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What Should be Done about Syria?

Aired April 17, 2012 - 03:00:00   ET



CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNNI HOST: Good evening, everyone. I'm Christiane Amanpour, and welcome to our program, where we aim to delve more deeply into the stories that most impact our world.

Tonight's brief: what will it take to stop the carnage in Syria? It appears that a cease-fire that went into effect last week is unraveling, and the dead are piling up again.

The international community has voiced its outrage, but it's become abundantly clear -- and my sources confirm -- that neither the United States nor any Western or regional coalition intends to intervene militarily, not in this election year, not when war-weary voters from Paris, France, to Paris, Texas, have the last word.

But if anything is going to change, it'll take leadership from the White House. So how should American power be used? In a moment, we'll explore that with two senior U.S. officials who have strongly opposing views.

But first, let's look at what can happen when the U.S. leads and when it doesn't.

Twenty years ago this month war broke out in Bosnia, and we covered it extensively. The killing of civilians there went on for more than three years. The world looked on in horror, but world leaders did nothing more than try to provide humanitarian aid and wring their hands, as ethnic cleansing, actually genocide, unfolded on our watch.

And then came the worst massacre in Europe since World War II at Srebrenica, where 8,000 Bosnian Moslem men and boys were systematically murdered. Now the world resolved to act, led by the United States, bombing of Serbian military targets, ended the war and did bring peace.

In terrible contrast, around the same time, the failure to act, to stop the genocide in Rwanda saw 1 million people slaughtered in three months.

Fast-forward again to today, and we face the same dilemma. Was it really more important to head off a massacre in Libya with NATO air support and less important to stop the slaughter of civilians that's happening in Syria now? And if so, why? And if not, when should there be action?

That's what I want to ask the Obama administration's point person on Syria, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, and also the man who ran against President Obama for the presidency back in 2008, Republican Senator John McCain.

But, first, a live report from inside Syria. Now we have consistently tried to Syrian government officials to speak to us, but so far, they've refused. And so to get a clearer picture of what's actually happening on the ground, we turn to Sami Ibrahim in Homs. He's an activist who's been monitoring human rights abuses since the uprising began.

Sami, thank you for joining us. Can you tell me what you have seen today and in these days since the cease-fire is meant to have taken effect?

SAMI IBRAHIM, SYRIAN ACTIVIST: Actually, no cease-fire at all at Homs. The killing and the shelling, it keep continuing against civilians. But (inaudible) army. People have been killed, and each half an hour or each hour, we are receiving at our organization name of the killing persons, and we are trying our level best to contact with their family, with their family to confer (ph) and to try to do our level best to help the people.

AMANPOUR: Sami, how do you get out to document what you're telling us? How can you see what you're telling us?

IBRAHIM: Actually, sometimes by field (ph) visiting. It's very difficult. It's very dangerous. (Inaudible), we are in contact with the family. We are (inaudible) our (inaudible) is very famous (ph) inside all the Syria.

AMANPOUR: Sami, how many people do you say have been killed today?

IBRAHIM: Today, 65 persons, 14 at Idlib, 18 at Homs, four at Dara'a, two at (inaudible) Damascus (ph), one at (inaudible).

AMANPOUR: Sami Ibrahim, thank you so much for joining us from Homs.

IBRAHIM: Thanks (ph).

AMANPOUR: And joining me now here in the studio, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice. Welcome to the program.

U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice: Thank you. And congratulations on your new show.

AMANPOUR: Thank you. Appreciate that. We want to get to the bottom of how this is going to end in Syria. You've just heard this activist in Homs, and I presume you have your own information about the cease-fire. Is it holding? Would you say it's holding?

RICE: No. I think it's clear that, over the last several days, particularly since Saturday, the violence has escalated. We've seen reports, particularly from Homs and more recently from Idlib, of heavy weapons, heavy artillery resuming. So I think it's quite clear that this cessation of violence was short-lived, and it's very much fraying.

