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Russia Targets "Terrorists" in Syria with Airstrikes; Britain Mulls Striking ISIS in Syria; Imagine a World. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired October 21, 2015 - 14:00   ET




FRED PLEITGEN, CNN HOST (voice-over): Tonight: an emboldened Syrian president visits an emboldened Russian leader.

What does Bashar al-Assad's surprise trip to Moscow mean for his political and his military future?

An exclusive interview with Russia's ambassador to the European Union, Vladimir Chizhov, live from Brussels.

And right here in London, I'm joined by the former head of the British armed forces, General David Richards.


PLEITGEN: Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the program. I'm Fred Pleitgen, in for Christiane all of this week.

Brothers in arms that you see here, as Syrian strongman Bashar al- Assad meets his Russian benefactor, Vladimir Putin, whose military intervention has transformed Syria's civil war.


VLADIMIR PUTIN, PRESIDENT OF RUSSIA (through translator): Syria is a friendly country to us and we're prepared to do whatever we can, not only

in the course of military efforts to fight terrorism but also in the course of the political process.

BASHAR AL-ASSAD, PRESIDENT OF SYRIA (through translator): The terrorism that is now spreading today would perhaps be, without your

decisions and actions, would have spread to even more territories and states, not just in our region but other regions, too.

PLEITGEN (voice-over): It is by all accounts Assad's first trip abroad since the uprising began in 2011. The meeting took place last night

but was only made public this morning.


PLEITGEN: Today Putin called the leaders of Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt to, of course, discuss the war and, of course, also his

meeting with Assad.

Putin's actions have allowed him to launch a major offensive in various areas in Syria and put Russian and American military equipment in

close proximity on the battlefield.


PLEITGEN (voice-over): Russia's ministry of defense released this video filmed from a Russian jet over Syria of what appears to be an

American reaper drone.

To avoid a fatal mistake, the U.S. and Russia signed a pact to ensure their pilots do not engage or crash over Syria.


PLEITGEN: To get Russian reaction now, joining me is Russia's ambassador to the European Union, Vladimir Chizhov.

Ambassador, welcome to the program. Thank you for joining us.


PLEITGEN: First of all, let me get your take on how things are going on the battlefield in this military campaign for Russia.

And also, how important is the focus on ISIS itself and how important are other rebel groups?

CHIZHOV: Well, so far, since the 13th of September, when the Russian air campaign was launched, I think it has been quite effective. A number

of headquarters, arms depots, training centers and other installations of both ISIS and also other terrorist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra have been


So I think the focus is, of course, on combating elements of international terrorism. And the reasons are quite obvious. They have

been made public by President Putin, actually a number of times already.

PLEITGEN: What is the main thrust at this point?

Is Russia trying to help stabilize the Assad government and then move on towards fighting ISIS?

What is the goal that -- the near-term goal at this point?

CHIZHOV: I think that is not the correct sequence of action.

The first goal is, of course, to destroy ISIS and other terrorist groups and proceed to a political solution in Syria because the conflict

will only be settled when there is a political solution. I think this is something on which both Russia and its Western partners agree quite well.

PLEITGEN: What do you say to criticisms when, for instance, the U.S. says that groups that it backs are also being hit by these airstrikes?

CHIZHOV: Well, you know, since the beginning, when those criticisms were raised, a few days after the campaign started, actually, we asked, OK,

if you know where such groups are, tell us where they are so we would be very carefully avoiding hitting them.


CHIZHOV: "No, that's confidential," was the answer.

So we said, OK, if that's confidential, give us information on the whereabouts of ISIS and related terrorist groups so we would concentrate on


Again that was claimed confidential so no information was shared with us, which I think is a pity.

PLEITGEN: Sir, when --

CHIZHOV: We as Russia, we are open for cooperation, in spite of the fact that the legal basis for Russian operation and the U.S.-led coalition

in Syria is quite different, because the U.S.-led coalition in Syria -- and I express that because in Iraq it is different -- in Iraq the coalition is

there at the request of the legitimate Iraqi government.

But in Syria, the U.S.-led coalition, I'm sorry to say, is on the wrong side of international law.

