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LIVE FROM THE FRONT LINES

Syria: New Villain in the Middle East?

Aired April 16, 2003 - 20:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)
ANNOUNCER: Live from the headlines, the timeline behind today's news, how the day unfolded.

Angry Iraqis confront U.S. Marines in Mosul. And there's a deadly exchange of gunfire.

BRIG. GEN. VINCENT BROOKS, CENTCOM SPOKESMAN: The fire was indeed delivered from coalition forces. It was lethal fire. And some Iraqis were killed.

ANNOUNCER: Coalition backed Iraqi forces hit the streets of Baghdad. Will they get any respect? And do they have what it takes to help restore order?

Three days after gaining their freedom, seven former POWs are heading back to America. First stop, Frankfurt, Germany.

LIVE FROM THE HEADLINES starts now.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening and welcome. I'm Paula Zahn in New York. Thanks so much for joining us tonight.

As the U.S. military role in Iraq shifts from combat to security and reconstruction, General Tommy Franks joined his troops in Baghdad today. We will examine some of the challenges ahead and take an in- depth look at what could become the region's next potential hotspots, Syria.

First though, today's timeline.

As you just heard, there was unrest in Mosul overnight. And that's where we begin tonight. U.S. Marines clashed with Iraqis. Shots were fired. Several Iraqis were killed.

Ben Wedeman examines the underlying tensions in this northern Iraqi city.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): An American helicopter flies low over central Mosul. the Americans control the skies over this predominantly Sunni Arab city. The ground is a whole different matter. U.S. troops cling to an uneasy toehold in the governor's office in the center of the city. And that's it.

Mosul, long a power base for Saddam's regime, is hardly celebrating what the coalition is calling its "liberation."

"We don't want the Americans here," they tell us. Since the week began, at least 10 Iraqis have been killed and many more wounded in clashes involving U.S. troops and local protesters.

Until Tuesday afternoon, Kurdish forces, allies of the Americans, patrolled city center. Their presence, an irritant to the Arab population from the beginning. Now Kurdish forces have pulled back to Kurdish parts of the city.

With tensions rising, Kurdish officials are trying to build bridges with Arab tribals leaders, to avoid a showdown. The talks seemed friendly enough, but the outcome is as yet uncertain.

Central Mosul is now a tense no man's land, a vacuum opened for exploitation by elements still loyal to Saddam Hussein, local militias, and common criminals.

On the outskirts of town, the Americans are trying to listen to local grievances. Arab villagers complain of marauding Kurdish gunmen. It's a complicated mix in which the Americans are just beginning to get their bearings.

CAPT. JAMES JARVIS, U.S. MARINE CORPS: Obviously we're in a period of instability, somewhat. Any time you go from having a controlling regime to establishing a new government, you have a period of instability.

WEDEMAN (on camera): The city encompasses its dizzying array of ethnic, tribal and sectarian differences. It's going to be a daunting task indeed to impose law and order, let alone introduce democracy.

Ben Wedeman, CNN, Mosul, northern Iraq.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZAHN: And then around 7:00 a.m. Eastern time, during the morning briefing at CENTCOM headquarters in Qatar, there was word that Iraq's borders appear to be more secure. Central Command says troops are sealing off escape routes that Iraqi leaders might use. And they are seeing fewer volunteers from other parts of the Arab world heading to Iraq to fight.

Then in the 8:00 hour, word that the U.S. will sit down with North Korea for talks over its nuclear program. The talks will be the first between the two sides since October. They will take place in Beijing next week. And they will include Chinese diplomats. The Bush administration had wanted South Korea, Russia, and Japan to also participate in any talks with North Korea. Pyongyang originally had wanted one to one talks with Washington. Tensions on the Korean peninsula followed the North's announcement last fall that it had restarted a program to enrich uranium.

Armed U.S. trained Iraqi troops are moving through the streets of Baghdad at 10:00 Eastern. CNN reported that soldiers called the three Iraqi forces got their training from U.S. Special Forces.

Mike Boettcher reports on the new force going on patrol in the capitol.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MIKE BOETTCHER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It might have been shock for the citizens of Baghdad this morning seeing Iraqi soldiers with AK-47s going through the streets for the first time since American forces took control of this city, but this was not a force of Saddam Hussein. This is an anti-Saddam Hussein force called the FIF or Free Iraqi Forces.

