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U.S. Probes if Russia Complicit in Syria Chemical Attack; Stockholm Truck Attack Leaves Four Dead, 12 Injured; U.S. Lawmakers Split over Syria Strategy; Trump Meets with Xi as U.S. Missiles Strike Syria; Impact of U.S. Missile Strike against Syria; A History of Punitive Strikes by the U.S. Aired 2-3a ET
Aired April 8, 2017 - 02:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
ROBYN CURNOW, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Welcome to our viewers in the U.S. and around the world. I'm Robyn Curnow.
MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): And I'm Michael Holmes. Welcome everyone.
The Kremlin denying allegations that its military may have been complicit in the use of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians earlier this week. But the U.S., not convinced.
CURNOW: It is questioning if Russia helped Syria carry out the chemical attack from that airfield near Homs or knew about it and did not stop it. We get the latest from CNN's Barbara Starr.
BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): This was the message President Trump wanted to send to Bashar al-Assad: attack with chemical weapons, the U.S. will attack you back.
Fifty-nine cruise missiles striking the Syrian airbase, the U.S. says was used to launch aircraft, killing men, women and children Tuesday with a nerve agent-filled bomb.
The Pentagon said the strikes severely degraded or destroyed their intended targets, which included aircraft and aircraft shelters, fuel and logistical storage, ammunition supply bunkers and air defense systems.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The United States took a very measured step last night. We are prepared to do more.
STARR (voice-over): But this was also a message to Moscow which denies the Syrian chemical attack even happened.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): To justify its armed action, Washington has entirely twisted what happened in Idlib. The American side can't not understand that the Syrian government troops did not use chemical weapons there. Damascus simply does not possess it.
STARR (voice-over): Many of these people died of asphyxiation from what's believed to be sarin gas. The U.S. says it will investigate any possibility of Russian complicity, including Russian troops who were at the airbase where this Russian drone captured the aftermath of the U.S. attack.
Did the Russians know anything about the chemical bombing?
Was it a Russian warplane that later bombed a hospital treating victims, perhaps trying to destroy evidence?
And after years of regime chemical attacks, U.S. military officials now say they will now more aggressively monitor Syria's chemical weapons program and potential Russian involvement.
The Pentagon showed what it says was proof to justify the limited U.S. strike, the track of the Syrian plane and imagery of where the nerve agent bomb hit. The Syrian military denied using chemical weapons, blaming terrorist groups.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): This condemnable U.S. aggression confirms the continuation of the flawed U.S. strategy and it undermines the process of combating terrorism.
STARR: The U.S. military had no intention of destroying the airfield. It wasn't their goal.
So the question now is how soon will all of that be back up and running and will the Russians return?
Barbara Starr, CNN, the Pentagon.
CURNOW: Thanks to Barbara for that report.
Now Russia says the U.S. strike on that Syrian airbase may have serious and devastating consequences.
HOLMES: Its deputy ambassador to the United Nations telling the U.N. Security Council the U.S. military action will embolden ISIS and other terror groups within Syria and says the Washington is repeating mistakes it made in Iraq and Libya.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
RUSSIA'S DEPUTY AMBASSADOR TO THE U.N. (through translator): We describe that attack as a flagrant violation of international law and an act of aggression. We strongly condemn the illegitimate actions by the U.S.
The consequences of this for regional and international stability could be extremely serious.
You've destroyed Iraqi military -- Libyan military bases and see what's happened. In fact, these actions contradict international decisions, including the Geneva communique, which we designed together with you. And there it says, it talks about settlement while maintaining international institutions.
Is that the sort of international institutions that you are supporting?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
CURNOW: There is a lot to talk about. Let's go straight to Moscow. Paula Newton is standing by.
We've heard a lot of tough talk, a lot of rhetoric but we're also seeing some movements on the ground, this Russian warship moving into place in the Mediterranean.
What does that mean, Paula?
PAULA NEWTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes. The Admiral Gregorivich (ph) is streaming its way into the Mediterranean right now. It had been doing exercises in the Black Sea. It is an older warship but has --
NEWTON: -- state-of-the-art missiles, certainly armed with those. This is a show of force, flexing muscle, Russia doing what it can to remind everyone for the last 18 months it has had quite a deployment in Syria and the region.
