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Syria Talks; Interview With Pentagon Press Secretary George Little

Aired September 12, 2013 - 18:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


JOHN KERRY, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: Expectations are high. they are high for the United States, perhaps even more so for Russia to deliver on the promise of this moment. This is not a game.


BLITZER: The secretary of state, John Kerry, sounding hopeful but cautious about a possible deal to defuse the crisis over Syria's chemical weapons.

He opened talks with his Russian counterpart in Geneva today. And he warned there would be consequences if Syria's Bashar al-Assad doesn't follow through and surrender his poison gas stockpiles. The Syrian president is talking publicly for the first time about the possible deal.

Our Pentagon correspondent, Chris Lawrence, is joining us now. He has more new information as well about U.S. aid going to some of those Syrian rebels.

Chris, what are you learning?


A U.S. official now confirms to CNN that the CIA has started to funnel light weapons and ammunition to some of the Syrian rebels, while at the same time some U.S. officials are telling us about their deep concerns about the criminals and conservative Islamists within that opposition.


LAWRENCE (voice-over): Bashar al-Assad is drawing his own red line. He will only agree to dismantle his country's chemical weapons if the U.S. stops arming rebels and takes the threat of force off the table.

BASHAR AL-ASSAD, PRESIDENT OF SYRIA (through translator): This bilateral process is based, first of all, on the United States stopping its policy of threatening Syria.

LAWRENCE: The Obama administration is showing no signs of making its military stand down.

KERRY: Force might be necessary.

LAWRENCE: And a U.S. official says the CIA has begun sending actual weapons to Syrian rebels.

GEN. SALIM IDRIS, SUPREME MILITARY COUNCIL LEADER, FREE SYRIAN ARMY: We are getting now a lot of support from our American friends.

LAWRENCE: But a defense official tells CNN, General Salim Idris is more coordinator than commander and there are concerns about the opposition's makeup.

A U.S. official tells CNN, only a minority of rebels are extremists. But if you expand beyond those directly affiliated with terrorist groups, the majority of all the fighting forces are somewhere between moderate and conservative Islamists. And the official says the opposition's criminal element cannot be understated.

(on camera): Is there a risk in arming the Syrian opposition?

REP. ADAM SMITH (D), WASHINGTON: If they can't succeed, then the alternative is either Assad or al Qaeda. So that's a huge risk if you don't help them.

LAWRENCE (voice-over): Representative Adam Smith says while the U.S. and Russia work together on chemical weapons, both are arming opposite sides in Syria's civil war.

SMITH: If all this does is gives Russia a green light to continue to arm and equip Assad so that he can continue to kill his people by different means, then we have not achieved our policy objectives.


LAWRENCE: And right now, there seems to be no signs that Russia is stopping its flow of weapons to the Assad regime. And we have also learned from some of our sources that there now are at least 2,000 Hezbollah fighters in Syria, possibly as many as 2,500 now fighting on behalf of Assad -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Dangerous situation continuing. Chris Lawrence, thanks very much.


BLITZER: And George Little is joining us now. He's the Pentagon press secretary.

George, thanks very much for coming in.

GEORGE LITTLE, PENTAGON PRESS SECRETARY: Thank you, Wolf. Good to be here.

BLITZER: General Idris, who runs this Free Syrian Army, he said today, he told our Christiane Amanpour, they have information that the Syrians have already started to send some of their chemical weapons stockpiles to Lebanon and to Iraq. What do you say about that?

LITTLE: I wouldn't want to get into our intelligence on movements of chemical weapon stockpiles in Syria, Wolf, but suffice it to say, it's not unexpected that they would move some of this material, at least within Syria.

BLITZER: But -- so do you have any information to confirm that they are moving around their chemical weapons?

LITTLE: I would say that we have known for some time that they have moved some of their chemical weapons stockpiles and equipment within Syria. I can't independently confirm the other reports that you have heard today.

BLITZER: You can't confirm that they have actually sent some to Iraq or to Lebanon. But even moving around these chemical weapons, that's pretty dangerous, isn't it? It could cause some serious problems.

LITTLE: Any time chemical weapons are moved, there are risks.

And we believe that for the last two-and-a-half years, since this crisis began, the Syrian regime has maintained security of these stockpiles, but there is, obviously, risk.

