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Striking Syria?; Syria: Allies and Attack Options

Aired September 3, 2013 - 22:00   ET


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Hey. Good evening, everyone. Welcome to a special edition of A.C. 360. I'm Anderson Cooper.

For this hour, we are going to dig deeper into the issues before Congress,, the question lawmakers and the American people are asking right now, should the United States launch a military strike against Syria for the chemical weapons attack that killed more than 1,400 people, hundreds of them children?

We have got an incredible lineup of guests tonight to talk about what's at stake as the region and the world wait for what is next. We begin though with the breaking news tonight. Multiple sources say tomorrow the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will take up a revised bill authorizing the use of force in Syria.

That word is coming from multiple sources after today's hearing on Capitol Hill, where the Obama administration made its case for military action to the committee.

Our chief congressional correspondent, Dana Bash, has been speaking with lawmakers all evening and she joins me now live.

Dana, you were the first to obtain the revised authorization bill. What do we know about it?

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: We know that it seeks to assuage the concerns of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle that what the White House sent to Congress over the weekend is simply too broad. So here's what it would do.

It would limit this authorization to a very finite period of time, 60 days, with an option for the president to come back and ask for 30 days' extension. And then also it would make very clear in black and white in the law that there would be no combat troops on the ground in Syria. As you heard from the hearing today, for three-and-a-half- hours, several of the senators were trying to ask Senator Kerry -- excuse me -- Secretary Kerry about that.

He kind of fumbled the answer at the beginning, but then at the end he tried to make it abundantly clear that is not the goal of the administration. So we will see this inside the Senate Foreign Relations Committee tomorrow. They're going to debate it. And then there could be a vote in this committee as early as tomorrow with a goal sending it to the full Senate early next week.

COOPER: All right. And so it looks like the Senate, Democratically led, is likely to vote in favor of the president. What about the House? Obviously, you now have Speaker Boehner and you have Eric Cantor saying that they would support it, they're on board. What about the rest of the House?

BASH: The House is notoriously more unpredictable than the Senate, and it is not any different in this case. Never mind that is run by Republicans, they have a majority of Republicans, but in this particular case, part of the issue that the president has is with his own party, because you have a lot more kind of anti-interventionist, anti-war Democrats in the House as well.

But the fact that the House speaker endorsed this today is really huge, because he generally sits on the sidelines with things that are controversial, and he didn't do that in this case. He actually -- little known fact perhaps, the speaker doesn't have to vote and usually doesn't vote. In this case, he certainly suggested that he would take a vote.

Will that sway the Republicans who are isolationists? Certainly not. But there are plenty of Republicans in the House who are on the fence who could look to the speaker and say, you know what? Maybe this is something I should do. It could make a difference.

COOPER: Dana, appreciate the reporting.

A lot to talk about tonight. Joining me live, our chief national correspondent, John King, Anne-Marie Slaughter, who served at the State Department under Hillary Clinton who today started a new job as president and CEO of the New American Foundation.

Congratulations for that, Anne-Marie.

Fouad Ajami also joins us, senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, and CNN political commentator and "New York Times" op-ed columnist Charles Blow.

Do you think the authorization that the White House put forward that it was too broad, that it allowed too much executive action?


I think they knew that they were going to get pushback and what they wanted was something that gave them enough room to strike, to punish Assad for using chemical weapons, but also to actually degrade his forces enough to deter him and to stop him from being able to do this again.

COOPER: Do you feel like you know what the military action though will look like, I mean, what the objective actually is?

FOUAD AJAMI, HOOVER INSTITUTION: You know what? I don't. But I am consoled by the fact nor does President Obama, nor does the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

There's the whole uncertainty of war. You just interviewed Ambassador Ryan Crocker. Ray Crocker is one of the great diplomats in our country's history. He's done time -- he's been our ambassador in Lebanon and Syria and Afghanistan, one of the very best. And he told you, we don't know Syria.

This is a man, if anybody knows Syria, it must be Ray Crocker.

COOPER: Right. He said for years the U.S., we just haven't had people on the ground.


AJAMI: We don't know it. It was this dictatorship, it was this black box. And to the extent the Obama administration was interested in Syria, it went to Syria, it began in 2009, 2010 with then Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as the point man, courting the presidency and courting the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

COOPER: If we don't know Syria, according to Ambassador Crocker, who was ambassador there, should we be launching missiles into it?

CHARLES BLOW, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I think that's the question that the administration is facing when it comes to persuading the public.

Persuading the lawmakers is one thing, right? That's going to be a difficult task, particularly in the House. The public is dead set against this. Most of them have not been paying very close attention to Syria. Pew has been looking at how many people have paid very close attention. Fewer than one in five for the last two years have said that they paid very close attention to Syria.

There's another problem when the public comes into this discussion, which is that the trust in government is so eroded at this point. So we had a spike in trust in government after 9/11. It had been climbing during the Clinton administration. It shot up to like 60 percent of people who thought the government did the right thing at least most of the time. That number is now down to less than 20 percent of the population.