(voice-over): Now this force was put together several months ago. They had some training in northern Iraq. We've been with them for the past several days in south central Iraq at an advanced training base run by U.S. Special Forces. And at that base, they were evaluated. Their training, they were also given some additional training, taught how to do checkpoints, go into houses, clear those houses, human rights, rules of engagement, all of those various things.

Now they're in Baghdad. And the response of the people along the street was rather indifferent as they came by. There were a few claps, some whistles, some thumbs up.

In marked contrast to what the reception was for the three Iraqi forces in the cities around Nasiriya, where we went with them on operations for the past several days. In those cities, the towns folk would gather around, follow them, chanting "Chalabi, Chalabi." Chalabi is Dr. Akmed Chalabi, who was the head of the Iraqi National Congress, the anti-Saddam group, the exile group.

(on camera): He is now a leader of the Free Iraqi Forces. But in Baghdad, you didn't get that kind of response. So it remains to be seen how this Free Iraqi Force will be used in Baghdad. They believe that they are the seeds for a future Iraqi army, a future security force. And they believe that they should be utilized by the U.S. government to the fullest extent. So we'll see what happens here in Baghdad. Most of these FIF soldiers are from this city who came here, 120 this morning. And they would like to see their families.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZAHN: That was Mike Boettcher reporting from Baghdad.

The capture of convicted terrorist Abu Abbas is raising some really interesting legal questions. U.S. military forces found Abbas in Iraq. At 10:00 a.m. Eastern time, CNN reported that there could be a dispute over what happens next.

The Palestinian militant was convicted in absentia in Italy for plotting the 1985 hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro. Terrorists on the ship shot and killed the disabled American Jewish passenger, Leon Klinghoffer. Italy says it will seek extradition, but the U.S. could file its own charges as well.

A 1986 U.S. complaint against Abbas was dropped without an indictment. Officials say new charges probably would require new evidence.

There is also another legal question surrounding the arrest of Abbas. The Palestinians say Abbas is protected against punishment by a 1995 agreement between the Palestinian Authority and Israel. Kelly Wallace filed a report from Jerusalem during our 10:00 hour.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KELLY WALLACE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Israeli officials are hailing the arrest of Abu Abbas for the hijacking of the Achille Lauro and also for the killing of Leon Klinghoffer, an American Jew. One official, a spokesman with Prime Minister Sharon's office saying that Abu Abbas evaded justice for 18 years. This official saying that justice has finally been brought to him.

But a different reaction from the Palestinians. Palestinian cabinet ministers Seib Erekat said he had been in touch, has been in touch with the American authorities earlier on this date, appealing for the release of Abbas, saying that his arrest violates that 1995 agreement signed between the Israelis and the Palestinians, co-signed by then President Clinton, which then said that any Palestinian could not be arrested for any violent acts committed before the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords.

Now the Palestinians are also saying that Abu Abbas visited the Palestinian territories repeatedly in -- since 1996, including a visit to the Gaza Strip, and that the U.S. and the Israelis did nothing about that. Well, to that, a spokesman for Prime Minister Sharon's office, Ranan Gissin (ph), saying that Abu Abbas had many chances to mend his ways, but that he never did, that he did not renounce terrorism, and that he never supported the Mideast peace plan.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZAHN: That was Kelly Wallace reporting.

With the war winding down in Iraq, fears of a terrorist attack in the United States are easing a little bit. At 10:00 a.m. Eastern time, the Bush administration announced that the National Terror Alert level has been lowered.

Since March 17, it has been at the second highest level, the level orange. It now falls to yellow or elevated risk of terrorism. New York City, which is believed to face a higher risk of terrorism than the rest of the country remains on orange or high alert. There's much more still ahead. In the 11:00 a.m. hour, the French president talks about cooperation and the process of rebuilding Iraq. Plus...

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Half a world away, America's leading this great coalition, free nations to end a brutal regime.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ZAHN: President Bush puts terrorists and tyrants on notice. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: And we are back at 13 minutes past the hour here. The man who led the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq said in the 11:00 hour that he wishes the U.S. good luck in its efforts to find these weapons.

Chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix is expected to talk to the U.N. Security Council next week about going back to Iraq to resume the search. But Blix says it may be too soon to conclude the coalition forces won't find hidden weapons inside Iraq.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HANS BLIX, U.N. CHIEF WEAPONS INSPECTOR: They had one advantage, which we did not have. When they speak to people, the people were not scared to say what they really believed and they know.

