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U.S. Retaliates Assad's Chemical Attack; Breaking the Agreement. Aired 10-11p ET
Aired April 6, 2017 - 22:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
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[22:00:00] RICK FRANCONA, RETIRED U.S. AIR FORCE: This base houses Sukhoi Su 22's. Sukhoi Su 22 is an old airframe. It's one of old Russian standbys. It's well built, it's rugged. But it's old. It's not very sexy. It doesn't drop precision guided ammunitions. But it can drop chemical, you know anything can fall off the whole wing. So I would not think you had Russian personalities certainly you don't need them for the maintenance.
ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: And we're going to be bringing...
FRANCONA: The Syrians are quite capable of doing this themselves.
COOPER: We're going to be bringing the president's remarks in just a moment. The first major military strike of the Trump administration has taken place. Dozens of cruise, 50 to 60 we're told in all from a pair of navy warships striking a single Syrian air base. That's the preliminary information.
Now the one suspected -- the base is the one suspected of launching this week's poison attack that took so many lives in Idlib province.
We are just about to receive a statement, a videotaped statement that the president made a short time ago. A few minutes ago from his vacation home in Mar-a-Lago where he had originally gathered to meet the leader of China. He's there with his national security team. The launch -- OK, let's listen.
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: On Tuesday, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad launched a horrible chemical weapons attack on innocent civilians using a deadly nerve agent. Assad choked out the lives of helpless men, women and children. It was a slow and brutal death for so many.
Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack. No child of God should ever suffer such horror.
Tonight, I ordered a targeted military strike on the airfield in Syria from where the chemical attack was launched. It is in this vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons. There can be no dispute that Syria used banned chemical weapons
violated its obligations under the chemical weapons convention and ignored the urging of the U.N. Security Council. Years of previous attempts at changing Assad's behavior have all failed and failed very dramatically.
As a result, the refugee crisis continues to deepen and the region continues to destabilize threatening the United States and its allies.
Tonight, I call on all civilized nations to join us in seeking to end this slaughter and bloodshed in Syria and also to end terrorism of all kinds and all types.
We ask for God's wisdom as we face the challenge of our very troubled world. We pray for the lives of the wounded and for the souls of those who have passed and we hope that as long as America stands for justice, then peace and harmony will in the end prevail.
Good night and God bless America and the entire world. Thank you.
COOPER: That was Donald Trump speaking just a few moments ago from Mar-a-Lago.
If you are just joining us it is the top of the hour. The president ordered a 50 to 60 Tomahawk cruise missiles from two navy ships in Eastern Mediterranean. We're told the impact time was around 8.45 p.m. Eastern Time U.S. time.
Targeting the Shayrat air base which the president said was the launching, the launching pad for the attack which took place Tuesday in Syria last week which killed so many.
The president has just said that there's no dispute that Syria used banned chemical weapons. He also said that years of previous attempts at changing Assad's behavior have failed and he talked about this has continued to destabilize the country and led to the refugee crisis which has threatened the United States.
[22:04:55] We are joined by our complete military panel. General Mark Hertling, Colonel Rick Francona, Admiral John Kirby, David Axelrod is joining us, Gloria Borger as well, General James Spider Marks is joining us as well.
General Marks, if you would, you're at the board. If you could just kind of show us -- you're at the map of Syria, kind of just explain a little bit of where this base is, where the attack took place and the significance from your vantage point.
JAMES SPIDER MARKS, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Yes, absolutely. Anderson, as you can see right here this is the air base as has been described already, but what's really significant is we know that in the eastern Med the pre-positioned ships watch those 60 Tomahawks.
And what's important about the Tomahawks is that they just don't necessarily go from point a to point b in a straight line. They will take a kind of a circumnavigation routes so they can't be shot down, but bear in mind these Tomahawks are at a very low level, probably less than 100 feet off the deck, if you will.
I would have to assess right now without getting any feedback from the Pentagon in terms of the effects that were achieved. What we -- what we can assume is that each one of the Tomahawks had a very good target that it went against. It was programmed appropriately and it struck the target.
Now what needs to happen is what was the bomb damage, what does that runway look like. I also think that it's fair to assume all of his fixed wing aircraft, all of Assad's fixed wing aircraft were probably already scrambled, and in many cases without any information, but in many cases we might be able to find those things in Tehran right now.
But my point is this is not like Kentucky baseball one and done. This is the start of a series of operations. We will continue to maintain a very strong intelligence presence on top of this target.
And we'll be able to roll more Tomahawks and we'll be able to escalate and we'll be able to do additional types of operations in order to achieve the results that we're looking for, which is number one politically, I think we've done that and we've sent a very strong message. But to degrade and ultimately, eliminate his WMD, weapons of mass destruction capability and his ability, Assad's ability to deliver.
COOPER: We should point out we do not know if the Trump administration does intend to have other strikes. For all we know it's very possible they've decided this is sending a message that they will say this has degraded enough and then wait and see what happens. It's possible there may be more, but at this point the administration is not saying.
MARKS: The administration is not saying a thing about these operations, but I can guarantee you that this was not a plan that had a very finite amount of time exclusive to this particular desire in stake.
This is the start of what I would presume is a larger campaign that will have other elements of power and other opportunities till against other targets based on what we see next. In other words, pre- positioned forces aircraft and ship will remain in place in order for us to gain greater intelligence and find out what we want to do next. But you're correct, nothing has been announced that we're going to do something else.
COOPER: Admiral Kirby, how much information does the U.S. have about the location, the capabilities of Syria's air force, you know, and we've seen obviously Syria's air force drop barrel bombs which have killed large numbers of people and we've seen, you know, chemical attacks in years past.
