weigh up their response to Syria
after that deadly chemical weapons attack prompts threats of impending military action. So, what moves should the West make. I'm joined by the
former head of British intelligence, MI6, John Sawers and the retired French general and former NATO commander Jean-Paul Palomeros.
Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the program. I'm Christiane Amanpour in London.
Right now, America and its allies are preparing for a military response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Here's President Trump earlier
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We're looking very, very seriously, very closely at that whole situation and we'll see what happens,
folks. We're going to see what happens. But now we have to make some further decisions. So, they'll made fairly soon.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AMANPOUR: So, the Defense Secretary James Mattis says the go has not yet been given. He says, though, that chemical warfare must be stopped for the
sake of our civilization.
As the British prime minister held a special cabinet meeting on how to respond to Assad's use of poison gas, the French President Emmanuel Macron
laid out the case for intervention in an interview today.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
EMMANUEL MACRON, FRENCH PRESIDENT (through translator): could We have proved that chemical weapons were used last week and it is chlorine and
that they were used by the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
We cannot let today the regimes that particularly do worse (ph) that believe they can violate international law do that.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AMANPOUR: So, while the French president is categoric, Russia's military chief Valery Gerasimov says that he's prepared to hit back if Russian
servicemen are killed.
And pressure is mounting on Moscow as the Organization for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons confirms that it was the nerve agent Novichok that
poisoned the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter here in England last month.
Meantime, a team of OPCW investigators is on its way to Syria and will start investigating the Douma incident this Saturday.
Now, John Sawers, the former head of Britain's intelligence service, MI6, and a former ambassador to the UN joined me to discuss strategy and
Sir John Sawers, welcome to the program.
JOHN SAWERS, FORMER CHIEF OF MI6: Thank you, Christiane.
AMANPOUR: So, with all the telegraphing, it's obvious that there is going to be some kind of strike, some kind of response, right? It's not if, it's
SAWERS: I certainly think there should a strike. What we've seen is repeated use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime, which is contrary to
all the international and legal norms, of treaties that all the major powers have signed up to and maintain the taboo against chemical weapons.
That's all rather frayed afraid over the last five years or so during the Syrian conflict. We've even seen a chemical agent used on the streets of
an English city.
And I think it's really important that the Western powers act to reestablish the norm that no one, but no one, uses chemical weapons.
AMANPOUR: Do you think that's a case that parliaments and people will accept? The French president says they have truth. Now, you just
mentioned the Novichok weapons against Skripal here and the head of GCHQ came out with a very forceful statement about it. And OPCW, the
international anti-chemical weapon group, have said that they verify the UK report on what killed, or rather what poisoned the Skripals.
So, to your point, is a case being made that this is now the time to finally draw a redline under the use of chemical weapons?
SAWERS: The red line was drawn in 1925 after the First World War. And our grandfathers and great-grandfathers who died in the First Word War, one
consolation they might've taken away from the ghastliness of that conflict was that chemical weapons would never be used again.
And in 1997, we all signed up to the chemical weapons convention, which required the dismantling all chemical weapon stocks. This was a big step
forward in humanity.
And now what's happened is because of the conflict in Syria, and we've seen it used in the Iraq-Iran War back in the 1980s as well, people seem to
think that using chemical weapons is sort of OK, if you can get away with it. So, I think it is important we take action to restore that norm.
[14:05:01] Now, had we taken action in 2013, then perhaps we wouldn't have needed to take action again in 2018. And then, maybe we need to do more
now than we would have had to do back in 2013.
But this is - if we do nothing, we just accept that, oh, we don't approve of chemical weapons, but we're not going to do anything about it when
they're used, then it will become a more normal thing to happen in the world and we don't want that.
AMANPOUR: If you were still at MI6 or if you were still the UN ambassador to the UK, do you believe that you'd be able to convince the prime minister
to take action without going to parliament?
SAWERS: Well, I'm not involved in that at this time. When I was chief of MI6, David Cameron was prime minister and we did actually convince him, but
he made the mistake of taking this to parliament.
AMANPOUR: You say "made the mistake." That's really interesting.
SAWERS: Well, parliament's role is to debate and decide on legislation and to hold the government to account. Parliament is not there to take
executive decisions on behalf of the government. And this is an executive decision to uphold an international norm.
I don't think this is an issue for parliament. They should debate it after the fact and they can hold the government to account for the execution.
AMANPOUR: So, prime minister doesn't need permission.
AMANPOUR: And what about in the US Congress because, obviously, there's some - some people in Congress that the president should not rely on what
they're now calling outdated and expired resolutions and authorizations, that he too should go to Congress.
SAWERS: We're not trying to - we're not going to war in Syria. We're not trying to alter the outcome of the Syrian civil war. We had a chance to do
that back in 2012 actually when we could've established safe zones in Syria, we could have involved Western forces against the Assad regime. We
opted not to do that.