Whereas, when we were there, you had a big secret police that would scare anybody.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ZAHN: Also, the 11:00 hour, word came of a new flexibility from France, a vocal opponent of the war. French President Jacques Chirac said France would work more closely with U.S. and British forces in Iraq. He also seemed to soften his call for the United Nations to be the only body that should handle a post-war Iraq, although he still wants the U.N. involved.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JACQUES CHIRAC, PRESIDENT OF FRANCE: (through translator) I am not one of those who wants, to say, that everything can be solved with a magic wand. It won't happen.

What I'm saying is that you then have to look at these problems, file by file, case by case, and solve them, find the right way to solve them, but I'll say it again, we can't do that without the United Nations. It won't work.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ZAHN: And then in the speech at an aircraft factory in St. Louis around 1:00 p.m. Eastern, President Bush pointed to U.S. military success in Iraq and said that terrorists and tyrants had been put on notice. The president also promoted domestic issues during that same visit.

And John King joins us now live from the White House with more on the president's day. Good evening, John.

JOHN KING, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good evening to you, Paula.

Add to that stuff in St. Louis, the president said that the use of military force would always be his last resort, but he said what he considered to be a swift and decisive war in Iraq should put anyone on notice around the world that the United States means what it says when it says it will wage a global war on terrorism and prevent the spread and the accumulation of weapons of mass destruction among regimes that the United States considers unfriendly.

Mr. Bush was at a Boeing factory. He saluted not only the troops who won the war, but also the workers who provided them with weapons like the FAA team, built here at Boeing in St. Louis, one of the sophisticated weapons the president said helped make the war so short, and in his view, so precision in its targeting of bombs that fewer Iraqi civilians were killed.

Mr. Bush also made the case that because the war was so swift and decisive in his view, that the United States is already now trying to turn the page to rebuilding Iraq, including the president said, helping its economy by calling on the United Nations to lift the economic sanctions put in place after the first Persian Gulf War.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH: By swift and effective military action, we avoided the massive flow of refugees that many had expected. By delivering food and water and medicine to the Iraqi people, even as coalition units engaged the enemy, we have helped to avert a humanitarian crisis.

Emergency supplies are now moving freely to Iraq from many countries. Now that Iraq is liberated, the United Nations should lift economic sanctions on that country.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Here at home, the president said his top domestic priority would be getting the Congress to pass an economic plan. Mr. Bush wants a big tax, but Congress already has served notice he will not get the entire $726 billion in tax cuts he wanted. Mr. Bush next week, we are told, will begin almost daily lobbying of the Congress on that front.

First though, Paula, the president is at his ranch in Crawford, Texas for an extended Easter holiday weekend. ZAHN: Now when the president talks about lifting sanctions against Iraq, is there any timetable, the administration's comfortable talking about here?

KING: The administration will ask the Security Council to open this debate next week. No time table at the White House for concluding the debate, but the administration will make the case that this is now critical and not controversial. Lifting the sanctions would allow Iraq to have open trade, including open sales of its oil. And sales of Iraqi oil is the major effort -- major way the United States says Iraq will be able to pay for what will be many years and many billions of dollars in reconstruction.

ZAHN: Thanks so much, John. John King reporting from the White House tonight.

At today's Pentagon briefing also in the 1:00 hour, indications that the U.S. Central Command will soon be on the move. CENTCOM has been running things out of Doha, Qatar, but there are now plans to move inside Iraq.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEN. STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL, JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF: Even though we've got very modern long haul communications, it's still good to be close. But then, it also gives the person who's making the decisions what we call the feeling of the mud between his toes. There's no replacing walking on the ground, leading your people, getting a feel for the situation, that you just can't get from any distance away. So I'd say that it will be key.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ZAHN: CENTCOM's commander General Tommy Franks visited Baghdad today to get a first hand look at the Iraqi capitol.

Also from the Pentagon, an estimate of how much the war has cost so far. The estimated price tag, $20 billion. $10 billion from military operations, $7 billion on personnel, and the remaining $3 billion for munitions.

When LIVE FROM THE HEADLINES returns, the continuing story of the seven Americans once held captive in Iraq.

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: And from Landstuhl, Germany, those seven rescued U.S. prisoners of war reach another stage in their journey home. We'll have more on that story when the timeline continues.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: Welcome back. The seven Americans who were prisoners of war in Iraq are beginning to be on their way home. They arrived at Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany during our 5:00 p.m. hour. Matthew Chance is there.

Good evening, Matthew.

CHANCE: Good evening to you as well.

