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U.S. Investigates: Did Russia Play A Role In Attack?; U.S. Not Ruling Out Further Strikes On Syria; Syrian Air Base Suffers "Extensive Damage" In Strike; Moscow: Strike Strengthens Terrorists; Explosives Found In Stockholm Attack Truck; Syrian People "Crying, Begging" For U.S. Action. Aired 8-8:30a ET

Aired April 8, 2017 - 08:00   ET





UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm an outdoors guy by nature. I like to garden and I like being active and so this is just a natural fit for me. The park itself is really part of the therapy process. When I had therapy in the past and you go into an office, it just feels sterile.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: When we're out walking, we're moving forward and it's the exact same thing we're doing in the therapeutic process, we're moving forward.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The U.S. military is investigating whether Russia was complicit in the Syrian regime's gruesome chemical weapons attack on civilians.

NIKKI HALEY, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED NATIONS: The United States took a very measured step. We are prepared to do more.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I wish we would obey the Constitution and do this the way our founding fathers intended.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It was the right move. It was legal.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The president at his Mar-a-Lago resort. He has his full command center with him. They are watching the reaction here in Syria.

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: There are tensions within the White House just as there are tensions within President Trump himself.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All the focus is also on Russia. The secretary of state will be going there next week. That's where this goes next.


VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN ANCHOR: Top of the hour now. Good Saturday morning to you. I'm Victor Blackwell in New York.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN GUEST ANCHOR: And I'm Brianna Kielar in Washington for Christi Paul.

BLACKWELL: President Trump's strike against Syria may just be the first act potentially. The United States is delivering a new warning for Syria and keeping a suspicious eye on Russia this morning. The Pentagon is investigating whether Moscow was involved in that chemical attack that killed dozens of people including children.

The kremlin is staunchly denying any complicity in the attack or a possible cover up, but it is ratcheting up the stakes for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson when he travels to Moscow for his first meeting with Russia's foreign minister next week.

KEILAR: And also this morning, Russia flexing its muscles. In an apparent show of force, Russia has deployed a warship armed with cruise missiles to the Mediterranean Sea. This is the same area where American ships launched that volley of Tomahawk missiles into Syria just a few days ago.

BLACKWELL: This morning, we've got our correspondents and expert analysts tracking the latest on the aftermath from those strikes on Syria.

KEILAR: And I want to begin with CNN Pentagon reporter, Ryan Browne. What are officials telling us, Ryan, about this investigation into Russia and perhaps its role in this chemical attack?

RYAN BROWNE, CNN PENTAGON REPORTER: Good morning, Brianna. That's right, the military tells us that they're looking at a couple of different things. One is that there were Russian troops at this base that was struck by these cruise missiles.

Now, these troops were part of an aviation unit, so it begs the question whether they were aware that chemical weapons were being loaded onto Syrian aircraft that carried out that strike.

Now, the other thing they're looking at is that they've observed a Russian drone flying over the hospital that was also struck five hours after the chemical weapons attack.

Some say that was an effort to cover up the chemical weapons attack so they're looking at whether that drone fed information to kind of provide that secondary strike against the hospital.

So these are some of the things they're looking at to determine whether or not Russia was complicit in that chemical weapons attack.

KEILAR: There has been a suspension of a hotline that would help the U.S. and Russian forces coordinate when it comes to Syria. The U.S. does have troops that operate in Syria, about 1,000. What can you tell us about this?

BROWNE: That's right. The Russians announced their intention to suspend what's called this deconfliction channel. That was established because both the U.S. and Russia launched airstrikes in Syria. The U.S. targets ISIS. Russia targets opposition groups as well as strikes against ISIS so they want to make sure to avoid any aerial encounters.

Now, the military is telling us that its troops in Syria that are fighting ISIS, they're taking extra precautionary steps to ensure that they are protected. That there's no retaliation against them. They're using surveillance to monitor the situation.

They're not exactly saying what steps they're taking, but these troops, about 1,000 of them in Syria, are being watched more closely to make sure that they're protected.

KEILAR: All right, Ryan Browne covering the Pentagon for us, thank you so much -- Victor.

BLACKWELL: Let's bring in our panel, Lt. Colonel Rick Francona, CNN military analyst and former U.S. military attache in Syria, April Ryan, CNN political analyst and White House correspondent for "American Urban Radio Networks," Ivan Eland, senior fellow at the Independent Institute, and Maria Cardona, CNN political commentator and Democratic strategist. Good morning to all.