We then decided not even to uphold the redline on chemical weapons. That created a space for the Russians and the Iranians to settle Syria's civil
war on their terms. And that's basically resolved now.
We've had the success. And this is an area where the Obama and Trump administrations have given a good lead, is the destruction of Islamic
State, ISIS, on the ground in Syria and Iraq. That's an important step forward.
But the reality is the Syrian regime have prevailed in this conflict. This issue now is not about the Syrian civil war. This issue is about use of
chemical weapons and we need to focus on that.
We need to be clear in the public justification of action that this is what it's about. And any future use of chemical weapons will face a similar
AMANPOUR: So, what is the strategy? And at the same time, how do you convince the Russians that this is a strategy that they too need to be
SAWERS: I think the Russians, I'll mention, I think is quite important because there have been a series of Russian actions against which the West
has pushed back. And we talked about the Skripal case. And I think the Russians were surprised that it wasn't just Britain that responded, but
there were 26 countries as well as the NATO headquarters that had expelled Russian intelligence officers and the United States has taken action in
response to Russian meddling in the US elections with a whole series of sanctions against oligarchs and Russian companies. And we're announcing
this action is Syria.
Now, this isn't part of a concerted plot against Russia, but the Russians might see it that way. So, one thing which is really important here is
clarity of communication to the Russians about what this is about.
We had that during the Cold War. It's decayed a bit frankly over the last 20 years. And I think the crisis in Ukraine in 2014 was in part a
consequence of poor quality communications between, above all, Washington and Moscow and between the West and Moscow generally.
AMANPOUR: But what about the fear that Russia has basically vetoed what the US and its allies want to do just in the last few days regarding Syria?
What about the fear that they also could be targeted?
I mean, we see the map. Russian bases or Syrian bases or Iranian bases, it's all interlinked.
SAWERS: Well, I think they are. I think when the Trump administration took some action a year ago, slightly modest action, they notified the
Russians in advance that there was going to be strikes and the Russians should keep out of the way.
I think Russians and Americans have gone to great lengths to avoid a direct confrontation. It was actually one or two months ago near the City of Deir
ez-Zor where Russian mercenaries and so-called (INAUDIBLE) Wagner Battalion were attacked by US forces. And I don't think either side realized how
many Russians were involved and how many Russians might have been killed in that.
Neither side wants a repeat of that. But, equally, making a few holes in a runway is not going to be enough to deter the Syrians from doing this
again. It didn't have that impact last time because the Syrians have used chemical weapons once more.
So, it's going to have to be a notch up from that.
AMANPOUR: So, what is a notch up?
SAWERS: Well, I think they're probably going to have to target some regime installations, some -
[14:10:05] AMANPOUR: Such as?
SAWERS: Well, I'm not going to speculate on that. I think the trouble with this delay is that the Syrians, like the Iraqis before them in the
Saddam era, when there's likelihood of military strikes, they will jam the likely targets full of women and children and then make it look like a
Now, the likely targets identified by the Pentagon and the British Ministry of Defense and the French counterparts, they will be scrutinized very
carefully against those sorts of practices.
And I think it is a problem about this sort of delay. You need to pull together the evidence. You need to be confident that this is a Syrian
regime use of chemical weapons.
AMANPOUR: Which the French president, yes, has said that.
SAWERS: Exactly. And I think Mrs. May and President Trump will also be coming to that conclusion. But if you allow it just be strung out for too
long, and that will be what the Russians and Syrians are trying to do, then the measured response loses its impact.
AMANPOUR: So, from your knowledge of the relationship between Russia, the US, et cetera, what do you think is going to be the end result of any
action that is taken right now?
I mean, there are many critics who say that just a bunch of feel-good military strikes is simply going to continue emboldening Assad, that he's
seen the West's response before and he's basically laughing at it.
SAWERS: Well, that's why you need to take steps which are sufficient to cause him some pain. As I say, we're not trying to affect, at this stage,
the outcome of the Syrian civil war. Too late for that basically.
But he didn't need to use these chemical weapons. He was actually, as I understand it, involved in a negotiation with the opposition groups in
Douma, which ran into some difficulty. And in order to finally tip the balance in his direction, he used these chemical weapons completely
It's a reckless use of any sort of weaponry at that stage, above all chemical weapons and against civilian targets as well as the opposition
fighters. You just can't allow that to go unanswered.
Now, obviously, you don't want to escalate this, so it becomes a conflict between United States and Russia. Russia, of course, will stand by their
ally. They will condemn Western military action and they will try to confuse the picture as much as possible. That's standard Russian modus
But the West has certain values in this. We need to stick together. The important thing with an assertive Russia is that we stand up to it, we have
the capability to defend ourselves both on the ground militarily and in the cyber realm as well, so that we can deal with Russian cyberattacks.