BLITZER: What about these reports now that the U.S. has formally started to arm Syrian rebels and that arms already have been delivered? Can you confirm all of that?

LITTLE: Well, the Department of Defense is not in the lead for stepped-up assistance to the moderate Syrian opposition, but the president has been clear that we are going to step up our assistance, which has been robust to begin with, to the moderate opposition in Syria.

BLITZER: How do you know moderate opposition from not-so- moderate opposition? Because, as you know, there are terrorists there, Al-Nusra. There are real haters of the United States, part of that opposition.

LITTLE: It's a good question. The State Department has been working very closely with a variety of opposition groups to make them more cohesive.

We believe we have a good handle on who the moderate opposition leaders are and who we can work with and who we shouldn't work with going forward.

BLITZER: So can you trust -- in other words, a lot of people are afraid, you start arming one group of Syrian rebels, the weapons are going to wind up in the hands of the so-called bad guys. LITTLE: Well, without getting into the specifics of our stepped- up support to the opposition, we believe that there are individuals inside the moderate opposition whom we can trust. And we share the same goal of creating a new Syria that doesn't involve Bashar al- Assad.

BLITZER: The Syrian Consulate or the Syrian mission to the United Nations has just issued a statement, saying that the permanent mission of the Syrian Arab Republic has informed the U.N. secretary- general that Syria now has accepted the convention of the prohibition of the development production, stockpiling, and use of chemical weapons and their destruction, the convention of 1993.

So now that they have accepted, formally accepted that convention, what happens next, as far as the U.S. military is concerned?

LITTLE: We believe that maintaining a credible military threat in this instance, in the aftermath of one of the most brutal uses of chemical weapons in recent memory, it's important that that threat be sustained and maintained and that we need to keep it up so that this diplomatic process can move forward.

Secretary Hagel last night spoke to some of our ships in the Mediterranean, and he was informed that they are ready to execute if requested by the president. Maintaining this military threat is precisely why this diplomatic process is under way.

BLITZER: If the president were to give that so-called execute order to launch strikes against various targets in Syria, A., does the U.S. have the capability in the region, the Eastern Mediterranean, the Red Sea right now on duty? How long would it take to get the troops ready for that kind of mission?

LITTLE: Let me be very clear. Our military is ready whenever the president directs us to act. And we have ships in the Mediterranean. We have the USS Nimitz in the Red Sea, and when we're called upon, if we're called upon by the president, we're ready to go.

BLITZER: George Little, the press secretary at the Pentagon, George, thanks for coming in.

LITTLE: Thank you. Appreciate it, Wolf.

BLITZER: The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, has managed to insult a lot of Americans at the same time he's trying to work with the U.S. to hammer out a Syria chemical weapons deal.

Our chief congressional correspondent, Dana Bash, is here. She's been hearing a lot from some pretty angry lawmakers up on Capitol Hill.

What's the gist?

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, just here's an example. Yesterday, on the floor of the Senate, Dianne Feinstein, the chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee, stood there and said that she wanted to heap praise on Russia for engaging in diplomacy on Syria.

Today, she said the Russian president offended the U.S. by chastising America and of course President Obama. It shows how even a seasoned senator in a sensitive position who went out on a limb to say nice things about Russia is highly annoyed.


BASH (voice-over): These may be delicate diplomatic times, but reaction to Vladimir Putin's open letter to Americans was blunt and at times graphic.

SEN. ROBERT MENENDEZ (D), NEW JERSEY: I almost wanted to vomit.


SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), MAJORITY LEADER: I think he's just looking for an excuse to show off his Super Bowl ring.

BASH: Remember Ronald Reagan's role in Soviet communism crumbling?

RONALD REAGAN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.

BASH: Some see Putin's slap at President Obama as pining for the Soviet superpower.

SEN. JAMES INHOFE (R), OKLAHOMA: It was lecturing to the United States. You know, I could hear Reagan turning over in his grave as this was going on.

BASH: One of Putin's most in-your-face lines referenced Obama's allusion this week to American exceptionalism.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: That's what makes America different. That's what makes us exceptional.

BASH: "It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation, " wrote Putin. The president's spokesman took that on in thinly veiled diplospeak.

JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Unlike Russia, the United States stands up for democratic values and human rights in our own country and around the world, and we believe that our global security is advanced when children cannot be gassed to death by a dictator.

