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12,000 Foreign Fighters in Iraq and Syria; Obama Says Muslim Nations Must "Cleanse Themselves"; Complexities of Tackling ISIS in Syria; US Continues Airstrikes in Iraq

Aired September 24, 2014 - 11:30   ET




BECKY ANDERSON, HOST: It is half past 7:00 in the UAE. US president Barack Obama was the main draw at the United Nations General Assembly just

moments ago. It wasn't, though, America. It was events in this region, the Middle East, that took center stage.

I'm Becky Anderson, this is CONNECT THE WORLD live from the capital of the UAE, one of the five Arab states that have joined the US in the fight

against the militant Islamist group ISIS. In the past hour, the president set out his vision for a truly global solution.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Today, I ask the world to join in this effort. Those who have joined ISIL should leave the

battlefield while they can. Those who continue to fight for a hateful cause will find they're increasingly alone. For we will not succumb to

threats, and we will demonstrate that the future belongs to those who build, not those who destroy.


ANDERSON: Another round of airstrikes in Syria and in Iraq focused on several targets, including some west of Baghdad, north near Erbil, and also

near the Iraq-Syria border. The US says airstrikes are only part of the fight against the militant group. Washington wants to stop the flow of

foreign fighters and cut off its funding.

As many as 12,000 foreigners are thought to be fighting alongside extremist groups in Iraq and in Syria. The largest group of militants

comes from Tunisia. I want to get some perspective on the issue from the prime minster of the country, Mehdi Jomaa. He joins me now from the

Tunisian capital.

Three thousand young Tunisians have joined the jihadi fight, sir, some eight thousand others intending to do so before they were rounded up. Mr.

Obama applauding Tunisia in his speech earlier at the UN for efforts to bring secular and Islamist parties together through a political process to

provide a new constitution. But what is motivating these young men to join the battlefield?

MEHDI JOMAA, PRIME MINISTER OF TUNISIA: Thank you very much, Becky. It's a pleasure to be with you at CNN today, and it's a good opportunity

once again to speak to US people and to all the people all around the world.

I listened to President Obama's speech, and it reminded me the discussion I had with him when I was invited by him in April. We agree on

most of the vision and the principle that Mr. Obama told in his speech, mainly about the region.

It's -- as you know, we have many challenges today facing us in Tunisia, and the main of them, I think, the security. The other point of

view, we share many points of the principles of the vision of Mr. Obama about the combatants as well --

ANDERSON: All right

JOMAA: -- it's a problem that we have. In Tunisia, we have some of them now presenting in Syria and Iraq, and we started already to handle

this problem and to check it by forbidding any travel to that area, and we succeeded in some way. But we need to collaborate with all the countries,

friendly countries, the neighbor --



JOMAA: -- neighbor countries, but as well United States --


JOMAA: -- and Europe. And we are making a big progress.

ANDERSON: Sir, the prohibition of these -- right, the prohibition for these guys, not allowing them to leave is one way Tunisia's dealing with

it. Hold on, sir. The UN Security Council is expected to adopt --


ANDERSON: -- a resolution against the foreign fighters, but President Obama --hold on, sir. Hold on. But President Obama told UN members that

they must take action to back that up. Let's just have a listen to what he said.


OBAMA: Next year, we should all be prepared to announce the concrete steps that we have taken to counter extremist ideologies in our own

countries. By getting intolerance out of schools. Stopping radicalization before it spreads. And promoting institutions and programs that build new

bridges of understanding.


ANDERSON: Is that something that Tunisia is already signed up for?

JOMAA: Yes, we have already taken some measures, and we stopped -- we tried to stop the travel of this combatant to these countries, and we

succeeded somewhat to do that. But we need a good collaboration with the friendly countries. And we started exchanging and working on the

intelligence, but as well, we have to organize ourselves.

What we think in Tunisia that really this phenomenon, which is strange to Tunisia, it becomes a worldwide or a global one, and we have to join our

efforts to struggle and to face that. And for the combatants as well, we have to do that. We have to trace them. We have to track them.

