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Former CIA Chief Leon Panetta on Syria Strikes and Comey's Book; Russian Reaction to Syria Strikes. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired April 16, 2018 - 14:00:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Tonight, he's overseen the strikes in Syria, but how will President Trump see out the chaos of Comey after the

former FBI director slammed the president as dangerous and morally unfit for office. Former U.S. Defense Secretary and CIA Director Leon Panetta

joins me from California.

Plus Russian reaction to those airstrikes. Threats of new U.S. sanctions and talk of a new cold war. My conversation with Director General of the

Russian International Affairs Council Andrey Kortunov.

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

The United States, France and Britain claim that they have now removed "the heart" of Syria's chemical weapons programs after the allies launched a

barrage of missiles at several of Bashar al-Assad's military facilities over the weekend.

President Trump declared "mission accomplished" and all three allies reserve the right to strike again if the regime dares to cross this redline


The leaders made clear they have no plans to topple Assad as Prime Minister Theresa May told Parliament today.


THERESA MAY, PRIME MINISTER OF BRITAIN: This was not about intervening in a civil war and it was not about regime change. It was about a limited,

targeted and effective strike that sought to alleviate the humanitarian suffering of the Syrian people by degrading the Syrian regime's chemical

weapons capability and deterring their use.


AMANPOUR: And inside Syria, the war rages on with more than 400,000 people killed since 2011. Five million Syrians have fled their country and

another 6 million are internally displaced.

So, what, if anything, has changed in Syria, which has become the battleground for much bigger powers trying to control the Middle East.

Leon Panetta was America's defense secretary and CIA director under President Obama and he joins me now from California.

Secretary Panetta, welcome to the program.


AMANPOUR: So, actually, I'm going to refer to your last administration position as director of the CIA. In that, given that you were there in

2012 when President Obama drew a red line and in 2013 when he didn't, what is your analysis of what the over-the-weekend strikes might've achieved.

PANETTA: I would've thought that President Trump would've been careful about using the same words that President Bush did during the Iraq War

because we really don't know whether or not this mission has been accomplished.

On the one hand, it was a very effective strike in coordinating the efforts of both the United States and our allies to go after a specific set of

targets. It was done well. It was done precisely. And hopefully, it was done effectively.

I think the bigger issue, thought, is whether or not this strike is really tied to any long-range strategy in dealing with Syria. Assad still remains

in power. There's no question he continues to have an arsenal of chemical weapons.

I think the real question about whether or not the strike was worthwhile will be determined in the future, not the present.

AMANPOUR: So, you're sure that he still has a stockpile of chemical weapons?

PANETTA: I don't think there's much question, but that he would not have put all of his chemical weapons in one place. He has distributed those

chemical weapons throughout his country. That's been his approach as long as I can remember.

AMANPOUR: And so, what do you make - because you asked what would be the next step. President Trump overnight talked on Wednesday, when he

addressed the - sorry, on Friday, when he addressed the American people, about all the tools at America's disposition.

So, there's military, economic and diplomatic and he said this would be sustained, if necessary, and if Assad crosses that line again. I guess,

all the leaders have said that the ball is in Assad's court and, to an extent, the Russian's court. Do you think they'll do it again, what him

again if he uses these weapons again?

PANETTA: I think that will be determined by whether or not the United States really does develop some kind of long-range strategy working with

our allies.

[14:05:01] If there is an effort here to follow up on the use of military action, which I think was important in the signal that it sent - but in

order to make it effective, you've got to follow it up with a very strong diplomatic effort to go after the issue of Assad's use of chemical weapons

to try to see if there is an approach that can result in some kind of long- range political solution in Syria.

If those efforts so are not done, if all we do is strike and then sit back and wait for the Syrians to take the next step, my fear is that will repeat

exactly what happened the last time we struck in Syria, which is that soon after Assad continued to use chemical weapons without any kind of pay back.

So, I think I think we're in a dangerous moment where very frankly we've got to continue to watch Assad, continue to watch what he does and then, at

the same time, follow it up with a very strong diplomatic effort to try to see if we can pursue some kind of strategic solution to what is a disaster

in Syria.

AMANPOUR: Just before I move on, you would admit, though, that it was better for President Trump to actually fire back when that red line had

been crossed as opposed to what President Obama did which wasn't respond.

