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President Trump Launches Military Strike Against Syria; First Video of U.S. Military Strike Against Syria; Russia Says Co-Operation with U.S. Military Could End; 59 U.S. Tomahawk Missiles Fired into Syria. Aired 1-2a ET
Aired April 7, 2017 - 01:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
[01:00:00] CEDRIC LEIGHTON, AIR FORCE COLONEL: Well, that's absolutely true, Wolf. And one of the big reasons to use cruise missiles is precisely what you outlined. We are trying to, not only save lives, but we're trying to save our pilots lives and the way you do that is, you use as many stand-off weapons as these missiles are called as possible. So, you want to use them in order to achieve not only a tactical outcome - a good tactical outcome on the battlefield, but you also want to keep as many Americans safe as possible.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN THE SITUATION ROOM HOST: They're not cheap, these tomahawk cruise missiles, do you have any idea, Colonel, how much each one costs; U.S. Taxpayers?
LEIGHTON: Well, I have to look at the exact figures, but we're talking several hundred thousand dollars easily for each warhead, and when you add the missile to that, you're approaching, you know, several million dollars probably for each one of them.
BLITZER: Yes, when you talk about that. This is a huge operation. Tony Blinken, you see this escalating right now?
TONY BLINKEN, FORMER NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: Well, that's the big challenge for the administration; it's got to keep this under control. And one of the other things it has to do, Wolf, is to make sure that what we do going forward is consistent with the other battle that we're fighting in Syria and Iraq, and that's against the Islamic State. It's got to make sure that it takes steps to prevent, for example, the Russians from now interfering with the efforts of our pilots in that, in that conflict to make sure that it doesn't paint our pilots with their very, very potent air defenses in Syria. To make sure that at the same time, as we're devoting resources to dealing with Assad's egregious use of chemical and biological weapons, that those resources are also not diverted for too long from the campaign against the Islamic State. So, that's one of the challenges that's before the administration.
BLITZER: And just a factual issue, Tony. You're an expert in this area, the Obama administration launched air strikes against targets in Syria, connected with ISIS. ISIS suspected targets, whether in Raqqa or elsewhere in Syria. This is the first time the U.S. has launched airstrikes against Syrian government targets, is that, right?
BLINKEN: That's correct. BLITZER: The Obama administration always refused to do so, and remind
our viewers why.
BLINKEN: Well, there're a lot of things going on here: one was that, again, we talked about this a moment ago, finding a legal basis to do that, particularly, under international law was incredibly complicated. Usually, you'd have to have the U.N. Security Council give you that authorization, that was never going to happen because Russia and China would veto it. Or, we'd basically have to be invited in by Syria itself, which obviously wasn't going to happen.
So, under international law, we had difficulty finding a basis, and then there was the concern about getting ourselves into some kind of, you know, escalation. That would lead us to, basically, have ownership of all of Syria. That's something that even as we were working to support the Syrian opposition, even as we were working to try to protect the Syrian people, we didn't want to own it.
BLITZER: I want everybody to stand by because we have a lot more coming up.
DON LEMON, CNN TONIGHT HOST: Our breaking news right now: President Trump orders U.S. military strikes on Syria. This is CNN TONIGHT. I'm Don Lemon.
BLITZER: And I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're looking at the first video of the strike on the Syrian government targets. The strike in retaliation for Syria's chemical weapons attack on civilians earlier in the week, on President Trump's orders. U.S. warships launched 59 tomahawk cruise missiles targeting a Syrian government airbase, where the war planes that carried out that attack were based. The missiles were launched from warships in the Eastern Mediterranean.
LEMON: What will be the reaction around the world? Russia's saying tonight, that cooperation with the U.S. military may be over now. Wolf, we have a lot to get to. This operation happening at 8:40 p.m. Eastern time; 4:40 in the morning there in Syria. I want to get right now to CNN's Ryan Browne at the Pentagon. Ryan, you just came out of a briefing there, at the Pentagon, and you have some new information for us. What can you tell us?
[01:04:19] RYAN BROWNE, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY PRODUCER: Well, that's right, Don. What - the military is telling us that they did indeed have some conversations with the Russians, using a pre-established channel called "the deconfliction channel," which was initially set up to kind of help the airplanes, you know, bombing ISIS and other groups in that area avoid any kind of accidental interaction.
So, they used that channel to inform the Russians that these strikes were going to occur. And the military spokesman we heard from was - really underscored that point that really a lot of efforts, they knew that there were Russians at this base, but they undertook extra efforts to ensure they didn't strike any personnel or any of the areas they believed the Russians were operating.
In addition, this site was also believed to be used as a chemical weapons storage facility before 2013 when the regime was kind of forced to give up its chemical stockpiles. And so, they also did not strike sites that were believed to be storing chemical weapons. We heard that from Lieutenant General McMaster, Donald Trump's current National Security Advisor.
LEMON: So, that was strategic and you're saying that they didn't strike any areas that they believe Russians were, but we know that the Russians are expressing anger about this tonight. Do U.S. officials believe any Russians were killed?
