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U.S. Gave Russia One-Hour Warning on Syria Strikes; Russia Suspends Anti-Conflict Agreement with U.S.; China Opposes Use of Force in Syria. Aired 10-10:30a ET
Aired April 7, 2017 - 10:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN Breaking News.
JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Good morning, everyone. I'm John Berman.
POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Poppy Harlow. We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. We do have breaking news this morning.
Next hour, the U.N. Security Council will hold a meeting on the airstrikes and the ongoing crisis in Syria. Moments ago, we also learned that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will hold an all- senators briefing today with all the developments. Russia and Syria, Assad's regime, firing off criticism at the United States after the president's decision to unleash a wave of military airstrikes overnight.
Russia, which has helped the Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, now calling America's military action an act of aggression and warning that the risk of a U.S./Russia collision in Syria has quote, "significantly increased." Now, overnight, U.S. warships in the Mediterranean launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles against the same Syrian airbase that the United States says President Assad used to launch that deadly chemical attack that killed dozens, including children.
BERMAN: The strikes targeted Syrian aircraft, fuel, ammunition storage and this was the first direct military action by the United States against the Assad regime during that country's six-year civil war. In that time, the United Nations estimates that 400,000 Syrians have been killed. It's also notable that in that time, Donald Trump, then citizen Trump, then candidate Trump, he spoke out repeatedly against this exact kind of action, the exact kind of action that President Trump just carried out.
We're covering all the angles with our reporters all around the world. Want to begin with CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr. And Barbara, we just learned that the Russians got a one-hour warning on this attack. BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: That's right. A senior U.S. official telling me a short time ago, we knew that the Russians and the U.S. had talked several times during the day yesterday. But it was that final conversation where the U.S. gave the Russians one-hour warning, telling them that they were going to strike this airbase in one hour. I am told by this official, the U.S. didn't say get your people out of the way, but the message was clear and the Russians that were there were apparently moved to safety.
Now, this all goes to the point of this, you know, Russian/U.S. relationship. The implications rapidly moving beyond this one single airstrike. What we also now know, this senior official telling me, is as you might expect, measures are in place to protect now U.S. forces on the ground in Syria. As you know, there are several hundred U.S. troops, mainly special operations forces, marines and others on the ground in Syria fighting ISIS, working to help train local forces engage in operations.
So, because in this aftermath, there's no direct threat that they know of. Nothing has happened, but the U.S. military moving very quickly to engage in what we're being told is force protection for those U.S. troops on the ground in Syria. They want to make sure, given the heightened tensions that there is no threat against them. John, Poppy.
BERMAN: The situation very different. The situation very different, all of a sudden, for those U.S. troops inside Syria. Barbara Starr thanks so much.
Syria and its allies are condemning this U.S. airstrike. The Syrian Army says the United States is now a partner of ISIS. CNN's Ben Wedeman, live in Turkey near the Syrian border. Ben, what are you seeing?
BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Now, John, what we're hearing from the Syrian presidency, via the Syrian Arab News Agency, is that they're describing the U.S. missile strikes as unjust and blatant aggression, irresponsible and short-sighted. The Syrian foreign ministry has put out a statement saying that these missile strikes were merely using the incident in Khan Sheikhoun, the chemical attack as a pretext for American aggression against Syria.
We're hearing, for instance, not surprisingly, Iran, a key ally of Syria, condemning the missile strike. But we're hearing, however, from others, for instance, the Turkish government is praising the attack -- or rather, the missile strike by the United States, as is Jordan, Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries as well. And in social media, -- he's seen a surprising outpouring of support for a man who's been called "Abu Ivanka al-Amriki," which is a term of endearment that Arabs would be using in this case.
[10:05:05] Some people on Twitter, changing their pictures to that of Trump, on the picture is written in Arabic "menhabak" which is Syrian Arabic for "We love you." John, Poppy?