Is there intelligence on the capabilities and the number of aircraft, the location of aircraft and how easy is it for Syria to basically just move their aircraft to Iran or to other places?
JOHN KIRBY, FORMER SPOKESPERSON FOR THE UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF STATE: Our intelligence on issues capabilities in Syria isn't perfect as you might expect because we don't have a large presence there, but we do have significant overhead ISR capabilities in terms of manned and unmanned aircraft as well as satellite imagery.
It's not perfect, but it does give you a pretty good sense and because we have been conducting operations against ISIS in Syria, we have gained more knowledge and information context, if you will, about how the Syrian air force, Syrian military supported by the Russians are conducting their operations as well.
So I think we have a good idea. And obviously this attack never would have been launched and not conducted in the way it was if we didn't have good solid intelligence about what we were hitting and why we were hitting in this field and its direct link to this Sarin attack, I think tells you a lot about the certainty level that they had.
So I think there's good enough intelligence and information to make a call like they made tonight. And I agree with Colonel Francona that this -- if you're trying to link it to the attack and as well degrade capabilities, this was a good target to go after.
COOPER: Colonel Francona, to General Marks' point, if you're objective is more than just a message, but it is actually the elimination of Syria's capabilities to launch aerial attacks or the Syria degradation of their aerial capabilities this one attack is not enough certainly not anymore to enough, correct?
[22:10:00] FRANCONA: No. Not at all. This is one air base. They've got several, and they've got quite a few aircraft. And you know, the Syrian air force has atrophied over the years because of lack of maintenance lack of parts. They did get some modern -- remodern -- I'm sorry, modernized aircraft just recently from the Russians, but certainly not enough that they would want to take on the United States.
They're really good at dropping bombs on undefended targets and helpless civilians but they're not really good at fighting a war. And to one of the other points that the general made. I would assume that the Syrians have dispersed these aircraft.
Dispersing aircraft to bare boned bases is fairly easy, it's something that all the air forces practice and the Syrians have a lot of prepared strips that are not manned, that they could easily move this aircraft too.
But you know, that's all very visible and you know, you look at this target set, this Shayrat air base, this is a fixed facility. We know what's there. You can image it they can't move a lot of things there. They can move vehicles but they can't move buildings, they can't move large facilities, and they can't move POL tanks.
And this is what the Tomahawk was made for. It gets in there low level and hits these fixed facilities with no risk to an air crew. So, but this is the start. If we want to degrade a capability, if this doesn't do it, if the Syrians don't get the message, then we ramp it up to the next air base. But then as I said before, do we want to go down that road?
FRANCONA: Do we want -- are we -- are we doing a military action or are we starting a war?
COOPER: General Hertling, this administration has the benefit of several years now of the U.S. military having watched what is going on in Syria and I assume a myriad of plans which may be of some of them have been gathering dust, but have been -- have been gamed out for some amount of time in previous years about location of fighter jets, you know, if option "a" is to eliminate the air capabilities, this is how they're going to go about it.
MARK HERTLING, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: I'll tell you, Anderson, there are no plans gathering dust in the Pentagon truthfuly is. As a former war planner there, you know, we maintain those plans and update them constantly, war game them constantly...
COOPER: So that's always ongoing?
HERTLING: That's always ongoing. And different elements within the Pentagon that have responsibility for different parts of the world will continue to update. And in fact, it's on a schedule, I will l tell you that and that's about the most I'll tell you.
HERTLING: But as they get more and more information, especially as we've seen actions with special operators in that part of the world, we were somewhat blind when ISIS started operations in Syria because we didn't have a lot of intelligence gathering capability, but that's improved over the last few years.
We've put a lot of satellites over, satellites and manned aircraft to gather intelligence over Syria over the last few years. We haven't had a lot on the ground, but we've gathered enough intelligence to put spotters on airfields.
As Rick was saying and as John Kirby mentioned, it's gotten better over the last two years but that reinforces your planning capability. And when someone turns to the J7 on the joint staff in the Pentagon and says what's our plan for something next week, give it what we have. They will get a bare based plan. It won't be refined as we mentioned before.
That's crisis action planning, but they'll put a spin on it very quickly. I'm sure there's a whole lot of lights on not only in the Pentagon but in Central Command headquarters in Tampa determining what's going to happen next and what they've accomplished tonight.
COOPER: I want to go back to Barbara Starr who I understand is getting some more information at the Pentagon. Barbara?
BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: We are, Anderson. U.S. defense officials are now saying that they did inform the Russian military before this strike took place. There is a standard mechanism between the U.S. military and the Russian military in the Syria and Iraq area of operations. They call it deconfliction. They can contact each other readily to try and stay out of each other's way via some communication lines.
So, what we know now is that the U.S. used that communications lines contacted the Russians according to a U.S. defense official and told them what they were going to do and told them when they were going to do it.
The logical question to ask, is so did the Russians move out of the way? Tonight the U.S. will not speak about at the moment whether the Russians took any action about that. They want Moscow to discuss that in these early hours, but they did take care to inform the Russians of what was going to happen.
So it does appear that you could make the supposition that there was Russian military at that base. The next thing, we are very shortly going to be able to show images -- some images that the Pentagon has showed to reporters and we're going ready to make those available to all of our viewers.
What they have is very interesting. They have a radar track on the day of the attack showing an aircraft radar track of the plane taking off, Syrian planes taking off from this air base and they tracked to them all the way to this area in Idlib where they struck.
[22:15:11] We learned earlier today that the U.S. in fact have that kind of data, have the radar and had the infrared, the heat signature of bombs dropping off those aircraft. They also have some very early images of bomb damage assessment at the Syrian airfield showing some cratering and some damage.