BROWNE: They do not believe any Russians were killed. And they took these measures to strike very away from these areas and they actually communicated with the Russians beforehand; warning them of the strikes multiple times over the course of a day, we are told. Now, that being said, there are a lot of U.S. troops in Syria participating in the fight against ISIS.
Some numbers as high as over 1,000 U.S. troops, special forces, other groups in the region, in the ISIS battle. And so, they are, you know, of course, constantly taking precautions, you know, understanding that they could potentially be a target in some kind of retaliation. And we're told they're not taking any extra precautions at this time, but they're definitely always keeping kind of a situational awareness of what's going on given those U.S. troops in the region.
LEMON: Ryan Browne, I have to ask you, we know about the tomahawk missiles, but talk to us about the U.S. military assets that were used.
BROWNE: Well, that's right. There were two U.S. ships in the Eastern Med. The USS Porter and the USS Ross, that were kind of delivering the tomahawk strikes. Now, these - of course, this allows you to kind of have a little bit of what's called the stand-off distance away from the - any potential anti-aircraft weapons that could shoot down manned planes, manned aircraft. So, it's a, it's a useful kind of tactic, a useful tool that kind of protects the deliverer of the weapon, and also the weapon, it kind of hugs the ground, the tomahawk missile can take a low approach, avoiding any anti-missiles countermeasures that the regime might employ. So, it's a very effective weapon for this situation.
LEMON: Ryan Brown, at the Pentagon here in the United States. Ryan, thank you very much. And Wolf, you know there's going to - the entire world is watching this, and reactions from around the world, coming in now.
BLITZER: It's coming in very, very quickly. Some initial reaction coming in from Russia as well. I want to bring in our Chief International Correspondent, Christiane Amanpour. Christiane, it's the middle of the night here on the East Coast of the United States, but much of the rest of the world is now waking up to a brand-new reality. What do you anticipate the reaction will be?
CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, you can already see some of it coming in fast and furious. There are criticisms from the usual suspects, obviously, Russia, obviously, the Syrian regime. But the obvious - what we've been reporting, what you've been reporting, is that President Trump and the Trump administration had been talking to Russia, to others before they launched this attack. And yes, we're going to see probably, a few days, a few weeks of how to go forward from this, but obviously, this is very, very significant.
It is, apparently, according to the administration, a one off for the moment. It was done as you heard from Nancy Pelosi, in a proportionate reaction to the violation of international law by using weapons of mass destruction. And the fact that it is the first time ever that the United States has actually stood up and taken a stance and tried to prevent this kind of violation of international law, by the Assad regime is very significant. And there's always been this conflicting analysis about what's happening in Syria. People mix up the fight against terror with the fight against Assad.
Assad is the reason for the rise of ISIS. So, trying to fight ISIS without making sure that Assad doesn't complicate the picture along with his allies, Russia and Iran, has always been something that's been very hard for the U.S. administration, many of its allies, in the past to get their heads around. So, so many people around the rest of the world believe that Assad and his use of targets that destroy civilians and including the use of banned international substances like chemical weapons are part, if not, the main problem in Syria and has been for many, many years, Wolf.
LEMON: Christiane, it's Don Lemon. You know, Russia, top of mind here in the United States, and our relationship with Russia, what does this conflict mean for the U.S. relationship with Russia? Because for months, years really, the President has been saying, wouldn't it be great if we had a better relationship with Russia? That was already an extremely unlikely prospect. What about now?
[01:09:32] AMANPOUR: Well, I think you have to go back several years to figure out that having a better relationship with Russia is something all the U.S. administrations have tried to do. But under President Putin, it has gone awry at every, at every turn. President Bush - W. Bush tried to do it. Remember, very famously looked into the eyes of Vladimir Putin and saw his soul, and things were going OK for a while until there was the Iraq war, and that ruptured the relationship between the Bush administration and Vladimir Putin.
And then the Obama administration tried to reset. And that was sort of going kind of all right for a while until the Libya intervention in March of 2012, and then that ruptured that relationship. And then Russia decided to violate international law itself, and invade Crimea and an exit, and then to interfere in Eastern Ukraine, and that has put Russia on the wrong side of international law and history at the moment. So, it is an incredible, complicated situation, there's no doubt about it.
It's very interesting to hear the read out that the administration spoke to Russia, informed them what was going to happen through this deconfliction channel. And we don't know any others, but, you know, they weren't in the way, as far as we know. And we're going to see how they worked this out because this is a real issue now, that all sites have to deal with.
BLITZER: As you know, Christiane, that the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, he's supposed to be in Moscow next week. I assume that visit will go forward unless it's canceled at this late minute. But the U.S.-Russian relationship now has taken a very surprising, very negative turn.