HARLOW: Ben Wedeman reporting for us on the Turkish/Syria border. Thank you very, very much. Of course, we're getting sharp reaction from Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin calling the U.S. strikes on Syria this morning quote, "A serious blow to U.S./Russia relations." Let's go to Paula Newton. She's live in Moscow with more. It is, you know, very interesting to read between the lines of what Putin and the Kremlin are saying and what the foreign minister Lavrov, who has to really deal with the diplomacy, is saying.
PAULA NEWTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes. And what Lavrov is saying is, look, whatever point we're at now with relations, it's not irreversible. The problem here is that Vladimir Putin could not leave this. He had to challenge. He had to challenge the Trump administration. So, he's done it first with words and then a few deeds.
Let's get to those words first, Poppy. And as you had pointed out, he called this an aggressive action through his spokesperson. "The President of Russia regards the U.S. airstrikes on Syria as an act of aggression against a sovereign state delivered in violation of international law under a far-fetched pretext." That's important. Russia still says they do not believe that Syrian forces are responsible for the chemical attack. "This move by Washington has dealt a serious blow to Russian-U.S. relations, which were already in a poor state. This move will not bring us closer to the ultimate goal of combating international terrorism but will instead create a major obstacle in the establishment of an international counterterrorism coalition."
Translation, this does not help us fight ISIS in Syria and I thought, the Russian government saying, look, we thought we were on the same side when it comes to that. There are also though, the actions. So, as we've been reporting, they have suspended the air safety agreement. What does that mean? It means that there isn't that line of communication anymore on the ground in Syria to make sure that there is no conflict in midair or on the ground, for that matter, between the Russian and American forces. That is suspended, though and that means that it can definitely be picked up again. To remind everyone, Rex Tillerson, the Secretary of State, will be here in the middle of next week.
BERMAN: And that will be a fascinating meeting with increased importance now. Paula Newton for us in Moscow, thanks so much. Want to bring in a panel right now of experts. Joining us, retired Brigadier General A.J. Tata, bestselling author of "Besieged," former USS Cole Commander Kirk Lippold and CNN chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto is with us. General Tata, let me start with you. After this airstrike, 59 Tomahawk missiles into this Syrian airbase, how has the military situation changed in Syria?
BRIGADIER GENERAL A.J. TATA (RET.), U.S. ARMY: Well, John, Poppy, thanks for having me on. And you know the key thing is we've got boots on the ground in Syria and so we need to protect them. And I can assure you that they have all the protection that they require.
This is a very legitimate act. It was a right thing to do, President Trump did. And we have a series of what's called flexible deterrent options and you can do a show of force with the Sixth Fleet and the Med, or you can launch some cruise missiles, or you can do a lot more. And so, this is on the lower scale, in my view, of things that President Trump could have done. I think it was well planned, well executed.
And now, what we're looking for is the follow-through. What happens next? And that, of course, is what everybody is wondering. And the best next step would be to actually get the weapons of mass destruction. You know, what Obama and Kerry did was turn it over to the Russians. Well, the Russians never followed through. And so, really, the blood is on the hands of the previous administration, in my point of view, for never ensuring that these chemical weapons were removed from Syrian control.
HARLOW: Right. You're talking about that 2014 joint agreement that Assad would get rid of all his chemical weapons and the argument now clearly, that did not happen, given this latest attack on those innocent civilians.
Commander Lippold to you, in terms of next steps, there are some lawmakers, including, you know, Senator McCain, Senator Lindsey Graham, who want to see more. They applaud this, but they say all right, now you have to completely disable Assad's Air Force. You have to wipe it off the map. Do you think that is realistic or realistic next step?
KIRK LIPPOLD, FORMER USS COLE COMMANDER U.S. NAVY (RET.): I don't think it's realistic. I think this was a proportional and appropriate response for the chemical attack. And at this point, I think the Trump administration is going to take a look at the overall, both tactical and strategic picture in the region. They will take a step back. Let the dust settle a little bit.