AMANPOUR: So what happens? And does that mean the Annan mission is over, Kofi Annan's efforts to broker some end to this?

RICE: I don't think it's over, but it certainly means it's in jeopardy, because of course, the Kofi Annan's six-point plan entailed, in the first instance, a mutual cessation of violence, with the government taking the first steps. It paused more or less for two days, Thursday and Friday last week. And then violence has resumed.

The Security Council on Saturday approved the -- dispatched the deployment of an advance mission of a small number of observers with the idea of deploying a larger mission if, in fact, the cessation holds and if, in fact, the government upholds its commitments. We're going to get a report in the next couple of days from the secretary-general of the U.N., recommending that deployment.

And I think if this situation on the ground hasn't stabilized, if the government is not, indeed, fulfilling itself commitments and the violence is escalating, it's going to be very difficult for the council to send unarmed observers into a hot war.

AMANPOUR: And would you confirm what we're being told, that these monitors, the initial group that has arrived, hasn't even been allowed to do its work yet?

RICE: I don't have specifics on that. And what we've heard is there are only six of them there. They're liaising with the government. They're -- you know, they don't have yet all that they would need, like in terms of armored vehicles and the like for full maneuverability. We'll hear better from the secretary-general about whether the circumstances are right.

AMANPOUR: So, anyway, they've told us that they haven't even left the hotel, which is eerily similar to the last round of monitors that went there.

So my question to you is this, then. You're saying the cease-fire is unraveling, that this may or may not work, the monitor mission, and that Annan's mission may or may not continue. So what happens next? Does one give another deadline? Do you say to President Assad you either stop now or else?

RICE: Well, I think first of all the international community has backed Kofi Annan and his plan for a variety of reasons. He's an experienced diplomat. He's neutral. And, indeed, he has a plan, the logic of which we can all agree to. We have --


AMANPOUR: Which involves Assad stepping down?

RICE: Which involves a political transition, which will inevitably result in Assad stepping down.

Now, as you know, for many, many months prior to that, count the Security Council, the international community was divided. Russia and China were protecting Assad. What has changed now with the Annan plan is that Russia and China -- Russia, especially -- are invested in its success. I believe that had they not put some measure of pressure on Assad, he wouldn't have agreed to the Annan plan, or even a brief pause in the violence. So I think --


AMANPOUR: -- success, you've got the whole --

RICE: Well --

AMANPOUR: -- Security Council on board right now.

RICE: It's a very first step. Let's not overstate it. But the point I'm making here, Christiane, is the next step, really, is for those who have maximum influence on Assad to continue to use it, and make it plain to Assad that either he takes this chance, that Kofi Annan and the united international community is offering to end this thing peacefully, or he's going to face increased pressure. And Russia and China --

AMANPOUR: What is increased pressure, because most people say, I mean, you've made it quite clear that the United States is not going to intervene, and the other powers have made it clear that militarily, there won't be any intervention.

RICE: Well, several things. First of all, we're part of a discussion today in Paris about how to strengthen the sanctions that are already --

AMANPOUR: Those are sanctions. I'm talking about --

RICE: -- but I'm talking -- when I say pressure, I do mean economic pressure, political pressure. We're supporting the opposition through -- the peaceful opposition through non-lethal assistance of communications equipment and --


AMANPOUR: -- really doing? I mean, there aren't any significant defections. You're not -- the sanctions haven't sort of burst open the coalition around Assad. He's still there.

RICE: Well, let me finish the thought, and then let come back to what I think you want to talk about, which is military intervention.

With respect to what has changed, Russia and China now have a great stake in the success of the Annan plan. They have the maximum leverage on Assad. If Assad continues to refuse, Russia and China are going to face a very difficult choice. Either they put pressure on Assad to adhere to his commitments, or join in the international community doing it, or they look like they weren't serious. So that's what's new, and that's an important change.

Now coming to the question of, you know, what is the international community going to do in terms of military intervention, I think for the U.S. -- from the U.S. point of view, we're rightly very apprehensive about increasing the militarization of this conflict.