AMANPOUR: You know, let's see what happens, let's just see. The United States has the most powerful military in the world, it is the richest country in the world. Russia has by no means the ability to counter the United States currently under the conventional weapons, you know, the capability that it has. It just doesn't. It is true that in Syria, it has incredibly potent and powerful and the newest range of anti-aircraft systems, but it didn't use them. And it was told about what was going to happen, according to the readouts that we're getting from the administration. The Syrians do not have the capability to deter the United States military. They just don't. They have been degraded. They don't have that capability. And that is why, you know, this was, you know, able to be done.
But yes, and actually, I think what's going to be fascinating is to hear what President Trump and President Xi talk about. Remember, China has also vetoed and not really been pro this kind of action over the years. And there in Florida, we've got the leaders - the two most powerful leaders in the world, the President of the United States and the President of China about to sit down and continue their conversations after this strike. That's going to be really interesting, because President Trump has also on his plate, how to deal with North Korea's rising nuclear threat. So, all of this comes at a very, very crucial moment.
LEMON: Christiane, you're right about that, because the two men are meeting now, and this is apparently the President made this decision. And as it was happening, they were having dinner in Mar-A-Lago, here in the United States at the President's compound there. Our Jim Acosta is traveling with the President, and he was reporting that immediately, you know, after this, the President was affected by these images of dead children. This conflict, of course, has been happening for some time now. And we've heard that the President speak about that in his statement tonight. Those photos clearly had an impact on his thinking.
AMANPOUR: Well, I think absolutely. I was on with Wolf, now more than 24 hours ago, right after President Trump made his statements alongside King Abdullah in the rose garden. And I was really struck, and I said it that, this seemed to be a much more - a very changed and very shaken President. Trump had a very determined President Trump. You heard what he said, basically, it had completely changed his attitude to Syria and to Assad. And all of this, what the President was saying at that moment in the rose garden was, amplified by the rest of his administration: you had Nikki Haley, the U.N. Ambassador at the U.N. just shortly before the President saying that this is unacceptable, that the U.N. needs to respond. I mean, you couldn't even get the U.N. along with Russia and China to
agree to a resolution condemning an act of war by a government which signed on, we've just learned tonight, to the chemical weapons convention. You couldn't even get them to condemn it, much less to stop Assad from doing it again. So, you had that, you had Vice President Pence later in the night saying, all options are on the table. You had Rex Tillerson confirming that they had no doubt that Assad had launched this chemical attack. And then, you had the rest of the sort of evidence coming out yesterday, at the Pentagon confirming that these planes, they had tracked them with the radar and infrared, and then figured out where they had come from, and how they launched this attack near Idlib.
So, yes, it was a moment where, you know, the policy for a moment changed on that very important dime of this violation of international law. And we're not saying, I don't think anybody believes that this is an on-going attack, that this is a precursor to an invasion of Syria, or to regime change in Syria, or anything like that. I think they've said it, that this is it for the moment, let's see what happens next. But this is designed to deter a tyrant who has for six, now going to its seventh year, been responsible for the deaths of nearly half a million people, and for for 12 million refugees, most of those circling around trying to figure out where to live inside Syria, millions of them outside Syria, putting pressure on American allies like Turkey, like Jordan and not to mention Lebanon, and an up ending politics all over the West as well. This is a massive, massive crisis that the West has not dealt with in the last seven years. And it still needs to be dealt with.
[01:15:41] BLITZER: You think it's too farfetched, Christiane, to think that this air strike that was launched against these Syrian targets today, it obviously sends a powerful message from the Trump Administration to people in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East, but is it too farfetched to think it also sends a message to North Korea?
AMANPOUR: Well, that's what I was saying, I think that it's very important the action that was taken, if you're talking about also having North Korea, you know try to figure out how to deal with North Korea. Now, you know, there has been some loose talk about maybe a military option or we'll take care of it ourselves or whatever it is. North Korea is obviously a much-much more complex situation, because it actually does have nuclear weapons and it is trying to perfect the delivery system. You see almost regularly or weekly, North Korea has been firing ballistic missiles, most of them have been landing in the sea of Japan, and in that area, threatening American bases, threatening American allies, and then threatening North Korea, Pyongyang to develop the intercontinental ballistic missile capability that would, if they could, militarize and mount a nuclear warhead on it, could threaten the United States. So, the policy of the United States so far and the rest of its allies has actually not worked.
The policy of sanctions, the policy of refusing to talk to North Korea, the policy of trying to outsource it to China, has actually not worked. Objectively speaking, it hasn't worked. Because now, North Korea has nuclear devices, and as I said, is trying to perfect the delivery system. So a new policy has somehow to be devised, and that is why the meeting between President Trump and President Xi right now, today in Mar-a-Lago, is going to be a vital and crucial significance. Of course, President Trump would want to talk about all the other things he campaigned on, the trade surplus, the what he calls the unfair trade practices, et cetera, et cetera. But you know, it's coming at a time when the Foreign Policy security aspect of it, is now front and center on the table.
BLITZER: Certainly is. Christiane Amanpour, thanks so much for joining us.