We are in the very early hours of all of this so there will be a lot more to learn about what happened, but they do feel that they successfully struck the targets that they were looking to strike at this location, Anderson.
COOPER: All right, Barbara, when -- we'll obviously bring that -- those images to you as quickly as possible. And Barbara is going to work her sources. We just got a quick update out of Syria itself.
Syrian state television is reporting that, quote, "U.S. military aggression targets a military base in Syria with multiple missiles." That is what is onscreen banner says. We'll keep watching to see how they are reporting this as day breaks over there. It's about, I remember if I'm correct, I think seven hours ahead. I remember about that, yes, seven hours ahead, so it's about 5.16 in the morning there.
Arwa Damon is with us tonight, also Michael Weiss, co-author of "ISIS, Inside the Army of Terror," senior editor at the Daily Beast with us as well is Fareed Zakaria, host of Fareed Zakaria GPS, as well as our military analysts as well. As we are learning little by little more and more details and we are expecting perhaps according to the reporting of Jim Acosta and Jeff Zeleny at Mar-a-Lago, a briefing by administration personnel, possibly military personnel, about this operation.
We heard the remarks made by President Trump just a short time ago. They were about two to three minutes long. We'll probably play them for you again if you're just joining us shortly. We'll do that.
But I want to just quickly go to Arwa. In terms of what you are going to be looking for in the next several hours, I mean, any kind of action like this has reactions. And with so many actors on the ground, Syrian forces, Russian forces, Iranian forces, ISIS, other groups there's a lot to watch in the next 24 hours.
ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: There really is and we're already beginning to see a little bit of the reaction, perhaps the more positive reaction coming from some of the activists who I'm in touch with and some of the opposition groups who are to a certain degree saying finally, America has finally done something.
Of course, they are going to be expecting a lot more, because at the end of the day this is just targeting one fairly small facility. But this has at least initially generated a certain level of hope that maybe this is the beginning of America actually taking the plight of the Syrian people quite seriously.
But yes, you are very right. There are so many players on the ground. And you have the Iranians, the Russians who are still going to be waiting for reaction from. You have almost an ISIS who won't necessarily lament the fact that the regime has been targeted that they might not welcome the fact that it was being bomb by the United States.
COOPER: You know, Fareed, it's very interesting for President Trump who during the campaign, you know, and even as president has talked about America first, he's not the president of the world. We've often seen presidents who campaigned just as George W. Bush did campaigning on, you know, wanting to stay focused on domestic issues, but who because they are the president of the United States do get drawn into global affairs.
This is the first military action under this president. I'm wondering if you are Kim Kong-un sitting in North Korea tonight what does one read into, into this military action.
FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN HOST: Well, I think a great deal will depend, Anderson, on what follows next because this is one action as Arwa said. It's one relatively small military action. It's quite intelligent it's quite effective. It does send a signal, but military force is not primarily an instrument for a kind of emotional out boast -- out bursting or signaling something.
It is in purpose of a political strategy. And it's not clear what the political strategy here is. There is civil war taking place in Syria. Is our goal now, is our political strategy that we want to defeat and oust the government of Assad?
If that's the case that is going to be a tall order and it's going to take a lot more strikes than this is going to take many, many thousands of troops on the ground. If that isn't the game, what exactly are we trying to achieve.
It is very unlikely that this strike itself will alter the military balance in some way to affect the political settlement. There's an argument it could be made this will drag on the civil war. Because nor you are going to have more fighting, you know, but there is a kind of when decided civil war going on.
And to just throw bombs in the middle of that, it will -- it will get people's attention as you point out. It will get the country to support President Trump at a moment like this, but what have we actually achieved? We've entered the most complicated civil war in the Middle East, the most complicated civil war I've ever seen in my life and I don't think we know exactly what our goal what our strategy is here.
[22:20:00] COOPER: And Michael, I mean, to be honest with you we do not have a great track record of predicting events...
MICHAEL WEISS, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: No.
COOPER: ... in this region.
WEISS: Correct. And look, I mean, the strategy going forward as far as I could tell from the Trump administration people was they're looking to pull Russia away from Iran. Right? They want to contain and deter Iran and Syria and Iraq and elsewhere, Yemen. And the ideas that, you know, Donald Trump aspirational best friend Vladimir Putin could be, you know, negotiated with to do this.
What I found most interesting about what Barbara just reported is if Russian personnel were at this base that was struck and they were at the base 48 hours ago, did the Russian military know the regime was loading up SU22 Sarin gas rockets for the purpose of hitting us? Because if that's the case and Putin is not only all in behind Assad militarily, but he's saying have it. You have license to use WMD in the country.
And that I mean, all bets are off. You know, forget about trying to cleave him away from the ayatollahs. This is somebody who really is looking to test the United States.
COOPER: Barbara Starr is actually joining us from Pentagon again. You have some more information I understand?
STARR: We do, Anderson. I want to explain that there's a number of very late night briefings going on right now for reporters here at the Pentagon. And that's why we keep coming back to you with these additional pieces of information.
What we now know and the point that Michael was making is very key to this, very crucial. What we do now know is yes, there were Russians at the base. We don't know what their jobs were, we don't know what they were doing, we don't know their awareness yet of the Syrian actions, but there were Russians at the base.
And the U.S. indeed had multiple conversations with the Russians throughout the day we are told by a U.S. defense official about what was going to happen and the approximate time. One of the reasons and probably the key reason for this is the U.S. wanted to ensure that it wasn't going to be striking and killing Russians.
It wanted to keep this limited to those they felt at least initially were responsible for that incident up in Idlib. So I think the point very much that we don't know the answer to is if there were Russians at the base, we warned them to get out of the way and we warned them what was going to happen, but what did those Russians know about what was going on there, that we don't have an answer to yet.