People do not trust the government to do the right things. Therefore, you have to sell them both on a place that they're really familiar with, a situation they had not been following very closely, and an action they do not want to do because they got burned the last time they did it. That's a problem.

COOPER: I want to play just some video though of Secretary Kerry, who sort of fumbled the answer about boots on the ground initially. Let's play that.


SEN. BOB CORKER (R), TENNESSEE: I didn't find that a very appropriate response regarding boots on the ground. I do want to say that that's an important element to me. I hope that as we, together, work through this, we work through something that's much clearer than the answer that you gave. JOHN KERRY, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: Let me be very clear now, because I don't want anything coming out of this hearing that leaves any door open to any possibility.

So let's shut that door now as tight as we can.


COOPER: So clearly now this new resolution saying -- authorization saying no boots on the ground. Do you think the president made headway today?

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The president made headway today because, number one, the speaker and the majority leader coming on board with the Republicans. Number two, Nancy Pelosi also getting out front.

The leadership in the Congress, with the exception of Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, he is laying back. He has a Tea Party primary challenge. That could be one of the reasons where he's saying I need more evidence. I'm not ready to cast my lot yet.

But the leadership in the House, the Republicans and Democrats, getting out front early, they say they're not going to twist arms, but Nancy Pelosi sent a dear colleague letter to her fellow anti-war liberals and she was very candid, saying the folks back home don't support this, I'm going out ahead of my people.

That will help. I have had some communications tonight with some Republican leadership sources who say the speaker, the majority leader helps a little bit with the people, but that the president has to do more. And maybe it shouldn't be this way on national security, but welcome to American politics and welcome to the fact that these guys are on the ballot in 2014.

The Iraq vote in 2002, the safe vote was yes. That was the mood of the country. Syria, 2013, the safe vote is no. So to get more of these votes, the president needs to move some of the polling. He doesn't have to get 60 percent of American people's support, but a lot of lawmakers, especially these Republicans who have no love loss for this administration, they are very skeptical of this president's leadership.

They don't think there's a clearly defined military objective, at least yet, and they need to see some movement in the folks back home. So the public hearing today is step one in that. The president is overseas right now. If the Senate is going to vote on Tuesday or Wednesday and the House is then going to come in and vote at the end of the week, the president has very -- a short window to move it, and he's going to be overseas for much of it. Is he going to being making the case to the American people about military action in Syria while he's having his little frosty walk in the hall past Vladimir Putin?

COOPER: You both support military action, though you say it's far too overdo.

You're not so sure.

BLOW: Yes.

My ambivalence on this is staggering at this point. I am just not convinced of what the endgame is here, and I'm not convinced that the administration has worked all that out. I'm not convinced we don't exacerbate the problem by dropping bombs, particularly the refugee problem. Syria is a very small country, 22 million people. Put it in perspective, that's about the size of the New York metropolitan area. That's a very small space.

Do people sit still while bombs rain down on them for 60 days or 90 days or do they flee more into Jordan?


KING: This is the question. This is the question, and to Charles' point about trust in America. Remember, the American people just went through the Iraq war. They were told we would be greeted as liberators. The Iraqis would be paying for it within weeks, they had a civil society that was to stand up.

And none of those things happened. They in part are skeptical about military involvement in the Middle East because the current president of the United States made his name in national politics by saying we need to get out of the Middle East, that U.S. military intervention in the Middle East was ruining our relationships in that part of the world. To that point, maybe it's happening in the classified briefings. That's the one thing we did not get in the public meeting today. What is the goal of the military operation?


BLOW: It keeps shifting.


BLOW: But there's also shifting sands, right?

The first we hear of this is we need to punish Assad for using chemical weapons on his own people, be limited in scope and duration, what have you. This is not what we're hearing today. This is not what we have heard the last couple of days.

It's a much broader conversation, a lot of if-thens, a lot of dominoes falling. If we don't do this -- if you don't stand up to the bully, how will the other kids on the playground respect you?


SLAUGHTER: This is not just a bully.

He's killed 100,000 over two years. There's been plenty of atrocities. Journalists who have been inside say they haven't seen anything this bad in their entire careers. This is a different order of magnitude. He has used chemical weapons. Just imagine, you die by what you need to live. You breathe, you die, your family dies.

COOPER: Why is chemical weapons the red line? Why isn't 100,000 dead from conventional weapons enough?

SLAUGHTER: Because they are weapons of mass destruction, right? It's 1,000 today. It could be 10,000 tomorrow at one go. So the difference -- it could be 50,000. Right?


COOPER: So to you that is a real red line?

SLAUGHTER: Absolutely. It is a weapon of mass destruction. He cannot only win this war, he can create unbelievable ethnic cleansing.