It's already a hot war. It could spill over, as we saw threatened a couple of works ago, into Turkey and Lebanon. It is a society that is fractured on sectarian lines, the same sectarian lines that we see throughout the countries in the region. So it's not in the United States' interest, if this can still possibly be resolved peacefully, to jump towards military solutions.

AMANPOUR: When would you think that it cannot be possibly resolved peacefully, I mean, bodies are still piling up. Many officials, who I talked to, have actually dealt with President Assad, say that really all he understands in these situations is a credible threat of force, frankly, to be put there, for him to meet his obligations.

RICE: If only --

AMANPOUR: And that's not on the table.

RICE: If only it were that simple.

AMANPOUR: (Inaudible) --

RICE: Christiane, if only it were that simple.

AMANPOUR: But I'm not suggesting it's simple, but it was elsewhere --

RICE: It was elsewhere --

AMANPOUR: --for instance in Libya.

RICE: Let's talk about Libya. Libya was quite a different circumstance. You have the entire region and the Arab League united behind a call to the international community, to back a no-fly zone and the protection of civilians. You have a unified Security Council that authorized that action.

You had NATO and Arab countries willing to participate in that action, very crucially you had on the ground a unified, coherent opposition that controlled territories starting from the strategic and major city of Benghazi in the east, from which they were able to push out. None of those circumstances are, in fact, the case in the context.

This is Syria -- particularly the opposition, which remains fragmented, relatively unknown to the outside world, and certainly not coherent controlling territory from which it could push out.

AMANPOUR: So I definitely hear your position. I know that that's your position. But you, of course, were in the Clinton administration, and you saw the preemptive humanitarian intervention in Kosovo after Bosnia. That was not a U.N. resolution, by no means were all countries on board, and yet President Clinton led with his allies in order to stop a carnage. Why can't that happen today?

RICE: Well, first of all, as you'll recall, that was a NATO mission conducted purely from the air.



AMANPOUR: And this is what I'm talking about here --

RICE: Well, what are you -- what are you (inaudible)?

AMANPOUR: -- boots on the ground.

RICE: Some people are talking about --

AMANPOUR: I haven't heard that.

RICE: -- corridors, which definitely entail boots on the ground. I think your next guest has proposed humanitarian safe havens and humanitarian corridors. There's no way to effect that without putting boots on the ground.

AMANPOUR: So are you ruling that out?

RICE: Let --

AMANPOUR: Humanitarian corridors?

RICE: I'm not -- I am being very plain about what the administration's position is, that our strong preference is, and we think the bulk of the American people would like to see this resolved, if possible, through a combination of diplomatic pressure, economic pressure, support, nonlethal support to the opposition, rather than getting into what would be a much, much more complicated and involved war than ever we've considered in the context of Kosovo or Libya.

Let's be clear, Christiane, that the air defenses that Syria has, the neighbors that back it, the superpowers outside the neighborhood that back it, make this all a very different, much more complicated situation than either of the two we've just been discussing.

AMANPOUR: I know that's your position. You know --


RICE: -- actually a fact.

AMANPOUR: You know that many people have different opinions on that - -

RICE: They have different prescriptions, but I -- what I've been describing of Syria are the facts, which are pretty much indisputable. Now you could come to a different conclusion about what to do in light of those facts. But I don't think we can dispute that Iran, Russia, other countries in the region, have -- Turkey, have -- all have stakes on different sides of this equation.

AMANPOUR: You mention Iran. Isn't Syria and the dispatch of the current regime much more, for instance, in the United States' strategic interest, given its ties with Iran --

RICE: Absolutely.

AMANPOUR: -- than in Libya?

RICE: Absolutely. We think that it is time for Assad to go. We've put pressure on -- to that effect, and we're going to continue to and ramp that up. The question is how do you accomplish that? And there's no simple method of accomplishing this through simple airstrikes, particularly when the opposition doesn't control territory from which to push out, when Syria has some of the most sophisticated air defenses in the region, and when it has the backing of some major powers around the world.