PLEITGEN: Sir, when a country undertakes an endeavor like yours has right now, it has to have a point where it says it will disengage.

At what point would you say that Russia will have achieved its military goals?

Is it when the Assad regime is stabilized within a certain area?

Is it when it is -- it has control over all of Syria?

At what point would Russia say its mission has been achieved?

Because at some point there is the danger of this becoming something that would drag in Russia for a very long time.

CHIZHOV: There is this danger, of course. But I think our goals are quite clear. We will be able to pronounce the famous words, "mission

accomplished," when ISIS and related terrorist groups are destroyed and can no longer influence the situation in Syria.

Some people say that Russian involvement can only prolong the civil war in Syria, which has been raging for four years.

Paradoxically, they may be right because, had there not been Russian intervention, the civil war perhaps would have ended earlier with the

destruction of the Syrian army and the government and total control of ISIS over the whole territory, there wouldn't be a civil war then.

But that would be a tragedy, not only for Syria but for the rest of the region and, I think, for the whole world, because this cancer of

international terrorism does not recognize borders.

PLEITGEN: Sir, are you saying then, am I understanding correctly, that the Assad government was on the brink and its armed forces on the

brink of collapse and that's why you went in?

CHIZHOV: No, actually, not on the brink of collapse, by no means. But the situation was quite dramatic because the ISIS, in spite of all the

bombings for over a year by the United States and the allies, ISIS was far from being defeated.

Actually, they were concentrating more and more people and arms and spreading in both Iraq and Syria and beyond; even in faraway places like

Libya, there are signs of ISIS appearing.

PLEITGEN: Sir, you are going into this endeavor with a pretty controversial alliance. You have the Iranians. You have Hezbollah. You

have Shia Iraqi militias as well and, of course, you have the Assad government which has been accused, for a very long time, of human rights

abuses -- and of course the barrel bombs being -- the picture that is used so often.

How are you going to keep all of that under control?

You must know, also with the experiences that the Russians have had in Afghanistan as well, that the only way to win back territory and keep it is

to win over the local population.

How are you going to do that with such an alliance, how are you going to rein them in?

CHIZHOV: Well, I think you are overestimating Russia's role. Russia -- it is not Russia's war. We are there to assist the fight against


Yes, we are coordinating our efforts with the Syrian army, quite successfully, because I think, as Western countries recognize this and

other conflicts, no such conflict can be won from the air. There have to be boots on the ground but it will not be Russian boots. It will be Syrian


The Syrian army will -- is capable of launching a --


CHIZHOV: -- counteroffensive. Yes, we have created the better, safer environment for them to do that. But they will ultimately have to deal

with the terrorist groups on the ground.

PLEITGEN: But are you, as obviously a very important factor in this offensive, telling your Syrian counterparts and others that human rights

abuses will not be tolerated and that they cannot use things like barrel bombs, for instance, in urban areas?

Is that something that you're making clear?

Because it is your reputation that's on the line as well, isn't it?

CHIZHOV: Well, in conflicts like this, there are no angels. That's for sure.

But it is up to the Syrian people and only the Syrian people to take decisions on the political future of their country, whether they want to

see the current president, Assad, or somebody else leading the country, what they want to see as the structure, the parliament, the armed forces

and so on.

But in order for them to do that, the involvement of international terrorism should be terminated. That's why we're there.

PLEITGEN: Sir, you've just started to hit a little bit on the fact of what happens to Bashar al-Assad in the future. And you stated that it is,

as you say, for the Syrian people to decide.

How can such a political transition be fostered?

We know the Russians have undertaken diplomatic efforts as well.

Which groups are worth talking to?

For instance, your foreign secretary, Sergey Lavrov, said that he, for instance, considers the FSA possibly as a group that might be able to be


How do you see a process like this playing out?

And what is the future of Bashar al-Assad?

CHIZHOV: Well, there will have to be a political process. But a political process needs a certain environment to proceed. The warlike

environment is not the best one for any political process.

But, anyway, we are in touch with a wide range of opposition forces, both the so-called internal opposition in Syria and the external opposition

residing elsewhere.