LEMON: And Wolf, I understand as I was watching you today, isn't it reported that that was one of the -- that's what President Obama told President Trump, that North Korea, one of the probably the biggest threat to the United States because of that capability or because they were such wild players, such a wild card?
BLITZER: Yes, there's no doubt that the President Trump emerged from his final conversations with President Obama, President Obama warning him, that the greatest national security threat facing the United States right now was North Korea because of its nuclear capability ballistic nuclear capability, and the unpredictability of the leader Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang. This is a -- and I think it sort of -- it sort of had a huge impact on President Trump.
LEMON: Wolf, stand by, everybody, stand by, we're going to be back with more on our breaking news. President Trump orders a missile strike on Syria. We'll have the latest live on the ground in the Middle East.
[01:22:25] LEMON: Our breaking news, President Trump launches a military strike on a Syrian government target in retaliation for their chemical weapons attack on civilians earlier this week. I want to bring in CNN Senior White House Correspondent, Jeff Zeleny, who is traveling with the President in Florida. Jeff, President Trump is down at Mar-a-Lago now for his summit with Chinese President. Looking forward to tomorrow, what should we expect?
JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well Don, I think that, you know, the summit with President Xi Jinping is still going on today here in Florida. And the President is still -- you know has the same issues on the table. But you can be sure that the military strike's in Syria certainly created a whole new light for this conversation. In fact, the President were told militants adviser before their dinner last evening and in fact ordered these strikes, so all of this was happening in sort of real time as they were having this very formal dinner in Mar-a-Lago. But it certainly casts President Trump in a different light. I mean, these are the two most powerful leaders in the world, and the Chinese have been studying Mr. Trump in every single way. You know, from his messages on social media, to the you know, the Russia investigation happening here in the U.S. other things, so this certainly is - you know, it makes President Trump look stronger and more decisive than he has looked in the first 77 days of his Presidency. And of course, the two big issues that are on the table are, you know, the economy and national security. But the national security focus, the President actually said earlier when he was flying down here to Florida on Thursday afternoon, he said that "Look, we need to talk about North Korea." So the North Korea threat there is front and center on this agenda at this meeting later today here. But the whole, you know backdrop cloud of Syria over that certainly is interesting.
Besides it's important to put in context, I mean, this is just happened in the course of really 48 hours or so, it was really less than three days ago when the President said, that's not our fight in Syria, and on Thursday night, he addressed the nation and said look, this is vital national interest, everything we can sort of glean from talking to his advisers and others that he was moved by those pictures, and he indeed thought the United States had to act. And you know, he's getting a little blow back from some people in Congress, Senator Tim Kaine, Democratic Virginia, he called it unlawful. Saying that this is the, you know, the President does not have the authority to do it. He supports it overall, but you know, they believe that there needs to be a new use of a force from a Congress. But the reality here is, the President acted decisively, so that's the President that will be meeting with the Chinese President later today.
[01:25:19] LEMON: Thanks, Jeff. Just real quickly but there was indication before this dinner tonight with the Chinese President that something was happening, because the President, earlier this afternoon, started asking officials what his options were when it comes to Syria?
ZELENY: He did. I mean, he was asking what the options were to Syria and he was presented with a couple different options. And then again before the dinner this evening, he basically made a strike plan. But Don, it was about six hours before he actually -- the strikes were launched when he was flying here to Florida on Air Force One. And when we were asking him, I was one of the reporters on that flight, when we were asking him about Assad and should he be pushed out of power, he said, you know, something has to happen here. So this is what the President had in mind.
LEMON: Jeff Zeleny, thank you very much, appreciate your reporting; back to my colleague in Washington, Wolf Blitzer. Wolf, it's certainly is a 180 within about 48 hours.
BLITZER: It really is a pretty amazing when you think about what the President said just a few days ago, whether it was a top advisers were saying and now all of a sudden, the U.S. launches a missile strike against these targets inside Syria. I want to bring back Colonel Cedric Leighton, Tony Blinken, Juliette Kayyem. When we hear about the opposition, Tony Blinken, the opposition to Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria, these opposition forces, how strong are they? How credible are they? Are they really much of a threat to the regime of Bashar al-Assad?
BLINKEN: You know Wolf, I think we're in a place where as in many civil wars, one of three things is going to happen. Either one side finally wins, and that's not really likely to happen in Syria, even with Assad's advantage because as soon as one side gets the advantage, the outside pays for it other side come in and tries to and rebalance things and so there's still a lot support for the opposition from outside actors. Second, the parties fight to exhaustion and that could happen and eventually it will. But that usually takes 10 years in most civil wars, we're just in year seven. Well finally, there's some kind of outside imposition or intervention, either military or political or some combination of the two, and that's really the point we're at. The question I think for President Trump right now after this action is whether he can leverage the action to try finally to get the Russians and others on board to move this, this civil war to a better place and there may be an opening here. There's a lot of bluster from the Russians reaction to this, but at the end of the day, they know they don't want to be left holding the bag in Syria. And so the question is whether we can help give them an off ramp and find a way to a place that get us to an end of the war and some kind of transition.