COOPER: Well, it also raises the question, I mean, the obvious question is, did the Russians then tell the Syrians that the base is going to be hit late on tonight and you better get all your aircraft out of this supposedly hardened hangers and move them elsewhere?
STAAR: Well, I think you can assume that U.S. surveillance and other aircraft were overhead watching this and that would have been something that the Russians would have known that the U.S. satellites, reconnaissance aircraft, surveillance aircraft, drones would be overhead keeping an eye on this area and would have possibly -- you know, I don't know this for sure, would have possibly taken action if they saw the Syrians begin to move things around.
But I think the calculation for the U.S. military was that that they wanted to ensure this was a very limited strike and it did not involve the Russians again.
STARR: An effort not to widen any conflict here. But I have to...
COOPER: That's a critical piece.
STARR: I mean, we are just in very early hours. We don't have a lot of answers.
COOPER: Yes. I want to go to Jim Acosta. He got some new information out of briefing. Jim?
JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Anderson, right now actually Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the National Security Advisor to President Trump, Henry McMaster, they're both briefing reporters right now, and Secretary of State Tillerson making some pretty, I guess pointed remarks not only about Bashar al Assad's responsibility for what occurred a couple of days ago and that the chemical weapons attack, but also the responsibility of the Russian government on all this.
First on Bashar al-Assad Tillerson just told reporters a few moments ago that "Assad has carried out chemical attacks this past week on civilians including women and children and carried out attacks earlier this month talking about March 25th and 30th. We have a high level of confidence that the attacks were carried out by aircraft under the direction of Bashar al-Assad's regime. Also have very high confidence involve that these attacks involved the use of Sarin and nerve gas."
At least three of the attacks. Tillerson saying we have a high confidence of that. On Russia, very interesting comments, Anderson. Just a few moments ago from the secretary of state, this is a quote from the secretary of state to reporters just a few moments ago, "Clearly Russia has failed in its responsibility to deliver on a commitment that was made back in 2013 that Moscow agreed to get rid of Syria and its -- excuse me, get rid of Syria's chemical weapons."
That agreement according to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was not held up by the Russians saying that either Russia -- here's the quote here. Either Russia has been complicit or Russia has been incompetent -- incompetent in its ability to deliver.
[22:25:06] So, the secretary of state making some very harsh pointed comments tonight not only obviously at Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian leader but at the Russians. And of course that raises so many different topics of conversation, Anderson.
We've been talking so long now about the Trump administration, Trump aides and associates during the campaign and the Russians and whether folks were too cozy with one another, why didn't -- why has President Trump never criticized Vladimir Putin or been very tough on Russia rhetorically throughout the last, you know, a year and a half of seeing him on the campaign and as president.
But you have the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson really once again indicating a big reversal for this administration not only when it comes to dealing with Syria and its use of chemical weapons against its own civilians, but tonight putting some of the responsibility on Moscow on the Kremlin for not honoring this agreement that was apparently reached back in 2013 for Russia to be involved in getting rid of Syria's chemical weapons.
The secretary of state saying just a few moments ago, that Russia has essentially not held up its end of that bargain. Anderson?
COOPER: A lot of big developments tonight. Jim Acosta, thank you. Matthew Chance is in Moscow for us monitoring the reaction there. Matt, what do you hearing, what have you learned?
MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I mean, it's obviously the middle of the night here, it's getting into early morning and there's been no reaction as yet from anything in state media that we've seen. Certainly there's been no reaction from the Kremlin or the Russian foreign ministry or defense ministry. We've been in close contact with them.
But obviously it's a huge message not just to the Syrians that the Trump administration has sent by carrying out these missile strikes, but also to the Russians and that's something that's been laid out not just by the comments from Rex Tillerson there that Jim Acosta was talking about, but by statements that are coming through to us from various U.S. senators as well.
Senators McCain and Lindsey saying that this is a clear message that the U.S. will no longer stand idly by as Assad aided and abetted by Putin's Russia slaughters innocent Syrians.
And so, this was -- this was clearly a message to say not just at Syria, but at the Russians as well. I think it's probably the final nail in the coffin of any sense in which there is going to be a detente of rebuilding relationships, a reset between the Trump administration and Putin's Russia.
There's a lot of speculation about that of course in the past that this could be as I say the final nail in the coffin of that idea. But you know, we'll wait to see what the Kremlin says in the hours ahead and we'll bring that to you straight away.
COOPER: We should also point out that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is supposed to go to Moscow I think next week, right, Matt?
CHANCE: Yes. He's coming -- he's coming on the 12th, the 12th of April. So, in the middle of the next week. He was already going to be difficult meeting because they have to discuss the situation in Syria, the situation in Ukraine, the possibility of, you know, or the situation regarding sanctions.
This is going to make it all the more difficult. And what kind of reception Rex Tillerson is going to get now, a man who initially was believed to because of his situation in Exxon, he was the former CEO of Exxon he has a long standing relationship with senior figures in Russia was awarded the medal of friendship by Vladimir Putin a couple of years ago because of his services to the country as the CEO of Exxon.
Now he's coming to Russia next week as a secretary of state for a country that is diametrically opposed to Russia in its main foreign adventure overseas.
CHANCE: its campaign in Syria that Russia and the United States are now at loggerheads.
COOPER: We should point out if you're just joining us -- Matthew, thank you very much. We're going to continue to check in with you throughout this night and do doubt a lot in the days to come.
Fifty to 60 Tomahawk cruise missiles have been fired by the United States from two ships in the Eastern Mediterranean hitting around 8.45 p.m. Eastern Time, United States time which would have been about 3.45 in the morning I believe in Syria.