I think that's actually what he's trying to do, that once you use chemical weapons and then you come back in, people will flee. So really there is an actual order of magnitude difference between these kinds of weapons, which is why they have been outlawed for 100 years, and what else he's done. And the goal is to make clear that he doesn't do that again, and to degrade his abilities generally. But that's a clear line.

AJAMI: I would have drawn my line on the use of airpower. Picasso immortalized Guernica because guess what? Because in 1937, the German and Italian bombers bombed Guernica, a town of 7,000 people. Bashar al-Assad bombed two ancient cities of million of people.

He used airpower to destroy Aleppo and he used airpower to destroy Homs and we did nothing about it. We didn't draw a line. Part of the problem for this administration is that for 30 years -- for 30 months in that dilemma, the administration didn't say much about Syria. The president was virtually silent on Syria.

And now we have come to the Syria debate with this passion. It's this newly discovered passion and we have to be honest. When you asked Zaidoun, the Syrian whom you have been talking to and dealing with, was he encouraged, was he discouraged, he was not a man who saw this new phase as a kind of bright new spot for the Syrian people.

We're doing this bombing now because we said we would. We have to rescue the president of the United States.

COOPER: You think that's what it's really about?

AJAMI: We have to rescue the presidency. We cannot do...


COOPER: So you don't think is about Syria?


AJAMI: We can't do a House of Commons because we are the preeminent power.

COOPER: You're saying this is rescuing President Obama basically for an off-handed remark he made about a red line a year ago?

AJAMI: I don't want to go that far. I think we are doing this -- all of a sudden we discovered, look, this crisis has burned and we're talking about refugees leaving Syria, seven million people better internal displacement and external migration.

One million children have left Syria on their own, many of them, 740,000 of them under 11 years of age. And hell came to Jordan, hell came to Iraq and hell came to Lebanon and trouble came to Turkey and we were not stirred.

COOPER: When you hear from Kerry today, actually the opposition is becoming more moderate, you say -- you have always defended the opposition all along throughout this, but you say that sudden realization that's just salesmanship?

AJAMI: Anderson, I think I have always thought if 100,000 people are willing to die to retrieve their liberty from the house of Assad, they're not going to give their liberty to al Qaeda, to a bunch of jihadists who came through Libya on Marseille.

We have seen many towns in Syria that have rebelled against al Qaeda and against the Nusra Front. I am sick and tired of hearing about the Nusra Front. The Syrian people are not fighting and dying in order to give it to the Nusra Front. And 15 months ago, you were in the refugee camps in Turkey. You actually were in tents that the fighters came at the end of -- on Friday, they came to visit their families in these tents and to go back, and they were ordinary Syrians, they were ordinary Syrians. They were not jihadists.

COOPER: I know, Charles, you want to get in here. We have to take a quick break. We will have more with our panel. The discussion is going to continue and we will get into what support, if any, the United States can expect internationally if it chooses to strike, a whole lot of options.

We will be right back.


COOPER: As the pressure mounts in Washington, the denials from Syria continue. Syria's ambassador to the United Nations has been on this program before. He's a serial liar, frankly, to say the least.

Today was no different. In an exclusive interview with Christiane Amanpour, he said allegations about the Syrian government using chemical weapons are "false and unfounded." Christiane wasn't going to let that go by. Listen.


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The British, the French, the United States -- sir, the British, the French, the United States all say that chemical weapons have been used, as you say, but that they have been used by your government because the opposition does simply not have access to the delivery systems, to the wherewithal, to the stockpiles.

And it kind of beggars belief, sir, and this is unfortunately a historical precedent, to think that people are gassing themselves. So this is a major problem with your arguments.

And it does sound, right now, that the Syrian government is pretty afraid. All of a sudden, all of you are out giving interviews. The President Assad to "Le Figaro." You are talking to me. Others are talking to, you know, to other journalists. I'm trying to figure out, you believe, don't you, that there is going to be a major U.S. strike on your military facilities?

BASHAR JA'AFARI, SYRIAN AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED NATIONS: Christiane, the reports emanating from USA, France and Britain are not and could not be taken seriously, and they are not credible, because these three governments are deeply involved in the Syrian crisis in helping the...


JA'AFARI: ... Republicans against the government.



COOPER: Back now with our panel, John King, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Fouad Ajami and Charles Blow.

Charles, you wanted to say something?

BLOW: I'm just kind of uncomfortable with the idea that we have to take military action to kind of rescue the president. Right? So, I...

COOPER: You don't believe that...


BLOW: I'm not saying that's not what's happening. I think it's an easier case to sell on moral grounds, to say that this is a catastrophe, this is an atrocity that happened in this country. Whether or not our enemies come to our aid, we as a country deem this to be something that we find valuable in the world. It's a moral obligation for us to do.


COOPER: If you're going to make the moral argument, wasn't the time to make that when they were torturing small children?


BLOW: I think all the timing is off here.

I think we're painted into a box. I think that even this resolution that is before the Armed Services -- before the committee is painting into a further box, because when you say there will be no boots on the ground and you say that you will be out in 60 days or maybe you have an option for another 30, you're painting yourself into another box, because you have no idea what Hezbollah will do.

