Return to Transcripts main page
U.S., France and U.K. Strike Syria's Chemical Weapons Program. Aired 5-6a ET
Aired April 14, 2018 - 05:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): This is CNN breaking news.
NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): 5:00 am here on the East Coast. We continue to follow the news the United States, France and the United Kingdom taking action in Syria. Thank you for joining us. I'm Natalie Allen.
GEORGE HOWELL, CNN ANCHOR: I'm George Howell.
The U.S., U.K. and France have launched military strikes against Syria and its chemical weapons program in the skies above Damascus. These images show what many saw. Weapons of some kind streaking across the night sky.
We also know aircraft, missiles and warships were used in the strike. This video was posted online by the French armed forces minister. It shows a cruise missile being launched from a ship in the Mediterranean. Its target was reportedly a chemical weapons site.
ALLEN: And this video purports to show Syrian air defenses trying to counter the strikes. The Syrian military says more than 100 missiles were fired but most were intercepted. That's what they claim. The strikes were ordered after a suspected chemical attack, of course, last week.
And here's how British prime minister Theresa May justified the operation just moments ago.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
THERESA MAY, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER: These strikes are about deterring the barbaric use of chemical weapons in Syria and beyond. And so to achieve this, there must also be a wider diplomatic effort, including the full range of political and economic levers to strengthen the global norms prohibiting the use of chemical weapons which have stood for nearly a century.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ALLEN: The United States has said the operation targeted at least three sites. She confirmed that in her news conference. They include a research center near Damascus, a chemical weapons storage facility west of Homs and a nearby command post and storage facility for chemical weapons.
We continue our coverage now with Nima Elbagir in London, Fred Pleitgen is in Beirut, Ryan Browne is at the Pentagon and Sam Kiley is in Moscow. We'll get to all of you. Nima Elbagir joins us from outside 10 Downing Street.
Nima, we've just heard from the prime minister, expressing her reasons for participating in this strike.
What can you tell us?
NIMA ELBAGIR, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The prime minister outlined not just why they were very vivid, as she described them, humanitarian reasons. She painted this excruciating picture of the aftermath of the attack in Douma.
But she also put forward a case why it was so strongly in Britain's national interest. Out of the three allies and often especially in the local press in the U.K., the special relationship with the U.S. is often seen as a relationship in which Britain tends to fall in line alongside the U.S.' broader strategic and defensive interests.
But in this case it's very clear that in the aftermath of the poisoning of Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, on British soil, that Britain sees this as part and parcel of the same kind of impunity they believe happened in Douma.
And this response against the chemical weapons attack was not just about Douma for Britain. It was about sending a very clear message to Russia that these kinds of actions on British soil or elsewhere will not be tolerated.
And what was also very interesting is she left the door open for further attacks. She made very clear in spite of what the Pentagon is saying overnight, that if this happens again, that, again, there will be a unified and allied response from the U.S., the U.K. and France.
ALLEN: Nima, from what we know, does the government in the U.K. there support this or the reaction from people in the U.K. over this?
ELBAGIR: That is slightly more tricky ground. The prime minister chose not to take this to a parliamentary vote. Parliament is actually on recess. But she is appearing in front of Parliament on Monday after they've come back from their Easter break.
And the sense is, from the statements we're hearing from the opposition here, that that's going to be quite a difficult conversation she's having with Parliament. She's exercising her prerogative. It is legally acceptable for her to have taken this action without taking it to Parliament.
But given that in any of these conversations, the specter of the Iraq War and Tony Blair always loom large. And recent polls show that only one-fifth of the British public were in support of such an action in Syria.
This is going to be a tricky conversation. And the Russians are already taking advantage of that. They have already tried to draw comparisons between Theresa May and Tony Blair and tried to pitch this to the British public within the same kind of framework.
But Theresa May will continue, we're sure, to put forward this as being very much in Britain's --
ELBAGIR: -- national interest. And as she said, it is the only option available to her government.
ALLEN: Nima Elbagir for us covering this from London outside 10 Downing Street.
HOWELL: Let's go live to Beirut, Lebanon. Fred Pleitgen is standing by.
Fred, what's the reaction you're hearing from the region and in Syria following these strikes?
FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, I'm actually in touch with a lot of people in Syria right now, both regular folks who witnessed these airstrikes and also with some folks, who are at least close or in the apparatus of the Syrian government.
And I think for a lot of the folks, especially in the Syrian government, there was a lot of shock when initially these attacks happened or these strikes happened in the early morning hours of today.
But I think once things sort of had cleared, people realized the scope of this intervention was a lot smaller than many of them had thought.
If you look at some of the reactions in Damascus this morning, you see there was a demonstration against the U.S. and its allies in front of the Russian -- in front of the Syrian defense ministry. There were also Syrian jets flying in the sky in a show of force.
And one of the most interesting things I've seen is the fact that the Syrian presidency, on its Twitter account, posted pictures of President Assad casually walking to work at around 9:00 am local time, seemingly in spite, obviously, of the fact that these airstrikes were happening. They're trying to shrug them off.
And that seems to be exactly, George, what the Syrian military is doing as well. They say that well over 110 missiles and rockets were fired towards their territory. They say they intercepted the majority of them. The Russians are saying it was about 71.
They do acknowledge that that research facility in Barzeh, a district of Damascus that has a lot of military presence, that was hit by a couple of projectiles. But they're obviously framing this as a very large success for themselves and their military. And it was interesting to see the Russian reaction to all of this then, sort of taunting the U.S. and its allies, saying the projectiles fired, many of them were taken down by technology created in the Soviet Union in the 1970s.
That pretty much a direct reference to President Trump last week, coming out and tweeting that there would be shiny, new and smart missiles flying towards Syria very soon. Of course, the Russians and their allies in Syria now saying they have the power to at least take a lot of those down -- George.
HOWELL: And, Fred, is there a sense or concern there in the region that there could be more beyond this?
Again, if chemical weapons are used again?
PLEITGEN: Yes, well, I mean if that's the case, that, obviously, is something that could happen. There's mixed messages that folks are getting here from D.C. On the one hand, you have the Pentagon saying that this is something that is now over that the strike is now over but there's others saying this could be an ongoing thing.
But qualifying that, if, indeed, chemicals are used again. I think right now from the point of view of the Syrian government on the ground, they believe that this is something that was limited, that this is something that was over now and this is something, quite frankly, that had absolutely no impact on the capabilities of the Syrian military to continue to prosecute their campaign against the rebels there in Syria.
So I think from that perspective, all of this -- and I think many people in the region will believe that as well this morning -- all of this changes very little on the ground and the state of play in Syria and certainly won't do very much to alter things happening there.
Now if something, you know, an incident happens again, then, obviously, everything is on the table and everything could change. But for now, I think the feeling here in the region and the feeling inside Syria is that this was something that was a one-off event and certainly something that won't have a great deal of influence on the things happening on the ground there.
HOWELL: Fred, thank you so much for the reporting. We'll stay in touch.
ALLEN: Let's get the story from the Pentagon. CNN's Ryan Browne joins us live.
Ryan, interesting what Fred was just reporting there, that Syria publicly is acting like it's shrugging this off, that it wasn't a big deal. We heard General Mattis say, when he announced this attack about seven hours ago, expect that from Syria.
The question is, when will we hear from the Pentagon on their assessment of this attack? RYAN BROWNE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: That's exactly right. Secretary Mattis in his closing comments last night saying expect a disinformation campaign from Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and his allies about this incident. At least from the Pentagon's perspective, this could be evidence of that.
We expect the Pentagon to brief again in about four hours to provide a readout, some additional information about this operation. We know that this operation was significantly larger than similar strikes that were carried out last year in April 2017, another retaliation for Syria's use of chemical weapons.
Secretary Mattis saying about twice the --
BROWNE: -- number of munitions were fired this time as compared to last year. We also know that aircraft from the U.K. and France also participated. B-1 bombers, we're being told by Defense officials, were involved in this operation, as well as French and U.S. ships.
So a much more wide-scale attack but very much targeted specifically at the Syrian regime's chemical weapons systems and not broader against the Syrian government writ large.
So again, very specifically focused to hit the chemical weapons systems and to avoid civilian casualties and Russian casualties. That was a major concern during the target selection process.
ALLEN: And Ryan, Syria there, claiming that they shot down some of these missiles, incoming missiles.