Targeting one air base, the air base that the U.S. says is the base from which Syrian aircraft left from and dropped what the U.S. is now saying was a Sarin and a nerve gas as well.
A short time ago, the White House released a videotaped statement from President Trump. Listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TRUMP: On Tuesday, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad launched a horrible chemical weapons attack on innocent civilians. Using a deadly nerve agent, Assad choked out the lives of helpless men, women and children. It was a slow and brutal death for so many.
[22:30:04] Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack.
No child of God should ever suffer such horror.
Tonight, I ordered a targeted military strike on the airfield in Syria from where the chemical attack was launched. It is in this vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.
There can be no dispute that Syria used banned chemical weapons, violated its obligations under the chemical weapons convention and ignored the urging of the U.N. Security Council.
Years of previous attempts at changing Assad's behavior have all failed and failed very dramatically. As a result, the refugee crisis continues to deepen and the region continues to destabilize threatening the United States and its allies.
Tonight I call on all civilized nations to join us in seeking to end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria. And also to end terrorism of all kinds and all types.
We ask for God's wisdom as we face the challenge of our very troubled world. We pray for the lives of the wounded and for the souls of those who have passed. And we hope that as long as America stands for justice, then peace and harmony will in the end prevail.
Good night and God bless America and the entire world. Thank you.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: That was President Trump a short time ago from Mar-a-Lago.
I want to bring in our chief political analyst Gloria Borger. Gloria, can you talk about what kind of political calculus went into this decision for this president.
GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, you know, I think as Jim Acosta and Jeff Zeleny were saying earlier, this seems to be a decision that the president made when he saw those pictures.
And I think that it struck him in a way that he clearly hadn't been struck in 2013 when there was a larger chemical weapons attack and he said that the president should not go into Syria.
So I think that once his -- he got around his military advisors and his secretary of state it was clear at least from this initial attack if that's what it is that they decided upon a more structured targeted action.
I can -- I can tell you that the president is going to have to answer an awful lot of questions from Congress both who support him and those who oppose this. On the supporting side, for example, you have John McCain and Lindsey Graham who put out a statement tonight applauding the president, attacking Putin, which by the way, we heard from the secretary of state, but with we did not hear that from the president in that brief statement earlier.
And they are saying now it's time to take the next steps, Mr. President to expand this war against Assad and support the Syrian opposition and establish safe zones in Syria, which is -- which is what they want.
You are hearing from democrats there's a young Congressman Seth Moulton who tweeted tonight and I was just looking at it, "So POTUS cares enough about the Syrian people to launch 50 Tomahawks, but not enough to let the victims of Assad find refugee and freedom here."
So he's going to be challenged on his refugee policy, also you're going to hear from people like Rand Paul who said tonight while we all condemn the atrocities in Syria, the United States was not attacked and the president needed congressional authorization for this.
You're going to hear that from a lot of conservatives who think that he -- that he should have gone to Congress and that is very often a tug of war that goes on between a president who says he has the authority that he received after this legislation was passed post 9/11 versus those who say no, in fact, you need to go to Congress to get authorization.
[22:34:57] And by the way as you've been talking about throughout this show, it was Donald Trump who said that President Obama needed to go to Congress and clearly Donald Trump decided not to do that.
So a lot of questions on the policy side that you're going to hear because people want to know what's next was this just a one off or is there something more coming. Is this a shift on Syria. Is this a shift on Russia or -- and you know, you're going -- you're going to hear from people who just say you know what, you needed to consult Congress and have a vote.
COOPER: I want to bring in David Axelrod. David, obviously you were in the Obama White House when a lot of these discussions were going on. It's so interesting, you know, we have seen in history so many times when the president of the United States sees picture and there is pressure to do something. I think back to Somali, the famine in '92, you know, that this press -- growing pressure to do something to save people's lives and the humanitarian operation that then ended with you know, black hawk down and U.S. forces -- the U.S. personnel being dragged, you know, the bodies being dragged through the streets.
It is difficult when you are president it is very different when you are president and the responsibility for human -- people's lives rests with you than it is when you're campaigning or when you're a civilian watching this stuff or reading about it.
DAVID AXELROD, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I don't think it's possible to describe the pressures that a President of the United States lives with moment to moment, Anderson. Much of which we don't even know about. The intelligence briefings that presidents get, the things that they're exposed to, and the constant understanding that they hold in their hands this mortal power over life and death.
But I'll tell you two things that I found interesting about the president's remarks, he said, "Years of previous attempts at changing Assad's behavior have all failed and failed very dramatically as a result the refugee crisis continues to deepen and the region continues to destabilize threatening the United States and its allies."
I was wondering as I was listening to him, was he making the case for larger action along the lines of what Gloria describe as Senator McCain's position and Senator Graham's position which would be a 180 degree turn for him in terms of policy.
I mean, we all remember his inaugural address in which he seemed to signal to the world that America was going to look after America's business and that America was not going to play the role that America has played in the past.
And then at the end of his remarks he said, "And we hope that as long as America stands for justice that peace and harmony will in the end prevail." So it suggests a larger role than merely retaliation for the use of chemical weapons.
COOPER: And what a changed. Because I mean, you had the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Fareed Zakaria, just last week saying, you know, what happens to Bashar al-Assad is up to the Syrian people. I mean, what a difference a week makes.
FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN HOST: Yes, that's right, as if they could hold elections to determine their leader. And on Monday, the president's spokesman clearly get instructed by the president said "We're not going to use this very chemical attack as an opportunity to try to call for the ouster of the Assad regime because that would be silly. It would not reflect the realities on the ground."
COOPER: Yes. And then the next day made this change.