May I remind you there have been two meetings of Syrian opposition groups and representatives of the Syrian government in Moscow in the last

few months, where Russia played not the role of a mediator but actually providing a venue and providing assistance for them to sit at the same

table and talk.

And all the participants, from all the factions, they concluded that those efforts were quite useful and they will continue. Actually, a third

meeting has already taken place in the capital of Kazakhstan, Astana.

And currently, as we speak, there are meetings held in different countries with different Syrian representatives. We will not -- and we

have no intention of imposing a solution on the Syrian people. I think nobody should contemplate doing that. The Syrians themselves will need to

take those decisions.

And let me remind you, Syria is a complicated country in terms of it being a society which is multiethnic, multiconfessional, and, of course,

ravaged by this four-year-long civil conflict. So it will -- it is not an easy task.

And it is not an issue whether Assad stays or goes. You know, should he disappear today into thin air, it will not solve a conflict because the

conflict is very deep-rooted. And it is not an issue of any personality.

So we are open for cooperation with the United States and other countries who are genuinely interested in seeing this conflict settled.

But so far the only response -- the only positive response from the U.S. that we got was on this deconflicting memoranda of understanding for

the two air forces.

PLEITGEN: Vladimir Chizhov, thank you very much for joining us today, live there in Brussels.

And as Russia and U.S. collide over Syria, as we've just heard there, their cooperation is bearing fruit in terms of Iran, where the country's

supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, has come out in support of the --


PLEITGEN: -- nuclear deal. But his endorsement comes with strings attached; namely it would be void, he says, if his country ever faces new

sanctions in the future.

And after a break, we'll take a deeper look into the military options still on the table in Syria.

Can the West still have, establish some sort of order?

That's next.




PLEITGEN: Welcome back to the program.

As Bashar al-Assad visited Moscow to coordinate military action in Syria, Britain continues to debate whether to expand its role against ISIS

as well. There is growing talk here in the United Kingdom over whether a push could go through Parliament to authorize strikes on ISIS in Syria as


But how will that work with Russian jets also in the sky at the same time?

And how big a factor is the West militarily still in Syria?

Let's discuss that with Lord David Richards; he is the former head of the British armed forces and the former commander of NATO's International

Security Assistance Force, ISAF.

Sir, thank you very much for joining us today.

What do you make of Russia's intervention?

Do they have a military strategy from what you're seeing and is it sound?


Is it sound?

From what I can tell there is a coherence to it. They have obviously got frustrated with what the West is doing. They're worried that President

Assad was becoming more and more vulnerable. And they've acted quite decisively.

But whether it is sound, I think we have got to understand more behind it. But if our joint objective is to defeat ISIS, then I think it's

probably better than we have currently got.

PLEITGEN: Is it a joint objective, though? Because it doesn't seem like these nations are acting in concert with each other.

On the one hand, you have the Iranians, you have the Russians doing their things, you have the Americans doing -- you have the Brits doing

their -- is there a common strategy?


RICHARDS: Well, there certainly isn't a common strategy but there is a joint objective, which I think is the right one, which is ISIS, daish, if

you're living in the region, needs to be got rid of. The problem is they're all attempting to do it from a different perspective.

What I would say is --

PLEITGEN: Why can't they work together on this?

RICHARDS: Well, history; clearly some backing certain people and others backing others.

This is an opportunity, you could argue, Russia's intervention, to get all the key nations to come together. Because I think people like

President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron are right; the biggest threat confronting us at the moment in the Middle East is daish.

PLEITGEN: What do you make of their reactions then?

Because so far it has been quite lukewarm to anything that the Russians -- they keep saying Bashar al-Assad has to go. But at the same

time, there are some who say, look, you keep making these maximal demands and at the same time not backing up with any sort of -- or with enough

muscle on the ground to actually follow through on anything.

Is the West still a factor in Syria?


RICHARDS: It's a factor and could be a much bigger factor. And certainly if we can cooperate more coherently and with less angst with the

Russians, I think we could be extremely useful.

The problem with the West's so-called strategy is it is contradictory. It wants to defeat daish, which is right. We need to defeat daish but it

also wants --


RICHARDS: -- to defeat President Assad.