NATO itself called it one of the largest deployments they've seen by Russia it has seen in decades. By and large, Robyn, it has been successful. What you're seeing with all of this strident commentary from Russia is they're saying, look, we have been in the Syrian conflict now for 18 months.
They claim that they have degraded ISIS, that they are fighting counterterrorism, they are fighting for their place at the table. It's important to note that last week when there were cease-fire talks in Syria, the United States wasn't even at the table. It was Russia.
Russia saying now that these airstrikes by the United States were preemptive, that they should have waited for an independent investigation. So all these movements designed to make sure that Russia gives the message to the United States that if this is one and done, we can tolerate that. But beyond that, we will come into conflict in Syria.
HOLMES: Yes. And he's going to have a chance to say that to the U.S. secretary of state, Rex Tillerson. He's heading to Moscow in a few days. And, boy, has the dynamic changed in the last couple of days when it comes to the U.S. and Moscow.
Might what happened in Syria be leverage for Mr. Tillerson or give firepower to the Russians?
NEWTON: Well, the dynamic is completely changed, as you point out, Michael. They were trying to find some scope of agreement on many, many issues when Rex Tillerson was going to come here.
Now Rex Tillerson is basically pointing to Russia and saying when it came to that chemical attack, you were either incompetent or complicit. So there are going to be some tough questions there. But of course Russia also pushing back. They don't want to come to the table with Rex Tillerson and talk about things like humanitarian corridors and no-fly zones.
For that reason, you see some very influential politicians here already striking back. Alexei Lushkov (ph) there, who is, in fact, a very prominent and influential politician here, tweeting, "Tillerson, the U.S. was disappointed by the Russian response."
He's quoting Mr. Tillerson there.
And says, "Was he expecting anything else?"
A startling statement but with a purpose. It builds leverage before the visit.
What is he getting at there and what does the Kremlin known?
He's saying, at this point in time, if you expect that this U.S. airstrike is going to give you more leverage at the table, it will not. We are the ones who have been engaged in Syria. You guys have largely left, except for your air campaign against ISIS. It will be interesting now to see the parameters of the deal that come together between the U.S. and Russia in the days leading up to Tillerson's visit, what happens on Wednesday.
HOLMES: All right, Paula, thanks very much, Paula Newton there in Moscow.
CURNOW: Thank you.
And certainly Russia has potentially a lot to lose if America gets more involved in Syria.
HOLMES: It likes having a footprint there.
Well, Turkey's president is among world leaders reacting to the U.S. missile strikes in Syria. Here's what he said at a rally on Friday.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN, PRESIDENT OF TURKEY (through translator): By adopting a common resolve, the international community has the capability to stop the regime and terrorist organizations. I hope the active stance that the United States displayed in Idlib is a beginning with regard to such developments.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
HOLMES: And CNN's Muhammad Lila is in Turkey, monitoring this story for us. Joins us now from Istanbul.
Obviously been a lot of reaction not just in Syria but in the region generally to that airstrike. I guess a lot of opposition activists are happy it happened. But, of course, there is the risk of disappointing if this is all it is.
MUHAMMAD LILA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's right. I think that's why we're seeing some of this rhetoric come out in Turkey. You have to remember that Turkey has been backing some of these militant jihadi groups on the ground in Syria. Turkey has been calling for years now on the United States to take a more forceful approach, calling for things like a no-fly zone, specifically in the north part of the country, which Turkey sees as a vulnerability because there's a large Kurdish presence there as well.
And of course Turkey wants to make sure that the Kurds don't pose any kind of threat in terms of declaring their own state or declaring some sort of autonomy in this region. So Turkey certainly has interests there.
Of course what's interesting is that Saudi Arabia has also been a big backer, key ally to the United States and a key backer of many of the militant groups on the ground. Saudi's Arabia's press agency announced that just yesterday, Saudi's King Salman had spoken over the phone with President Trump and the record of that conversation shows that King Salman congratulated President Trump for what he calls a courageous decision to take this --
LILA: -- military move in Syria. Of course, those are the U.S. allies. But the bigger question is looking at the broader region, Iran, Iraq and Syria's Hezbollah have all cautioned against this move, saying it will do nothing but create more instability in the region.