BLITZER: You know, but that's an optimistic assessment, that off ramp. Juliette, you've been watching this very, very closely as well. After six years of around 400,000, maybe half a million people are killed and some of the million displaced, this could go on even a lot longer.
JULIETTE KAYYEM, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Oh absolutely. I mean, I think that the impact of the strike is still an unfolding story and I may have a little bit more pessimism about what it means. I understand the visceral reaction to those pictures of the children. But this was -- Syria was not an imminent threat to us, and so us bombing so quickly or using this mission so quickly, probably meant that we did not have contingency plans in place for our ultimate goal. I still don't know what our ultimate goal is, it's changed, you know, do we want Assad in or do we want him out. There's going to be expectations by the rebels and others for us to do more because of the humanitarian issues and so I just -- at this stage, so close to the mission, it's hard to tell how it unfolds.
I think Tony's right that what we're hearing from the Russians is bluster, but nonetheless, Putin likes having enemies, and it's good for him to do a lot of bluster. And so that may not end with just words. And so that's one piece. The other is of course just quickly the ISIS piece. With the Russians saying quite explicitly that this, you know, this uncomfortable alliance we have in fighting ISIS and Syria may now be deteriorated, I am worried about what that means. We're at a good stage with the fight with ISIS, not great, but we're at a good stage. We have troops there, we are fighting ISIS there. And I want to make sure that they're protected as well.
BLITZER: Yes. There are a few hundred U.S. troops. Colonel Leighton, fighting ISIS in Syria right now, the battle for Mosul in Iraq continues. Apparently some progress is being made there and maybe even some progress against Mosul and Raqqa.
[01:30:08] How will this military action by the U.S., Colonel Leighton, that we saw today at this air base in Syria, impact the overall fight against ISIS in Syria and Iraq?
COL. CEDRIC LEIGHTON, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Wolf, I think it's going to have a significant impact. I don't think we know exactly what that impact is going to be. But what I see happening right now is, some of the sources of support that we have for the anti-ISIS fighters that may be going through some of the Syrian government territory -- sorry, government-controlled territory or Russian-controlled territory, that may dry up. That could limit our ability to do things with our partners especially in Raqqa, maybe not so much in Mosul. If that happens, you're going to have a much more difficult fight. It's difficult already. But the degree of difficulty may increase even further because of this attack. There are some consequences to this, and there's some definitely possible areas in which the U.S. could see its efforts hurt a little bit by this.
BLITZER: Tony Blinken, what do you think?
TONY BLINKEN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I agree, and I think Juliette and Cedric are right. This has to be grounded in a larger strategy. We have to keep our eyes on the prize, which is dealing with the Islamic State, job number one. As Juliette said, we're in a pretty good position there. We're on the verge of helping Iraqi forces take back moos you will in Iraq. That's going to end the geographic caliphate that ISIL or the Islamic State has declared in Iraq. We were getting to Raqqa, and the mission there is vitally important. When Mosul and Raqqa is liberated, that caliphate is gone. There won't be any place for foreign fighters to go to. There won't be resources for ISIL to exploit. It will collapse. Keeping the focus on that is vitally important. And as just been said, tonight's action does complicate that mission, and that's why the administration has to be very careful that it doesn't get pulled into some kind of escalation, some kind of mission creep that takes our eyes and resources away from the fight against the Islamic State and also against other countries that complicate that fight, whether it's Iran unleashing its militia in Iraq against our troops, whether it's Russia complicating the air space we're fighting in against the Islamic State in Syria. All of that matters. Tonight's action was the right thing to do, but what we need to see now is, how does it fit into a larger strategy.
BLITZER: And to avoid what's plagued the U.S. military unfortunately on too many occasions, mission creep, precisely that.
Let's go back to Don for more.
DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: OK, thank you, Wolf. Very interesting panel here.
We have a new image of the target of tonight's missile strike, Wolf, taken before tonight's attack. Take a look at your screen now. These are the pictures that are coming in from Syria,
I want to go to CNN's Muhammad Lila, live for us in Turkey.
Reaction pouring in from around the world.
Mohammad, you're in Istanbul tonight. What's the reaction out there?
MUHAMMAD LILA, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Don, any time you talk about developments in Syria, you know there's going to be a ripple effect across the region, across the Middle East. We know many countries in the Middle East, for example, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, this is the news they've been waiting for. They've been pleading with the U.S. government for years now to take some sort of forceful and meaningful action in Syria. And this is they're effectively now getting what they wanted. Saudi Arabia putting out a release saying it fully supports the U.S. military operation against military targets. You're going to see that same sentiment over and over again from a lot of these countries. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey are countries that backed a lot of these rebel groups that are fighting against Bashar al Assad. They spent billions of dollars trying to oust and overthrow Bashar al Assad. If anything, not only will they be expressing a sigh of relief today, they may ask the United States to do more. As all the analysts have been talking about this evening, this may not fundamentally change the balance of power in Syria. We know Assad has other resources and other military bases. We may see, for example, Turkey and Saudi Arabia coming out and calling on the Trump administration to do more, to do something that would fundamentally shift the balance of power. But overall in this region, the reaction today is a little bit of surprise but a happiness and eagerness to push the United States to do more.