Colonel, I want to start with you. And this investigation at the Pentagon into potentially if Russia was involved or attempted to cover up this chemical attack.

Is there any plausible explanation for that Russian drone being over the hospital where some of the victims were being treated hours after the chemical attack beyond some involvement or attempt to cover this up?

[08:05:09]With the information that we know that soon after the drone was there, there was a bomb that was dropped onto that hospital?

LT. COLONEL RICK FRANCONA (RETIRED), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Yes, if you were a conspiracy theorist, you would say one led to the other. I'm not sure that's exactly the case. The Russians fly drones all the time. It's part of their targeting process.

They also feed that information to the Syrian Air Force. The Syrian Air Force strikes some targets, the Russian Air Force strikes some targets. So we really don't know. It does make the case that maybe they were aware, but just a Russian drone over a particular target.

What is alarming, though, that the drone was over a hospital at all. We have seen the systematic destruction of almost every medical facility in the rebel controlled areas. They did it in Aleppo during the battle there.

Now as the fighting shifts to Idlib, we're seeing it concentrated in that area as well. So this is really something we need to look at, not just this one particular incident but this systemic operations by the Russians and the Syrians against medical facilities.

BLACKWELL: April, we've seen and heard the criticisms coming from some of the president's most staunch supporters. We've seen the tweets coming from Ann Coulter and others as well questioning his decision to get involved here. If this is just a one-off, does this fade or does this damage the president with some of those supporters who liked what some have called that isolationist stand not being the policeman of the world?

APRIL RYAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, the president said, you know, when he was running for president he did not want to be the president of the world, but you know, as the president of the United States, you are the leader of the free world and there is a moral authority.

You have to remember, he talked about just last week what President Obama did not do when President Obama was president, when President Obama set the red line around Syria. So this president acted on it.

When President Obama was president, he looked for congressional support. He did not receive it so he did not go in in 2013. But this president did it without congressional support. It's a mixed bag with his supporters.

Some are saying he looks very presidential at this moment. Others are concerned with the issue of the lack of congressional support. But at the same time you have to remember this. If this is a statement, just a statement to say we are watching is one thing.

But if he goes even further, to make efforts to remove Bashar al- Assad, that is a big issue for the world community and that could actually spur Russia to say we are at war with the United States because they do not want us to go to war and take Bashar al-Assad out of power.

BLACKWELL: Ivan, there seems to be no consistency there. Before the chemical attack, we heard from Secretary Tillerson and Ambassador Haley that the U.S. is essentially OK with Assad there. After the attack, the secretary said that there were efforts under way to remove him.

Just last night the White House would not say whether or not they want Assad to be removed from power, and that makes it quite difficult to walk into the meeting with the foreign minister next week when no one really knows where the U.S. stands on Assad.

IVAN ELAND, SENIOR FELLOW, INDEPENDENT INSTITUTE: Yes, I think the policy is a muddle right now and that's unfortunate because if you're trying to send a signal which this obviously was, they didn't do that much damage and they even warned the Syrians and the Russians that we're coming.

If you're trying to send a message, you're not being very effective because your message is muddled. I think also this attack probably undermines the primary goal of the U.S. which Trump has said, and that is to fight ISIS.

We're trying to fight ISIS. If we now have to watch out for Russian air defenses because they were not observing this agreement anymore, doesn't that at least make us more tenuous in our efforts to get rid of ISIS? BLACKWELL: Maria, this week is ending politically at least a little better for President Trump than it started. It started with so many questions about the Russia investigations. You had Chairman Nunes step aside, questions still there. Those are not gone, but it ended with these compliments and the praise from some of his political foes including Democrats for this strike in Syria. How do you rate the president?

MARIA CARDONA, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think you're right about that and I think frankly that is one of the reasons why the president took this action and that might sound cynical but, you know, given his history of trying to muddy the waters with distractions, this is probably the biggest distraction that there is out there.

Like you said, we're not really talking about his purported Russian connections during the election, but also like you said, that is not going away. Ironically, the situation that he is in now and I think the bottom line here is that, yes, he took action last night and he's getting a lot of praise.

[08:10:08]But what does it mean now? Does it mean that, you know, his focus has now changed and he does want to take Assad out? I think that right now his foreign policy is still incoherent. It lacks a broader strategy.