Interestingly enough, Michael, all three are still calling for an international investigation into the origins of that chemical strike. Nobody seems to be doubting that this chemical strike did take place and that so many innocent people lost their lives.
What those countries are calling for is an international investigation to determine exactly who was behind that strike.
Was it, in fact, the Assad regime, as the United States insists?
Or could it have been one of the rebel groups?
So far, we haven't seen specific evidence of what side was responsible for this strike.
HOLMES: Muhammad Lila in Istanbul, Turkey, for us, thanks.
CURNOW: Let's turn now to our military analyst, Rick Francona. He joins us via Skype from La Quinta in California.
Thank you so much for joining us. You've been looking at and analyzing this strike for the last 24 hours, like many people have.
What do you think was most effective about it?
What was the whole point of it?
LT. COL. RICK FRANCONA (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, the whole point was to send a message to the Bashar al-Assad regime that you can't use these banned weapons without paying a price.
I think it came as a surprise to the Syrians that the United States actually reacted. Of course we had the debacle with the Obama red line in 2013. And the new regime -- I'm Syria; the Bashar al-Assad regime was not sure where the Trump administration was. I think they found out the other night. I think they were a bit surprised.
Everybody's sort of wondering why Bashar al-Assad felt he had to use chemical weapons. Because there was really no need. He's got the backing of the Russians, the Iranians; he's got Hezbollah troops on the ground. He's been very effective on the ground as of late. He's got Russian airpower. Militarily he's got the upper hand.
So what was the every impetus for him to use chemical weapons?
For whatever reason, I think the evidence is pretty overwhelming that it was the Assad regime.
The strike itself, fairly accurate; 59 Tomahawks, a lot of ordnance into a very small airfield. I've been to that airfield. It's not that large. One major runway, a secondary runway, three squadrons of aircraft and 20 aircraft destroyed in the raid sends a real message.
Now the Syrians will say it really didn't do much damage. Twenty aircraft out of an air force the size of Syria's is very important, the Syrian air force suffering a lot of problems as of late.
So effective airstrike.
But does it send the right message?
Is the message going to be received in Damascus?
HOLMES: It is interesting that the runway wasn't hit and maybe it wasn't the right munition for that but it wasn't even touched apparently. That probably was a deliberate thing in terms of limiting the strength of the message, if you like.
Isn't the risk here that they've sent this message, the U.S., because of a chemical attack that killed a few dozen people horrendously but tomorrow barrel bombs will start falling from Syrian helicopters and people will be torn to shreds by shrapnel?
And then does that not require a response?
FRANCONA: This is what's interesting. You can kill as many people as you want, it appears, with conventional weapons. But you drop one chemical round, and all of a sudden, you're an international pariah and it requires an international military response.
It is kind of puzzling that there are so many deaths, 400,000 Syrians have died so far in this civil war. Yet an attack that kills less than 100 draws this kind of response.
It is just a symptom of the time, I guess. And the civil war will go on.
Again, back to my point, why did Bashar al-Assad feel that he needed to use a chemical weapon?
It just wasn't necessary.
CURNOW: He's spoken about complete victory, though, hasn't he?
And doesn't that play into his concept of complete victory and what that means?
FRANCONA: Well, you know, the way things are going, he is going to defeat the opposition. He'll have complete victory. He doesn't need the chemicals to do it. What he's done right now is called it into question.
Unfortunately, I think that this has changed the whole situation on the ground. The United States and the Russians were beginning to cooperate. There were low levels of cooperation ongoing already with the deconfliction of airspace. There was additional cooperation in the north going after ISIS. And this was a good, a very positive development.
Now we see that changing because of this one airstrike. So the United States, which does not want to get into the business of overthrowing Bashar al-Assad -- and President Trump has been very clear about that and he's trying to draw a distinction between the action --
FRANCONA: -- against this chemical strike and removing Bashar al- Assad. I don't know how he's going to do that. The opposition groups feel like, oh, now the United States is on our side. It may embolden them. I think that the United States wants to put the Bashar al-Assad removal on hold.
CURNOW: When you use the word game-changer, was a game-changer positively or negatively?