COOPER: And again, it does seem largely based on whether it's people he talked to, you know, people in his family, or pictures he saw on television or in the newspapers.
ZAKARIA: And you know, you were asking David Axelrod I think a very important question which is that sense of pressure that presidents when have they have this feeling you've got to do something.
COOPER: You talked to President Obama about the red line.
ZAKARIA: Absolutely. And one of the things that President Obama felt very strongly was you can't give in to the momentary emotion to do something if the danger that you're going to create a larger problem going forward.
If you do something just to show that you're strong or that you're emotionally upset by this and you drag the United States into a quagmire like Iraq, that was his great fear. And so he was always very calculating, very cool and very aware that this, you know, is one step but then what happens after.
Have I really change the balance of power on the ground. With President Trump you get the sense a very different person, very different temperament and somebody who is more likely to just try something and say well, we'll see what it does.
You know, there is more of -- it seems more of a gamble mentality. Obama is low risk and Trump seems much more willing to gamble. The danger of course is that in these situations if the things you try initially, this first bombing strike maybe another one, if they don't work, now you have committed the prestige of the most powerful country in the world.
[22:39:56] Can you back down or are you then forced to throw good money after bad and good soldiers after dead ones.
MICHAEL WEISS, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I mean, the U.S. famously backed down in 2013. This was the big criticism. I have yet to meet a Middle Eastern or European official who didn't say to me America squandered so much credibility by not enforcing Obama's red line.
Remember Francois Hollande had jets in the air and they were told to turn around by John Kerry when this deal with Putin was struck. Look, do I think this is going to lead regime change or even any kind of real regime deterrent or encirclement, no.
I think it's a symbolic gesture, I think it's putting Assad on notice if do you this again -- I mean, how stupid could he be, right?
In 2013 he nearly lost many of these same facilities and had his bacon saved by Putin and Obama which legitimated his regime for a year plus because it made him a necessary partner in the proliferation he had to sign to up to the chemical weapons treaty and so on and so forth.
A month ago he was sitting pretty. You had a president in the White House who said we need this guy to defeat ISIS. We should be working with Russia, you know, wanted to pick a fight with Iran but he was very vague and ambiguous about it.
How stupid can you be to launch a Sarin gas, a nerve agent that you were meant to have given up? Not only is this is an embarrassment for the Russians and Iranians, and all of the patron states of the Syrian regime. It's also an embarrassment for the United States. We certified that he could not do what he just did.
COOPER: We've just gotten word -- we've just gotten this from Secretary of State speaking from Mar-a-ago. Secretary Tillerson said, "The U.S. is confident the Geneva process will result in political change in Syria that results in the departure of President Bashar al- Assad."
In his words, quote, "Through the Geneva process we will start a political process to resolve Syria's future in terms of its governing structure." He went on to say, "The U.S. hopes to work with international partners to stabilize areas of Syria."
Moving on now -- so that's the end of his statement. The idea of stabilizing parts of Syria I'm not sure if that's a reference to kind of safe zones that some have discussed.
ZAKARIA: So I think now what Tillerson is describing is a return to Obama's policy. Remember, the Obama policy has been regime change in Syria through a political process in Geneva. It hasn't worked so far, but it seems the Trump administration which had seemed as though they had moved away from that saying, no, Assad can stay, let him take care of ISIS. Now they're back to saying Assad must go.
The question of how you get him to go is complicated. The area of stabilization, I wonder whether that a reference to safe zones or to the potential partition of Syria.
A number of people think the solution here in the long run is going to be some kind of partition. Michael knows the geography better than I do, but you would have to create in a sense areas that Sunnis controlled, areas where the Alawite minority that Assad represents and their allies control and allow them to live in that.
Because the idea that you're going to get a total victory on either side seems unlikely.
COOPER: Our Ben Wedeman is near the Syria/Turkey border, he joins us now tonight. Ben, what do you think the reaction there will be because you've been reporting obviously for years now that the Syrian people have all but given up any hope of American action.
BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, really it depends who you talk to. Certainly here in Turkey I think the Turkish leadership is going to be pleased with this strike because they were quite impatient with the leadership of Barack Obama they felt and it's simply was indecisive and didn't move when it should have to topple or change the regime in Syria.
So at least in Turkey there will be applause for this strike. Within Syria itself let's keep in mind that any strike of this nature that might weaken the Syrian regime is inevitably going to strengthen ISIS which still controls large areas in the northwest and northeast in particular, but until recently Palmyra as well, which is just to the east of Homs where this strike took place.
Obviously, for the Syrians who just early Tuesday morning suffered this chemical air strike, those people are probably going to be pleased that some action was taken against the regime they believe was behind this chemical attack, but it's a very complicated situation on the ground where any dramatic move that might weaken one party may strengthen the other. And of course the other party is Syria.
COOPER: And of course the other question is if Bashar al-Assad is forced out of office in however that might be possible, if it is possible at all, who replaces him, what form of government replaces him. There's certainly a lot of, I mean, an enormous vacuum of power that would be.
A briefing, Ben has just wrapped up in Mar-a-Lago. CNN's Jeff Zeleny is there. What have you learned, Jeff?
JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Anderson, I am just coming from the briefing with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the National Security Advisor General H.R. McMaster and they walked through a time line of how this strike happened and they really started with the moment that the White House learned of that chemical attack a couple of days ago and said the president as we know was deeply effected by that.
[22:45:06] He ordered up options immediately. Were given three options, he narrowed it down to a couple options and again, when he landed on the ground here in Florida this afternoon he met with his national security advisors to sort of give the go here.
