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Is Russia's Support of Assad Waning?; Top FSA Commander's View from the Ground; Afghan Government Confirms Death of Mullah Omar; Imagine a World. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired July 29, 2015 - 14:00:00   ET




CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST (voice-over): Tonight: Mullah Omar, the one-eyed Taliban leader, dead for two years? What impact will today's

announcement have on a new round of peace talks? We ask the world's leading Afghan expert.

And war and peace in the Middle East: we get a rare view from a Kremlin insider.

Could Russia's support be wavering for Syria's Bashar al-Assad?

And the Syrian opposition commander who says that a planned new safe zone will be critical to winning the war.


COL. ABDUL JABBAR AKIDI, SYRIAN FSA COMMANDER (through translator): We need that buffer zone seriously. And that should be a decisive factor

in the war.



AMANPOUR: Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the program. I'm Christiane Amanpour.

As Bashar al-Assad continues to lose territory in Syria, confined mostly now to a rump state and pleading for people to join, not desert, his

army, could his biggest backer be abandoning ship? Probably not yet.

But word is that Russia is looking closely at Assad's battlefield losses and losing patience with their client in Damascus.

While at the United Nations today, the special envoy to Syria again called for a managed and gradual transition of power; otherwise, he warned,

with the rise of ISIS, Syria could face a fate even worse than Libya or Iraq.


STAFFAN DE MISTURA, U.N. SPECIAL ENVOY TO SYRIA: The fear of black flags over Damascus is driving many to consider reassessing their own early



AMANPOUR: Joining me now from Moscow is Fyodor Lukyanov, the influential chairman of the Kremlin's foreign and defense advisory council.

Mr. Lukyanov, welcome to the program.

Do you agree that perhaps Moscow is looking closer at their support of Bashar al-Assad?


sharing (ph). As for the Bashar al-Assad, of course, in Moscow and in Kremlin, there is a clear understanding that situation in Syria is changing

very rapidly and not all approaches of the past might be applied now; but at the same time, there are no reason to believe that Kremlin is less

supportive to Assad just now for one reason, simple reason, to change rule in Syria just now is seen in Russia as a way to disaster because Syria is

really encroached by Islamic State and there's extremely fragile situation.

AMANPOUR: But when Steffan di Mistura, the U.N. special envoy, said what he just said, basically that the fear of black flags over Damascus is

driving many to consider reassessing their own early positions, was he at all talking about Moscow?

In other words, what conversations is the Kremlin having -- perhaps not in public but with others in the international community -- about what

is going on on the ground?

LUKYANOV: No, I think it's fully correct to say that the situation on the ground is forcing all of us to change previous assessments and the fear

that Syrian regime will fall and Damascus will be taken by extremely radical forces is everywhere.

There is still a difference between, for example, Russia on the one side and Western capitals and some of our capitals on the other side. What

is the best way to keep the Syrian secular state going? Because despite all conversations with Syria in the deposition which took place in Moscow

in previous months, it's still no belief that any kind of coalition government would be able to defend Syria against ISIS. And that's why

people in Moscow are very hesitant to support --


LUKYANOV: -- any radical moves against Assad and towards a change of regime.

AMANPOUR: Mr. Lukyanov, you said to "The Wall Street Journal" that -- about the Kremlin -- they are looking at the acceptability of other

candidates, other than Assad, at this point. And as you mentioned, ISIS and the fear of ISIS is obviously a very real fear.

But what about the secular moderate opposition, the Free Syrian Army, who says that they have plenty -- they've had plenty of talks with Moscow.

Do you discount them?

LUKYANOV: You know, the problem is that, at least looking from Moscow, the moderate Syrian opposition, the Free Syrian Army and other

groups, which used to be counted as moderate, they -- looking from here, they're just losing their influence and only one force is the real

opposition to Assad, which is ISIS.

Another force which might be seen as a third force, Ennahda. But this is not at all moderate secular position. It's another group of Islamists.

But separate from ISIS.

So from -- looking from Moscow, there are no big chances to expect moderate opposition to prevail among Syrian opposition.