We have to dismantle the networks, and for that, it's a global work, and a direct global work that we have to handle.

No place for terrorism in Tunisia, but as well, we don't like as well to see Tunisians participating in terrorist attacks or terror actors. We

are not used to that, and we want really to stop that.

ANDERSON: Tunisia sits between Algeria and Libya, both experiencing violent extremism that can feed both into the country, of course, and

without. I just want to put one other thing to you that the president of the US said just a little bit earlier.

He said, and I quote, "ISIL" -- or ISIS -- "must be degraded and ultimately destroyed." Prime Minister, this will be a long, drawn-out

process. It could last months if not years. How likely is it that a US- led coalition of airstrikes, even if they include Arab countries, will simply exacerbate this problem, provide a recruiting tool, as it were, for


JOMAA: I think that we have to join our efforts and we have to work with our allies and friendly countries and it's the right way to withstand

and to face this phenomenon. But in the meantime, it's not enough, because we have now to win this war against terrorism by the security side.

But as well we have to prepare the most important to extinguish the roots, which is the development battle. Because when I see what happens in

Tunisia, we are used to the phenomenon, but they took advantage of the weakness of the state in the post-revolution first years, and they took

advantage from as well the problems and the frustrations of young people to recruit them.

And I think that if we want to face that and to win this war, we have as well to prepare the development stage as well where we have to give

hope, where we have to give opportunities to these young people. We have to spread education and its -- as well the important -- the security battle

that we have to win together.

ANDERSON: With that, we're going to leave it there. Sir, we thank you very much, indeed, for joining us. And apologies, viewers, for the

slight delay on the cross between here and the prime minister, but well worth having you on, sir. Thank you.

Let's get to the humanitarian crisis on the Turkey-Syria border for you now. Arwa Damon is there with hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees

who have nowhere else to go. Arwa, Mr. Obama spoke of Muslim nations "cleansing themselves," and I quote. How is that likely to resonate where

you are tonight?

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (via telephone): Well, Becky, there's something quite critical in all of this, because

President Obama's rhetoric is being described as quite eloquent.

But that call on the Muslim world to cleanse itself is not a message that is going to necessarily resonate with the type of youth, the

individuals that are being lured towards groups like ISIS and that violent, radical ideology when that message is being delivered by an American


That message needs to be echoed by the top Sunni clergy, especially those from the schools of Wahhabi and Salafi ideology. And this is where

US allies like Egypt and Saudi can play a very vital role in trying to put pressure on the top Wahhabi Salafi scholars and clergy.

Because they need to come out, and if not echo his message, then at least put out a message rejecting ISIS's ideology, and to cause those young

jihadis that are perhaps already fighting with ISIS or thinking about fighting with ISIS to have an alternative voice to listen to and to begin

to question ISIS's version and interpretations of Islam, Becky.

ANDERSON: Yes. That's very similar to what I'm hearing here in the UAE as well. Arwa, thank you for that.

Live from Abu Dhabi, you're watching CONNECT THE WORLD with me, Becky Anderson. After this short break, we'll continue with our regional

reaction to President Obama's speech in the past hour or so. Getting some analysis from Middle East security expert joining us here on the set in Abu

Dhabi. Stay with us, you're watching CNN, it is 39 minutes past 7:00 locally.


ANDERSON: Three-and-a-half years and almost 200,000 deaths since the Syrian civil war began. The international community now responding in

Syria with force, but not against Bashar al-Assad.

The spread of ISIS in the north of the country has prompted the US and its allies into action, but they enter a situation a lot more complex than

ever before, and perhaps more problematic even than in neighboring Iraq. Well, that is certainly the view of my next guest, Emile Hokayem. He's

senior fellow for regional security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in the Middle East.