That's right, those seven rescued U.S. prisoners of war are in the Landstuhl U.S. Army Medical facility in the building right behind me. We understand they're resting after a long flight from Kuwait.

But earlier, there were scenes of relief, as those prisoners wore, the six of them, stepped off the U.S. military aircraft that flew in for Kuwait. They raised their thumbs and waved at the cameras that were waiting for them.

There was even a grin from the injured Shoshana Johnson, as she was carried off that aircraft on a stretcher. It has been a very long and arduous journey for those seven U.S. prisoners of war. Captured in Iraq in two separate incidents, as U.S. forces advanced across the country, held for nearly weeks, sometimes in isolation from each other, and paraded, of course, on Iraqi television before U.S forces eventually tracked them down and brought them to safety.

For the past few days, as we've been reporting, they've been in Kuwait receiving some medical treatment, whatever could be administered there. Starting the long process of debriefing them, after this ordeal that they have endured, those therapies, those treatments will continue here at Landstuhl U.S. Army Medical Facility until they're finally given the thumbs up to go back home to the U.S., which is what all of them want, Paula.

ZAHN: And have they shared any more details about what these former POWs need to get through, before they will be allowed to go home?

CHANCE: It's not entirely clear. Certainly, there will be a full medical examination of each and every one of them. We're told that Shoshana Johnson, the woman who was injured in both her ankles that we've seen pictures of may have to have some kind of further surgery, but that's not certain until they've had this medical examination.

Then comes the debriefing, which as I mentioned, has already started in Kuwait, but there are specialist teams, combat psychologists here who will be talking to each and every one of those prisoners of war about what they went through to make a judgment about when would be the appropriate time to let them go back home -- Paula.

ZAHN: Matthew Chance, much earlier today we saw an interview with Shoshana's aunt. And they are more than ready to have her home.

On to more news now. There was another memorial ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery outside of Washington today. It marked the 16th anniversary of the creation of the Special Operations Command. It also honored the memories of four Special Operations personnel killed in the war in Iraq. Three from the Army, one from the Air Force.

We end our timeline tonight once again with the latest casualty numbers. U.S. and British officials say a total of 156 coalition members have died in Operation Iraqi Freedom. 125 of those victims were Americans, 31 were from the United Kingdom. 107 of the Americans who died were killed in hostile action.

Two Americans are missing in action, one of them from the Army, one from the Marine Corps.

A look now at the latest developments in the day's news is coming up. And in our second half hour, does Syria become a target after the war in Iraq? We'll try to answer that question.

(NEWSBREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ANNOUNCER: With the collapse of Baghdad and Saddam either dead or in hiding, the White House seems to envision a new villain in the Middle East.

BUSH: The Syrian government needs to cooperate with the United States.

DONALD RUMSFELD, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Syria's been on the terrorist list for years.

ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: It's time for them to think through where they want their place to be in the world.

ANNOUNCER: Does axis of evil include Syria? The U.S. says the Syrians are protecting high-ranking Iraqis. Syria says it's not. Is Syria a safe haven for Iraqi officials?

The U.S. accuses Syria of having weapons of mass destruction. Syria denies it and makes a surprising counterproposal. Does Syria have weapons of mass destruction?

In this half-hour, LIVE FROM THE HEADLINES looks at Syria in the wake of Iraq. Is Syria next?

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZAHN: And welcome back. Good evening.

Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, there have been harsh words between the U.S. and Syria. Just today, its ambassador to the U.N. complained that everyone has to be very careful about distributing accusations here and there. Also today, the Syrians showed that they, too, can play diplomatic hardball.

Before we look at what they're asking for from the U.N., we want to look at Syria itself.

Here is our Bill Schneider -- good evening, Bill.

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SR. POLITICAL ANALYST: Good evening, Paula. Is Syria another Iraq? Well, it's not on the axis of evil, but it is on the list of countries the U.S. considers state sponsors of terrorism. So what's the deal with Syria?

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER (voice-over): Syria is a one-party state, like Iraq used to be. Syria is ruled by the Baath Party, like Iraq used to be. The minority Sunni Muslims have always held the levers of power in Iraq. In Syria, Sunnis are a huge majority, about three-quarters of the population. But they don't hold the levers of power. The key power-holders in Syria are the Alawites, members of a minority Muslim sect.

Hafez al-Assad, Syria's longtime dictator, was an Alawite. So is his son Bashar, who took over in 2000 when his father died. What has held Syria together more than anything else is militant opposition to Israel. Syria strongly supports radical Palestinian groups based in Lebanon, a country Syria dominates. So what makes Syria different from Iraq? Syria is authoritarian, not totalitarian, like Iraq under Saddam Hussein.