But at this point, I don't think you're going to see a major ramp-up that's going to require an authorized use of military force or AUMF, to go into the area and try to do more -- to the Syrian regime. We don't want to start a conflict where we're going to pull Russia and Iran into it.
[10:10:04] But it clearly sent a signal at the strategic level that when you cross that red line of using nonconventional chemical weapons, nuclear weapons, that the United States is not going to sit idly by. We're not going to draw a red line and do nothing. We are, in fact, going to take swift action to ensure that they don't use it in the future. And I think it was very good that we did this.
BERMAN: You know, it's interesting, but it is a mystery what happens next, because it's a completely different strategy, not just for the United States, but a completely different strategic goal coming from Donald Trump, first as a candidate and now as president. We had never heard of this type of thing before and we just don't know what he does next.
Jim Sciutto, I suppose the same question will be asked of the Russians right now. We're looking for signals, exactly how they are going to receive this. On the one hand, they've condemned the action, but on the other hand, the Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov says that he looks forward to more discussions. On the other hand, they've suspended the Memorandum of Understanding about deconflicting the air space. How do you see the Russians handling this going forward?
JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think it's fair to say it depends in large parts on the next step, is there a follow-through? If this is purely about the use of chemical weapons, it was a limited strike. It doesn't truly affect the war on the ground. It has not diminished Bashar al-Assad's ability to kill his own people by other means. And the principal means he's used to do that is by conventional military force, barrel bombs dropped from helicopters, et cetera. That hasn't happened. This has been about that chemical weapons attack.
So, if it stays in that category, it doesn't significantly change the fortunes of Russia's client state, Syria. And therefore, it's reasonable to see that Russia might not have additional reaction to this and that they've made their public stand. They suspend the Deconfliction Agreement for some time and then unsuspend it, because frankly, it serves both U.S. and Russian interests not to have U.S. and Russian warplanes running into each other in the airspace over Syria.
So, that's conceivable if there's no follow-through, no fundamental change to U.S. plans. But we should note that in the span of a number of days, you have seen at least a public expression of a change in that your Secretary of State said a few days ago, listen, you know, removing Bashar al-Assad is no longer a U.S. priority. Now, he's saying something different. Is there follow-through on that?
SCIUTTO: Particularly with military means?
SCIUTTO: That's a big if.
HARLOW: And did those words from Nikki Haley and Rex Tillerson less than a week ago embolden the Assad regime to think that they could carry this out? That is a lingering question as well. Jim Sciutto, thank you so much.
SCIUTTO: Thank you.
HARLOW: Commander Lippold and Brigadier General Tata, thank you all very much.
Still to come for us, less than 30 minutes from now, President Trump sitting down with China's leader. The timing could not be more crucial, China openly opposing overnight those U.S. airstrikes in Syria. So, what's going to happen when these two men get together in just moments?
BERMAN: And we're getting new information coming out of Sweden. Breaking news there, reports that a vehicle was driven into a group of pedestrians. We're getting reports that vehicle had been hijacked. At least two people dead. We're following the very latest.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Are you concerned about an escalation of this with Russia?
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), CHAIRMAN ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE: I think the Russians only understand one thing and that is that force is used in response to the Commission of War Crimes. We all saw the pictures of those dead children and that kind of thing, if we can prevent it from being repeated, we should.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Given the impact that those pictures clearly have on the president, do you hope that he reconsiders his stance with refugees from Syria?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BERMAN: All right that was Senator John McCain moments ago on Capitol Hill. Senator McCain has been very -- he's praised extensively the actions overnight by the Trump administration. In fact, Senator McCain will go even further. He wouldn't stop there, strikes with just this. He would go after the entire Syrian Air Force.
HARLOW: All right. We did not hear his answer to the refugee question, though, which is a pertinent one. We're going to get that tape re- racked and bring you more of what Senator McCain said.
Also, moments from now, President Trump will hold a bilateral meeting with China's President Xi Jinping, China already overnight voicing its opposition to these U.S. airstrikes in Syria.