Did General Mattis say in his remarks a few hours ago whether he believed they had that capability?
BROWNE: Well, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Joseph Dunford, who spoke alongside Secretary Mattis, did say that they had tracked the Syrian regime, had attempted to shoot some missiles down. They said surface-to-air missiles by the regime were fired.
They said it was unclear at this time whether or not that was successful, whether the regime was able to knock any of its missiles out of the air. Of course, one of the targets is Damascus; that tends to be one of the more protected areas in terms of Syrian missile defense. So that's one of the concerns. Could be why such a large barrage of missiles from the U.S., France and U.K. were used.
The British ministry of defense did say their initial assessments of their missile strike was the attack was successful but again, we are waiting for additional information from the Pentagon, what's called a battle damage assessment, to see whether or not the U.S. considered its barrage successful or not.
ALLEN: And we expect that later this morning from the Pentagon. Ryan Browne, thanks so much.
BROWNE: You bet.
HOWELL: In his address, President Trump had a stern warning for Iran and Russia following the deadly chemical attack that took place in Syria last weekend.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TRUMP: I also have a message tonight for the two governments most responsible for supporting, equipping and financing the criminal Assad regime.
To Iran and to Russia, I ask: What kind of a nation wants to be associated with the mass murder of innocent men, women and children?
The nations of the world can be judged by the friends they keep. No nation can succeed in the long run by promoting rogue states, brutal tyrants and murderous dictators.
Russia must decide if it will continue down this dark path, or if it will join with civilized nations as a force for stability and peace. Hopefully, someday we'll get along with Russia and maybe even Iran -- but maybe not.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ALLEN: And here's Iran's response to the airstrikes.
"The attack is the blatant violation of international laws as well as ignoring the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria."
Russia's ambassador to the U.S. had a warning of his own in a tweet, saying a predesigned scenario is being implemented.
"Again, we are being threatened. We warned that such actions will not be left without consequences. All responsibility for them rests with Washington, London and Paris."
HOWELL: Let's go live to Moscow. Sam Kiley standing by live.
Sam, the Russian ministry of defense offering its take now on why these strikes happened.
What more can you tell us?
SAM KILEY, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, has now also reacted, very much in the same tone as his allies and his subordinates.
He's saying the United States, with the support of its allies, fired missiles at the facilities of the armed forces and civil infrastructure of the Syrian Arab Republic without the sanction of the United Nations Security Council in violation of the U.N. charter norms and principles of international law.
He called it an act of aggression against a sovereign state. It's quite a long statement. Right at the end, he says he'll be calling for an urgent meeting of the United Nations Security Council because this was a military operation conducted without a mandate from that Security Council, because Russia vetoed a joint Western allied proposal.
And, indeed, the allies voted a Russian proposal, which had no sanctions behind it with reference to getting inspectors in to -- independent inspectors to go and see the site of this chemical weapons attack.
On the matter of the scale of this attack, it's fascinating, the level of disinformation or inconsistency, certainly between what we're hearing from, for example, the United Kingdom, that says four aircraft struck all of their targets dead on and the view of the Russian --
KILEY: -- ministry of defense, saying that 103 cruise missiles, including Tomahawks were used in the attack. But 71 cruise missiles were intercepted.
On top of that, the Russians claim a number of airbases were also attacked; whereas, the allies have said there was only one base that came under attack. I think this is definitely within the context of he said/she said, muddying the waters; a standard operational procedure, really, of any country involved in some kind of conflict is to try to own the truth rather than let the truth speak its own.
But on the same level, I think what's also striking, really, for the Russians, is that the scale of this operation will make no material difference whatsoever to the successful prosecution of the civil war by the Russians and the Syrians and the Iranian allies, who are definitely way ahead and winning.
This has not broken the back of any aspect of the military capability of the Syrians with the exception perhaps of chemical weapons. And they have been killing very much larger numbers of people, including very large numbers of civilians by conventional means.
HOWELL: Sam Kiley in Moscow, thank you. And we'll keep in touch with you.
ALLEN: As we push on here with our breaking news, we'll talk with military and security experts. See if they mirror what Sam reported there from Moscow.
Did this have an impact?
Stay with us.