PANETTA: No, there's no question. Look, when the president of the United States gives his word by drawing a red line that chemical weapons cannot be

used - and President Obama did that and President Trump did that. But when you draw that kind of red line you've got to back it up because if you

don't it impacts on your credibility and it sends a wrong message both to our allies as well as to our enemies.

AMANPOUR: So, let's get back to the strategy we're talking about. There is clearly no appetite, Mr. Secretary, for any kind of bigger involvement

in Syria.

And you remember that just days before Assad dropped those barrel bombs of chemical weapons that President Trump had signaled that he wanted to bring

American forces back, those who are there in the anti-ISIS coalition, about 2000 of them.

Then, over the weekend, in his interview, before he comes to the U.S., President Macron of France said the following about his effect on President

Trump's decision. Listen to this.


EMMANUEL MACRON, PRESIDENT OF FRANCE (through translator): Ten days ago, President Trump says the U.S.' will is to disengage from Syria. We

convinced him that it was necessary to stay. Please be reassured, we've convinced him that we had to stay on in the long term.

The second thing is that we convinced him that we had to limit these strikes to chemical weapons, even though there had been a media uproar by

way of tweets, which you may have been aware of.


AMANPOUR: So, there's Macron saying that he had talked President Trump into keeping those American forces there and being it for the long haul,

but Sarah Sanders at the White House podium yesterday says the president wants U.S. forces to come home as quickly as possible.

So, you've raised the very legitimate question about what is the strategy. What should be the strategy? What should the United States do now?

PANETTA: I think the basic problem is that, for seven years, the United States has had an ambivalent policy towards Syria. We made a statement

that Assad should step down. We've tried to do what we can to assist the rebels.

We, obviously, have aimed our effort at ISIS and working with the Kurds and ISIS. But, very frankly, we've never had an overarching policy about where

are we headed in Syria.

And for that reason, we continue to pay a price. The hope that somehow we can just walk away from that situation and it won't affect our national

security is a serious mistake.

The reality is what happens in Syria, whether we like it or not, is going to affect national security interests, and so we are going to have to take

steps there. We can't just back away. We can't just walk away.

We're going to have to build a coalition working with our allies, working with France, working with Great Britain, working with the U.N. to continue

to pursue some kind of strategy here that will ultimately result in Assad stepping down because we can never have a stable Syria as long as Assad is

still there. Four hundred thousand people killed, 5.6 million displaced.

No, we can't allow Assad to remain in power. So, we're going to have to work on a strategy to gradually move him off, working with Russia, working

with others to try to reach that end.

[14:10:04] And secondly, we're going to have to develop some kind of political approach that allows the Syrian people to make the decision about

what their future will be. That's the only way we're going to find any kind of stability for the future, otherwise we're going to continue to pay

a price for the chaos that is Syria.

AMANPOUR: So, here's then obviously the next question. You say that and, of course, you were one of the very few in the Obama administration who

wanted actually to do things much more robustly when there was a chance they would have made a difference back in 2012/2013. President Obama said

no to that.

And here we are with Russia involved and Iran involved. And Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told me she was horrified when she

saw the picture of President Putin, President Erdogan, President Rouhani of Iran basically laying the political groundwork for what happens in Syria

and there was no America anywhere in sight.

I mean, there is a diplomatic process. It belongs to them. There is a military process. It belongs to them. There is a strategy. It belongs to

them. How does the U.S. or the West have any hope of making a dent or changing that?

PANETTA: I'm a believer that the United States has to exercise world leadership when it comes to those issues. We are facing a number of

flashpoints in the world today and Syria is one of those.

If the United States steps away from our responsibility, very frankly, nobody else will fill that vacuum. The United States has to be a world

leader. The United States has to be there to be able to confront Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, Assad.

We can't just allow that situation to develop because the reality is what we will have, is the extension of Iranian influence in Syria, we'll have

continuing Russian influence in Syria and we will pay a price for that in the Middle East if we allow that to happen.

So, it's for that reason, whether we like it or not, and sometimes world leadership cannot just decide when it should or shouldn't act, it has to

depend on what happens in the world. And what's happening in Syria has demanded our action in dealing with chemical weapons. It will continue to

demand our action.

And it's for that reason that we have to develop some kind of geo strategy here to deal with Assad, with Russia, with Iran, with our allies, with our

Arab allies in that part of the world to develop an approach here that can show that we do indeed have a strategy for trying to bring some kind of

peaceful solution to what's happening in Syria.