We know the French supported this action. They also said that this is a game-changer and could help boost political negotiations.
Do you think they're being too optimistic?
People seem to be looking at this in various different ways. FRANCONA: Yes, Robyn. I think they're being a little bit optimistic. I think that what we're going to find, after a few days, after probably the Tillerson meeting in Moscow, this will ratchet down quite a bit. And the United States will go back to what it wants to do, will focus on ISIS and basically park the Assad question until ISIS is defeated.
And then hopefully there will be some sort of political solution that ultimately ends in the removal of Bashar al-Assad. But I don't think the United States will hold out for that. We'll see what the president wants to do.
HOLMES: The opposition may be feeling happy about this but the thing is, if there's no follow-through and they get disappointed there's fallout there, too.
Lt. Col. Rick Francona, thanks so much.
CURNOW: Thanks so much.
Next on this special edition of CNN NEWSROOM, the latest in the deadly truck attack in Stockholm. We want to bring you what the police are saying right now.
HOLMES: Plus, it is a sickening pattern, vehicles used as weapons. What terror looks like now in Europe. All of that and more coming up after the break.
CURNOW: Hello and welcome. You're watching a special edition of CNN NEWSROOM. We want to update you now on our other top story, that truck attack in Stockholm.
HOLMES: Swedish police say they have arrested one suspect now in Friday's carnage. He's being held on suspicion of terrorist crimes through murder. At least four people were killed; 12 wounded after a stolen truck barreled into pedestrians on the busiest street in the Swedish capital.
CURNOW: A beer company that owns the vehicle says it was hijacked outside of a restaurant where it had been making a delivery. The prime minister says everything indicates it was a terror attack.
HOLMES: CNN's Max Foster now tells us how the attack unfolded. He reports from the scene.
MAX FOSTER, CNN HOST: What we've been told is that a beer delivery truck was hijacked by someone wearing a mask. It was then driven down Sweden's busiest shopping street, up there behind me, and it careened through this street.
Imagine it teeming with shoppers, with tourists and also with office workers, who were just around the corner here from the main train station.
The truck came to a halt in the department store up behind me. It's been taken away overnight. You can't quite make it out but you've got these buses here that were abandoned in the frenzy.
The whole area was locked down at the time and trains in and out of the city were cancelled and it's still cordoned off, as you can see. Now border patrols have been strengthened, that suggests that there is an ongoing investigation at least there may still be a threat. But we're not expecting more updates from the police overnight, at least not until the morning.
This attack falls into a tragic pattern that we've seen here in Europe. There was Nice in France, there was Berlin in Germany and London in the U.K., where vehicles were used to mow down people and get some sort of message across the same sort of stories from eyewitnesses as well.
They didn't know what the vehicle was doing.
Was it out of control?
They didn't realize it was terror until it was too late. It doesn't feel as if we're learning thing anymore. It feels routine. Just feels as if we have to learn to live with this -- Max Foster, CNN, Stockholm, Sweden.
CURNOW: Max Foster there also reporting from the scene. And there have been several recent terror attacks where vehicles were used as weapons. From Nice to Berlin to London and now, of course, Stockholm.
HOLMES: Nic Robertson now looks at the latest use of vehicles as weapons of terror in Europe.
NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: Eyewitnesses say the attacker put his foot on the gas and rammed through the crowd, his killing spree began mid-afternoon on one of Stockholm's busiest shopping streets, the murder weapon, a truck he had stolen in the hours before the attack. Terror has a new face now.
In the past year Nice, Berlin, London, Jerusalem and now Stockholm have all fallen victim to this new virulent style of attack; in each city, without warning, attackers using stolen or rented vehicles set out to cause as much carnage as they can.
Nice, first of these and the worst. Bastille Day last week. People celebrating on the seafront when Mohamed Lahouaiej, a Tunisian living in France, stole a 19-ton truck, driving at speed into the pedestrians crowding the promenade. By the time police shot him dead, 86 people slaughtered, more than 300 injured.
Five months later at Berlin's fabled Winter Market, Anis Amri, a failed Tunisian asylum seeker with ties to ISIS, stole a huge truck, killing its driver, then plowing into holiday shoppers, killing 12 people, injuring more than 40 others.
