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Syria Massacre; Solving the Syria Crisis

Aired May 29, 2012 - 15:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the program. I'm Christiane Amanpour.

Since Saturday, the horror of what happened in the Syrian village of Houla has been played over and again. It is overwhelming, frankly, more than 100 men, women and children were massacred.

Let's take a moment, then, just to look at one picture. These children are lying in a morgue in Houla, waiting to be buried.

My brief tonight, "We've Seen This Coming," but no one seems to know what to do about it. The so-called Annan Cease-fire Plan was already in such tatters that last week just a day before this slaughter in Houla, this is what the U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told me.


BAN KI-MOON, U.N. SECRETARY-GENERAL: There were huge violations of human rights. This wholly unacceptable, intolerable situation. Too many people of Syria have suffered and they have been -- too many people have been killed.

AMANPOUR: But what is the plan B?

BAN: At this time, we don't have any plan B.


AMANPOUR: No plan B. Today, Kofi Annan in Damascus called the massacre a tipping point. But what exactly does that mean? Washington and other capitals around the world have expelled Syrian diplomats.

The United States lays the blame fair and square at Assad's feet. White House spokesman Jay Carney today called the massacre "a horrifying testament to this regime's depravity," but quickly added that the U.S. opposes arming the rebels or any other kind of military intervention right now.

With the U.N.-Syria plan in disarray, the U.S. and other nations unwilling to intervene continue to hope that Russia and China, especially Russia, will somehow persuade Assad of the folly of his ways, as U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice told me previously on this program.


SUSAN RICE, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE U.N.: Russia and China now have a great stake in the success of the Annan plan. They have the maximum leverage on Assad. If Assad continues to refuse, Russia and China are going to face a very difficult choice.


AMANPOUR: But a prominent critic of the administration opposes outsourcing this policy.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZ.: It's for us to beat Japan on the largesse and generosity of China and Russia is an affront to everything we stand for and believe in.


AMANPOUR: Peter Wittig is the German ambassador to the United Nations. He's been in meeting on Syria over the past few days, and he joins me now.

Ambassador, thank you for coming in.


AMANPOUR: What is the next move? We've heard some of your colleagues, some of your counterparts at the U.N., coming out and saying that this massacre was a game-changer. What actually does that mean in terms of action?

WITTIG: Well, it certainly was a defining moment in the Syrian crisis. It shocked and appalled everyone, civilians killed, children killed, women killed, reported executions. My foreign minister today decided to expel the Syrian ambassador from Berlin. That was an immediate reaction to that massacre.

But now, of course, we've got to look ahead. We've got to weigh our option. And let me say this: I think we have to stick to our quest for a political solution. There is no plan B. We have to exhaust all possibilities to find a political solution to the Syrian crisis.

AMANPOUR: But how?

WITTIG: Otherwise, there would be mayhem in the region.

AMANPOUR: But there is already mayhem in Syria, agreed?

WITTIG: Syria is on the brink of civil war, but we've got to do everything that doesn't fuel this vicious cycle of violence.

AMANPOUR: But what exactly, because without doing very much, it's being fueled, according to your foreign minister, according to yourself, according to the U.N. monitors on the ground. They laid this squarely at the feet of the Assad regime.

What now seriously do you think can change his mind?

WITTIG: We've got to do some strategic thinking now on the way ahead. But we've got to strengthen the authority of Kofi Annan. We've got to strengthen the Annan plan and we've got to strengthen the U.N. mission on the ground.

AMANPOUR: How do you do that?


WITTIG: And we've got -- we've got to bring Assad and his men around to finally comply with the obligations of the Annan plan. Russia has a big role in this.

AMANPOUR: But let's take it point by point. How do you bring President Assad around where the diplomacy that you've been so diligent in trying to apply has simply not worked? In fact, it's rebounded in your face. It's rebounded in your face. The U.N. plan is in disarray. Would you agree?

WITTIG: I agree Assad has not complied. He has -- quite the contrary, he has jeopardized the Annan plan, and he has challenged the decisions of the Security Council.

But this is something that Russia should be concerned about, because those decisions were taken with Russia's consent. So we have got to work with Russia on Assad, that he finally complies with the Annan plan. We've got to give the political solution a chance.

Militarization is not a solution the Syrians.

AMANPOUR: I know none of you want to intervene, but as you know, there have been many instances where diplomacy backed by the threat of force has been more successful than diplomacy with nothing to back it.

Do you not feel a little bit desperate right now?