AMANPOUR: And just before I move on to more domestic issues, do you think there's any way to have a rapprochement with Russia? I mean, everybody

saying, it's the cold war, except worse. And Russia is in a major disinformation campaign right now, denying even that there was a chemical

attack, what happened was a hoax says the Russian leadership. How do you get that back on track?

PANETTA: Well, there's no question we're in a rough period here with Russia for a lot of reasons. Russia, I think, read weakness into the

United States. As a result, took aggressive steps in the Ukraine and Crimea, in Syria, against the United States in this election.

I have always been a believer frankly that you can deal with Mr. Putin, if you make clear where the lines are. If you deal with Mr. Putin from

strength rather than weakness, if he knows that there are limits to what we will tolerate in terms of Russian interference, in Russian aggression, we

have to make that clear.

If we make that clear, then I think there's an opportunity to deal with Mr. Putin and Russia, but if we deal with Putin from weakness, we will continue

to pay a price for that.

AMANPOUR: I just want to sort of switch gears slightly, but actually it's the same track. With all these very heavy global issues and domestic

issues that the president - any president has to deal with, he now also is consumed by his personal issues with the Mueller probe, his personal lawyer

and now former FBI Director James Comey coming out with his interviews and his new book.

Just listen to what Comey has told ABC about what he thinks of President Trump.


JAMES COMEY, FORMER FBI DIRECTOR: Our president must embody respect and adhere to the values that are the core of this country. The most important

being truth. This president is not able to do that. He is morally unfit to be president.


[14:15:04] AMANPOUR: I mean, that is pretty remarkable. In your experience, have you ever heard a major government official speak like that

about a president? And do you agree with his assessment?

PANETTA: Well, I've been involved in public life for 50 years. And, very frankly, I've never experienced a presidency like Mr. Trump's presidency.

And I've never experienced a lot of the events we are going through now and never would have expected that we would hear the kind of things that we're


But the reality is that Mr. Trump is president of United States and that, ultimately, we are going to have to find a way, using our democracy, using

our Constitution to be able to use a system of checks and balances to make sure that our country continues to move in the right direction.

And that's what's going on now. Very frankly, our system of checks and balances is alive and well. We have an investigation going on by Mr.

Mueller. It's an investigation looking at the Russian situation, but also looking at whether the president has violated any laws.

And I would put a lot more credibility into the investigation by Mr. Mueller than the comments that are currently being made by anybody.

I think the real issue for the United States and for our future will depend a lot more on Mr. Mueller's investigation than whatever books are written

about Mr. Trump.

AMANPOUR: Secretary Panetta, thank you so much for joining us from California tonight.

Now, as things heat up inside America, important international relations are cooling down to subzero temperatures as we've just been discussing with

the accusations and insults flying between Russia and the west.

The U.N. Secretary General says the cold war is back, only with a crucial difference. Communications - that vital safety valve - are worse now than

they were back then.

The Trump administration is deciding whether or not to impose more sanctions on Russia, but what will their next move be and just how much

worse can these relations get.

Joining me from Vienna is Andrey Kortunov. He is the Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council. Mr. Kortunov, welcome to the



AMANPOUR: I am sure you heard Secretary Panetta. I mean, he really said that we have to, the United States, the West has to work with Russia and

all the other countries in the field when it comes to Syria. Given all that's happened, can you see any way towards that happening anytime soon?

KORTUNOV: Well, I think that the defect on the ground, there is a degree of cooperation. If you take the southwest Syria, the so-called Amman

agreement is still in operation.

And I think that the contacts between the Russian military and the U.S. military on the ground are fairly strong.

However, definitely, that's not enough to end the conflict in Syria. We need to work much more in the framework of the Geneva process. And,

unfortunately, the United States right now is not an active participant of this process.

AMANPOUR: Mr. Kortunov, you say the Geneva process. But, as you know, Russia and Iran and Turkey, they're all headed off on a bit of a different

line and President Assad has never really cooperated with the Geneva process.

Do you actually think, at this point, with tensions so high, that there's any chance for a political solution to this?

KORTUNOV: Well, first of all, on cooperation between Russia, Iran, and Turkey, there is the so-called Astana process, but it's not a competition

with the Geneva process since in Astana we are talking primarily about the escalation and ceasefire. Geneva should resolve the political issues of

Syria and should help to turn Syria back into a normal country.