BERMAN: All right. Want to bring in White House correspondent Athena Jones. She is in Palm Beach near Mar-a-Lago where the president is. Athena, what do you expect to hear?
ATHENA JONES, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Hi, what we know that there's this meeting scheduled to take place in about ten minutes. There is also a working lunch that the president and President Xi are set to have and there are a lot of topics on the agenda, a lot of areas of disagreement and tension. For instance, how to handle North Korea's nuclear ambitions, trade issues that we heard the president as candidate rail against China on the campaign trail for over a year and also, maritime and territorial issues, particularly in the South China Sea. Those are just among the issues that they are likely to discuss.
But this first direct U.S. military action against the Syrian regime has overshadowed this very important summit between the leaders of the world's two biggest economies, especially given the fact that China has come out in opposition to the use of force. You know, we heard from the Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman that China is opposed to the use of chemical weapons but feels that force should be avoided when it comes to international affairs. They want to see the Syria issue resolved peacefully through dialogues. They said that they hold the Syrian issue should be resolved through political means and they hope under the current circumstances that -- the sides exercise calm and don't further escalate the situation.
So, this is one more area of disagreement and possible tension in this relationship, which the White House says this meeting is all about beginning to build a relationship. They have downplayed any big announcements coming out of this summit, but we'll have to see what happens. Back to you.
[10:20:01] HARLOW: Absolutely, we will. Athena Jones, thank you. In Florida where the president is right now holding this meeting. Meantime, these strikes could very well send a very strong message to North Korea. Our Ivan Watson is in Hong Kong. He has many more details. Look, the question is, what will Kim Jong-Un take from all of this and will it change any of his provocations?
IVAN WATSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: We don't know. There hasn't been any formal response yet, Poppy, from Pyongyang. But I think it's quite telling that hours before the cruise missile strikes took place, North Korea sent a message, a congratulatory message to the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, congratulating him on the 70th anniversary of the founding of Syria's ruling Baath Party, or what's left of Syria that it still rules and basically expressing solidarity for the Syrian president's fight against what North Korea describes as imperialism. So, no question there about where North Korea's sentiments lie when it comes to Syria's civil war there that's gone on for some six years.
Now, the question about how North Korea would interpret the attack here on Syria, you've got to do a calculation about what could happen if the U.S. was to conduct a similar attack in North Korea and there you have to do an evaluation. That the Syrian regime after six years of civil war is far weaker right now than North Korea, which has conducted five nuclear tests, which fires banned cruise missiles, intercontinental missiles on almost a weekly basis.
Just last weekend, Ashton Carter, the former U.S. Defense secretary said, "If we were to carry out a preemptive strike against North Korea, it would touch off a second Korean war with violence that people had not seen in more than a half century." Poppy and John?
BERMAN: Ivan Watson, apples and oranges, different situation there. Thanks so much, Ivan. Want to bring in CNN global affairs analyst Tony Blinken. He served as Deputy Secretary of State and Deputy National Security Advisor under President Obama. And Tony, you were supportive of this type of limited military action, airstrike, as far back as 2013. You are supportive. I take it, of this action from President Trump overnight, yes?
TONY BLINKEN, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST AND FORMER DEPUTY NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: Yes, I think the president, John, did the right thing. Not only was this chemical attack just heinous in terms of the -- what it did to the victims, but it also violated an international norm that's been in place since the end of World War I, which bans the use of chemical weapons or biological weapons in armed conflict. So, the president did the right thing in standing up and enforcing that norm, demonstrating there would be consequences for violating it.
HARLOW: Was 2013, you know, the final days of August in 2013, after that chemical weapons attack in Ghouta, was that the time for this strike?