But to clarify something that has been a little bit of an open question this evening about Russia, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said this. "We sought no approval from Moscow or any level with the Russian infrastructure." They did, however, the U.S. forces did however talk to Russian ground forces simply they explained like this because obviously Russian forces are operating in nearby proximity to U.S. forces on similar bases.
So they went through the normal channels of deconfliction and they were trying to do as General McMaster said to reduce and hopefully eliminate avoid Russian casualties. So they said they did have conversations late shortly before the strike with the Russian forces on the ground, but no conversations directly at least with Moscow.
But then the secretary of state, this is one of the rare times we've seen him he was leading this briefing, Anderson, was giving, you know, the whole sort of statement of this administration's policy and he said this one strike should not necessarily change how the U.S. views Syria.
This was in direct and targeted retaliation for that chemical attack earlier in the week. And interestingly, he also said as we've been reporting that the White House reached out to members of Congress, senators, representatives, democrats, republicans as well as they reached out to an international coalition to advice people, but he said this was a 100 percent U.S. military operation tonight in Syria, Anderson.
COOPER: Jeff, just hold on because I want to pursue something with you. I just want to tell you that the photos you're seeing those are from earlier this week the results of the attack by Syrian forces in the Idlib area. So many children killed in that attack.
Images like these as Jeff was reporting according to what the secretary of state are saying are some of what deeply effected President Trump and suggesting and motivating him to look at options for some sort of retaliatory strike.
But Jeff, that was an important point that you said, and Rex Tillerson said. And I just want you to weigh in on it. It sounds like he's saying that this is not the first of multiple strikes, that this is essentially -- I mean, this was to make a statement, but it doesn't change the policy significantly toward Syria, is that correct?
ZELENY: That's exactly what he said, Anderson. Of course he didn't rule out any future strikes. I mean, this president has been very clear about not announcing or forecasting his plans, but the secretary of state said that the strikes do not demonstrate a change in U.S. policy towards Syria.
And I'll quote here. He said, "You should not in any way extrapolate that the U.S. military strike in evening changed our policy or posture towards Syria in any way." He goes on to say "There's been no change in that status." It does demonstrate, he says, that "President Trump is willing to act when government and actors cross the line and cross the line in the most heinous of ways."
So again, they are trying to explain this as something that is a direct response to the chemical attack earlier this week. And of course, the president as we've been talking about throughout the evening, you know, was suggesting a few years ago when he was a private citizen that Congress should be involved in this.
Yes, they did not seek congressional approval for this, but they did reach out to key republicans and democrats, senators and representatives earlier this evening. They briefed them. The vice president I'm told was also involved in that. He's been working on this from the situation room back in Washington.
So this was a situation where the president was notifying if not seeking approval. And we'll see how that plays out in the coming days. Of course some senators like Rand Paul and others may be critical of that, but we're already seeing some early signs of bipartisan support for the action tonight, Anderson.
COOPER: Jeff, I appreciate that. We've gotten an update on the precise time of the strike. We've learned it was 8.40 Eastern Time, 3.40 on the ground in Syria, 3.40 a.m.
I want to go back to our military experts. Because I understand we just got some video. This is the first time we are seeing it. Let's show that.
[22:49:58] As we watch this video, those are obviously Tomahawk missiles being launched by U.S. vessels. Admiral Kirby, are you there?
JOHN KIRBY, FORMER SPOKESPERSON FOR THE UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF STATE: I'm here.
COOPER: Sorry. Sorry, I couldn't hear you. Those were obviously some of the video of Tomahawk missiles being launched.
KIRBY: That's right. Yes. You can see clearly that that was destroyer if not both government that video. And I think, you know, it's typical for us to be able to shoot that kind of video. This really does speak to the power of having a naval maritime capability there in the Mediterranean.
We have four strips like this, four destroyers that are ballistic missile capable that are permanently based in the Med. This is one of the reasons that they can be where they need to be on very, very short notice and can launch this kind of size of a set of strikes very, very quickly.
And as General Hertling I think has made clear a couple of times tonight, this was a -- this was a very quick planning process and that's one of the great advantages that naval power or navy ships like better equipped like this can bring to bear.
COOPER: And Admiral, I mean, a Tomahawk cruise missile like this how precise can it be in terms of targeting?
KIRBY: The Tomahawks are extraordinarily precise. I mean, you can actually program them for small facets of a building, you know, I mean, you could -- you could target them on a set of windows. That's how close they can get. So they are very, very precise.
It will be interesting to see when the sun comes up and when the Pentagon gets more information what their battle damage assessment is but I'm pretty certain that it's a -- they're going to be able to assess that they hit exactly what they were aiming at.
You know, we've talked about the fact that at least at a tactical level there was some deconfliction with the Russians. Again, that doesn't surprise me, either nor doesn't surprise me that we didn't fill Moscow in any great vain.
And that we may have had Russian forces. It will be interesting to learn if there were Russian aircraft at this base and if they were hit. I think, you know, again, we'll learn more probably in coming hours but I think that would be interesting to see.
COOPER: Colonel Francona, just in terms of the Syrian air force itself, I mean, how large is it? You know, you were pointing out there are basically you think about two squadrons, or in normal times have been two squadrons of aircrafts relatively old aircraft, if I understand what you had said earlier, at this base that was hit. But given that this was the base that the attack, the gas attack took
place from, it's very likely these -- those jets may have been scrambled to elsewhere because this would have been an obvious target in the days since that attack.
Do you know how large the Syrian air force is if there was -- if the U.S. really and coalition partners really wanted to eliminate the air capabilities of Bashar al-Assad?
RICK FRANCONA, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: It went from a large air force to a relatively small air force just over time, atrophy and lack of new equipment. So they've got on paper, you know, three maybe 300 aircraft. That's not -- that's not the number you need to look at. It's the number of effective and modern aircraft.