BASH: Putin blamed gassing Syrians on rebel forces, not Bashar al-Assad's government, as Obama officials insist.

MENENDEZ: Only in Russia and in Putin's parallel alternate universe could you believe that. BASH: But wait a minute. Putin is the guy the U.S. is now banking on to negotiate a way out of unpopular military action against Syria.

(on camera): As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, do you feel comfortable with the fact that we are living in his parallel alternate universe?


MENENDEZ: When I say his parallel alternate universe, look, this is a guy who grew from the KGB to be the head of it. And he is still, from my perspective, still very dominated in his mind by KGB and the desires for a greater Russia.

BASH (voice-over): Among Democratic leaders, some shoulder- shrugging.

REID: Reagan said it all. Trust, but verify.

BASH (on camera): But is it frustrating that he's our negotiating partner?

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), HOUSE MINORITY LEADER: Well, you know what, it is who it is.


BASH: That line, it is who it is, was probably one of the most telling of the day. No one in Washington is happy to be relying on Russia, even less so after Putin penned such an in-your-face letter.

But everyone knows they don't have much of a choice, at least right now, and, Wolf, clearly Putin knows that too and he's reveling in it.

BLITZER: Yes, apparently he is. All right, thanks, Dana, very much. Good report.

Up next, is North Korea's leader trying to pull a fast one himself while the world focuses in on Syria? We're watching a possible new show of nuclear defiance.

And, later, Bashar al-Assad's first cousin knows the Syrian strongman's brutality firsthand. Stand by for his answer to this question.


BLITZER: Do you believe he is ruthless enough to have ordered the use of chemical weapons, sarin gas, to kill all those civilians in Syria?


(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: While the world focusing in on Syria right now, another dangerous regime may be fueling a new crisis. Satellite images suggest North Korea may have restarted a disabled the nuclear reactor.

Tom Foreman is taking a closer look at the evidence.

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this is something that intelligence analysts have been expecting for quite some months now, and this is where the attention is focused right now.

North Korea, at this particular site, people from the U.S./Korea institute have been looking very closely at satellite images. This is what a nuclear facility up there that's been around since the 1980s has looked like for quite some time. It's always been believed to be tied to their weapons program and the production of plutonium. I want you to look at, this is a place, a few months ago, and now look right here at this one building.

You will notice that there is a plume of steam coming out of the building, and that's really the thing that has them excited, because it's not in this picture, and that tells them that, in all likelihood, this big main reactor here has once again been fired up. Why does that matter? Because if this is operating and the steam over here is venting off, because it's going into full production again, it means they can be producing plutonium, one of the key elements that they need for the making of nuclear weapons.

What do we know about their nuclear program here? Well, we don't know a whole lot about it, because, of course, everything is done in secret. But we do know that if this reactor were up and running fully, it could produce about 13 pounds of plutonium annually.

This likely, according to the experts, will not happen right away. It might take months or even a year or more to reach that level, but once it did, that could produce enough for one or two nuclear bombs a year. I say could, because the purity of the plutonium, their success in processing it and getting it all ready makes a difference, and the nature of the bomb also makes a difference.

That's one of the reasons why we don't really know what their current stockpile is. Some people say they may have four, some people say up to ten, maybe a little bit more nuclear weapons right now. But they're all considered to be very crude, nothing like the weapons that the United States or Russia have. Still, if this is starting over again, the concern for many intelligence analysts is, it's another step down the road for North Korea toward building a true functional nuclear arsenal -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Tom Foreman, thanks very much.

Up next, Bashar al-Assad's first cousin, first cousin tells me the Syrian leader wanted him dead. Stand by for his harrowing tale and whether he thinks his cousin gassed hundreds of civilians.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: These are live pictures coming in from New Jersey. We have an update on the breaking news we have been following, a massive boardwalk fire in Seaside Park, New Jersey.

The blaze, which has grown to multiple alarms, apparently started in an amusement pure custard shop. The governor, Chris Christie, is on his way to the scene. In fact, he just tweeted to his nearly 400,000 followers on Twitter. He's already there now en route to Seaside now. "Please keep everyone in the surrounding areas, the firefighters, and first-responders fighting the blaze in your prayers."

We're told the governor is now on the scene at that blaze. This is one of the boardwalks, by the way, that was damaged in superstorm Sandy.