You have no idea what Iran will do. You will have idea what Russia will do. We are expecting us to sit back. Kerry said this is not a conventional war. But what is a conventional war?

COOPER: Kerry talked about this red line idea, that this isn't a response to President Obama's red line. I just want to play that sound.


KERRY: Some have tried to suggest that the debate we're having today is about President Obama's red line. I could not more forcefully state that is just plain and simply wrong. This debate is about the world's red line. It's about humanity's red line. And it's a red line that anyone with a conscience ought to draw.


COOPER: But if it is the world's red line, where is the world on this? I know where France is. We certainly now know where England is on this. Where is the rest of the world? Where is the rest of the Arab world?

SLAUGHTER: Well, actually the Arab League made an incredibly strong statement staying that Assad had to be punished for using chemical weapons. For the Arab League, that was an extraordinary statement.

COOPER: Right, but in terms of actual cooperation.

SLAUGHTER: Well, no, I think we're going to get quite a lot of cooperation from Saudi Arabia, from Turkey, I think Jordan. Some will be public, and some will be under the table.

But I really don't think this is just about the president's red line. Again, this is a weapon of mass destruction, it is a weapon of mass destruction, like nuclear weapons. We have Iran there. We're telling Iran they can't have weapons of mass destruction. This is the ability of a government to wipe out tens of thousands of its own people.

COOPER: So you think if the United States does not act on this use of a weapon of mass destruction, it makes the argument against Iran? It makes Israel feel like, are you going to have Israel's back if there's an attack on Israel? It's not just Obama's credibility, it's the United States' credibility?


SLAUGHTER: Absolutely.

KING: This is one of the complications in the debate going forward.

I accept the point, but I think to say it's not about the president's red line is ludicrous. It may be about all those red lines, about humanity's red lines, and history's red lines, and the world's red lines, but it's also about the president's red lines. He is the one that has to make the decision.

Part of the complication in this debate, and Secretaries Kerry and Hagel didn't want to answer the question today, I understand why they don't want to answer it, is if the president loses the vote, he still says he has the authority to act and there are people at the White House who say his credibility is now at stake. The credibility of the United States is now at stake. So he probably would act.

There are many people in the House of Representatives especially, and Rand Paul brought it up today in the Senate confirmation, who say, if you want us to take this stuff vote, why don't you give the respect to us that the prime minister of the U.K. gave to the British Parliament, saying I will consider it binding, if I lose, I won't do this?


COOPER: We have some of the argument Rand Paul was making. Do we have that bit ready? Can we play that? OK. We will get that bite shortly.


BLOW: I think that that also raises another interesting point here, which I think is a constitutional point, which is about the executive branch and the legislative branch.

The president wants buy-in. Right? He may not get it. But if he does not get buy-in on this, can you imagine another president ever going to Congress with the same sort of request for use in the same sort of force? It sets a precedent for the presidency. I think in that regard, it is a long-term strategy. I think that the president is a very smart tactician in that way.

I think he is concerned about the power of the executive branch and I think knows he will win one way or the other. Either he will get his way on this or the presidency will win because the next president will say, I'm not going to go through that hassle.

COOPER: If you go into this though with all the parameters set in advance, no boots on the ground, 60 days, and another 30 days, what is to stop Assad from then using chemical weapons again, saying what is the U.S. going to do now? Is then there going to be an escalation?

AJAMI: I really don't think much escalation lies in store for us. I think this man's army is in lamentable expression. The Syrians have a wonderful expression about Bashar's army. They call the army in slippers.

There is nothing. That army is nothing.

COOPER: The army in slippers?

(LAUGHTER) AJAMI: We have gone through. We have gone through. When we did Bosnia, everybody said the Serbs, they are warriors. They tied down 37 Nazi divisions. We did two wars against the Serbs in Bosnia and Kosovo and we didn't lose a single soldier, a single airmen.

And then we said the same thing about Saddam. Tough army, the best land army in the region. Guess what? We lost 150 soldiers in the war against Saddam Hussein. Bashar al-Assad and his army, they are good at killing women and at killing children and at killing fighters who are badly mismatched and badly armed.

I think the war is going to be -- it's going to be a very different kind of war for Bashar al-Assad. But the question remains, what will we get out of this war? If we set the parameters so tight and so limited, what are we to hope for? That's I think why part of the problem on the part of the American people is they are not being told what this war is about, other than let's punish Bashar al-Assad.

COOPER: But the administration is not using the W-word, not using the word war. Is this a war?


KING: You're using military force against another sovereign nation.

COOPER: And, therefore, should it be sold to the American people as this is a war?


SLAUGHTER: American presidents have used force like this over 200 times in the past century-and-a-half without going to Congress.