If the question is would they be a match for the U.S. Air Force, U.S. navy aircraft, no. They're not even in that league. They've got -- they've got a, I think two squadrons of Mig 29's, maybe 50 of those that are fourth generation fighters.
But we fought the big 29 before we did a number on the Iraqi Mig-29's in Desert Storm. So I don't assess the Syrian air force as a threat. I assess the Russian air defense system in Syria to be the major threat to American aircraft.
One thing to bring up, that Russian air defense system was also designed to shoot down Tomahawk missiles. So the fact -- I'd like to see if they were engaged, did the Russians since they knew they were coming just decide not to -- not to try and oppose the strikes? There's a lot of questions that come up with this Russian U.S. conference...
KIRBY: ... talking to each other before this went on.
COOPER: You know, General Hertling, as someone who served in Iraq as you did for so long and at such a high level, when you heard the secretary of state, he sort of give the comments he gave earlier, did it sound to you like this was essentially a one-off, I mean, that this is not part of an ongoing campaign that we are going to be seeing more of in the days to come.
MARK HERTLING, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Yes. Anderson, I actually took some notes when we were talking about what the secretary said. And I'll go back to reinforce what we all know. This was a very bold, tactical retaliatory strike.
It hit the target, it did very well. We said that all night long. The navy can do great things from the Mediterranean. But again, I'm going to go back to and you mentioned this at the beginning of the show when you mentioned Colin Powell's comment of if you break it, you bought it.
There's another comment of where does all this end? Is there an operational plan? [22:54:58] It appears from what Secretary Tillerson just said that
there is not a strategic plan, that this is not going into a deeper strategy or at least a change strategy with Syria. I'm not sure what that means.
What is expected next other than changing the behavior of Assad? There was a comment that the potential of bringing Mr. Assad to -- and I understood to mean to criminal court, The Hague convention based on violation of war crimes. He's certainly guilty of many.
So that might be a very interesting way for an international tribunal to bring him to justice because over the last several years there have been multiple violations of the Geneva Convention justice by his regime.
Does this mean we're going to reinforce the Syrian rebels more? I don't know if that's part of the equation. And one of the words I have not heard all night long is ISIS. How does this relate to the fight against that terrorist organization, which is in northern Syria? What are our relations with Russia and what is -- and I keep coming back to that, the relationship with Russia and Iran is going to be damaged.
I know there are going to be other countries in the region, specifically Egypt, Jordan, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Israel that are going to be very happy for this bold, tactical strike, but what does it mean in the long term? How is it going to affect our European allies and what's going to happen in the Gulf, specifically in Syria, and what are our actions going to be in that as we continue to execute combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan?
COOPER: Yes. I want to also get to Fareed Zakaria. Fareed, as you hear Secretary of State Tillerson, I mean, is that your reading of it as well, essentially? I mean, he says the U.S. policy, I mean, according to Jeff, the U.S. policy to Syria is not changing.
Does that -- I mean, I'm assuming he means from the Obama administration, which means the stated policy is still for Bashar al- Assad to leave, not that it hasn't changed from last week when Tillerson said what happens to Assad is up to the Syrian people.
ZAKARIA: It's very confusing but I think -- I think you isolated the key issue, which is Tillerson seems to be signaling this is a one-off. He seems to be signaling we are not now embarked on a military campaign that is trying to oust the Assad regime.
That's why it seems as though both his statements and the present statements were carefully tied to the chemical weapons issue.
ZAKARIA: So in effect, what they are saying is you violated that agreement in 2013, we are going to hold you accountable for that even the conversation about the Russians. Tillerson's point about the Russians was, you guys promised to reign in Syria on the chemical weapons issue. You were obviously then incompetent or you didn't know about it so we are going to punish you on it.
So it's all very narrowly directed which does leave one to wonder, well, two weeks from now are we back in exactly the same situation? Because the Assad regime has not suffered some mortal blow of even a body blow, it's going to be able to continue to hold the territory it has, it's going to be able to press forward.
ISIS, you know, has maybe been strengthened a little by this but not really much because they don't operate in the same areas. So nothing much has changed other than this military expression of outrage.
And if that's the case, you know, one does have to wonder what are we doing? Have we talked through why we did it? And can we really take the position that having now launched these military strikes against the Assad regime, our policy goes back to exactly what it was before we did that?
COOPER: Spider Marks, when you look at the map again, earlier you know, you talked about if this was an ongoing operation, there would be other effects. It does seem, you know, again, at this hour of the evening and it's very early hours, you know, that this may be -- this may it in terms of U.S. military action, at least for now.
JAMES SPIDER MARKS, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, at least for now and you have to define how much time does that really mean. Is this -- are we going to see a rolling set of operations that will occur within hours after this? I think not.
And the analysis very accurately lays that out. Look, the amount of human suffering is taking place in Syria is immense and it's outrageous. But I don't think you build a strategy, exclusively against that. Nor have we done that in the past.
What we have seen is the use WMD by Assad over and over again. This administration decided that's enough. So, in a very narrowly defined way went after target and they executed this in a very proportional way.
I think proportionality gets thrown out the window but it doesn't take place immediately on the heels of this operation.
MARKS: I can guarantee we're going to stare at this, we're going to look at this with an unblinking eye and there will be other operations down the road. Nobody can determine what that looks like.
And as Mark Hertling has laid out, the military plans for these things in exhaustive detail all the time and based on this bomb damage assessment, we'll make alterations to our next steps.
[23:00:02] COOPER: We are going to leave it there. Our coverage, though, continues right now with Don Lemon in New York and also Wolf Blitzer in Washington.