Syria's leader has been called a ruthless killer and a thug. But if anyone knows what Bashar al-Assad is really capable of doing, it's members of his own family.

And joining us now, Ribal al-Assad. He's in London. He's the first cousin of the Syrian leader, Bashar al-Assad.

Ribal, thanks very much for joining us.

And I just want to get the connection between you and Bashar al- Assad together. Your father, Rifaat al-Assad, his father, Hafez al- Assad, the former leader of Syria, they were brothers. But your family fled when you were a little boy. Tell us what happened.

RIBAL AL-ASSAD, FIRST COUSIN OF BASHAR AL-ASSAD: Yes, Wolf. Thank you very much for having me.

Actually, you know, from my -- what I remember, of course, is that my father had to leave Syria because there was a lot of argument going on inside the Baath Party, also between my father and the president. As you know, my father set up the first Arabic magazine calling for democracy in Syria and all the Middle East in 1967. It was called "Al-Foursan."

And he started, you know, fighting against President Assad and his supporters in the Baath Party. He won in the first, you know, regional congress. He won the most support in the national congress also for the Baath Party. He was named president of the highest court in the Baath Party. And this is what has brought -- you know, pushed the president for not calling for anymore national congress, which is the highest authority in the Baath Party.


BLITZER: I just want to be precise, though. Did your father fear that his own brother, Hafez al-Assad, the leader of Syria, was about to kill him?

R. AL-ASSAD: Yes, of course. Actually, former Defense Minister Mustafa Tlass has wrote about it very -- in his book, in 2002 and 2003, saying that there was a plot to assassinate my father, and actually former Defense Minister Mustafa Tlass was supposed to head that plot by inviting my father to lunch and then arresting him, and if he would have, you know, resisted, that they should have killed him.

BLITZER: So you have had absolutely no connection with your first cousin Bashar al-Assad over all of these years, is that right?

R. AL-ASSAD: Yes, exactly. Actually, just -- there was just an argument I had with him in 1994. And following that, two weeks later, they tried -- when I was leaving to study in Boston, they tried to assassinate me at the Damascus International Airport, under the Austrian Airlines.

And, you know, fortunately, my father came and my family came with me to the airport. So, when the officers saw my father, they stopped their plan. But I was arrested and them released a bit later when my father has called and threatened the president that, you know, if I was not brought back home, that there would be consequences. And the next day, I fled to Boston.

BLITZER: Do you believe he is ruthless enough to have ordered the use of chemical weapons, sarin gas to kill all those civilians in Syria?

R. AL-ASSAD: Honestly, Wolf, I don't think at all -- that's, you know, a complete different issue.

I think that -- you know, I don't think that someone, neither Bashar or -- I don't think that it's even in the regime's interest at that time, precisely, to have ordered such an attack, because, as you know, they were gaining ground -- you know, like, grounds in their attack in Damascus and Homs and in other areas.

Also, it happened just three days after the arrivals of the United Nations investigator team -- investigation team arrived on Sunday night and this happened on Wednesday. And also we have to know that both sides of this conflict have the capabilities of such attacks.

BLITZER: Just to be precise, you don't want the United States to provide arms to the opposition, to the rebels, is that right?

R. AL-ASSAD: Yes, of course. I'm right, because we don't know who they are.

We always have to look at who we are arming. Who's on the other side? You know, it's perfect that we want to get rid of this dictatorship. Of course, all of Syrians want that, from all the communities in Syria, from all the minorities, but we want genuine democracy.

We don't want to see to replace a dictatorship with a theocracy. We don't want to see what went on in Iran over 30 years ago to happen in Syria. We don't want to see what went on in Egypt to happen in Syria.

BLITZER: Obviously, your bottom line is, you may despise the dictatorship, as you call it, in Damascus led by your first cousin Bashar al-Assad, but you certainly don't trust the rebels, the opposition fighters who trying to remove him.

We're going to continue this conversation, Ribal. Thanks very much for joining us, Ribal al-Assad, joining us from London, first cousin of Bashar al-Assad.

R. AL-ASSAD: Thank you, Wolf. Thank you.

BLITZER: And, remember, you can always follow what's going on behind the scenes here in THE SITUATION ROOM. Follow us on Twitter. You can always tweet me @WolfBlitzer. You can tweet the show @CNNSitRoom.

That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.

"CROSSFIRE" starts right now.