I would say that, as a military man -- and I have the luxury of standing back from the politics of this to a degree, give advice to people

like Prime Minister Cameron and President Obama -- is that the Russian approach in principle is sounder than ours.

To have contradictory war aims or war aims that can be contradictory usually leads to a pretty chaotic outcome.

PLEITGEN: What do you think the West and Britain as a major part of the West's military force there, what do you think they should do?

Should they keep on limiting themselves to airstrikes?

Are we talking about potentially ground forces?

The Americans tried to train Syrian rebels themselves. That obviously didn't work.

What can be done?

RICHARDS: Well, this is the Achilles heel to the Western strategy, the last three to four years, attempts to create that vital ground forces

are which daish will not be defeated. And I think that argument is almost over now. Everybody accepts that.

PLEITGEN: No one is sending any ground forces.

RICHARDS: Well, no. But Russia, if you take them at face value, may create an environment in which Bashar al-Assad's forces can become our or

the people who wish to bring down ISIS ground force.

And I think, as I just heard your interview with the Russian ambassador, I think that is probably the aim. They've probably got a sort

of fallback aim, which is to create an Israel-type area within Syria, which is sort of containable and work --

PLEITGEN: A regime-controlled space, if you will, something like that.

RICHARDS: -- in which our own interests can be looked after.

PLEITGEN: But will something like that be acceptable to the allies of the West?

Because you have Turkey, who obviously, on the one hand, wants Bashar al-Assad to go; on the other hand, sees one of the other major fighting

forces that fights for the West, the Kurds, as its main enemies. You have the Saudis, that are trying to create their own realities on the ground.

Will the West's allies sign up to it?

And will they sign up to it if the West itself doesn't put more muscle on the ground?

Because how can you convince them to follow you if you're not doing more?

RICHARDS: Well, I'm careful not to be a -- appear to be advocating Western boots on the ground in the sense that they'll be right up on the

front line. I think it is quite clear that the USA and other NATO countries like Britain do not intend to do that.

So we have got to create an environment in which others, as the ambassador said, do the fighting for us. And I think that is the essence

of their strategy.

My sort of simple soldier's perspective is, if ISIS, daish, is all our principals' enemy, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, other nations in the region, I

think they're right to be very worried about them.

Then in return for guaranteeing the defeat of ISIS, then they must come together. And then, subsequent to that organizational defeat, reach a

political accommodation. And I suspect that is what Russia is trying to create.

PLEITGEN: General David Richards, thank you very much for joining us today.

RICHARDS: Thank you.

PLEITGEN: And as crisis points like Libya and Syria continue to fester, the wave of refugees heading to European shores will only persist

and probably get even bigger.

But as winter approaches, the journey is becoming only more difficult and dangerous. These incredible pictures show the increasingly harsh

weather these desperate people must brave.

After a break, imagine the world they may eventually arrive in, struggling with the question of where to put all these people, how to house

them. One potential answer is simpler and smaller than you might think. We'll explain after the break.





PLEITGEN: And finally tonight, imagine a world on a very small scale, for while some in Europe are not welcoming to the scores of refugees that

are arriving and would rather see them shipped out, the Dutch government may use very small shipping containers as a place to put them up.

It is a very desperate measure and one that also must be implemented very quickly with the cold winter months moving in. Tent cities currently

used across Europe will be unable to shield refugees from the elements, of course. Innovative approaches like this one are in dire need.

But meanwhile, on the other end of the world, some have to resort to similar drastic measures but for very different reasons.

In California's golden hills, it is the skyrocketing housing prices that are driving people into ever smaller places. It has driven one man

not into a shipping container but into a shipping vehicle.

He's a Google worker, identified only as Brandon S. in his blog, who has chosen to live in the back of his truck, a space less than 12 square

meters in size. Brandon simply didn't want to pay the outrageous rents in Silicon Valley anymore and at Google he gets some perks like free food,

free showers and, most importantly, a massive parking lot.

Well, that's it for our program tonight. And remember you can always see all our interviews at and follow me on Facebook and

Twitter, @FPleitgenCNN. Thank you for watching and goodbye from London.