It is a use of force short of anything that we require a declaration of war. That said, I think, as Charles said, this president was a constitutional lawyer. He actually said back in May that it was time to get out of the permanent state of war we have been in since 9/11, and he is, I think, trying to say, look, we need to be back on a footing where when the president decides to use force, he ought to go and make that case to the American people.

COOPER: Let's listen to that Rand Paul discussion.


KERRY: If the United States of America doesn't do this, Senator, is it more or less likely that Assad does it again? You want to answer that question?

SEN. RAND PAUL (R), KENTUCKY: I don't think it's known. I don't think it's known...


KERRY: Is it more or less likely that he does it again?


PAUL: ... the attack. I think it's unknown whether it's more or less likely...


PAUL: .. . the attack.

KERRY: It's unknown? Senator, it's not unknown. If the United States of America doesn't hold him accountable on this, with our allies and friends, it's a guarantee Assad will do it again. A guarantee.


COOPER: Do you believe that? That it's a guarantee Assad would do it again?


In fact, I think Assad has been carefully testing us. He used chemical weapons first at Christmas, then he used them in the spring. We said, well, he can't use them systematically. The timing of this was incredible. It was the middle of August, when the president's on vacation, where everybody is out. If you were trying to see what you could get away with, this is exactly what you would do.

I absolutely think if we don't do anything, he will continue.

COOPER: There was a report today though that the first CIA-trained opposition fighters are now infiltrating into Syria. Is there a whole covert action that we -- that the American people do not know about?

AJAMI: We have been training special forces, if you will, in Jordan. And the Jordanians are very discrete about this. They lie right next to the beast. They lie right next to Bashar. And they don't want to fight him. Particularly they don't want to fight him unless they see the Americans have made a decision to completely destroy him.

So we are trying to help. In June, we promised we will provide the Syrian opposition with weapons, with lethal weapons, with lethal assistance.

COOPER: Right, which none of that happened.

AJAMI: None of that happened.

And now in response to Senator Corker and in response to the demands of Senator McCain and Lindsey Graham, now there is a kind of a promise we will do better. We will not only bomb for chemical weapons, but we will also upgrade the capabilities of the opposition.

One thing that is interesting, there are now three capitals that are being lumped together, if you will, in terms of casting for a definition, and a purpose for this war, Damascus, Tehran and Pyongyang. If you listen now, it's about not only about Syria. It's also about Iran, giving an example to Iran and it's also about North Korea.

COOPER: Isn't that the old axis of evil?


BLOW: ... creeping idea of a mission that, to me, is problematic in the sense that this -- America has an enormous war machine. Right?

The DOD is the biggest employer in the world. We spend more on defense than the next 10 countries combined. That beast stays hungry. The idea that when we start to talk about a limited kind of operation, and then the creep starts to happen, it's not just about the thing we talk about at first. It's about this next country and the next one, and setting this example, and setting that example.

I think that that becomes problematic particularly for people who kind of remember the selling of the last war, not that these are comparable wars, not that these are comparable presidents. But people have -- that is stuck in people's mind and it becomes a problem for the selling of this action.

KING: There's no question the memories of Iraq and Afghanistan haunt over this.

I would just make one point about the limited nature of the resolution. It is -- number one, it's to constrict the administration. But, number two, it's on the theory that Assad accepts his punishment, in the sense that, if he lashes out at Israel, if he lashes out in some way, well, then the president will get all the latitude he needs.

One other point. With the president overseas with this debate entering its final phase, this is an enormous test of him personally at this moment. This is his decision. This defines him. And because of the timing where it is in his second term, if it goes well and his standing is improved, then he stretches out his effectiveness in the second term. If it goes poorly, or if he loses and is weakened, everything in Washington is determined by the president's political standing. So his second term, you're already heading into the midterm elections. People will start talking about lame duck...

COOPER: So if you're saying if this goes badly, he's done?

KING: He could be done. This is an incredibly important moment. This is a very important national security challenge. So in some ways it's ridiculous or crass to talk about anything else. And yet in the world we live in, the standing of the president of the United States determines the power and the flow of Washington. And because of the point he's at in his presidency, I would say it's even more important because of that.

COOPER: All right. We've got to take another quick break. John king, Charles Blow, thank you very much for being here. Ann-Marie Slaughter, stick around; Fouad Ajami, as well. We're going to talk more ahead what it would actually take the U.S. military strikes to put a dent in Syria's ability to carry out more chemical attacks. Will anything, short of boots on the ground, actually make a real difference? We'll be right back.


COOPER: Welcome back. Skeptical lawmakers want reassurance from the White House that military force in Syria will be effective without putting U.S. troops in harm's way. So let's talk about what it would take for military action to actually be effective and whether there's anything short of boots on the ground that would actually really make a difference.

Joining me again is Ann-Marie Slaughter, Fouad Ajami. I also want to bring in Christopher Dickey, Middle East editor for "Newsweek" and "Daily Beast," and Dexter Filkins, staff writer at "The New Yorker." I appreciate all of you being with us.

Dexter, first of all, what do you make of what you heard today in terms of the actual military response?