His government controlled every aspect of life in Iraq: education, religion, the media. Syria's government is less controlling, but no more democratic. The Bush administration does have a big problem with Syria. It says Syria is harboring fugitives from Saddam Hussein's regime, including the Iraqi intelligence chief, who the U.S. says masterminded a plot to kill the first President Bush when he visited Kuwait.

COLIN POWELL, SECRETARY OF STATE: Syria also now faces a critical choice. Syria can continue direct support for terrorist groups in the dying regime of Saddam Hussein or it can embark on a different and more hopeful course.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER: Former U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick made the distinction between authoritarian and totalitarian governments in an influential article published in 1979.

She argued that authoritarian regimes can change. They can become more moderate and democratic. But totalitarian regimes either collapse, as the Soviet Union did, or they have to be overthrown, like Iraq. Now, the U.S. is challenging Syria to make changes or face the consequences -- Paula.

ZAHN: So, is Bashar totally in charge in Syria today?

SCHNEIDER: Actually, the agency in charge of Syria today is the army, the military. And what's important is, Bashar, unlike his father, did not come up through the military.

Now, the military helped him take over power when his father died, because they wanted a continuity of government. But you can argue that, if Bashar goes too far, for instance, in becoming too moderate or trying to make peace with Israel, the army is the institution he's ultimately accountable to.

ZAHN: Bill Schneider, thanks so much.

And as Bill just mentioned, the U.S. is sure that Syria does support terrorism. The latest example, well, angry U.S. officials this week accused the Syrians of harboring Farouk Hijazi. He is the former Iraqi intelligence chief suspected of involvement in an unsuccessful plot in 1993 to kill former President George Bush. The Syrian Foreign Ministry today denied that Hijazi is even in the country.

So, to explore serious connection to terrorism, I'm joined from Washington by Joseph Montville. He is a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Welcome, Mr. Montville.

Thank so much for dropping by.

JOSEPH MONTVILLE, CENTER FOR STRATEGIC AND INTERNATIONAL STUDIES: A pleasure.

ZAHN: I'd like for you to put this all in perspective for us this evening. Do you believe that the Syrian government actively supports terrorist organizations or simply lets them go about their business of creating terrorism?

MONTVILLE: I think the Syrians have a long history of hosting offices for certain organizations that use terrorist tactics, but they also have a long tradition of keeping their fingerprints off operations.

When Henry Kissinger was running diplomacy and the Syrians made deals on not allowing terrorist acts from their territory, they were pretty consistent, very consistent. And you always felt that they would not -- they didn't go back on their word.

ZAHN: So tell us a little bit about the terrorist groups who do have offices in Damascus. What is their level of activity?

MONTVILLE: Well, I think there's a branch of Islamic -- of Hamas. And the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine has an office there. They're like branch offices. And Hezbollah, which operates out of Lebanon, is a great beneficiary of pass-through materials, funding and weapons through Syria, thought to be supplied by Iran. But they're sort of a host, but not an actor.

ZAHN: So they do, though, sanction the operation of these cells?

MONTVILLE: Well, the position they take is that the Islamic Jihad, Hamas, or Hezbollah are legitimate opponents of the Israeli occupation. Hezbollah grew up during a long -- several long years of Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon. So, for them, they take the position that it's a form of political support to keep pressure on Israel and, theoretically, to get Israel engaged in a genuine peace process with the Palestinians. ZAHN: So, finally, do you believe Syria just uses terrorism in its battle or fight with Israel, or does it spread beyond that?

MONTVILLE: I think it's pretty limited to that. And I think, as of tonight, it will be thinking a lot more about how to revise its hospitality towards terrorist organizations.

And, as Bill Schneider suggested earlier, the real constituency for the messages from the White House and secretary of state may very well be the army and its security services, because a lot of people in Washington don't think Bashar really has an iron grip on them -- quite the opposite.

ZAHN: Joseph Montville, thanks so much for your perspective tonight. Appreciate your time.

MONTVILLE: You're welcome.

ZAHN: We're going to continue our look at Syria and its role in the Middle East. Coming up: an interview with Syria's foreign minister and his reaction to U.S. charges and whether he thinks his country is a target.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: There has been a chorus of U.S. criticism aimed at Syria this past week. Today, senior international correspondent Sheila MacVicar got the opportunity to speak with Syria's foreign minister.