But we also need very clear communications with the Russians, which I think we can improve on.
AMANPOUR: Really interesting. Sir John Sawers, thank you very much indeed.
SAWERS: Christiane, thank you.
AMANPOUR: Now, France is playing a leading role on the Syria response and I'm joined now in Paris by the retired general Jean-Paul Palomeros. He's a
retired - a former NATO commander and a former chief of staff for the French Air Force.
General, welcome to the program.
JEAN-PAUL PALOMEROS, FORMER NATO COMMANDER: It's a pleasure to be with you.
AMANPOUR: I wonder what you make of your president categorically stating today, in an interview, that they have proof, they are convinced that the
Assad regime used chemical weapons of some sort on Douma.
PALOMEROS: He had internal policy interview by lunch and he started by that. That was a critical point in his interview. And it was very clear.
And he cannot say that lightly. In the past, you have seen that France has been very serious about proving the case. We'll have to remember what
happened in 2003. So, I'm very, very confident that he has the proofs in his hands.
AMANPOUR: How do you think he got it? And I'm really interested by what you're saying because, obviously, France did not believe the world had
proof for an invasion of Iraq and, therefore, opposed it.
How do you think the French have the proof because the OPCW is not yet on the ground?
PALOMEROS: Well, there are many people on the ground, as you know. And this is the in-depth work which is made by our intelligence service, not
today, but on the long-term, and alongside with their colleagues, with the allies.
[14:15:01] So, this is a joint effort which brings such proofs in that case.
AMANPOUR: General, you are a military man. You just heard Britain's former head of intelligence, MI6, talk about what needs to happen now. It
can't be, as he said, just a couple of holes made in a runway. What do you think needs to happen to send a clear deterrent message?
PALOMEROS: First and foremost, I'm very pleased to see that the international community as a rule, represented by three members of the
Security Council, is prepared to do something.
And when I speak about the international community, I speak about those countries which are willing to comply and to apply the rules that they have
set themselves, the 192 countries which signed the convention on (INAUDIBLE) destruction on chemical weapons.
So, this is true that we need both a diplomatic message and a military message put together. Very coherent, very cohesive to make sure that it is
not only, as you say, those strikes which will not have a military effect because the war is more or less over, there will be a lot of population
that will still die, but we know what will be the outcome of the war unfortunately.
AMANPOUR: So, what do you think - give me a little bit more of an idea of what more looks like. And you heard what John Sawers said, the longer
there is a delay, he seemed to imply the less effective this military action could be because the more time the Russians, the Syrians and
everybody have to move their stuff around.
PALOMEROS: Well, in our term, we call that the targeting, as you know. And I'm sure that there's been a lot of time spent in this targeting
process jointly, with a lot of exchanges between the allied.
But President Macron recently, two days ago, when he had a press conference with Sheikh Mohammed bin Salman said that what would be striken will be the
chemical capacities, which means a lot. That could be chemical stockpiles, why not depot, training center or research center. There are some big
targets here. Very valuable.
But we can expect that the Syrians, they are, obviously, warned of all of that and they do whatever they want to trouble the game, if I may say so.
AMANPOUR: And what do you think the danger of a Russian response is? Can you hear me, OK?
PALOMEROS: Well, that would be strange. Yes, that's fine. That will be strange that a Soviet - a Russian soldier will be there in a chemical
research center or in the chemical depot. So, what will they do there?
So, I think the Russians have to make their mind about how they fit into the international community because now that it is really proven by NGOs,
by official organizations, by all intelligence agencies, they have really to make their mind not to go too far.
We have been put on the - I would say on to defensive by Syrians too long. Since 2017, they pulled - in 2013, they declared that they get rid of all
their chemical weapons and they applied to the chemical convention in 2014.
And four years later, what they do? They use extra chemical weapons and they use that massively. That's untolerable.
AMANPOUR: That's right. And Russia, as you say, it was meant to guarantee the removal of Syria's chemical weapons. Can I ask you, as a former chief
of the air force, what are the risks for planes going over into that air space? Do the forces on the ground, whether Syrian or Russian or Iranian,
have the anti-aircraft capability to shoot down allied planes?
PALOMEROS: They have very advanced mainly Russian anti-aircraft capability. S-400, for instance, which are really performance systems.
But I would say the good news that, through the years, we have developed a long-range cruise missiles that we can use, whether by air or from naval
So, with the allied altogether, we have diverse capabilities which are able to - I would say to reduce the risk. There will still be some risk,
obviously, but to reduce the risk for our crews.
[14:20:11] AMANPOUR: And, finally, do you believe France is in the lead militarily or how do you think the forces will be divided up?