DEXTER FILKINS, STAFF WRITER, "THE NEW YORKER": Well, I mean, you can start with what the president doesn't want to do. He's not -- he can't fire missiles at -- at the chemical weapon sites themselves. He doesn't want to hurt the regime. He doesn't want to -- he doesn't want to destroy the regime in Damascus, because that would open up a power vacuum in the middle of a civil war. They don't want to deal with that.

So what does that leave you with? You know, it leaves you with attacking some of the units that used chemical weapons and fired them. And I think that's a -- I think that's a tricky question, whether that's going to actually serve the purpose.

COOPER: But it does sound like there has been kind of a growth in what the targets would be or what the desire is. Ann-Marie, do you see that?

SLAUGHTER: Doesn't it also include taking out his air force essentially. Definitely doing what we can to stop him from delivering these weapons in a variety of different ways, which would also degrade his ability to kill people with conventional weapons.

CHRISTOPHER DICKEY, MIDDLE EAST EDITOR, "NEWSWEEK": We can guess at that, but the problem is, nobody was saying that today. They talk about deter and degrade, and then the minute you get close to a question like that, it's like, "We'll have to go into the classified briefings for that."

So we don't really have a clue what he's going to do. It could be as ineffectual as the countless punitive raids carried out against various countries over the years or it could be the beginning of a real shift in power.

COOPER: Did you think early on -- You were not a proponent of the idea of a strike early on. Did you think that the proposal by the White House, the authorization, was too broad? Because now there's language that's narrowing it. Do you think it was? DICKEY: I think the narrower it gets, the more pointless it becomes. I mean, he was asking for something in the initial proposal that would have given him the leeway to wage a pretty extensive war on the infrastructure of Assad's military.

Now you can see, and you can see during the testimony today, you can see that several congressman are trying to pull that back and try to pull that back and squeeze him and say, "No boots on the ground. We're going to limit the amount of time this is going to go on."

And although I don't think this is a war that the president wants, I don't think he wants to go into it under any circumstances in which he is that constrained.

COOPER: Do you think the U.S. has really gamed out what Assad's response will be?

DICKEY: I don't think we have the slightest idea.

SLAUGHTER: But we should remember the Israelis have attacked twice, three times over the past six months, and Assad has made all sorts of protestations, and they've done nothing. The Israelis have sent in planes, attacked missile sites, and Assad did little.

So partly we're looking at what's actually happened. And we're also looking at the fact that, if he does anything really major, as we just said then, then Congress is going to give the president the authority to retaliate.

DICKEY: I think it's much more likely that he'll retaliate on his own people. I feel...


DICKEY: No even. Not even. The greatest -- I can't say it on the air, but the greatest way to say go to hell to the administration is to just use chemical weapons again.

COOPER: Well, but also, even if he retaliates on his own people without chemical weapons, it doesn't seem like there's anything the United States is going to do about that, as long as he doesn't use chemical weapons, he can slaughter "X" number of people.

AJAMI: The remarkable luck of Barack Obama, which moved Barack Obama from being Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States may still be there for him in this war.

Many things could happen. The course of battle is very obscure. It's unknown to us all, unknown to everyone: unknown to Bashar, unknown to Obama. We could -- at the end of the day, we might get Bashar al- Assad and some of the elements to have regime that run that terrible regime. And I think then the course of battle will open up and it may be that the Sunnis of Damascus, because remember, the regime has won and lost in other places. Damascus is where this Alawi mafia really is invested. It may be that the Sunnis of Damascus and the suburbs around Damascus may find the courage, and if indeed these strikes are successful, nobody knows.

COOPER: I want to bring in Commander Kirk Whipple, former commander of the USS Cole, which was obviously attacked by al Qaeda. Commander, how likely do you see that the Assad regime and Hezbollah allies will attempt retribution if the U.S. attacks? They talked about attacking U.S. ships in the Mediterranean.

COMMANDER KIRK WHIPPLE, FORMER COMMANDER, USS COLE: I think it's very likely, Anderson. When you look at Israel, while there's been no reaction to their attacks, it's totally different. They live in the region, they know the region, and people know how Israel is going to respond.

The United States, however, is seen differently. We're a large target and have been for some time. They've seen where we can be attacked; and sometimes we react, and sometimes we don't. I would expect that if we attack the Assad regime, they're going to respond back. And I think you're even going to see Hezbollah playing a role in this, as well, aided and abetted by Russia, who is supplying the arms into the region.

COOPER: Dexter, you obviously covered the war in Iraq on the ground, extensively and amazingly. How do you see this war as being different? Just -- not the war that it's about to occur but the war that's been occurring, the battle on the ground?

FILKINS: Well, I mean, if you look at it in the broadest terms right now, that's -- that's not always the smart thing to do. But you have -- you have on one hand a murderous regime that's still in power, and in the other a very, very fragmented opposition whose -- whose strongest member is basically an affiliate of al Qaeda in Iraq.