LEMON: Muhammad Lila, in Istanbul. Muhammad, thank you.
I want to bring in back, Rula Jebreal, Michael Weiss and Major General James Spider Marks. Also global affairs analyst, David ROHDE, national security investigations editor at Reuters.
Let's get into it. A lot of things I want to talk about here.
How does one assess whether Assad has changed? If he's a changed man, do we do it because of chemical weapons, sarin gas, because of barrel bombs? How --
RULA JEBREAL, JOURNALIST: They want change. If it's really a one off and there's no real strategy after this, he will do what he did after the first time we warned him not to use chemical weapons in 2013. He will use barrel bombs, starvation, mass rape and other weapons that produced jihadists and a refugee crisis since World War II. If it's really a one off so we cannot think any more about Russia or Bannon or O'Reilly. That will not deter Assad. He will continue.
What we are seeing now in Syria, something that -- we are seeing a dictator who has been emboldened beyond anything we've seen. We saw this with Saddam Hussein when he invaded Kuwait but we stopped him. We're seeing a guy who is telling his people, I will obliterate any of you if you are against me.
Let's remember, in 2003, when Americans invaded Iraq, this is a guy that was releasing jihadists to fight Americans in Iraq. Colin Powell had a meeting with him in 2005. They confronted him, and you know what he said to them, in their face? That there's no evidence of that, when Americans had all kind of evidence. So he's willing -- he's a sociopath and willing to go all the way.
[01:36:26] MICHAEL WEISS, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: On that point, now that Mr. Bannon has left the White House to spend more time with Fascist philosophers, I'm sure, you have hardened veterans.
LEMON: You mean as --
WEISS: At the NSC, rather. Sorry. Including people who are protoges of David Petraeus, who are working in the defense intelligence agency, mapping the insurgency from the very beginning.
LEMON: You are saying the adults are in the room now?
WEISS: Yes. Now we know what Assad was up to the first decades when he was running these rat lines of jihadis of AQI insurgents into Iraq to blow up American soldiers. It was a raid conducted by JSOC in 2008 and it got a guy, known as the Border Amir, facilitating al Qaeda's flow of jihadis in Syria. He was domiciled in eastern Syria. JSOC came in, they snuffed him, the evidence was presented to Assad. He said, look, we want you to stop doing this, we want you to seal your border. His response was this guy wasn't here, and how dare you come here and kill this guy on my soil.
MAJ. GEN. JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Let me tell you, we've been doing that. When I was in Iraq in the spring of 2003, we immediately saw and anticipated that the rat lines would begin to get activated. And they were. And we conducted a number of strikes along the border very successfully. We've seen this. My point, adults are in the room, but adults have been in the room consistently. This is not a cold start for those in charge of the apparatus of wielding military and other elements of power against our enemies.
DAVID ROHDE, GLOBAL AFFAIRS REPORTER, REUTERS: But the big question is, does this change Moscow's calculous. What happens Wednesday when Rex Tillerson goes to Moscow. Will they lean on Assad to scale it back? That's maybe the one positive thing to come out of this. But who knows? I think Assad will continue with barrel bombs and everything else.
JEBREAL: Sadly, this is where we're under estimating. I think Assad is playing the final game of his life. He understands there's no way he can go from here. Meaning he will have to die.
ROHDE: So it's going to get worse?
JEBREAL: Absolutely. He's fighting until the end. The reality that his own regime that was willing to negotiate eight months ago, a year ago, and eventually to concede and open up for partition. They are not willing --
ROHDE: He will not listen to Moscow?
JEBREAL: He will not listen to Moscow at this point.
LEMON: Will he listen to the U.S.?
JEBREAL: To the Iranians, are backing him, the militia of Hezbollah is backing him. And now even his own people who were abandoning him are back.
LEMON: Is this why you say this is not a one off?
MARKS: This is not a one off, this has to be resolved during this administration's period in office. That's the time horizon we're talking about. So to your absolutely spot-on point, if he is fighting for his survival, what you're saying is, it's going to get incredibly worse before it starts to scale away. Let's cynically and Machiavellianly look at this thing and say, maybe that's OK. If he's going to self-destruct. There's a high cost to pay --
JEBREAL: We might find a million people dead in the streets.
MARKS: There's a high cost to pay, but what I'm saying is, the calculation is human suffering by itself is insufficient. Human suffering that drives us to national security considerations drives a strategy.
JEBREAL: Sir, I've been at the borders, I understand human suffering.
MARKS: We've all seen this.
JEBREAL: I understand, however --
MARKS: Don't assume we don't --
[01:40:03] JEBREAL: No, I am sure.