BLINKEN: Look, I think in 2013, we accomplished without firing a shot far more than we could have accomplished by launching an attack. Back then, we couldn't target the chemical weapons themselves. We would have taken strikes similar to the strike what President Trump took last night. But instead, as a result of being prepared to use force, we were able to get a deal with Russia to get the vast bulk of the chemical weapons out of Syria destroyed to get the infrastructure -
HARLOW: But Tony, it happened again. -- I mean, you were working along the Obama team and you're saying it worked, but it happened again.
BLINKEN: Poppy, imagine if those thousands of tons of chemical weapons were still there. As bad as what we saw this week was, the fact that those weapons are no longer there, able to fall into the hands of the Islamic State, Nusra, as well as the Assad regime -- as bad as this was, it would be far, far worse. And of course, in the years since, we've worked to try to get the residual chemical weapons out and it really is up to the Russians to enforce an agreement that they were the main guarantor of back in 2013.
BERMAN: But they didn't. I mean, you know, as you look back, do you wonder, if you had carried out this type of strike in 2013, if maybe the need for it this week wouldn't have existed?
BLINKEN: Again, John, I think had we carried out the strike, unfortunately, it couldn't have gotten at the chemical weapons themselves or most of the infrastructure and all of that stuff would still be in Syria, probably in the hands of all sorts of incredibly bad actors. So, it was imperfect, but it did more than -- the diplomatic initiative did more than striking the Syrians at that point in time.
Now, they've demonstrated, unfortunately that they're still prepared to use this stuff, what's left of it and it's vitally important that the international community stand up and stop it and there again, it's really up to Russia. Assad is their client, Russia's Assad's guarantor. They have it within their power to tell him to knock it off.
And by the way, I would think that Vladimir Putin is livid with Bashar al-Assad. There was no need for him to do this. The Russians helped him get the upper hand in the civil war and he has now gratuitously used these horrific weapons.
[10:25:03] It's a huge embarrassment to Russia. The administration should continue to put Russia on the spot. And there's an opportunity here, an opportunity to leverage what the president did last night with diplomacy to get the Russians to rein in Assad, to stop the use of these weapons, to get the Air Force on the ground and hopefully, to even get into some kind of negotiation that could lead to the end of the civil war.
HARLOW: Well, Assad's been pretty clear on this interview he gave to a Croatian newspaper this week, before the strikes. I mean, he said that there is nothing but victory for us ahead. We can't stop at anything shorter, you know, the Syrian state depends on it. So, that begs the question of what diplomacy can do at this point in time. --
BLINKEN: Well, that victory can't happen without Russia backing him.
HARLOW: I hear you -
BLINKEN: -- or with Iran backing.
HARLOW: I hear you. You said in your Op-ed this morning in "The New York Times" about this, what you just said, that Putin is livid with Assad, you believe. So, how does the U.S. exploit that? When Tillerson goes to Moscow Tuesday, how does the U.S. exploit that?
BLINKEN: I think the secretary should tell the Russians, look, we're going to continue to hold them accountable for Assad's actions. We are counting on them to enforce the agreement that they helped broker back in 2013 on the chemical and biological weapons. And that the time is now to really move toward peace.
You know, this is going to have a lot more blowback on Russia. Russia has a large Muslim population, mostly Sunni Muslim. There are many Muslims -- Sunni Muslims in the Caucasus in Central Asia and they all see Russia is being complicit with Assad in perpetrating the kind of attack that we saw this week. That's going to start to have blowback on them.
This terrible attack on the St. Petersburg subway apparently was undertaken by an ethnic Uzbek who was radicalized by the civil war in Syria. So, Russia really does have an interest in trying to extricate itself from this. We should help them figure out a way to do that.
HARLOW: Tony Blinken, former Deputy Secretary of State, it's nice to have you on and your perspective this morning. -
BLINKEN: Thanks, Poppy.
HARLOW: Thank you very much.
BLINKEN: Thanks, John.
HARLOW: So, the response to the Syria attack is obviously pouring in on Capitol Hill. That's not all. Right now, we are closing in on that vote. We will have the president swearing in his Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, a little bit later today.