AMANPOUR: Do you see, if there is no compliance by the Assad government, one of the options is safe areas. Another option is referring him to the International Criminal Court. What are you discussing now to ramp up pressure beyond economics?

RICE: Well, first of all, I wouldn't discount the economic pressure. The pressure on the Assad regime has intensified economically. Their currency is -- their foreign reserves, all of these things are under enormous pressure. And we would like to see that pressure increase through multiple -- further multilateralizing of the economic sanctions.

AMANPOUR: But what happens next?

RICE: With respect to ICC and with respect to accountability, we have been absolutely clear that those responsible for the atrocities, including the leadership in Syria, must be held accountable. But for an ICC referral to happen in this instance, unfortunately, again, that has to come from the Security Council, or from the state itself, and Syria's not an ICC party. So the only opportunity for that is from the Security Council, which would, again, require the assent of Russia and China, which I don't see as likely in the near term.

AMANPOUR: On that note, Ambassador Rice, thank you for joining us.

RICE: Thank you.

AMANPOUR: And coming up, lead, follow or get out of the way, we'll ask Senator John McCain in a moment. He's just returned from visiting Syrian refugees in Turkey, and you'll want to hear what he has to say. So stay with us.



AMANPOUR: Welcome back. And now for another view of what should be done about Syria, Republican Senator John McCain has called for arming the opposition to President Bashar al-Assad. And he's the first senator to say the U.S. should take the lead in using international air power against Assad's forces. Senator McCain joins me now from Washington, D.C.

Welcome to the program, Senator.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, (R), ARIZ: Well, thank you, Christiane, and congratulations on your new program. I know of no one who is better informed that you on international affairs.

AMANPOUR: Well, John, Senator McCain, thank you very much indeed. So let me ask you, you've just heard a very passionate and eloquent disposition for continuing tough economic sanctions and for letting the Annan peace process, or the Annan special mission continue. But you have a different view. Can you lay that out?

MCCAIN: I think I can, Christiane, but first of all, I can't help but comment on -- I was listening to your interview with our ambassador to the U.N., basically what she's saying, unless we get the Russians and the Chinese to go along, we do nothing. And somehow to think that increased, quote, "economic and diplomatic pressures" will bring about a change in the situation on the ground, I think, is a fundamental misunderstanding of Bashar Assad and what he's doing.

And first of all, fundamentally, it's not a fair fight. The Russians are pouring arms into Syria. The Iranians are on the ground, rape, murder, atrocities, torture is taking place as we speak. We know that around 10,000 people have been massacred, some under the most unspeakable circumstances. The ambassador said that we don't know who the leadership is of the Free Syrian Army or the Syrian National Council. I do. I do. I've met with them. I know who they are.

AMANPOUR: But to be fair, to be --

MCCAIN: And I can tell you that they are people who are dedicated to overthrowing Bashar Assad, and a lot of them are defectors from their military. Is there danger of extremist elements coming in? There was a danger in Libya. There was a danger in Tunisia. That's a danger in Turkey -- I mean, in Egypt. So all I can say is it's not a fair fight.

Go ahead.

AMANPOUR: Senator, Senator, one of the issues you brought up, and certainly Ambassador Rice, and many, actually, in the Syrian opposition movement bring up is that there isn't a coordinated opposition. How would one logistically help these people? How could you arm and train? How could you intervene in a way that is meaningful?

MCCAIN: First of all, they are communicating and coordinating a lot better than is being reported. I know that from my meetings with the Free Syrian Army leadership. And but they can do more in that respect. One of them is the sanctuary. A sanctuary, where they will be able to organize, to treat their wounded, to communicate and to establish a position where they can defend themselves.

And again, they need weapons. They are not getting weapons. Radio equipment and communications equipment and non-lethal aid doesn't do very good against tanks and artillery, and people are being slaughtered as we speak, and no one, none of us who know the situation in Syria believe that the Annan plan would have any success, which obviously it has not.