JEBREAL: However, the implication, the consequences of having half a million or 600,000 people dead, millions of people spread all around, the consequence of that will -- we're radicalizing an entire generation of Syrians, of Middle Easterners, especially some who are looking at Americans who are being silent and looking at this, they've been asking the world basically to save them. Please do something.
JEBREAL: Guess what, we're gifting them to ISIS and the jihadists.
MARKS: You have ten years and you can exhaust yourself. You can look at the calculus.
LEMON: What are you guys reporting?
ROHDE: Well, the Syrian media is reporting there's only three soldiers killed on the air base, all Syrian soldiers and no Russian casualties. These are from journalists inside Syria, according to the local governor. The Syrian opposition is praising the strike. But this is the question. The opposition will be encouraged by this. They don't have the military force to topple Assad. Assad has essentially won this war. It doesn't change. You're not going to topple Assad. It doesn't change.
WEISS: He's won the war unless and until the United States says right. The program that we had, the CIA program we had to train and arm FSA groups that were committed to fighting Assad, exclusively signed on the dotted line to fight only ISIS. That could be amplified and we could recruit more people to do that. This is a weak regime. The Russians understand, look, there is no such thing as the Assad regime any more. This is an Iranian-controlled regime. I talked to an infantry officer, very cynical, thinks in the Middle Eastern fashion. He said, without Hezbollah, our bacon is cooked. Hezbollah and Iran, the Quds forces of Iran, are undergirding and underwriting Russia's military instillation and presence in Syria. That makes Moscow wedded to Tehran, which made the original Trump strategy of let's try to split the alliance and bring Putin into our camp almost impossible. Putin cannot afford to get rid of Iran, without getting rid of Assad. He can't get rid of Assad because, to him, that would be the ultimate capitulation to Western resolve. It would be a sign of weakness.
Look, there's no love lost between Assad and Putin. If Assad had his druthers, Assad's older brother would be in charge. He wanted Michael Corleone, he got Fraedo. He wanted this thing cleaned up years ago. He doesn't want to be there doing this. He doesn't want to be at the U.N. concocting conspiracy theories about the use of sarin gas. He's hopping mad, but his hands are tied.
LEMON: As I was talking to Christiane Amanpour, you had a reaction, we were talking about America's military might. The Russians can't stand up against it. Syria can't stand up against it. But we're war weary. We're remembering the wars we just got out of. Are we willing to go back there even though we have the strongest military might in the world?
MARKS: That's a question that we routinely have to pulse. The issue that we have -- or at least what the United States does and our allies do, quite well, we self-regulate. We do subscribe to rules. There are laws of land combat and how we -- those domains of war, and how we engaged in those domains of war have rules and we abide by those rules.
MARKS: But does it get nasty? Yeah, it gets nasty. ROHDE: To win these conflicts, you have to put soldiers on the ground and have them die. Hezbollah and Iran are willing to do that.
LEMON: Everybody stand by. Stand by.
When we come back, the latest on our breaking news, President Trump orders a missile strike on Syria.
[01:47:22] BLITZER: Our breaking news tonight, President Trump launching a military strike on a Syrian government air base, in response to its chemical weapons attacks that killed dozens of civilians, including many children.
Let's bring back CNN's Christiane Amanpour, joining us from London. Matthew Chance is in Moscow. David Rohde is back with us as well.
Christiane, we hear a lot about the Russian support for Bashar al Assad. We hear a lot less about the Iranian support. How do you think Iran is going to react to this missile strike?
CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIOAL CORRESPONDENT: Already reaction is coming out. The Iranian state television has been quoted as condemning this strike, as you would expect. The criticism is coming from the usual suspects in the usual corners. I think it's vital to remember, had it not been for Iran and Russia coming in around 2012, you know, that's just about a year and a half into the crisis there, this would have been over a long, long time ago. Bashar al Assad was on the back foot for a long time, before Iran and Russia came in and propped him up. That's for the Iranian reaction. We don't know how they're going to respond. Whether they're going to calculate that this is a fight to the death for Iran to keep Bashar al Assad in place. I don't think anyone believes their future is tied to Bashar al Assad, especially not the Russians. In fact, over the last several days -- and you'll get more on this from Matthew -- the Russians have basically been saying, in one way or another, that we don't just support Bashar blindly.
And it was interesting, some of this reaction coming out, for instance, from France, where just yesterday, they French were saying, don't just lash out angrily. And now the French are saying, the future of Syria is not with Assad. America is beginning to clarify its response and its policy on Syria. And you had from Russia a day ago, I think an appeal to the United States in the Security Council, so tell us what your policy on Syria is, because as far as we're concerned, he's the legitimately elected president of Syria. So maybe if the United States has a policy, it can try to bring others along.
LEMO: Speaking of Russia, that's a perfect segue because I want to bring in Matthew.
Matthew, very simply, do you think the Russians expected this from President Trump? We lost him.
Christiane, I'll ask you the same question.