WITTIG: We need some more teeth in terms of --

AMANPOUR: What sort of teeth?

WITTIG: -- of a sanctions threat. We might want to work on that. Perpetrators and those who violate Security Council resolutions and the obligations of the Annan plan will have to be facing sanctions. That's our belief. And as you know, we tried twice. And it was vetoed by the Russian and China. Maybe this massacre, this horrific massacre, was also an eye opener for the Russians.

AMANPOUR: Well, you've all been meeting, presumably with your counterparts from Russia and China. Did you get any sense that this is an eye opener? Do you get any sense that they would agree to more teeth, as you say?

WITTIG: They clearly condemned, with the rest of us, the massacre that happened. And now they didn't attribute blame squarely to the Assad regime, something that we did because we had clear evidence that there was a strong footprint of the Assad regime in this.

But I feel that Russia is willing to work on Assad, to prevent those things from occurring again, and maybe make its influence felt even stronger in Damascus.

AMANPOUR: Well, let me just read this. You talk about work on Assad. Your own foreign minister says that even before the events in Houla, it became clear, it has become clear that Syria under Assad's leadership has no future.

He must make way for a peaceful change in Syria. But that in itself has tensions, because the Russians don't believe that Assad should step down. Yet you and the West and the U.S. do believe that.

So, again, how are you going to persuade any change?

WITTIG: We agreed, even in the council, that there should be a Syrian-led and Syrian-owned process for transition. It was subscribed to by the Russians as well. Now we've got to come to that point where this process can start.

Of course, in the midst of this violence, it cannot start. But once the violence has stopped, we've got to move to that political process. Now will Assad be part of it? It's eventually for the Syrians to decide. We, as my foreign minister has said, we don't believe that Assad has a future in a new Syria. But eventually, that's to decide for the Syrian people.

AMANPOUR: Do you think because of this violence -- and you've all categorically laid the lion's share, 99 percent, of the blame, at his feet, particularly this latest massacre? Does he have any legitimacy left? Can he actually be a partner? Can Russia even expect that he could stay?

WITTIG: We don't think that Assad can be a partner for a future of a new Syria. We squarely don't think so. But it's for the Syrians to decide -- and the Arab League at the time, a couple of works ago, made a proposal that we wanted to endorse, how the Syrian-led process without Assad could come about. So we would support the Arab League in this.

AMANPOUR: Ambassador Wittig, thank you very much indeed for coming in.

WITTIG: Thank you. It was a pleasure.

AMANPOUR: Now to Alex Thomson in Syria. He is the chief correspondent for Britain's Channel 4 News, and he was the only Western reporter in Houla right after the massacre. He joins me now from Damascus.

Alex, thank you so much for being there. You were there, you saw what happened. What do you think is the role of the paramilitaries, the shabiha?

ALEX THOMSON, CHIEF CORRESPONDENT, CHANNEL 4 U.K.: I think you can only go by virtue of what people are saying, and the United Nations deputies have a mission here. Martin Griffith (ph) quoted two sources. And there are interesting sources, because they're in two completely different geographical locations. And they haven't spoken to each other. So there's no intercorroboration, if you like.

One source is the Free Syrian Army in a town called Grantham (ph). That's about 20 (ph) kilometers, 10 or 12 miles to the east of Houla. And the other is, of course, the people in Houla themselves.

They've both said exactly the same thing, that these were pro-regime, pro-Damascus, pro-Assad militia, who came in and describe them as being shabiha, that is civilians but dressed in military uniforms. They're quite specific about that. They say in several locations in these villages, (inaudible) by the way, it's a group of villages. In several locations, there were actually welcomed in.

But then the long sectarian history in this area, the Houla villages are very Sunni. They're surrounded by Alawite and Shia areas. And in one particular case, one family, Abu Hassan's (ph) family, lost 62 -- yes, 62 members of their extended family were killed in five or six houses, which lined the reservoir next to the village, clearly people knew who they were looking for and where they were looking for them.

AMANPOUR: So, Alex, when you describe that, I mean, 62 people in one family -- and we've seen the horrific pictures of what happened and you saw it for you -- you know, you saw it first-hand, when you talk to survivors there, is there any feeling you get that the U.N., you know, attempt to try to broker some of kind of political solution, is it even possible any more?