(MUSIC PLAYING) ALLEN: Our breaking news, the U.S., U.K. and France launching military strikes against Syria's chemical weapons program.
HOWELL: All three countries have been in close contact over the past few days planning this attack. The British prime minister, Theresa May, just a short time ago said the strikes should come as a surprise to no one. The French president, Emmanuel Macron, says France's red line was crossed after last weekend's suspected chemical attack on Douma.
ALLEN: It did come as a surprise to many people in Damascus because Damascus was targeted, part of the city at least. Let's bring in retired Lt. Col. James Carafano in Washington. He was part of President Trump's transition team and is the vice president of Foreign and Defense Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation joins us.
Thanks so much for talking with us early this morning.
Let's start with the strike itself. It was a statement.
Do you think it will have an impact?
LT. COL. JAMES CARAFANO (RET.), HERITAGE FOUNDATION: Well, I think you have to put it in the context of U.S. interests. So our goal is not to overthrow --
CARAFANO: -- the regime. Our goal is not to destroy the Syrian military. Our goal is not even to threaten Russian interests in Syria, which are longstanding and, quite honestly, don't really impact U.S. interests at all.
Our goal is the destruction of ISIS, making sure the Syria problem doesn't bleed over into destabilizing Iraq and Jordan, to try to keep Israel and Iran apart so that doesn't lead to a larger regional war.
And you know, when we did this strike a year ago, largely the Syrian regime did not interfere with the U.S. doing the things it needed to do in the country to look after its interests. I suspect this strike will have a similar result.
And also, look at the spill-off effect of this. Russia has long sought to divide the trans-Atlantic community and weaken the solidarity of NATO. You have the United States, Canada, U.K., France and Germany pulling together.
Iran has long sought to break apart the Gulf Coast states. And you've got the UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia pulling together behind the United States. I think Russia and Syria and Iran come off poorer after tonight.
ALLEN: I have to ask you, in saying that, you list all the countries on the support of standing up against the use of chemical weapons. Yet, Russia is still a major player in Syria. Russia continues to complicate how the West can respond in Syria. CARAFANO: So I think people forget that Russia, Syria and Iran are all allies in Syria but they actually have very different interests. The Russian interests are controlling the ports. It gives them access to the Mediterranean. It's a strategic advantage for them.
They want to keep Assad in power. He is a check against the expansion of Islamist influence against Russia. They have business dealings; maintaining those business dealings are important.
Iran would like to use Syria as a place to build a greater strategic threat against Israel and the Syrians want all their land back. Those interests don't deconflict but they also don't coincide.
So I'm not really sure the Russians -- they are perfectly willing to fight to the last Syrian but the Russians really aren't willing to risk a larger confrontation with the West, helping Syria get every inch of Syrian territory back.
ALLEN: President Trump said recently that U.S. troops would be out of Syria very soon. Clearly that surprised allies and it doesn't seem, with this action we've seen, that that is something that can happen anytime soon.
Bottom line is, what can contain Mr. Assad outside of chemical weapon use at this point in this war?
CARAFANO: Right, so I think containing the chemical weapon use is important. The unrestrained use of chemical weapons, understanding that the conventional attacks going on against civilians and in the conflict, but the unrestrained use of chemical weapons exacerbates and broadens the conflict.
It increases the risk of refugee populations going on the road. So it is a real problem and deterring that is very significant. So the United States doesn't have to be on the ground in Syria to protect our interests.
But we do have to have an influence and a footprint that protects those interests over the long term. What the strike does, if it gets Assad to back off against pressing the United States, is it gives us time to transition our footprint to something sustainable over the long term.
I think that's consistent with what the president wants to do and consistent with the right thing to do. The worst thing we can do is, let's say we have -- pick a number, 2,000 troops on the ground in Syria. That's not going to end the civil war or change the situation on the ground.
It does help us get rid of ISIS. But if we just let those guys sit there out of inertia, not something else to do and someday we have another Mogadishu or a Beirut, people will wake up and go, what the heck are these guys doing here?
So I think transitioning to something that's sustainable over time, that makes sense for the U.S. and maybe this will give us the space to do that.
ALLEN: I want to ask you about where this puts the U.S. and Russia. We heard harsh words from President Trump toward Russia for supporting a regime that would use chemical weapons and we've heard some rhetoric coming back from Russia on consequences.