AMANPOUR: And yet, of course, we have heard in our own reporting, and we've seen that President Obama has mentioned it somewhat publicly that

certainly around the Vienna talks, the talks with Russia and the other world powers, that led to the Iran deal against Syria, was a big topic of


And so I guess perhaps to ask you then, if you don't think the FSA is capable at the moment, do you think that this new safe area will bolster

the ability of the FSA to arm and train and increase its moderate and secular power and credentials?

LUKYANOV: You know, with a new safe area, nothing is clear and everything is very confusing, as it is with Turkish participation in this

war, because, again, looking from here, it's pretty difficult to understand against whom Turkey is fighting. Is it really ISIS or maybe rather the

Kurdish groups, which Turkey is trying to fight for other reasons?

And I don't think that Moscow analysts and experts are very much enthusiastic about this new development because they think it might finally

undermine any balance in the region, whatever Turkish and American forces are expecting and intending there.

AMANPOUR: And finally, I have to ask you because this is going to come up this week and it's a matter of great importance, the idea of a

special tribunal to try those responsible for the downing of MH17. As you know, it's a matter of great contention between Moscow and the rest of the

world and a matter of great tension, frankly.

Why would Moscow not want a proper independent tribunal under the U.N. auspices to investigate this crime?

LUKYANOV: I think the one of reasons for that is the experience which we have with the tribunals since end of the Cold War. And we saw several

times that politicization of such investigations, which inevitably happens in case of a political tribunal -- and this is a political tribunal --

might be not the best way to discover truth, because when politics get involved, then many technical details will be adapted to diversion, which

might be politically more interesting to some forces.

I think this is the reason why Moscow, first of all, is opposing this political level of investigation.

AMANPOUR: Fyodor Lukyanov, thank you very much indeed for joining me from Moscow.

And as we discussed, Bashar al-Assad seems more worried than ever about his chances and as Turkey and the United States decide to set up a

safe zone in Syria, this could be a game-changer. But this week, leaders from both countries told me they haven't yet agreed on the scope of the

mission or which opposition forces to support.

A top commander of the moderate FSA, Colonel Abdul Jabbar Akidi, told me earlier today that they need to decide quickly while Assad is on the



AMANPOUR: Col. Akidi, thank you for joining me.

AKIDI: Thank you so much.

AMANPOUR: Colonel, there have been more gains by the opposition, by the --


AMANPOUR: -- insurgents along the border of Syria.

How important is that?

Who is making those gains?

AKIDI (through translator): Certainly these victories are very important, that the insurgents have accomplished against Bashar al-Assad's

criminal regime.

Now Idlib is almost completely liberated with its western countryside and now we are very close to al-Assad's strongholds on the coast in Latakia

area. This is very important. Those victories have been important. The regime has suffered serious defeats lately.

AMANPOUR: How much can you push your military advantage now?

AKIDI (through translator): From the beginning, we said that this regime is doomed to failure. Now the regime only controls 20 percent of

Syria, only some parts of the capital city of Damascus, some parts of the coast and that's all the regime controls.

AMANPOUR: Colonel, as you continue to fight against the regime, how important is this safe zone that the United States and Turkey are talking

about in Northern Syria?

AKIDI (through translator): That buffer zone is very important. The importance is, moreover, humanitarian nature than military nature. We just

wanted the refugees to go back, those who left their homes because of the barrel bombs and the ballistic rockets and the chemical weapons that the

regime used. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed.

We need such a buffer zone in order to allow those refugees to go back home and to secure them against any area of bombardment and, again, to

secure them against both sides of terrorism, the ISIS terrorism and Bashar al-Assad terrorism.

We need that buffer zone seriously. And that should be a decisive factor in the war.

AMANPOUR: You say it's more important in a humanitarian way but both Turkey and the United States, senior officials, the prime minister of

Turkey and a senior State Department official, have told me that it will also be used to arm and train the opposition forces.

Have you been contacted by anybody in this regard?