It is clearly still based on gut instinct, based on television images, and based on whoever is the last person who has whispered in his ear. That is not a way to run a country, and yes, the actions have been praised.

But ironically they've also been praised by a lot of Republicans who did not want to give President Obama support, to April's point, back in 2013, to do exactly the same thing that Trump did in the last couple of days.

BLACKWELL: All right, let's take a quick break. Everyone stay with us. We've got a lot more to talk about. We'll talk about it on the other side of the break. Brianna, now to you in Washington.

KEILAR: Thanks, Victor. The attack in Stockholm could have been so much worse. That is what investigators are saying as they comb through the evidence. We are going live to Sweden for an update on that next.

Plus Syrian refugees say they are horrified after this week's chemical attack and now they are demanding more U.S. action to keep their relatives left behind out of danger. We are joined by Syrian sisters with a cause coming up.



BLACKWELL: All right, for more now on the analysis on the Syrian missile strike and what happens, next, let's bring back our panel, April, I want to start with you and I want you to listen to an excerpt from President Trump's 2000 book, "The America We Deserve."

He wrote that, "My rules of engagement are pretty simple. If we're going to intervene in a conflict, it had better pose a direct threat to our interests, one definition of direct being a threat so obvious that most Americans will know where the hot spot is on the globe and will quickly understand why we are getting involved.

The threat should be so direct that our leaders including our president should be able to make the case clearly and concisely." He goes on to write, "At the same time, we must not get involved in a long festering conflict for humanitarian reasons." Does this appear to reach then Citizen Trump's threshold for rules in engagement?

RYAN: Citizen Trump and President Trump are two different people now and we're clearly seeing that just with the shakeup in the National Security Council this week the stakes are so high.

And over the years we've come to find out that when you have dictatorships or countries that are rogue states or what have you and then you have issues of terrorism breeding out of those countries, it is something that directly affects us, so there is a link to the United States and Syria.

You have ISIS that is growing there, that's attacking people there, and then you also have a leader, Bashar al-Assad, who is allowing his forces to poison his people with sarin gas and chlorine and things of that nature.

So there is a direct impact when you say a place like Syria has this happening because if you continue to allow these situations to happen, it just breeds terror, it breeds so many things that the tentacles can come to our country, so he's learning this as president.

It's interesting also, Victor, there is a tweet from 2012, going back to Donald Trump's comments about then President Obama, he said something about his poll numbers at the time, you know, and wanting to bomb another country.

He said, it's deplorable and despicable, and people are retweeting that. So Citizen Trump versus President Trump are two totally different things. I think he's redefining his foreign policy posture.

BLACKWELL: That's exactly what Maria was getting to. Let me pick up from what April was saying, and Ivan, bring it to you. If we now or the United States I should say has created this precedent, the president has created this precedent that he will get involved if it's at the level of chemical weapons, does the United States now go back to not being involved after 400,000 people, almost all of them have died from some other weapon, barrel bombs and the rest, do we stay out of that fight after we've now created this precedent that we will get involved militarily in Syria?

ELAND: That's the problem when you intervene in countries, no matter how limited it is, you sort of buy into what happens next if you don't deter Assad or any other leader from doing what you didn't want them to do. So what do we do next? I hope they have a plan down the road. It may not be. This happened pretty quickly. I'm not sure that's one of my problems with this is it doesn't fit into a strategic vision that has been enunciated after he's been president.

You just read his version when he was a citizen and I happen to like that version. I think we should only use military power when we really need to and in the national interest. There's no strategic interest in Syria.

Bismarck would come back and say if your enemies are fighting ISIS, al Qaeda versus the regime, obviously despicable, let them fight, right? So we really have no strategic thinking and I think Trump as a citizen really nailed it, but he's not following that as president so far.

BLACKWELL: Let me jump in here. Colonel, quickly to you, we now know that Syria has chemical weapons. I mean, the 2013, 2014, diplomacy to have Russia destroy them didn't work. What will be the effort or what should be the effort to find and destroy them now?

FRANCONA: I'm not sure we're ever going to find and destroy them all. I lived in Syria for quite a while and spent a lot of time trying to track down these very things. There's a lot of places to hide these kind of weapons. It's a very difficult country to get a handle on, very secretive, so we may never know.

[08:20:07]The question is not whether they have them, it's whether they're going to use them. A lot of countries have weapons that we would rather they didn't, as long as they're deterred from using them.