Sheila now joins us from Damascus.

Good evening, Sheila.

SHEILA MACVICAR, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Good evening, Paula.

Indeed, after days, of course, of criticism, days of what might be called megaphone diplomacy, I sat down this afternoon for an interview with Syria's foreign minister, Farouk al-Sharaa and began by asking him his reaction to what he has been hearing from U.S. administration officials.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

FAROUK AL-SHARAA, SYRIAN FOREIGN MINISTER: I say these accusations are baseless, without any ground, and they are meant to mislead the public opinion for two things: one, because the invading forces have difficulties, problems inside Iraq.

MACVICAR: You think this is distraction?

AL-SHARAA: Yes, it's obvious. It's distraction. And the second thing is disinformation.

If there were mass destruction weapons inside Iraq, Saddam Hussein would have kept it inside Baghdad in order to use it against the invading forces. He wouldn't have even the slightest stupidity to smuggle it to another country during the war.

MACVICAR: What do you think they will ask you to do?

AL-SHARAA: Because there are so many allegations, vis-a-vis the mass destruction weapons, we, the Syrian government, are ready now to make the Middle East a zone free from all mass destruction weapons.

MACVICAR: Do you think the U.S. administration is listening to you?

AL-SHARAA: I don't know whether they listen to anybody. Even inside the United States, some people are not heard, because I listen to many politicians inside the United States. Some of them are former presidents of the United States, some of them former secretaries of state, some of them security advisers of the president of the United States. And all of them were against the war on Iraq. Who did listen to them in the administration?

MACVICAR: Do you believe that the ultimate goal of the United States, of the U.S. administration in Syria, is to effect regime change, perhaps by the same way in which they carried out regime change in Iraq?

(CROSSTALK)

AL-SHARAA: ... regime change?

There is a lot of difference. If you want to ask what is the difference between the regime in Baghdad and Syria, there's a lot of difference. We had really so much differences that we stood against them when they invaded Iran in 1980. We stood against them when they invaded Kuwait in 1990. We even were part of the coalition in Kuwait against the Iraqi invasion. Either they don't have a memory, or they have a short memory, or they have sinister plans.

MACVICAR: It is clear that one of the things that they are determined to deal with are terrorist organizations, wherever they are found. Under what circumstances would Syria break its ties with Hezbollah or disarm Hezbollah?

AL-SHARAA: I would also like to make it clear to you and to the American public opinion that those organizations are not terrorists.

MACVICAR: But these are organizations, particularly Hamas and Islamic Jihad, that attack civilians.

AL-SHARAA: They have nothing to do with the American people. They have never put -- or target Americans. In fact, they only wanted to help in having an independent state on the West Bank and Gaza.

MACVICAR: And from the American perspective, from the point of view of the U.S. administration, they see success in Iraq, having removed the regime, and now, do you think, moving on to other things?

AL-SHARAA: Yes, yes. I'll tell you, frankly speaking, the administration has brought before the whole world two objectives. One is the elimination of mass destruction weapons. The second is the change of the regime. They said they want to give the Iraqi people some sort of help for liberation. And that's this campaign for liberation, not for invasion.

If this is so, after two, three, four, five months, we have to be a witness of who is right and who is wrong. If this is a true thing, we will welcome it. We will welcome it. But if it's proven to be the opposite, this will be catastrophe.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MACVICAR: Paula, tonight, it has been learned that Secretary of State Colin Powell has decided that he will be making a visit to Syria sometime soon, no date yet announced, but a chance to resume some more quiet diplomacy, perhaps. And both sides, presumably, will have a lot to say to one another -- Paula.

ZAHN: Yes, it seems that both sides have been largely communicating through the press. When there are these one-on-one meetings, what is the expectation of what might be accomplished here?

MACVICAR: Well, one would assume that the secretary of state would be coming here with a very clear agenda, that he would come here wanting some specific things from the Syrians, and perhaps knowing that he might get some of those things from the Syrians.

But very clearly, it would appear that both sides have decided that perhaps they had better go back to more traditional diplomatic channels, than, as you have said, dealing through the media. There has been a lot of frustration, even bewilderment, expressed here in Damascus, the Syrians not simply understanding why they were getting so many messages, so many different messages from so many different people in the administration, not only those people who were speaking publicly, like the president, like the secretary of state, like the secretary of defense, but then from unnamed U.S. administration sources, who were leaking all kinds of things.