So where are things right now?
CARAFANO: You know, I'm just smiling because, as somebody that worked on the president's transition team and I -- we hear this constant narrative of the president is soft on Russia. The U.S. is soft on Russia.
The reality is U.S. policy has been very tough on Russia, particularly in key areas, Western Europe, our support for Ukraine and Georgia and particularly in the Middle East, where we have greater -- both influence and interests than the Russians do.
So look, a year ago I said, a year from now U.S.-Russian relations will be worse than they are now. And we have not hit rock bottom yet. We've got a ballistic missile defense review coming up --
CARAFANO: -- that the Russians will hate; a NATO summit, which again will not be pro-Russian at all. So I actually don't think we've hit the bottom yet of U.S.-Russian relations.
ALLEN: Hopefully the bottom won't be a new Cold War, something that the world will have to deal with it. Retired Lieutenant Colonel Carafano, thanks for your thoughts.
CARAFANO: Thank you.
HOWELL: The United States, France and the United Kingdom have launched precision strikes on Syria. Our breaking news coverage continues. The latest developments from the region. Stay with us.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): This is CNN breaking news.
HOWELL: We continue following the breaking news this hour. The United States, the U.K. and France taking military action in Syria. I'm George Howell.
ALLEN: I'm Natalie Allen. Welcome back to our viewers in the U.S. and all around the world.
Recapping that strike happening several hours ago, we've heard from the prime minister in the U.K. We have not yet heard from the Pentagon, assessing how that strike happened and whether it was a success.
HOWELL: In an address to the nations, the U.S. President Donald Trump said that they were precision strikes on targets associated with Syria's chemical weapons capabilities. Listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TRUMP: America does not seek an indefinite presence in Syria -- under no circumstances. As other nations step up their contributions, we look forward to the day when we can bring our warriors home. And great warriors they are.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ALLEN: Let's look at the mission itself. U.S. ships and aircraft took --
ALLEN: -- part along with other allied military assets. Defense Secretary James Mattis said the strikes were a, quote, "one-time shot" to send a strong message to Syria. But U.S. officials did stress, the strikes could continue if need. Among the targets, a chemical weapons research facility and a chemical weapons storage facility.
HOWELL: Iran condemned the strikes calling them "a blatant violation of international law." Russia's ministry of defense claims that most of the missiles launched were actually intercepted by Syrian air defense systems. Syrian state TV says these pictures show debris of missiles that it says Syrian forces brought down in the city of Homs.
France was also quick to issue a statement on the airstrikes. These images show the French president, Emmanuel Macron, ordering his forces to attack.
ALLEN: In the statement, he said, "The red line set by France in May 2017 has been crossed. So I ordered the French armed forces to intervene tonight as part of an international operation in coalition with the United States of America and the United Kingdom and directed against the clandestine chemical arsenal of the Syrian regime."
Our Atika Shubert is live in Paris with more on France's involvement.
We heard from Theresa May last hour, kind of assessing the situation and the strike.
Do we expect to hear more from Mr. Macron as the day begins?
ATIKA SHUBERT, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I'm sure we'll be getting more statements from the presidential office. What we've heard recently is from the French foreign minister, as well as French defense minister, both confirm that French jets have now safely returned to France.
They were involved, of course, in the strike, Mirage and Rafale jets, basically setting off air cruise missiles into Syria. These are planes that have a capacity of being -- of launching from about 250 kilometers away. So they would have been well out of Syrian airspace when they did that. They've now safely returned.
And the French foreign minister specifically said the mission was a success but also followed up to say that France, while this was the end of the mission for now, would not hesitate to carry out more attacks if Syria continued to use chemical weapons. So very much in line with what we're hearing from the United States.
ALLEN: Atika, what about the people of France?
Does Macron have the support there for this kind of involvement?
SHUBERT: Well, as per French law, President Macron will certainly have to come back to parliament to explain his military decision. But for now, it's interesting to note that there's actually been quite a bit of a publicity campaign from the Elysee.
They put out a video several days before saying that France will shoulder its responsibility in this. It's also, of course, been very proactive in saying that there is clear evidence that this was a chemical weapons attack in Syria.