Forty-eight hours into strikes not just conducted by the US, it has to be said, but by a coalition of Arab allies, mostly, I will say, from this

Gulf region. And the effort and the end game we know, it is to degrade and destroy ISIS. What we don't know is what will happen in the middle and how

long this will take.


is considerably more complicated than it is in Iraq. In Iraq, there was a friendly government and there was a coalition on the ground. There were no

legal -- real legal challenges, and there were partners to work with.

In Syria, the situation is considerably different, largely because the US and other countries have for three years tried to avoid getting

entangled in Syria. Today, the fight against ISIS requires local partners that can help the effort. However, those local partners are not

necessarily convinced by the US approach to ISIS, and see Bashar al-Assad as the greater threat, not ISIS.

ANDERSON: Some people might say that these strikes simply enhance his position rather than degrade it. Let me just get you the words of

President Obama, who spoke only moments ago at the United Nations.

The Muslim world was a big focus of President Obama's address today. I want to play you a clip in which he spells out the choice available to

the most susceptible in that community. Have a listen to this.


OBAMA: And here I'd like to speak directly to young people across the Muslim world. You come from a great tradition that stands for education,

not ignorance. Innovation, not destruction. The dignity of life, not murder. Those who call you away from this path are betraying this

tradition, not defending it.


ANDERSON: I was talking earlier, and I think his words resonate with many people around, certainly, this region and the wider Middle East. But

it's a question of how his words are affected, who takes his words and does something with them, isn't it?

And it's -- how do you take that message from the hallowed halls of the United Nations and get it effective on the ground here?

HOKAYEM: Middle Easterners, like everyone else, look at actions more than words. And there is great mistrust of the US in the region, not only

because of the terrible tragedies of Iraq in 2003, and general discontent with US policy, was there a religious element or not?

But also because of what happened in Syria for the past three,three and a half years. It was only a year ago that president Obama called off

strikes against the regime of Bashar al-Assad after large-scale chemical weapons attacks.

And today, they see US policy shifting totally and perhaps being favor of Bashar al-Assad because of what is in the US perception, the greater

threat of ISIS. So, adjusting to changing US policy is something that is very difficult for a Middle Eastern public in general.

ANDERSON: Let me just get some more sound from the president. He expressed his personal gratitude to the Arab nations taking part in

airstrikes on ISIS targets in Syria. He me with those coalition partners yesterday ahead of the UN General Assembly. Let's just have a listen.


OBAMA: I think we now have an opportunity to send a very clear message that the world is united, that all of us are committed to making

sure that we degrade and ultimately destroy not only ISIL, but also the kinds of extremist ideologies that would lead to so much bloodshed.


ANDERSON: Again, words. People here like actions. I just want our viewers to get a sense of an article that you wrote in which you highlight

one of the great ironies of the incursion into Syria after waiting for three-and-a-half years since the start of the of the civil war, you say, to

act, the US and its allies risk the opposite outcome of what they intended.

You write, "Much depends on how seriously and quickly the renewed Western and Arab effort to support the rebels is implemented. The concern

is that a half-hearted effort combined with strikes against ISIS would only benefit Assad by neutralizing his foes."

By the rebels, one assumes you're talking about what are known as the Syrian moderates that the Saudis have certainly said that they will host,

train, and militarize. How many people are we talking about? Just how effective could they be in even the short or medium term? Because this

looks to many people as if the strikes start now, but this could be a long, drawn-out process --


ANDERSON: -- over months if not years. And if that is the case, we are staring big problems in the face, aren't we?

HOKAYEM: Only the Syrian rebels can effectively contain the threat of ISIS.

ANDERSON: But who are they?

HOKAYEM: They've done so for the past six or seven months. From January until June this year, they mounted a very fierce offensive against

ISIS, took massive hits, and were able to push ISIS from the northwestern parts of Syria into the east.

Of course, ISIS's successes in Iraq and the supply of weapons allowed ISIS to come back in the game and push them back. They're totally out-

gunned, and they've been waiting for Western and Arab support -- sustainable support for quite some time.

These rebels have the legitimacy, the credibility, the ground intelligence, that is needed to fight a group like ISIS, especially as the

US and other states are totally reluctant -- and understandably so -- to deploy ground troops. So, someone is going to have to do it on the ground.