PALOMEROS: We are very used, and certainly, NATO to work together. So, depending on the mission and the targets, there will be a division of
But I'm pretty sure that there will be a strong coordination which is certainly being put forward, put together now by the staff.
And when it starts, as we did in other places in Libya or in Iraq, it will work perfectly because they are trained to do that. We do that on a
permanent basis, and so I'm very confident that we will achieve, but it will be decided by our political masters.
AMANPOUR: And, of course, we have to sort of remind everybody that, for several years, you've all been in a coalition against ISIS, a coalition in
But can I finally ask you, you talked about your political masters. Obviously, military is not the only tool here. Do you believe that your
political masters have a political strategy that can followup with any military response?
PALOMEROS: Well, I think there has been some great diplomatic efforts to put the international community together. So, I'm sure that that there
will be a follow-on diplomatic effort and as well, I would say, communication. Hopefully, communication efforts to the people, to the
citizen, to everybody, to explain what we are doing.
AMANPOUR: All right.
PALOMEROS: Absolutely crucial that the people understand what is at stake. This is the future of stability, of security. This is the enforcement of
international rules. This is what it is so crucial to do that now.
AMANPOUR: General Palomeros, thank you so much for giving us your perspective from Paris tonight.
Now, as the coalition makes its case for action, on Capitol Hill, hearings were underway to fill a vital foreign policy position. The former CIA
Director Mike Pompeo hoping to be confirmed as the next US secretary of state.
He took a jab at Rex Tillerson's tenure. And he pledged to do better for State Department staffers and diplomats who tell them they feel
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MIKE POMPEO, US SECRETARY OF STATE NOMINEE: They've also shared how demoralizing it is to have so many vacancies and, frankly, many of them
said not to feel relevant.
I'll do my part to end those vacancies. I'll need your help. And I will work every day to provide dedicated leadership and convey my faith in their
work, their professionalism, just as I have done with the workforce at the Central Intelligence Agency.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AMANPOUR: Now, earlier this week, the former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told me that revitalizing America's diplomatic tool box
is vital especially right now.
MADELEINE ALBRIGHT, FORMER US SECRETARY OF STATE: I think he has a very big job as far as the State Department is concerned because it really, in
so many ways, has been undermined and weakened by, first of all, the cuts that President Trump proposed and that Secretary Tillerson supported and
then the fact that so many of the diplomats actually have left, which I think is very sad because they were accused of not being loyal.
The diplomats, the foreign service officers and the civil servants are dedicated, patriotic Americans and they know what they're supposed to be
doing to represent America.
So, I think the main thing that Mr. Pompeo has to do is to really appreciate the people that work there and do everything that he can to make
sure that they have the resources for their job and learn a little bit about the State Department before he begins to think that he has to move
So, I do think he has a big job. I look forward to listening and finding out what he says in his hearings.
AMANPOUR: The Trump administration believes that, in many ways, it's all a question of money, of getting the best deal. In other words, the best
bargain across departments with allies, as you've seen.
But also that, in this age of - I don't know - email and social media, maybe you don't need so many diplomats, maybe you don't need so many
ambassadors. What do you think the State Department diplomats, what is their real, I don't want to say use, but their importance today?
ALBRIGHT: Well, I think it is very similar to what their importance has always been. They are the eyes and ears and mouth of the president of the
United States or the head of any country.
[14:25:00] They are there in order to explain a lot about the country that they're representing and to learn about the country where they are
stationed. I teach a course on national security toolbox and diplomacy is the major tool of international relations.
It is the language and the means by which countries communicate with each other. So, I do think that they're very important.
The thing that has changed quite a lot, however, are the means of communication. I do think that technology and information has changed a
lot about diplomacy, but not the role of the diplomats in terms of carrying on relationships with the country where they are stationed or
multilaterally in organizations, explaining and working out solutions.
AMANPOUR: And you probably know that there are quite a lot of groups asking Congress to look very, very carefully at Pompeo's record and,
indeed, John Bolton as well, although he's not up for confirmation.
But there are many who are complaining that Mike Pompeo has been on the record with anti-Islamic comments and he's been affiliated with some anti-
Islamic groups in the United States. How concerned are you about that?
ALBRIGHT: Well, I am concerned about that, which is why I want to know more about what he thinks in terms of his hearings. The hearings are going
to be very important. They are the way - and it is written in the Constitution - that Senate does advise and consent on the nomination of
these cabinet members and diplomats.
And so, I take a great interest in the hearings. And I know that the senators are poised to ask a lot of hard questions exactly on the kinds of
things that you've asked. And I want to know what the answers are also.
AMANPOUR: The former United States secretary of state at this important moment.
And that is it from our program tonight. Goodbye from London.