I think the Syrians felt that things were getting a little out of hand. And perhaps, at the end of the day, the Americans did as well.

ZAHN: There's been so much talk about similarity in regimes, in some parts, between the regimes in Iraq and those in Syria. You've been in both Baghdad and Damascus. How would you make that assessment?

MACVICAR: Well, let me begin with the things that are similar. Both are one-party states. Both are ruled by the same basic ideology, the ideology of the Baath Party. There are other elements that are the same. There is a history of repression, though nothing near like that that we know about Saddam Hussein.

Syria is known, as U.S. administration officials have said, to have a covert chemical weapons program. Syria has never used those weapons. We are here working in this city as journalists. You've heard from our colleagues in Baghdad over the course of the last number of months of how their work was essentially controlled by government minders. We have no one with us. We sometimes have to negotiate for things, but we have no one with us. We are free to go on the streets, free to talk to whomever we want. We have no censorship at a feed point.

So the people, people here have cell phones. They have access to the Internet. It is state-controlled Internet, but they still have access to the Internet. You can read here what you like. You can own a computer. You can own a typewriter, all those things which would not have been permissible in Saddam Hussein's Iraq, very, very difficult.

There is greater liberalization here. It is still, however, a one-party system. And although there has been some reform over the last number of years, and, as I said, there is nowhere near anything approaching the level of repression of Saddam Hussein's Iraq, there clearly is a view -- the U.S. administration has expressed this -- that there is a need for reform and a need for change. We've heard that from the American administration. We've heard that from British government.

And the Syrians themselves will quietly acknowledge that they would like to find a way to move forward.

ZAHN: Sheila MacVicar, you've made some interesting distinctions between the two countries for us tonight. Thanks so much.

And, in a moment: Syria blames Israel for planting the seeds of America's rhetoric. And how are the American complaints against Syria playing out on the Arab street? Do people think the U.S. is about to attack Syria?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: As we have seen, Syrian officials have repeatedly denied accusations that they are hiding or helping members of Saddam Hussein's regime. Syria's ambassador to the U.N. says the United States has turned its focus on Syria because that's what Israel wants.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MIKHAIL WEHBE, SYRIAN AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED NATIONS: These allegations, unfortunately, has been formulated in Israel. And the allegations formulated by Israel should not be a decision by the American administration. We hope they will realize that Syria is a country, important country in the Middle East and these allegations would not help the peace, would not serve the peace and security, indeed.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ZAHN: There has been no formal response from Israel today to the latest Syrian accusations or to Syria's draft resolution in the U.N. on weapons of mass destruction. Joining me now to talk about the Israeli-Syrian dynamic and reaction in the Middle East: Fawaz Gerges, an expert on the history of the conflict in the Middle East and a professor at Sarah Lawrence College.

Welcome back. Good to see you.

FAWAZ GERGES, SARAH LAWRENCE COLLEGE: Thank you. Thank you, Paula.

ZAHN: So what do you make of these latest diplomatic rumblings?

GERGES: Well, I think, it seems to me that the best thing that could happen to the Middle East now is to turn it into a free zone of weapons of mass destruction.

ZAHN: And that means every single country in the Middle East?

GERGES: Absolutely. And the Arab states, along with Syria, insist that this armament must be comprehensive and covers every state, including Israel. But we know that Israel would not accept, Paula, any kind of disarmament. And we know that the United States will not demand from Israel to disarm.

This is why the key to this disarmament -- I mean, I think the resolving the festering Arab-Israeli conflict. Not just the Palestinian-Israeli track, but also the Syrian-Israeli track holds the key, not only to disarmament, but also to peace and stability. And let's hope that the administration really capitalizes on the momentum now created by the victory in Iraq in order to really peacefully transform the regional order.

Why not use incentives rather than just threats to bring about the desired end?

ZAHN: Well, let me ask you this. Are you suggesting Secretary of State Colin Powell is being disingenuous when he said yesterday he wanted to free the region of weapons of mass destruction?

GERGES: Well, there are several questions here.

ZAHN: No, but answer that one first.

GERGES: I think the Americans, what the Bush administration is trying to do now is to capitalize on the American victory over Iraq in order to force Syria to accept America's demands, in relation to what I call weapons of mass destruction, in relation to the Arab-Israeli conflict, in relation not to play a role in Iraq and undermine the -- what I call the emerging new order in Iraq. So I think there is more to American demands than just weapons of mass destruction.