ANDERSON: We are seeing something, that there are Kurdish fighters coming in across the border, aren't there?


ANDERSON: From Turkey. Are they very much helping out the efforts fighting by the rebels, as it were?

HOKAYEM: There were real tensions between the Kurds, who are extremely well-organized and very dedicated, committed to the fight, and

the rebels. Real tensions. But these have eased in recent months precisely to fend off the ISIS comeback into northern Syria.

The question today is whether the West and their Arab allies will seriously support the Syrian rebels. They were derided -- President Obama

himself has once referred to them as "pharmacists and doctors and farmers" as if this was a negative thing to be.

But in reality, they have the legitimacy, they have the support of local communities. And we know from the experience of Iraq and of Syria

most recently that it's only local Sunni communities that are able to uproot the extremists in their midst.

ANDERSON: With that, we've got to leave it there. You make a lot of sense, though. It's always a pleasure to have you on CNN. Thank you.

Coming up after this short break on CONNECT THE WORLD with me, Becky Anderson. With continued airstrikes against ISIS, we'll be crossing live

to Iraq and get the very latest from there for you. Stay with us, you're watching CNN. It is 10 to 8:00 local time here in the UAE.


ANDERSON: Welcome back. The US military has continued its airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq. CNN's senior international correspondent Ben Wedeman

joining us now with the very latest from Erbil. Ben?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Becky, there were two US airstrikes just south of Erbil on Islamic State targets.

It's not clear what at this point. And another strike further south.

This brings almost to 200 the number of US strikes in Iraq since the beginning of August. Of course, officials here in the northern part of

Iraq and the Kurdish regional government have been calling for the United States -- on the United States for quite some time, not only to try to hit

IS targets within northern Iraq and other parts of Iraq as well, but Syria, too.

They would like to see an intensification of these strikes on both sides of what used to be the border between Iraq and Syria. Becky?

ANDERSON: Ben, US secretary of state John Kerry told CNN in an exclusive interview that the US is committed to its air campaign against

the terror group. But he says defeating ISIS will take some time. Let's just have a listen to that for the viewers.


JOHN KERRY, US SECRETARY OF STATE: Well, there's a -- there's definitely a second day, and there'll be a third and more. This is going

to go on. The president's been very clear that we're going to do what's necessary to get this job done. So, the answer is, this will go on for

some time in various forms.


ANDERSON: Months, maybe years, some people are saying, Ben. When you talk to people on the ground, how does that go down?

WEDEMAN: Well, certainly people realize that this is going to be a very long conflict, and it's not even clear how it's going to come to an

end. You have to realize that the longer the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, whatever you want to call it today, is present in large parts of

Iraq -- for instance, the city of Mosul, 2 million people still there -- as well as western Syria, that they will become more deeply entrenched.

We understand that despite all of the things we hear about beheadings and crucifixions, that for many of the residents of places like Raqqa and

elsewhere, that after the uproar, the difficulties of three years of revolution, of war in Syria, some of them actually appreciate it, until

these airstrikes, the administrative order that ISIS brought to those areas.

So, there are sympathizers for this terrorist organization for reasons that aren't necessarily related to some of their more heinous actions. So,

actually uprooting them is going to take a very, very long time, Becky.

ANDERSON: Ben Wedeman on the ground for you in Iraq.

The team at CONNECT THE WORLD with me, Becky Anderson, wants to hear from you,, have your say. What do you think of the

words that you've heard today from President Obama? Some calling them a lecture to the Middle East.

Others saying that they were words well-chosen and that they have been legitimized by his efforts in the Middle East, allied with his Arab

friends. Tweet me @BeckyCNN, what do you think? I'm on Instagram, search for Becky CNN.

That was CONNECT THE WORLD at just before 8:00 in the evening here in Abu Dhabi. Thank you for watching. Our coverage of the United Nations

General Assembly continues after this short break.