AMANPOUR: So you have spoken very consistently about this now. You were the challenger to President Obama in 2008. Now your successor is Mitt Romney. Do you believe that in -- if there was to be a Mitt Romney administration that the United States would bypass a U.N. resolution if necessary and actually take the fight to Syria in terms of leading an Air Force, leading NATO air support or any kind of other international air support?

MCCAIN: Look, I can't -- I can't commit for Candidate Romney. Only he can definitively make this statement. But I know what Ronald Reagan would do. I know what he would do, and I know what he did. And I know what Bill Clinton did in Bosnia and Kosovo. I know what his greatest regret was, that we didn't intervene in Rwanda, a tragedy that you covered extensively.

My congratulations to CNN for continuing to cover this carnage every single night and bring that awareness to the American people. And it's for us to be -- to depend on the largesse and generosity of China and Russia is an affront to everything we stand for and believe in. We could provide them with weapons. That -- I -- indirectly, there are countries, if the United States leads, that is ready to do things that are necessary to help the Syrian resistance.

And finally, you know as well as I do that General Mattes, our commander in the area, said that if Assad fell, it would be the greatest blow to Iran in 25 years, the same country that is trying to assassinate the Saudi ambassador here in Washington, D.C. And it's developing nuclear weapons in a way that could lead to a confrontation of enormous consequences. So -- go ahead. I'm sorry.

AMANPOUR: No, no. It's OK.


MCCAIN: -- such a long tirade.


MCCAIN: I'm sorry.

AMANPOUR: I meant ask Ambassador Rice this, and I -- and I didn't have enough time. I want to ask you, and I'll put this question to her again. The idea of leading from behind, the idea of the United States being a support with other international partners, as it was in Libya, seems somehow to have been sort of a little bit disparaged by a recent confidential NATO report that says that, actually, without U.S. leadership, these missions are not as effective as they could be, particularly even in Libya. Can the U.S. take the role of being the supporter? Or does it always have to lead in these -- in these issues?

MCCAIN: I think there's different kinds of leadership. And for example, in Libya, yes. We provided refueling and a lot of other capabilities that, frankly, our NATO allies just simply don't have because of their cutbacks in defense spending over the years. But the fact that we didn't use the full weight of our air power did extend the conflict for months, which meant the needless deaths, in my view, countless number of Libyans, young people, who were -- who were fighting.

But having set that aside, the United States can lead in the way that we are multinational. In other words, the Syria, the Saudis, the Turks, Gulf states, are crying out for American leadership, not that we act unilaterally, but we act together in a way that's most effective so that we can show American leadership and participation but not unilateral American leadership. Do you see my point?

AMANPOUR: Indeed. Senator McCain, we'll keep watching this as it unfolds. Thank you for joining us.

MCCAIN: Could I just make one other comment? I went to the refugee camps. I heard the stories, the murder, the torture, the rapes. I wish that every American could have a chance to be moved as I was, and I'm a pretty tough guy. This has got to be brought to a stop. We can do that. And everybody will give you reasons why we can't. I know America can with other nations.

AMANPOUR: Thank you again.

MCCAIN: Thank you.

AMANPOUR: And coming up, in Syria, the opposition stronghold of Homs continues to be a target of the Assad regime, despite a cease-fire. But amid the shelling and the destruction, there's a sound of hope. You'll hear it for yourself when we come back.



AMANPOUR: And now for our final thought. Imagine that you're in Syria in the battered city of Homs with a cease-fire collapsing and violence your daily staple. Another explosion, another flash of fire, and a cloud of smoke. But listen again. Someone posted this on YouTube this week. Amid the destruction, you can actually hear the sound of birds.

Sometimes even in the rubble, the fire and the smoke, there is the sound of life and the sound of hope. And that's our program for tonight. Thank you for watching.

And a final note on Syria, women around the world are signing a plea to Asma Assad, the wife of the Syrian president, asking her to help end the violence there. And I posted a link to the petition at, where we share all our content every day. So join me there.