So what they are clearly trying to show is that, you know, there is legitimate reason for this attack and they want, of course, not only the international world to know this but also the French public.
ALLEN: Atika Shubert for us in Paris. Thank you, Atika.
HOWELL: Let's bring in Juliette Kayyem, a CNN national security analyst and former assistant secretary for intergovernmental affairs at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
It's good to have you with us this hour, Juliette. This strike described as targeted, described as precise. We're starting to hear reaction from the region and from around the world. But the greater question this morning, as people wake up in the United States, the question regarding the impact on Syria and Russia's support of that nation.
What do you think follows from this?
JULIETTE KAYYEM, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: I think the impact long-term will probably be minimal. That's not to say that the strike was wrong or shouldn't have been done. It is simply to say the strike itself was targeted for a reason.
It was simply to make a statement to Syria and Russia, its supporter, that a particular use of a weapon, chemical weapons against a civilian population, would not be targeted.
Does this mean that we in the United States or even the West has a long-term Syria policy?
Does it mean that Russia will all of a sudden abandon Assad?
No. It simply means that, for Assad, he will now know that the use of these weapons will be met with some statement by the West. The longer term implications are probably not going to be changed that much, however.
HOWELL: The actions taken by the United States were met by some protests overnight. Listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My opinions on the war are nil. The Iraq war was a mistake. It created a vacuum in the Middle East. We've been there 14 years now. And what this bombing campaign tonight does with Syria, it hit Russian installations. We're risking a war with Russia.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They have already threatened that they'd hit our troops on the ground, which we have 2,000 in Syria right now. So we are risking a World War III.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
HOWELL: All right. The president, though, made it clear he wants U.S. troops out of Syria.
But did the U.S. and its allies run the risk of being dragged into something much deeper, much more prolonged?
KAYYEM: I think they do if they don't have a clear reason or, you know, policy regarding Syria. I feel pretty confident that this strike was limited, not just because of what President Trump said but our allies, who were involved with this effort, are committed to making it a limited strike. They have no intention of beginning a long-term, drawn-out war.
And because -- I guess that goes to the longer term strategy --because there is no interest in having that longer term engagement, which would ultimately mean, you know, sort of engaging with Russia, right, and having some sort of proxy war in Syria, one can assume that Assad remains in power, that Russia will remain its main supporter.
And that essentially the sort of architecture of what's going on in Syria doesn't change much. So I'm not too worried about being dragged into a war right now, just given what the allies and the United States are saying. But I'm also pretty confident that the status quo will pretty much be the same in Syria, which will be, you know, Assad in power.
HOWELL: All right. So this is basically the summary of the U.S. and allies. But the context here is important; the Russian foreign ministry blaming Israel for a strike carried out on a Syrian air base earlier. A lot of moving pieces within this puzzle. Is there a danger of escalation?
Is it still high?
KAYYEM: I think there is always a danger of escalation. We have troops nearby. We still have -- the United States still has a strategic interest in the area. And that involves ISIS and ensuring ISIS does not retain strongholds throughout Syria or Iraq. That's of immediate importance to the United States.
But I think what we have to recognize is that, in the absence of a commitment by the West to essentially get rid of Assad -- and there won't be that commitment, trust me, -- that there won't be sort of seismic shifts in the overall power of issues going on in Syria, which is Assad remains in power.
Russia and Iran are happy about that. They keep him propped up. And that the United States' interests and the West's interests remain solely on the sort of counter-ISIS initiative.
Any use of a military strike always has the sort of challenge of leading to more. But in this instance, I think it was -- I think we know it was a statement about the use of the chemical weapons. And I suspect that if Assad refrains from doing that in the future, our engagement will remain minimal.
HOWELL: But leaders making it clear that, if weapons were to be used, chemical weapons to be used again, the door is still open for another response. Juliette, thank you for your time today. We'll keep in touch with you.
KAYYEM: Thank you.
ALLEN: Where does the Syrian war go from here?
And what will relations be like between the U.S. and Russia moving forward?
We'll talk with our guests about that coming next.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GEN. JAMES MATTIS, U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: We used a little over double the number of weapons this year than we used last year. It was done on targets that we believed were selected to hurt the chemical weapons program. We confined it to the chemical weapons type targets.