So the point is we've told the Syrians and now we've demonstrated to the Syrians that the use of chemical weapons is unacceptable and we will react if they do so.

But I do take the point mentioned earlier that 400,000 Syrians have died via other means so it almost seems like we're giving people a license to kill using conventional weapons, but cross that line and using chemical weapons then the United States will be spurred into action.

BLACKWELL: All right, we've got to wrap it there. Maria, you get the first question on the next one. Thank you, everybody, for being with us.

KEILAR: Breaking news out of Sweden this morning where a deadly attack in the nation's capital could have been so much worse. Local media reports that a bomb was found in the truck used in yesterday's attack, but it didn't properly detonate.

CNN international correspondent, Max Foster, is joining us live now from Stockholm. This is so alarming, Max, but certainly this is, you know, in what has been a horrible story, it obviously could have also been so much worse.

MAX FOSTER, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, we're hearing that there was some sort of device, some sort of technical device in the vehicle. They're investigating that and that's been interpreted by some as a bomb, but we haven't got that official notification from the police.

They say they are holding a 31-year-old suspect. He was an Uzbek national and had been living here in Sweden and he was known to the police so they accepted that there are parallels here with the attack that happened in parliament in London as well recently where again someone carried out a similar style attack with a vehicle and was known to the police.

Same in Berlin, same in Nice as well. It does fit into this pattern and it's a frightening pattern as well across Europe where people can just take a vehicle and drive into a crowd in one of the most busy places in Europe really.

If you look down the street this is where the vehicle would have been thundering down, would have been full of people, it's a pedestrianized area. You may be able to make it out through the flowers as well where it went -- drove literally into a department store and came to a halt. Luckily, as you say, it didn't explode -- Brianna.

KEILAR: All right, Max Foster, and we are getting some new pictures in there from Stockholm, Sweden. Thank you so much, Max, for that report -- Victor.

BLACKWELL: All right, the crises in Syria raising fears for refugees who managed to escape. Next, we speak to two Syrian sisters what are blasting the chemical attack as torturous, demanding more action from the U.S. and the global community.



BLACKWELL: Welcome back. I'm Victor Blackwell in New York.

KEILAR: And I'm Brianna Kielar in Washington for Christi Paul.

A damning allegation, was Russia involved in the chemical attack on Syria. A U.S. military official tells CNN the Pentagon is examining whether a Russian war plane bombed a hospital five hours after the chemical attack aiming to destroy evidence.

The chemical attack Tuesday killed at least 80 people and injured dozens more. These images that you're seeing of the aftermath prompted President Trump to act.

Russian President Vladimir Putin blasting the decision to strike the Assad regime as a, quote, "act of aggression," saying that the move dealt a serious blow to Russian/U.S. relations.

This coming after Putin initially denied a chemical attack even happened in Syria. U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley says the U.S. is prepared to do more and Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal who serves on the Armed Services Committee says Russia used the attack to test the United States. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SENATOR RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (D), ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE: I think there's mounting evidence that they were complicit in one way or the other, that they knew about it, Russians at some level knew about it, and they should be held accountable. Russia is testing us around the world through a violation of the INF treaty involving cruise missiles. Others steps that have been taken are ongoing.


BLACKWELL: Syrian refugees here in the U.S. say they're horrified. They fear for their lives, the lives at least of their relatives left behind in the war torn country.

CNN's Rachel Crane is with us now. You're speaking with some of the people here in the U.S. who have family members still in Syria. What are they telling you?

RACHEL CRANE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Victor, it's really a mixed bag of reactions to this airstrike. Many are frustrated that intervention didn't happen sooner or that this crises has been going on for years. Some people pointing out that Donald Trump has very distinctly flip-flopped on his stance on Syria and they think that this airstrike is simply a political move.

But many as you pointed out who have families still in Syria are grateful that any action has taken place at all. Take a listen to what a few of them had to say.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's about time, I mean, to get rid of this tyrant, this evil tyrant and stop him -- and stop those who are supporting him. I mean, Syrian people have been crying, begging for such action.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm happy, yes. I'm happy because, you know, we've been suffering for five years. Nobody can take any action. People dying, crying everywhere in Syria. Nobody do it. Nobody do it, but I hope it continue. That's what I'm hoping. Signs is good. Good signs.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No sane person would welcome war or destruction or bombing to their country, homeland, to anywhere. No sane person would welcome that, but the fact that Syrians are happy about this airstrike --