THOMSON: Well, I think, yes, (inaudible) absolutely strictly (ph) clear, I didn't make it into the area (inaudible) where the civilians were. I stayed in the area of the town, of the villages where the Syrian army were, where there are no civilians at all, (inaudible) own question why the Syrian people fleeing from areas where their own army are in control? I think you might speculate on the answer to that for one's self.

Yes, savage in any kind of (inaudible) incredibly (inaudible). I was out with the U.N. this morning. We'd gone just a few miles in town before the first shot came in over the patrol. They tried to make contact with their base. They couldn't make contact with their base, and why, because the Syrian army, they told us, were jamming their radio frequencies.

So there (inaudible) under considerable risk, wherever they go. It's an incredibly difficult -- it's an incredibly complicated. There are all sorts of sectarian hatred and now overlaid on that, there's an organized, galvanized, gathering civil war, (inaudible) which is increasing, it seems to me, but there have been weeks (inaudible) on what happened. And now Houla can only exacerbate protests.

AMANPOUR: And we've even seen, over the last 24 hours or so, a spontaneous kind of protest in a few places, asking the U.N. monitors to leave.

THOMSON: The U.N. monitors, when they went into (inaudible) were greeted not as you'd perhaps might expect, with friendship. They were greeted by people who were nationally extremely angry, but angry also with the U.N., because the U.N. (inaudible) go into these areas, where they're perceived as something people can get hold of.

There are these images of the outside world, the images of the outside world with, let's not forget, went to the help, if you like, of the rebels in the uprising in Libya and were (inaudible) not done so in a number of other of these uprisings, such as Bahrain and most certainly such as Syria. So there's enormous frustration with the outside world in these areas.

AMANPOUR: Alex Thomson, thank you so much for joining us there in Damascus. And let me just turn one more time to Ambassador Wittig.

You just heard what Alex said. There is so much frustration. The U.N.'s credibility is really at stake here. How much longer can you proceed with this so-called Annan plan which doesn't seem to be working?

WITTIG: Look, I understand those people that ask what does the U.N. that is on the ground actually do for us? But let's not forget, those are unarmed observers and they're not yet 300. This was the most we could get in the Security Council.

So they have a function. They are eyes and ears on the ground and we could see two days ago, when we discussed this massacre, they gave us a report on what happened. They have a function. But I agree. We will have to have some strategic discussion whether this mandate is enough.

AMANPOUR: And we'll be watching. Thank you, indeed, again.

And up next, a rare opportunity to talk about all of this with a former general in the Syrian army.

But first, the Syrian government may seem increasingly isolated, but as you can see in this photo from a recent demonstration in Syria, there's one place left the Assad regime can still turn to for support. We'll be right back.


AMANPOUR: Welcome back. And now for a military look at what's happening in Syria and what could be done to stop it.

My guest tonight, a former general who served 27 years in the Syrian military. He believes that nothing will change without Western intervention, and that the Syrian military is not as strong as the West thinks it is.

General Akil Hashem, welcome to the program.



AMANPOUR: Thank you for coming in.

HASHEM: Let me start to say, I am a big admirer of your job. I appreciate you inviting me to your program. I consider this an honor and I appreciate that you will give me the chance to experience so many things to the world for the benefit of the Syrian revolution and the Syrian people.

AMANPOUR: Well, I do appreciate you coming in and saying such kind words.

But let me ask you very, very bluntly: one of the reasons the rest of the world says they can't go to help the Syrian people like they did in Libya or Kosovo or wherever is because the air defenses are very sophisticated, because the military is very sophisticated. Now I have you here, what is the state of the air defenses there?

HASHEM: To be frank with you, it's just excuses. They know more than me that this is not the truth, and this air defenses and all these arsenal of the Syrian army is not big enough or strong enough. It is good to face on civilians or light armed freedom fighters, like the FSA. But --

AMANPOUR: That's the Free Syrian Army.

HASHEM: Yes. But what it says, a superior forward (ph), that will collapse right away. I'm saying that with all sadness, because this is the army I served like for 27 years. But this is not the army of the people any more or the country. It's the army of the regime itself. It's a group of gangs, doing all the atrocities and the barbaric act in Syria.

AMANPOUR: Let me just -- before I talk about the shabiha and the gangs, let me just play what the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the head of the U.S. military said this weekend about the Syrian military.


GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY, CHAIRMAN, JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF: They have approximately five times more air -- more sophisticated air defense systems than existed in Libya covering one-fifth of the terrain. All of their air defenses are arrayed (ph) on their western border, which is their population center.