AKIDI (through translator): Certainly. It will have some military importance. We are not denying that. It will be important to direct (ph)

away terrorists from the Syrian-Turkish border and that will allow us a safe haven, where we could train and we could prepare to fight that regime.

AMANPOUR: You are commander of the FSA for Aleppo.

Who's fighting for Aleppo right now? Who's in control?

AKIDI (through translator): We are fighting fierce battles against Bashar al-Assad's regime and ISIS as well. We fight both parties. This is

a huge step that we have accomplished and we are approaching the total and full liberation of Aleppo from both Bashar al-Assad and ISIS.

AMANPOUR: How long do you think that will take?

And can you tell me whether you are aligned with other groups, such as the Fatah group or Al-Nusra or other groups who are fighting against the

Assad regime?

AKIDI (through translator): First, regarding the duration of the battle, that will depend on international support. If we start getting

serious international support and there is a no-fly zone and a buffer zone, then we can very rapidly accomplish victory and defeat that regime

and ISIS as well.

This is for sure if such support comes in. As for the Jaish al-Fatah army, the Fatah army contains many factions. And also FSA -- both are

participating in the liberation of the Syrian territories from the terrorist organizations and fighting in the northern countryside of Aleppo

against ISIS.

Let me tell you something. If the international coalition headed by the USA, which we have been asking for three years for support, if they

give us enough support, if they support the FSA and the moderate military factions, including the military councils, then there would have been no

terrorists in Syria whatsoever. There would only be the FSA.

This is the responsibility of the supporting countries because of lack of support to the moderate FSA.

AMANPOUR: So my final question, do you trust the United States right now to make good on what they're saying --


AMANPOUR: -- that this safe zone, this no-fly zone, whatever it's called, the buffer zone, will actually be used to arm and train people such

as yourself, moderate opposition?

AKIDI (through translator): For the last four years, the United States was not serious at all in defeating the Syrian Bashar al-Assad

regime and supporting the opposition seriously.

Now this time hope there will be a change of heart. The U.S. will be serious about ending this tragedy for the Syrian people.

And we hope also the U.S. will be helping us rebuilding new Syria, a Syria of rule of law, a Syria of diversity and we can live in a peaceful


AMANPOUR: Colonel Akidi, thank you very much for joining me.

AKIDI (through translator): Thank you.


AMANPOUR: And just ahead, for years we've wondered whether Mullah Omar was dead or alive. He hasn't been seen since around 9/11. I asked

world renowned expert Barnett Rubin what difference his death would make now. That's next.




AMANPOUR: Welcome back to the program.

The leader of the Taliban is dead -- actually, he's been dead for two years. That is according to Afghan officials, who, today, confirmed that

Mullah Omar passed away in a hospital in Pakistan in 2013. The Taliban has repeatedly denied rumors like this and just two weeks ago, they released a

statement from their reclusive leader.

So what does the news mean for peace in Afghanistan?


AMANPOUR: Joining me now is Barnett Rubin, who has advised the United States and the United Nations on Afghanistan.

Welcome to the program, Professor Rubin.

BARNETT RUBIN, AFGHANISTAN EXPERT: Thank you, Christiane, good to see you.

AMANPOUR: I guess, first and foremost, who knew and why now? Did the Pakistanis know? Did the Afghans know? Who's telling whom what happened?

RUBIN: Well, the first and most honest answer to that is I don't know. But certainly it seems almost certain that if he died in a hospital,

then the government of Pakistan or at least a very little part of it that the intelligence agencies must have known.

I don't have the impression that the Afghan government was certain about it until the last few days. And in the U.S. government where I

serve, I saw no indication that anyone knew that.

AMANPOUR: Well, I'm hearing that there are a lot of red faces right now in all the capitals that you have just mentioned, red with anger and

probably embarrassment as well.

Tell me, though, the significance.

What does it mean beyond all the masquerading and the false statements that were put out in his name and even the president of Afghanistan

actually publicly thanking Mullah Omar not so long ago for special aid greetings?