We were not out to expand this. We were very precise and proportionate but, at the same time, it was a heavy strike.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ALLEN: James Mattis, the Defense Secretary, announcing the strike many hours ago. We're still waiting to hear from the Pentagon on their assessment of how it went.
As you know, the U.S., France and the U.K. launched a military strike on Syria, targeting its chemical weapons program. The operation is a response to the suspected chemical attack last week. We know that aircraft, missiles and warships were used in the joint strikes.
HOWELL: This video, posted online by the French armed forces minister, shows a cruise missile being launched from a ship in the Mediterranean. We're also seeing video like this from Cyprus, that shows British warplanes and air crew preparing for strikes in Syria.
ALLEN: The attack has many political agendas at play in an area that is very complicated with this war that's ongoing. Leslie Vinjamuri joins me now to examine a few of them. She's an associate professor of international relations at SOAS University of London.
Hello to you, Leslie.
LESLIE VINJAMURI, SOAS UNIVERSITY OF LONDON: Good morning.
ALLEN: Good morning. This was a statement of sorts by the U.K., France and the U.S. The question is, we've seen Syria acting like it wasn't any big deal; apparently Assad has been seen walking around.
The question is, will it have any kind of effect?
VINJAMURI: Well, this is the outstanding question and I think that, you know, what we've seen, we've seen -- this is the second time, one year later we're seeing this response by the United States in partnership with the U.S., U.K. and France.
But Assad has continued to use chemical weapons throughout the crisis, throughout the civil war in Syria. The independent commission that was set up by the United Nations Human Rights Council estimates that he's used chemical weapons approximately 34 times.
We saw yesterday the United States ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, saying that Assad had used chemical weapons 50 times. So whatever the number actually is, it's a lot more than twice.
So will Assad respond to this latest strike by limiting or halting altogether the use of chemical weapons?
Part of it depends on how effective those strikes have been at actually removing his capability, whether they've actually taken out a lot of the capacity, both the scientific research capacity and the storage sites. We have yet to see.
If he continues to have access to the chemical weapons, will he continue to use them? It's hard to be sure the extent to which this will be a deterrent. It's certainly an important response. I'm skeptical that it will deter his use in part because he's got the backing of Russia and he's using chemical weapons for a very clear purpose, a strategic purpose, which is that he wants to secure particular territories.
He wants to clear remaining rebel strongholds --
VINJAMURI: -- and he's using chemical weapons to do that. And to the extent that he can get more control over to territory before this war is over, it means he's likely to hold onto that.
So it's unclear, absent a broader strategic effort, that this will have any real deterrent effect on his use of chemical weapons unless he doesn't have access to them.
ALLEN: And there was a concern when this was launched that this would create something bigger, a bigger problem. Well, both Russia and Iran have condemned the attack. But both Russia and Iran have complicated and perhaps prolonged this war with their own aggressive goals within Syria.
And, of course, that, in itself, doesn't it continue to make this situation more dangerous?
VINJAMURI: Yes, well, it certainly has made it a dangerous situation in terms of U.S. intervention. The United States under Obama and under Trump, neither president has wanted to bring the United States more directly into involvement in Syria's civil war, with a very considerable exception of the fight against ISIS.
Remember that just over a week ago, prior to the latest chemical weapons use by Assad, President Trump was talking about withdrawing entirely from Syria. So there is a real concern that the backing that Assad has from Russia and from Iran makes this a conflict that is not one that the United States wants to get involved in, which is, you know, understandable from the point of view of U.S. interests, tragic for many people on the ground in Syria.
Remember that we're talking about a war that's been going on for seven years. Hundreds of thousands of people killed, many, many civilians killed not only by chemical weapons but especially by other very brutal means.
But it's very difficult to see how this war ends in a way which doesn't result in Assad being in place with the backing of -- now that he has the backing of Russia and Iran. So it's a very difficult situation.
And this explains in part why especially now the U.S. response is very restrained, despite Trump's earlier tweets. It's been a very restrained response. Clearly he has people around him, especially the Secretary of Defense, who are restraining that response, who are taking a very -- making sure that it's a very limited response. ALLEN: And we'll hear from the Defense Secretary in the coming hours. Leslie Vinjamuri, thank you. We appreciate you joining us.