He went on the run, was shot and killed in Italy a few days later.
Early January this year, in Jerusalem, a Palestinian man drove a flatbed truck into Israeli troops, killing four, injuring at least 10. The attacker shot and killed, ending his murderous rampage.
In the heart of London, two weeks ago, an older man, Khalid Masood, with ties to extremists, drove his rented off-road vehicle at over 70 miles per hour into tourists and residents strolling over Westminster Bridge, killing four.
He then jumped --
ROBERTSON (voice-over): -- ut and killed a policeman before being shot to death by diplomatic protection officers. ISIS tries to claim connection to all, whether true or not, their slick PR machine grinds out their killing narrative, "Don't come to Syria and Iraq. Stay at home and kill. Use a vehicle."
And now Sweden, thrust in the path of ISIS' killing propaganda drive-- Nic Robertson, CNN, London.
HOLMES: Still to come here on the program, it wasn't all missile strikes on Thursday for Donald Trump. What we know about his talks with China's president. That's coming up.
CURNOW: Also, U.S. lawmakers had some strong reactions to these strikes. What they're saying about military action in Syria. That's ahead. you're watching CNN. Stay with us.
HOLMES: And welcome back to our viewers here in the United States and around the world. I'm Michael Holmes.
And I'm Robyn Curnow. You're watching CNN NEWSROOM
U.S. lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have been broadly supportive of President Trump's decision to strike Syria.
HOLMES: But one House Democrat said she is skeptical the Assad regime was even behind the chemical attack and calls the president's actions "reckless."
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
[02:30:00] REP. TULSI GABBARD (D), HI.: What I believe, what you believe or others believe is irrelevant. What matters here is the evidence and the facts. If President Assad is found to be responsible after an independent investigation for these horrific chemical weapons attacks, I'll be the first one to denounce him, to call him a war criminal and to call for his prosecution in International Criminal Court, make sure that those consequences are there.
But the key is now with President Trump's reckless military strikes last night, it flew directly in the face of the action that the U.N. was working on at that time to launch an independent investigation, to find out exactly what the facts are, who was involved and who was responsible so that the appropriate consequences could be levied.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R), FLA.: The airfield in Shayrat which is where Assad launched his chemical attack was severely degraded and I think in the short to midterm degrades his ability to conduct future attacks.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How do you think the president did not need congressional approval to do the strike?
RUBIO: He did not. He is the commander in chief. We had American troops in Syria. He has an obligation to protect them. I think the presence of sarin gas and a regime willing to use it is a clear and immediate threat to those troops.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
HOLMES: For more analysis on the U.S. strikes in Syria, we're joined now by Malcolm Chalmers.
CURNOW: He's the deputy director general of the Royal United Services Institute. We've seen his research at the think tank focuses on defense, security and foreign policy.
And when we look at international reaction to the Trump strike, we know that the British have said this was an appropriate response and the French have said this is potentially a game-changer.
MALCOLM CHALMERS, ROYAL UNITED SERVICES INSTITUTE: I think that's right. I think European allies and NATO are very much supportive of this step. And it's very much in line with the concern over here about the fact that the regime has been using chemical weapons without any repost.
HOLMES: Do you see a strategy, though?
Is there a risk in reacting like this with an airstrike like this, about chemical weapons but not about barrel bombs and missiles that kill even more people?
Do you see a strategy here?
CHALMERS: I think there is a strategy in relation to chemical weapons. And one of the striking things about this step is it's saying chemical weapons are special, the Syrian government has signed up to the chemical weapons convention and we have international conventions against the use of these weapons.
For that to go unpunished would send a strong signal that these weapons are no longer as special as we've made them out to be for many decades. But yes, of course, we will watch with interest. Everybody will watch with interest the next time we see pictures of large numbers of Syrian civilians, women and children, being killed by conventional weapons.
If the United States stand by and does nothing, that will be hard to swallow.
But if the U.S. were to react to that, to conventional attacks -- and, of course, you're looking at a much longer and more difficult conflict which ultimately would be geared to regime change- I don't think that's something which many Western governments would be comfortable with, because it would then open up the really distinct risk of a conflict with Russia.
CURNOW: That certainly is on everyone's minds, particularly ahead of the meeting between the secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, and the Russians next week.