So five times the air defense of Libya, covering one-fifth of the terrain, and about 10 times more than we experienced in Serbia.


AMANPOUR: Well, that was indeed in March. However, he's describing the military that's arrayed. So is he just not aware? Or what?

HASHEM: As I said before, it's just excuses to give them a chance to delay the intervention, because this is their duty. They cannot turn their face what's happening in Syria forever and ever. But let me explain something.

When we balance the forward between two sides, this, you know, the amount of weapons, the amount of soldiers, everything is accounted. But there is most important thing, the morale (ph). And the morals (ph) in the Syrian army or the (inaudible) -- I don't call it the Syrian army -- it's very, very low.

AMANPOUR: You mean the morale?

HASHEM: Yes, the morale. Yes, and then the corruption is eating and killing and destroying every possibility of being a powerful army, because everybody is corrupted.

AMANPOUR: Well, as you know, one of the main things that people are hoping for, the outsider, they look in, try to figure out what can make a difference here, is for a lot of defections. There have not been that many defections.

HASHEM: It's very obvious why. First of all, the security measures are very, very, very strong in the military and all over Syria. So every small unit, even a company of 20 soldiers, there is an -- there is a person who is the security undercover person, OK? So while they are monitoring everybody.

AMANPOUR: So they're spied on all the time?

HASHEM: Everybody. And the loyal, before the people who are suspected by disloyalty. Now everybody -- and these people, security people, have the authority to execute right away any high-ranked officer, not because he is defecting, because they think that he is going to defect, by the intention, if they believe, this small soldier who work in the security, if he believes that this officer (inaudible) is going to defect, he can execute him right away, on the spot, without any hesitation and no question will be asked.

AMANPOUR: And you saw that in your time there?

HASHEM: I know that because I received every single day over 2,000 to 2,500 messages from all the freedom fighter (inaudible) in Syria, civilian and defectors. And (inaudible) they said we proved about that. So I'm talking from a position that I know everything happened in Syria, minute by minute.

AMANPOUR: Do you think that there will be -- do you think the Syrians can liberate themselves, these people who are conducting the uprising?

HASHEM: I can tell you -- I can answer you in a different way. These Syrians will continue fighting this regime forever and ever. The only way for this regime to put an end to this revolution is to kill all these cities and towns and department are fighting against him, which is like 15 to 18 million people. If he kills 18 million people, yes, he will put an end to this revolution.

Other than that, there is no way. But this will make this struggle so long and this will cause so many other thousands of innocent people being killed. The only way to stop this massacre, I said that 700 times from seven months, the only way is to intervene militarily in Syria.

AMANPOUR: And do you think that you know the Assads, you knew the father, you know the son. Will they agree to a political transition? Will they step down? Will he step down?

HASHEM: No way ever, everybody talk about that. I disagree with the -- with all respect to the ambassador who was with you just a few minutes ago. There is no way. I told people so many times that this person, allow me to call him the criminal Bashar al-Assad, this guy have all the power, the utmost power, the absolute power in Syria.

He control everything except one thing. He has no authority on to give up the authority or the power (ph). He cannot do that because this is -- doesn't concern him alone. It's concern a huge establishment of so many thousands of people benefiting from this regime, like commanders of army, head of the intelligence and other (inaudible) even in the economy. He cannot do that.

So there is no way for a peaceful solution in any way.

AMANPOUR: General Hashem, thank you for being here.

HASHEM: You're welcome. Thank you very much.

AMANPOUR: And we'll be right back.


AMANPOUR: And finally, how can children be targets? In Bosnia 20 years ago, Muslim boys and girls were butchered by the thousands in ethnic cleansing. And in Syria this weekend as we've seen, children were singled out for slaughter. Eyewitnesses describe executions of the innocent by government paramilitaries known as shabihas, we've just been talking about.

Instead of ending up on a slab in a morgue, imagine a world where a child's Saturday mornings are for sleeping late and being tickled and wakings to the sweet sound of a mother's voice.

Bassel Shahade, a film student here in the United States, a Syrian, returned home last year to document the uprising. Two years ago, he made a short film based on the true story of a child caught in the Lebanon war in 2006. It's called "Saturday Morning Gift."




AMANPOUR: Bassel Shahade, the young man who made that film, was killed Monday while covering the violence in Homs. He was 28 years old. And now we also remember Marie Colvin, Remi Ochlik and other fellow journalists who were killed this year, documenting the unchecked atrocities in Syria.

That's it for tonight's program. Thank you for watching.