It's the most -- it's the most radical group. They're the most effective. And they're still growing, and they're doing strikes all over the country. So it's a mess on the ground.

And I think -- I mean, we talk about what -- you try to game out what's going to happen. I just -- I've never had the sense that the president has any appetite for anything other than whack him really hard a couple of times, you know, slap him around, teach him a lesson, and then done.

SLAUGHTER: Let's remember with Libya, the president did not decide to do anything in Libya until he was convinced he could do something that made a difference. What turned him around was he said, "Wait a minute, I'm going to ask for enough room," to go back to you and point, "that I can actually stop the overrunning of Benghazi and change that."

And so I don't think he has any appetite for war, but I don't think he has any appetite for cosmetic strikes, either. What he's asking for is enough, A, to stop Assad from using chemical weapons again. And again, if he does, then all bets are off. But the other point, we haven't talked about the political dimension. Right? We have said from the beginning, the administration has said the only way to resolve this conflict is a political settlement. Precisely because you don't want a decapitated regime with what's on the ground.

So what they're hoping, and again, we can't say, but what they're hoping is we use force, we work with the Russians, with everybody else. We get people to the negotiating table and we get...

COOPER: Commander, would you want to go into battle with a commander who doesn't really have an appetite for war when your enemy is a killer?

WHIPPLE: Anderson, I don't think anyone would want to do that. And I think when he is committed as commander in chief, even Barack Obama, is going to fully go in with the intent that we are going to achieve national security objectives and do what's necessary.

When you look at how an attack might unfold, we already know where the weapons are kept. We clearly know from intelligence intercepts how they directed these attacks that were most recently conducted.

And based on that, then you start a rolling series of attacks, and you look at where do we hit them for logistics, where they can't move their weapons out? How do we interdict and eliminate the communications mode so they can't tell them where to go, who to hit and what to do when they're, you know, conducting these attacks?

These are the kind of things that go on during this 60- or 90-day period. And I think at the end of that, if we still felt there was need to keep going, Congress is going to be more than willing to give the president the flexibility as the commander in chief to wage an effective war to make sure that we punish him, that he hasn't got the capability to continue to use these chemical weapons, because as was said earlier, this is a red line, not just for the U.S. but for the world. And if we're going to act, then we act decisively. Otherwise, don't get engaged at all.

COOPER: We've got to take a quick break. Fouad Ajami, thank y you.

Commander Whipple, thanks for being with us.

Up next, a brave Syrian activist who repeatedly called into this program to tell us about the violence in his country. Twice he was jailed. I asked him what he thinks about a possible military strike against the Assad regime. His answer may surprise you.

We'll be right back.


COOPER: Welcome back. Many times during the long civil war in Syria, this program spoke by phone to a man named Zaidoun, a Syrian activist, who told us about the violence in his country, at great peril to himself, I should point out. Zaidoun insisted that we identify him, that we actually use his name, his real name, and twice he's been jailed. He's now fled to Beirut.

Tonight I spoke with him again. He said the world has waited too long to help and the U.S. military action will only embolden the Assad regime.


ZAIDOUN ALZOABI, SYRIAN ACTIVIST: What happened right now is that just promises of a limited strike, this means a prolonged crisis.

For me, even -- I wanted peace. I still want peace. I can see only a peace process that happens through Geneva two. I don't know if that can happen or not.

But a limited strike, I know the propaganda of the regime. They will say, "We defeated imperialism. We defeated the international plot. We defeated Zionism." They will use all -- every possible word and they dance in the streets.

COOPER: We're back with Dexter Filkins, Ann-Marie Slaughter, Christopher Dickey. Joining us is senior international correspondent Nick Paton-Walsh.

Do you think he's right? That -- that the Assad regime survives this attack, it uses it for propaganda purposes.

DICKEY: Oh, God, yes. Of course that's what's going to happen. If you don't -- what doesn't kill Assad makes him stronger. That's the pattern all over the Middle East. It always has been.

Think of the Lebanon war in 2006. Eventually Hezbollah managed to just barely fight the Israelis to a standstill. But it came out as a huge victor from that war.

WALSH: There's a potential problem. We've overestimated the strength of Assad's forces.

COOPER: Overestimated?

WALSH: They've been there for 18 months, backed against the wall, really stretched thin on supplies. Drawing (ph) militia from the local Alawi population. One of the big problems about all of this is we just have no certainty at all. We simply don't know what's going to happen.

FILKINS: There's been a massive airlift by the Iranians over the last six months that's basically bailed them out.

COOPER: The presence of Hezbollah fighters has also made a significant difference on the ground.

WALSH: You have to bring them in openly. Because they were slipping.

DICKEY: What it comes down to in the Arab world again and again is if you survive, you win. That's just -- I mean, Ann-Marie, you've seen it a million times. Even -- even in the Egyptian wars with the Israelis.