But when we talk about how this plays out, the big question is being what next?
And, of course, the big question is also about political strategy.
Is there an end game here?
Is there an exit strategy?
Is this a one-off?
So many questions, particularly coming from allies.
CHALMERS: I think that's right. So as long as this is restricted to the issue of chemical weapons, then actually it's rather -- it's not cut and dry and there are significant risks of escalation.
We had Russian personnel at the airbase under attack, for example. Nevertheless, it's potentially containable. A simple message is if Assad uses chemical weapons again, he will be struck again. But if he does not, he will not be struck.
But this is not a solution to Syria. It won't make a difference even to the level of humanitarian suffering without a political settlement. And even a couple of months ago there was some optimistic talk about America and Russia cooperating, trying to broker a political settlement for Syria.
It feels to me as if we're further away from that than we've ever been. The war on ISIL is having some success. Raqqah may well fall in the coming months but still no clear picture even in relation to Raqqah as to which Arab forces will replace ISIL in that city. So a lot of uncertainty, the broad contours of this conflict --
CHALMERS: -- remain as they have been before this step.
But real questions about Syrian and Russian reaction. I think also real questions about what this means for how we interpret Donald Trump's foreign policy.
This is very different from what we were led to believe was his approach only a few weeks ago in terms of a reluctance to intervene. We're now seeing a presence much more in the mainstream, actually. We could have imagined Hillary Clinton taking exactly the same step as Donald Trump made this week.
HOLMES: Absolutely right about the disparate nature of the various groups that are fighting on the battlefield there as well.
Malcolm Chalmers with RUSI, thanks so much.
CURNOW: Thank you so much.
CURNOW: And the U.S. strikes in Syria came as President Trump met his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in Florida, of course.
HOLMES: For more on those talks, CNN's Matt Rivers joining us now from Beijing.
And, Matt, I don't know that anyone expected anything groundbreaking to come from this. Certainly Donald Trump has been let's say bellicose over the course of the campaign when it comes to China. But Mr. Xi would have been glad to basically get out with status quo intact and no nasty tweets.
MATT RIVERS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes. I think he's very happy that there were no tweets sent out. I think he's very happy that there were no awkward non-handshake moments like we saw with the German chancellor Angela Merkel when she went to Washington.
This was a very diplomatic meeting. And as you said, nothing major came out of it. The only real concrete thing that we heard from the White House was that both sides agreed to a framework of negotiating in the future. And even that's not very concrete. Really this seems to be just kind of a meet and greet sort of visit between President Xi and President Trump. The White House is saying --
CURNOW: We lost our colleague there.
HOLMES: I thought it was my earpiece.
CURNOW: So did I. I thought perhaps somebody had switched us off.
But we seem to have lost our connection with Matt Rivers.
But in the meantime, we are going to continue to focus on that U.S. military strike against Syria. Stay with us. You're watching CNN.
HOLMES: The focus is on the short-term impact and what President Trump might do next. We'll be speaking with an expert. Stay with us.
CURNOW: Welcome back, everyone. Syrians and Americans have had mixed reactions to President Trump's decision to launch missiles at Syria.
Now members of a Syrian Christian community rallied Friday in Allentown, Pennsylvania, against the strike.
HOLMES: Some told local media they don't believe the government in Damascus gassed its citizens and that President Trump only made things worse. Another Syrian American said he's glad Mr. Trump ordered the strike.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's about time. It's about time. To get rid of this tyrant, this evil tyrant, I mean, and stop him and stop those who are supporting him. I mean, we've been -- Syrian people have been crying, begging for such action.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
HOLMES: Let's turn now to CNN contributor, Michael Weiss, editor of "The Daily Beast," coauthor of "ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror."
Always good to have you on, Michael.
First of all, how does this change the battlefield, if at all?
I mean, the runways weren't even hit.
MICHAEL WEISS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It doesn't change the battlefield. It was reported that today that Syrian or Russian aircraft just took off from that same airbase that the U.S. struck 24 hours ago, less than 24 hours ago, and waged a bombing raid in the countryside of Homs. I think this was a show of force. This was a symbolic gesture.