RUBIN: Well, first of all, it's important to understand that Mullah Omar was not just a political leader; he was a religious leader. He had a

religious title, Amir al-Mu'minin, Commander of the Faithful, and his followers swore a religious oath of loyalty to him, bay'ah. That meant

that he had a kind of authority over his --


RUBIN: -- organization that no other political leader in Afghanistan has.

So if there were any conflicts in the organization -- and there could be many conflicts, disagreements and so on -- once he made up his mind,

that was the answer and everyone had to obey.

Now at the moment, the president of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, with the support of China in particular, has gone to Pakistan, made a number of

concessions about the relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and convinced Pakistan finally to put pressure on the Taliban to come to the

negotiating table.

Now what they -- they had a meeting on July 7th between some senior Taliban and some Afghan government officials. But it's been quite unclear

what the Taliban's actual position about that is. The Afghan government, the government of Pakistan said that this was an authorized delegation.

The official Taliban media in Pakistan have not quite said that; they've said that -- and this is what -- so this Mullah Omar supposedly

said in his statement on Eid, which is that they support negotiations as a way of ending the conflict, but that the part of the Taliban authorized to

do that is the political commission, like their diplomatic arm, which has set up shop in Doha, Qatar, in order to be away from Pakistani influence

and control.

And that commission has been saying that these are not authorized talks.

AMANPOUR: So, I mean, that leads to the obvious next question, if everybody is using the name of a dead man to get their own political

advantage in what's going on, what does happen? What happens now with these so-called peace talks? Because another round is scheduled for today

or -- sorry; tomorrow or the day after.

RUBIN: Well, there are increasing demands from within the movement for Mullah Omar to come up and say something, precisely to decide among

these different positions, which as I mentioned, he's the only one with the authority to do.

And that's why whoever released it, most likely the Pakistani intelligence agency, had to release this information right now. Now they

may have done it now on purpose. There's a second session of the -- of the talks which is supposed to happen on Friday, also in Pakistan.

And now that there's no unquestioned leadership to question the legitimacy and now that there is a succession process going on among the

Taliban, because they have to decide who inherits Mullah Omar's place, there's actually more space for Pakistan to try to control the movement.

And at this point, in favor of a peace settlement because that is what they have now decided to do.


RUBIN: But the day -- what we don't know is if the Taliban will have a Pakistan-approved leader, a leader who tries to resist Pakistan or if

they don't succeed to have any leader at all and start to break up.

AMANPOUR: Golly. Professor Barnett Rubin, showing us once again that this is a mystery inside a riddle and wrapped up in an enigma, or something

like that, whatever Winston Churchill said. But it's really confusing.

And after a break, you just heard Professor Rubin say that Mullah Omar was a religious leader, not just a political leader. And I got the first

look inside his Kandahar compound after the U.S. coalition defeated the Taliban and Al Qaeda after 9/11 -- not nearly as humble as the Taliban

piously claimed. Imagine that -- next.





AMANPOUR: And finally tonight, imagine the world of the reclusive and now late Mullah Omar. The Taliban would have you believe that he led an

austere, monklike life, but in 2001, I had the first look inside his Afghanistan compound after it was bombed by the United States. And he and

Osama bin Laden were on the run.


AMANPOUR (voice-over): In a stunning setting in the foothills of Kandahar's mountains, Mullah Omar's compound offers a few surprises.

Outside, walking through the rubble of the guest and cattle quarters, we see that every room had air conditioning, including the cowsheds,

electric ceiling fans to cool the animals. And to drink, running water from these taps.

The vast majority of the people in this country don't have access to clean water.

"They built this all of this for the cows, while our people never had these things," said Saylab.

"This was built with Osama's money, with the blood of the Afghan people."

And inside, chandeliers hanging from the ceilings, plush carpets and a mirrored wall. It's a level of showy opulence that no one here imagined

from a man promoted as a humble cleric living in a simple mud-brick house

The only evidence found here today suggests a leader who, in the name of God, demanded so much sacrifice from his people, but seemed to suffer

none himself.


AMANPOUR: And that is it for our program tonight. Remember you can always see the whole show online at, and follow me on Facebook

and Twitter. Thanks for watching and goodbye from London.