SLAUGHTER: I think you've got to pick up on what Nick said. Why did he use chemical weapons? Right? He's using chemical weapons because his back is against the wall. They're now in Damascus. The opposition was controlling a large part of this suburb and he, in the end, had to use chemical weapons to get them out. So again, I'm not at all certain that...

COOPER: Is that really the reason?

DICKEY: I wouldn't rule out the possibility that he used the chemical weapons precisely to call the bluff of the United States.

FILKINS: Look, his situation is much better than it was six or eight months ago. I mean, so if it's -- using chemical weapons is a measure of desperation, he should be less desperate now than he was back in January. And that's why it's puzzling.

COOPER: You could also make the argument that it was designed to just sow terror and just to crush the opposition as much as possible. You kill the families of opposition members who are out at the front, you know, you kill the women and children who are back home, and it weakens the fighters who are at the front.

WALSH: They got the strategic town on the border, but if you look at the other cities around the country, that was mirrored by a general advance by the regime. They're still really hunkered down in Aleppo, having a tough time there. Somewhere around Damascus, they were being fought back as much as...

COOPER: Do you think the administration, which suddenly Secretary Kerry today was saying that the opposition is -- actually there's kind of a wave of moderation now taking place in the opposition, whereas there had been reports for the last six months about the al-Nusra front.

WALSH: It's a lovely, romantic idea to have right now, but for the last six months, they had radical support. And now suddenly, they're our friends and the token moderate, and they're fine.

There's an element within that rebel movement that is usable like that. But a year ago, that would have worked. Unfortunately, in that gap they went from being disorganized to being fractured. You can't begin to explain how explain how complex this is now. I mean, there's al Qaeda fighting al Qaeda, al Qaeda fighting the Kurds, al Qaeda fighting the central RSFA (ph), and amongst that rebels fighting the regime. There is no single military leader at all for the rebels right now. There's Ibris (ph) and it's actually inside Syria half the time.

So I mean, there's no concrete message coming out of them, which is why the Hezbollah addition, and that feeling we had in the last six months, very well in March, the regime works so effectively.

SLAUGHTER: That is why the administration is not saying we are doing this to tip the balance of the war, and this is not Libya. COOPER: Does the administration actually want the opposition to win? Or do they just want this thing to go so long that they get exhausted?

FILKINS: Not tomorrow, because I mean, General (UNINTELLIGIBLE) said the other day, here is no moderate group that's prepared to take over.

DICKEY: This is one of those situations where you have a great power or great powers working through their proxies, scoring points against each other and trying to prolong a war that they don't want to end. I mean, do you see how incredibly cynical this is?


DICKEY: Oh, come on. The policy that they...

COOPER: Explain that.

DICKEY: I'm not staying that it's evil. I'm not saying that they're doing this because they want people to die. But if you're saying that the policy is to go for a stalemate, you're saying we'll have to wait until they're just tired of killing each other. We know from every one of these wars -- every one of these wars -- I'm not saying this is good or bad. I'm just saying this is what's happening.

WALSH: Two weeks ago, the policy was they preferred to see a slow war of extinction happen than to deal with -- than to deal with the power vacuum that would be created for the power balance on the ground.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Which one do you pick?

DICKEY: If all the choices are bad, why get involved?

SLAUGHTER: Because he crossed a line. Really...

COOPER: You don't believe that this is a line, that somebody cannot cross?

DICKEY: I do believe there are a lot of reasons you can say that this is a line you need to draw, because they can use chemical weapons, basically, for ethnic cleansing, because they can use chemical weapons to win the war. And that they don't want.

So the idea is you take that tool away from Assad, and you prolong the war. In the course of prolonging the war, maybe that is the best policy. Maybe that is the best option. We should recognize the fact that 100,000 more people will die.

FILKINS: Chris, you've got to make choices. What's the choice then? What is it?

DICKEY: Well, there is a choice, and this is a choice. I'm not advocating this choice, but it's a choice a lot of Americans are advocating, which is to stay the hell out. FILKINS: I mean, if that regime collapsed tomorrow, then we know what would happen. We saw it in Baghdad. If the regime collapses, you have chaos, you have anarchy, and it might take a decade to play itself out. And so they don't want to do that. They don't want to destroy the regime for just that reason.

WALSH: There's (UNINTELLIGIBLE) for the last six months intervene. And there's been indiscriminate shelling of women and children all over the country. There's no reason why the chemicals weapons suddenly become a game changer. But if you draw that red line, then somehow, the entire region has to have that recognition.

SLAUGHTER: But you also do make clear that there are lines, that we are willing to use force.

COOPER: And you're saying not just in Syria, but elsewhere: to Iran, other places for nuclear proliferation, other forms of proliferation.

SLAUGHTER: But I think it could change the calculations of the people supporting Assad.

COOPER: We've got to end it there. Ann-Marie Slaughter, thank you very much.

Dexter Filkins, great to have you.

Christopher Dickey, as well.

It was great to have you on.

Thanks very much. We'll be right back.