Although actually I shouldn't say just that. It's reported that between 15-20 attack aircraft belonging to the Syrian air force were destroyed in this raid; 59 Tomahawk missiles were launched against this airbase.
This is one of the major airbases Assad has used in his campaign against not just rebels but also civilians. So that's 15-20 attack aircraft that can no longer drop bombs, including those laden with sarin gas, on women, children and innocent civilians.
So it's a little bit more than symbolic. But it's not going to change the nature of the war tactically, much less strategically.
HOLMES: So what then is U.S. policy, do you think?
Who's giving Trump his advice in a political sense rather than a military sense?
If this was symbolic, well, so what?
WEISS: I spoke last night to a senior administration official who told me two interesting things. One, this is only designed to deter the regime from using chemical weapons. So that means the regime is still going to be able to drop barrel bombs, launch Scud missiles, rage strafing and bombing sorties against the Free Syrian Army and against civilians and against jihadi groups and whatnot with impunity.
Number two -- and this is I think the most interesting -- if you notice secretary of state Rex Tillerson, a man who is known for his rather chummy relationship with the Russian government -- he was awarded the Order of Friendship in 2012 personally by Vladimir Putin, came out and said the attack with sarin gas at Idlib indicates either complicity or incompetence on the part of the Russian government.
Now we know, based on reporting and based on what the U.S. government has said that Russian military officers were stationed at the Syrian airbase while those jets, the Su-22s were loaded with sarin-laden rockets.
It was about as many as 100 Russian officers. They're in a different part of the base but I asked my source in the administration if they were there when this attack was going on, what did they know, when did they know it and why couldn't they stop it?
And the answer was, we simply don't know yet.
HOLMES: You mentioned there something, Michael, I want to get back to.
If this was a warning sign after a chemical attack, it crossed the red line so we have to act.
What if tomorrow Assad is dropping barrel bombs on women and children in civilian areas and we see more video of enormous suffering and death, why would that then not require a response?
WEISS: I would agree with you. That's exactly the right question to ask. Unfortunately, this one attack with sarin gas killed as many as 100 people and injured several hundred more, not the deadliest attack waged by the regime using more conventional weapons.
The problem is the West doesn't wake up and pay attention to what's happening in Syria unless they see images of waxy corpses of children laid out on flatbed trucks who have --
WEISS: -- died from asphyxiation and this horrible toxic nerve agent. And the U.S. has come out straightaway and said this is not going to deter the regime from doing everything else. So I don't see this as a major pivot. I don't see this as a major realignment.
And my concern now is, because the Syrian opposition and those that are opposed to Assad are now ecstatic -- they think that Donald Trump has delivered where Barack Obama never did -- I've seen images from Kobani, you know, shopkeepers, restaurateurs naming their restaurants Trump.
There are going to be Arabs who are naming their children after Donald Trump. They're getting their expectations way too high. And I think my fear is the opposition is going to start to write checks they simply cannot cash on the battlefield.
HOLMES: It seems to be that Assad can't stay, can't be part of a future deal that the Syrian people will go for.
But what is the alternative if Assad goes overnight?
What is there to replace him when you consider that most of the opposition now, probably because of past events, the fastings (ph) that weren't done, most of the opposition now has at least some jihadi influence within it. There aren't really any moderates that are in a position to do anything.
WEISS: In Idlib province, the entire rebel administration is led by Al Qaeda and a consortium of other Islamist groups. You can't deny that. But as you say, the driving mechanism for that isn't really ideological fellow travelers. It's the fact that people are casting their lot with the jihadis because the jihadis can deliver on the battlefield.
The jihadis are not beholden to foreign agendas. I spoke to an ISIS defector recently who told me that -- and nobody's paying attention to this because people don't care about Syria unless there's a ghastly chemical weapon attack.
But in Hama right now, rebels, again, led by the former outfit known as Jabhat Al-Nusra, which is the Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria, are waging a massive campaign to push back against the regime. This defector told me anyone and everyone is lining up to receive
weapons and ammunition, no questions asked. If you're ready to fight Assad and the Iranian-built proxy groups, have at it.
And I said, well, what's changed?
He said, well, the U.S. and the CIA have cut off the salaries to vetted Free Syrian Army groups in Syria, in Turkey and Qatar and Saudi Arabia, they've sort of given up on this whole proxy war.