But let me tell you, you're talking about whether it is possible. Many people would say that we need another major crisis, so that the two leaders

would look into the abyss and get really scared and start working together like it was the case during the Cuban Missile Crisis back in 1962.

Maybe the time has come to really look into that and to make sure that our tactical interests are not that important, so that they would prevent us

from working with each other.

I don't expect miracles. I don't think that something will change dramatically, but I still believe that we need to have a summit meeting

between the two presidents. We need to discuss the fundamentals.

[14:20:04] And the more specific the U.S. position is, the easier it will be to somehow find a modus operandi with Russia.

AMANPOUR: I just want to play you a sound bite from Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. He spoke about what happened over the weekend and about the

words he might use against the allied leaders. Just listen to this.


SERGEI LAVROV, RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTER: I cannot be impolite to the heads of other states and, of course, I cannot be impolite to the head of my

state, but you quoted the leaders of France and the UK and the United States.

And, frankly speaking, all the evidence which they quoted was based on the media reports and on social networks.


AMANPOUR: So, Mr. Kortunov, he went on to say the events did not take place. What did take place was a staged thing. And he's talking about the

chemical weapons attack on Douma couple weeks ago. How does one go - do you believe it was a hoax?

KORTUNOV: Well, I think that the international investigation is still on and inspectors from the organization on elimination of chemical weapons

should make their conclusion.

We know that sometimes mistakes happen. We know how the United States got into Iraq. So, I would suggest that we would give the experts representing

the international community to get to the ground to explore and to make their findings public.

AMANPOUR: Well, I mean, they've been trying to go and there's been a lot of back and forth about why they can't get in. They're saying that the

Russians and the Syrians haven't yet given them access to Douma. So, we will see whether that's the case. The U.N. says they've given all the


But, again, Foreign Minister Lavrov over the days has said that the situation between Russia and the United States is below the level they were

during the Cold War. And as you heard, the secretary general of the U.N. said the same thing.

How do you assess it? Is it that bad? You talked about the Cuban missile crisis and we talked about this vital communications link, which doesn't

seem in a real way to be present.

KORTUNOV: It's exactly the point. I think that if we compare the situation today with the Cold War, it's not the Cold War from 1970s or

1980s. It's the cold war of early 1950s when they had no red lines, where they didn't know what to expect from each other, when the risks were very


And this is very unfortunate. I think that can and should be changed. It will not require a capitulation of either side. I think that it does mean

that the United States should make a favor to Russia or the other way around. It's just a matter of political will.

Unfortunately, I think many politicians in both countries do not realize the gravity of the situation. Arguably, what we - events during the

weekend was by far the most dangerous situation since the end of the Cold War.

AMANPOUR: Let me just carry on with that line because Prime Minister May to Parliament said today, one of the things - one of the reasons they did

is because there was no other avenue. They have been blocked over and over again from doing the kinds of things that you are recommending by the

Russians in the Security Council.

So, just listen to this for a moment.


MAY: On each occasion when we have seen every sign of chemical weapons being used, Russia has blocked any attempt to hold the perpetrators to

account at the U.N. Security Council, with six such vetoes since the start of 2017.

And just last week, the Russia blocked a U.N. resolution that would have established an independent investigation, able to determine responsibility

for this latest attack.

So, regrettably, we have no choice but to conclude that diplomatic action on its own is not going to work.


AMANPOUR: So, it just seems to be that, on both sides, it just keeps sinking into a deeper and deeper freeze.

You talked about another great crisis. I mean, this is one of them. But do you think Syria is now going to be a free for all or do you think Russia

and its ally, Iran and Assad, have kind of won already. How do you assess the situation on the ground in Syria?

KORTUNOV: Well, I don't think that you can win in Syria because the conflict keeps being fueled from the outside. They pour this fuel into the


[14:25:00] So, the conflict cannot simply exhaust itself. It's not just about Iran or Russia, but we have Turkey, we have the Gulf, we have the

United States, we have Israel.

So, I think that major players have to get together and to decide whether they can afford to continue this conflict. And if not, then I think we

have the Geneva document. We know that we need a constitutional reform in Syria. We know that we have elections that should be monitored by the

United Nations. We want to have a secular Syria and a Democratic country.

AMANPOUR: All really interesting. Thank you so much for your perspective, Andrey Kortunov.

And that is it for our program tonight. Remember, you can always listen to our podcast and see us online at and you can always follow me

on Facebook and Twitter.

Thanks for watching. And goodbye from London.