Paula, why bring the case of Syrian weapons of mass destruction now? Why now? Why not six, seven months ago? Why insist on it now? Because, it seems to me, there is what I call a broader objective behind the administration's stand today. And that is, they really want to transform the regional landscape. Fine, do it. Why not do it peacefully? Why not use incentives, along with threats, to transform the regional landscape? Why not bring about the desired end peacefully?

And I'm delighted that the secretary of state is going to back to Syria, because this is -- it shows that the administration is beginning to rethink its strategy, not just with Syria, but throughout the region as well.

ZAHN: But, realistically, what kind of incentives are you talking about that you believe would make this kind of change?

GERGES: I mean two points, Paula, about Syrian-Israeli relations, which really lie at the heart of this particular dispute.

In January 2000, Syria and Israel came very close to concluding a peaceful settlement and resolving their dispute. There are varying now differences between Israel and Syria. And, again, why not really reignite the Syrian-Israeli track and peacefully transform the entire order?

And as you noticed, by the way, when the Syrian foreign secretary in his interview -- he said: Well, look, we shall wait and see in five or six months if the United States can create a peaceful order in Iraq. And if not -- if they do, he said: We will follow. And if they don't, it will be a disaster for the entire region. And I think the Syrians are capitalizing on the fact that creating a peaceful order in Iraq is going to be a very difficult and complex task.

ZAHN: I would like for you to react to something that Tom Friedman wrote in "The New York Times" today in one of his columns about aggressive engagement with Syria.

He says the United States should be -- quote -- "getting in Syria's face every day, reminding the world of its 27-year occupation of Lebanon and how much it has held that country back, and reminding the Syrian people how much they have been deprived of a better future by their own thuggish regime."

Would getting in Syria's face, isn't that what the United States is doing?

(CROSSTALK)

GERGES: Syria is ruled by a one-party state. Syria is an authoritarian country. It has (INAUDIBLE) dissent in civil society. We had hoped, when young Bashar Assad came to power, he would free civil society, open up the political system. Unfortunately, even though he experimented with reforms initially, the old guard regrouped and asserted its power. And, of course, the old order remains intact.

What I'm suggesting, threats alone do not bring about the desired end. Why not use other incentives? Try to reignite the same Israeli track. Try to use incentives, along with pressure, in order to bring about the transformation of the regional order, as it were, not just in Syria, in Egypt, in the Gulf, in Syria, and Israel. Why not exert pressure on the Israeli prime minister to test him, as Friedman said, to see whether he's genuine about negotiating with the Palestinians and the Syrians as well?

ZAHN: But, in 10 seconds, what about the oppression of the Lebanese?

GERGES: Absolutely. This is why -- absolutely. I mean, the Syrian -- Syria maintains a political hegemony over Lebanon. And by helping to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, I think it will diminish Syria's hold on Lebanon.

ZAHN: Fawaz, we have got to leave it there, because we have some breaking news out of the White House. Thanks so much for dropping by.

Let's check in with John King to see what's happening.

John, hello again.

KING: Hello to you, Paula.

Well, an interesting comment tonight from the White House chief of staff that is sure to add to the debate as to whether Saddam Hussein is dead or alive. The White House had its first online discussion today using the White House Web page. Andy Card, the chief of staff, was the guest of honor, if you will, in the inaugural launch of that discussion.

One of the questions asked to him Casey (ph) in Quincy, Massachusetts, and wrote: "Is there any new information on the location of Saddam Hussein?" In answering, Andy Card, the president's chief of staff, said -- quote -- "He's not likely to be in Quincy, Braintree, or my hometown of Holbrook," all Massachusetts cities. Then Andy Card went on to say: "I think he is dead. The good news is that his regime is no longer a threat to the people of Iraq, nor to the United States or our allies."

Now, a White House spokesman was quick to add that this is Secretary Card's opinion, that he thinks Saddam Hussein is dead. But it is quite curious, because Andy Card, as the president's chief of staff, participates every day with the president in the most sensitive of national security briefings.

The administration says it has no definitive proof that the Iraqi leader is dead. But, certainly, you have the president's right-hand man and someone with access to the most sensitive U.S. intelligence saying in this online discussion -- quote -- "I think he is dead" -- Paula.

ZAHN: Some interesting news coming from one of the men closest to the president. John King, thanks so much for bringing that to us.

That is going to wrap it up for all of us here tonight. Thanks so much for joining us. And please join me again tomorrow morning on "AMERICAN MORNING" at 8:00 a.m. "LARRY KING" is up next.

Have a good night.

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