So because there are no foreign agendas, because there are no competitive geopolitical complications, Syrians are unifying around the idea of just striking the regime.
Now that's going to change, because people are going to get emboldened. They're going to think there's a new dawn after these airstrikes. Again, if the United States does not capitalize on this opportunity, Sunni Arab opinion is now all of a sudden and against all expectation with Donald Trump.
The sense of dejection, the sense of being betrayed yet again is going to be immense. That's going to resound very negatively against the United States and is going to increase recruitment to not just ISIS, actually even less than ISIS, to Jabhat al-Nusra, to Harar al-Sham (ph), to the groups that the United States seems to be unsavory.
Jihadis thrive when America lets down moderates. That's just always the case.
HOLMES: And then their presence very keenly felt throughout most of the opposition. We've got to leave it there. Michael Weiss, senior editor at "The Daily Beast," always a pleasure. Thank you so much.
WEISS: Cheers, yes, thank you.
CURNOW: Comprehensive analysis there from Michael --
CURNOW: -- him always.
Coming up, punitive strikes by the U.S. are nothing new.
HOLMES: We'll take a look at past warnings and retaliations launched by the United States. Stay with us. We'll be right back.
HOLMES: Welcome back.
The U.S. has launched strikes in the past as warnings and as punishment, most often for the murder of civilians.
CURNOW: Gary Tuchman takes a look back at some of these attacks.
GARY TUCHMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Five years before the 2003 war against a U.S.-led coalition, Saddam Hussein's Iraq was punished by bombing and Tomahawk missile strikes.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Whoa.
TUCHMAN (voice-over): A punitive four-day campaign ordered by President Bill Clinton following Iraq's refusal to comply with U.N. Security Council resolutions.
Much of Iraq's military infrastructure destroyed. Iraq said hundreds of its troops and civilians were killed. It wasn't the first strike designed to punish the Iraqi regime.
In 1993, two years after the first Gulf War, 23 cruise missiles were launched into downtown Baghdad. A warning after an assassination plot was uncovered in Kuwait and former President George H.W. Bush, who was visiting the country he helped liberate during the 1991 Gulf War.
Colin Powell was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time.
COLIN POWELL, FORMER CHAIRMAN OF THE JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF: Should Mr. Hussein even dream of retaliating, we have more than enough force in the region to deal with it.
TUCHMAN (voice-over): The missiles hit a building believed to have housed Iraq's intelligence service. Punitive attacks have also been used in retaliation for murders of Americans.
In 1986, Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi was said to be behind the bombing of a disco in West Berlin; two U.S. servicemen were killed. The U.S. military reply: 60 tons of munitions rained down on Gadhafi's compound in Tripoli.
RONALD REAGAN, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: My fellow Americans, at 7 o'clock this evening Eastern Time, air and naval forces of the United States launched a series of strikes against the headquarters, terrorist facilities and military assets that support Moammar Gadhafi's subversive activities.
TUCHMAN (voice-over): And the result...
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Back there is the building where his wife and children resting when the bombing came on Monday night. Two of them were injured, the smallest child, an adopted daughter was killed.
REAGAN: Today we have done what we had to do. If necessary, we shall do it again.
[02:55:00] TUCHMAN (voice-over): Gadhafi survived; he wasn't at the site. Dozens of Libyans died, as did two U.S. Air Force pilots.
Another punishment for the murder of civilians came in 1998. Operation Infinite Reach led the strikes against Al Qaeda targets in Sudan and Afghanistan, after the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were bombed. More than 200 people were killed, over 4,000 wounded.
These punitive strikes have been used by a long line of U.S. presidents to punish or to warn others when their actions are deemed a threat to American interests.
REAGAN: I said that we would act with others if possible and alone if necessary to ensure that terrorists have no sanctuary anywhere. Tonight, we have.
TUCHMAN (voice-over): Gary Tuchman, CNN, Atlanta.
CURNOW: Thank you so much for joining us here, watching CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Robyn Curnow.
HOLMES: And I'm Michael Holmes. Our coverage continues with Hala Gorani in Beirut and Isa Soares in London. That's after the break. Thanks for being with us.