[01:49:55] AMANPOUR: It's very unclear. I think they knew, because it was a strong reaction from President Trump in the Rose Garden on Wednesday I think it was. They started talking about -- so tell us, what is it, what's your plan, your program. And we've heard the readouts that they were warned and prepared and they were told to get their people out of the way. They knew what was going on. But let's not forget, Russia is a signatory to all of these laws that ban the use of weapons of mass destruction. Weapons of mass destruction have been used repeatedly by the Syrian regime. And until tonight, with impunity. This is an incredibly important moment. No matter what happens from now on, this is a line in the sand in many, many ways. Over the last few days, you remember that months and years ago, various world leaders were saying that Assad must go, Assad must go, and then they just dropped it. They never talked about it again. Over the last few days, since the chemical attack, they started to say it again, whether it was the British prime minister who said it, or the British foreign secretary. Over and over again, people realizing this is something that can't be allowed to stand.
You just heard from many of the panelists, you heard from General Spider Marks and others that it was president Assad who played a very dirty, vicious, double game throughout Iraq, where he allowed his border to be the pipeline, and his airport in Damascus, to bring all these fighters in, and allow them free hand to cross the border into Iraq and attack Americans and support the insurgency, which was growing there. That was the insurgency that was the precursor to ISIS.
LEMON: Do you think, if I may, Wolf, and I want to ask Matthew, do you think that when they signal that Assad could possibly stay, that the Russians expected this from President Trump, from the United States, Matthew?
MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I can't imagine that they really expected this. At the same time, they understand that Donald Trump is an unpredictable figure, politically. And they were braced for this. But the reaction is already coming out from the Russians. There's been no reaction yet from the Kremlin. They are going to be absolutely furious. I can image the strongly worded statement that we're expecting to hear from them. There have been senior lawmakers in this country that have tweeted their initial responses or posted them on social media. I can give you one from the head of the defense committee at the upper house of the Russian parliament. He's called this "an act of aggression against a U.N. member." And he said that Russia will certainly call an emergency session of the U.N. Security Council to discuss it. One of his co- lawmakers, the head of the Committee on International Affairs saying, "What will happen now is that Russian cruise missiles will continue to strike terrorists and American ones will strike government forces." That's an indication of the kind of sentiments we're going to hear expressed by the Kremlin and by the Russian foreign ministry. In terms of what this does to the U.S./Russian relationship, there had
been all sorts of hopes bantered around, particularly during the election campaign, that there could be a reset in the relationship between these two countries. They've had very rocky relations over various issues. This must be the final nail in the coffin of any idea that there's going to be a detent between Moscow and Washington under these, at least, these early days, these early years of the Trump administration.
BLITZER: It's very significant.
And, David Rohde, all of us who listen closely to what Donald Trump said during the campaign, what he said since his election, during the transition, even as president, all of the hope he was expressing for a new and improved relationship between Washington and Moscow, right now, at least, in the aftermath of this cruise missile strike, that seems to be -- that seems to be diminished dramatically?
ROHDE: Yes, this is an amazing 180. Essentially Donald Trump is carrying out the policy that hawks in the Obama administration were calling for, and those proposals, you know, Trump ridiculed over and over again. It's a huge change, and he is -- if there is another chemical attack, he has to respond to it militarily. He has drawn a red line of his own with this response.
BLITZER: You think, David, there will be, the Syrian regime of Bashar al Assad after the reaction to this most recent chemical attack, they're going to do it again in.
ROHDE: I don't think so. They'll use barrel bombs. They'll want to show they're still active on the ground and they're not going to be cowed. Assad needs to do that for his own public standing in Syria, and they'll see what the response is to that. That's a more difficult question, what does the U.S. do, if it's terrible atrocities. Barrel bombs have killed far more people than chemical weapons attacks in Syria. What does Trump do when that happens?
BLITZER: You agree, Christiane?
[01:55:11] AMANPOUR: Look, I mean, let's see what happens. All the wording coming out of the administration is, this is it for now, we hope, this was proportionate response to the violation of international law, and this was our reaction to this heinous crime, as President Trump put it.
But, you know, these barrel bombs are not just benign barrel bombs. They have also been carrying chemical substances, chlorine gas and others, which is also prohibited. The truth of the matter is, this regime has been conducting these things with impunity for a long, long time. And, yes, we've had the two book ends of the massive gas -- sarin gas attacks in 2013. And now just this week, in between, almost every week, they're using their barrel bombs filled with chlorine gas. And, you know, that is less deadly than sarin, but none the less, it's a type of chemical weapon. It has terrible effects on people. And not only that, they use their other barrel bombs filled with other stuff to attack hospitals, schools. All of that stuff is still going on.
LEMON: Yeah. Interesting.
BLITZER: Very, very sad situation unfolding.
Our breaking news tonight, President Trump orders a U.S. missile strike on a Syrian government air base.
LEMON: That's been our breaking news.
Wolf, it's been a pleasure. Thank you so much for joining me.
And, everyone, thanks for watching. Thank all of our guests as well. That's it for us.
Our live coverage continues in just a moment with John Vause, in Los Angeles.