HOWELL: We're hearing reaction from around the world. The United States, the U.K. and France taking military action in Syria. We'll be right back after the break with more. Stand by.
ALLEN: The airstrikes conducted by the U.S., U.K. and France hit a target in the capital of Syria, Damascus, and that's not something citizens there are used to.
HOWELL: Earlier, our colleague, Cyril Vanier, spoke with Syrian journalist Danny Makki, who described what it was like in Damascus as those airstrikes were bearing down.
DANNY MAKKI, SYRIAN JOURNALIST: Well, in the early hours of yesterday morning around 4:30, there was a number of U.S.-led attacks near Damascus in different segments and parts of the city.
And I essentially awoke to what was about 12 different strikes consecutively, one after the other. So it was pretty terrifying initially.
After the situation cleared initially, you had Syrian air defenses began to launch S-200 missiles and tracer fire at this time in an attempt to down some of the rockets which were coming through but to no avail.
The attack continued for about 50 continuous minutes with temporary pauses in between after different waves targeted different buildings. And what I could gauge initially, from the area I'm currently located in, which is in Western Damascus, was that three different military sites were targeted after the first wave.
One of those was the research center in East Damascus, in Barzeh, which has been used as a research laboratory and has a relation to the issue of chemical weapons. Some have been technologically developed there.
The second location was Mezzeh military airport which is the only airport within the confines of Damascus.
And the third location, which is very close to where I am now, was Jamraya, which is also a huge complex of a research facility, which was previously targeted by the Israelis in 2014, if you remember, a couple of years ago.
So there's three different military targets were almost struck, almost simultaneously. And after the first wave of rocket attacks, I could hear jets in the sky. So I can confirm to that you that it wasn't just rockets. It was jets as well. And the Syrian air defenses reportedly downed about 13 rockets.
VANIER: And, Danny, for residents of Damascus, what was the expectation before, in the buildup to all of this?
Were people concerned that civilians might get caught up in this?
MAKKI: Well, absolutely. The first two days after -- in the aftermath, you could say, of the suspected chemical weapons attack, everyone in Damascus and in Syria was on very high alert, expecting an immediate, an imminent attack by the United States of America.
Now after, well, you could say, 48 hours of political jostling and political maneuvering, it seems as if the situation began to go in a process of de-escalation. So people in Damascus just continued their lives. They didn't expect any impending strike.
So what happened in the early hours of this morning were that people were very shocked and surprised initially by this U.S. attack, which no one really thought could happen at this time.
And after what you could say is probably around two hours of initial chaos, you know, people went back to their lives, went back to going to work, et cetera.
What you've got to know is that people here have spent seven years in war. So they've grown accustomed to these situations.
But it's very strange from my perspective, being a British citizen as well, to be basically in the eye of what is a U.S., U.K. and French- led attack. So from that perspective, it was pretty scary. And life has gradually come back to normal after the early hours.
VANIER: Well, Danny, that's what I wanted to --
VANIER: -- ask you about.
What's the reaction this morning from what you can gauge?
MAKKI: The reaction is definitely one of surprise, of shock, of -- it's a very strange and unique moment because it's unprecedented. This is the first time the U.S. has targeted Damascus or around Damascus since the beginning of the Syria crisis. You've got over half a million people who have been killed in this crisis.
And for the U.S. to take some action after seven years has really gotten to people in Damascus that the situation is very tense.
Now the presidency page in Syria uploaded a video of the president going into work as usual this morning. That's probably another ploy just to show the world that things are continuing as normal.
But I can definitely tell you that, in the hours between 4:30 and 5:30 this morning, things were not normal at all. This was not -- this was not initially a symbolic strike in an airfield in the middle of nowhere. This was a strike within and around Damascus for the first time since the start of the Syria crisis.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
HOWELL: That from Syrian journalist, Danny Makki, describing what it was like in Damascus when those airstrikes were happening.
ALLEN: And that will wrap up this hour of our breaking news coverage. Thank you for being along with us. I'm Natalie Allen.
HOWELL: And I'm George Howell. Our breaking news coverage continues. More reaction to the United States, the U.K. and France conducting military strikes in Syria. "NEW DAY" is next at the top of the hour.