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Syrian Conflict May Escalate and Spread; Russia Arms Assad; EU to Allow Arming of Rebels

Aired May 28, 2013 - 15:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Hello, everyone, I'm Christiane Amanpour, and welcome to the special weekend edition of our program, where we bring you two of the big stories that we covered this week.

The grinding civil war in Syria could get even more intense and deadly as foreign powers get set to increase the flow of weapons to both sides of the conflict.

This, as the United States and Russia also try to arrange a peace conference in Geneva next month between Assad and the opposition.

The European Union has just announced an end to its own ban on supplying arms to the rebels, paving the way for sophisticated heavy weaponry to reach them and bolster a range of smaller arms they already get from Qatar, Saudi Arabia and others.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague says the E.U. move will help prod the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, to the negotiating table.

But the Russian government says it will have the opposite effect. This is the same Russian government that plans to deliver sophisticated S300 anti-aircraft missiles to the Assad regime, a weapons system with the range and accuracy to shoot down targets not just over Syria, but in Israel as well.

Russia says its missiles will deter, quote, "some hothead," presumably meaning Europe and the United States from intervening in the conflict. So is it peace conference or new arms race and endless war in Syria?

I put that question to the commander of the Free Syrian Army, but first to my exclusive guest, Vitaly Churkin, Russia's ambassador to the United Nations. I spoke with him earlier.


AMANPOUR: Ambassador, welcome to the studio. Thank you for joining me.

Do you have any hope that this peace conference that the United States and Russia have called will actually materialize and that both sides will be represented?

VITALY CHURKIN, RUSSIAN AMBASSADOR TO THE UN: Yes, we do. But much needs to be done in order for that to happen and the most important, most difficult problem, in fact, is organizing the opposition because -- well, first of all, there are a number of organizations among the opposition. And all of them need somehow to be represented there.

AMANPOUR: But has President Assad assured you that he will be there?

CHURKIN: Absolutely. He is not supposed to be there is person --


AMANPOUR: His side?

CHURKIN: -- but his delegation is going to be there, the delegation of the government of Syria and some important players, like the United States, are recognizing now that we have come to a very dangerous point in the development of the conflict, risking some very bad consequences for the Syrian people and for the region.

So we do have now this Russian-American initiative and our foreign ministers met again the other day. And we think that there is a chance with our concerted effort that the conference might start and might produce eventually results to end the conflict.

AMANPOUR: Let's talk about what seems to be an escalating arms race in Syria between the Russian side and the Western side.

Reports on Friday that, despite objections from the United States and Israel, you have transferred sophisticated anti-ship cruise missiles to Damascus. "The Wall Street Journal" has said that you've sent at least a dozen warships to the ports that you control there at Tartuffe over the last several months.

And Russia is now saying that it is going to go ahead with these sophisticated advanced S300 surface-to-air missiles.

CHURKIN: Well, you know, first of all, it's not part of any kind of an arms race there. There is a --

AMANPOUR: But you are doing that?

CHURKIN: We are doing those things, at least some of them. But -- and, in fact, we -- well, first of all, we make no secret of the fact. The way you presented it, you made it sound rather threatening and sort of surprising.

But there is nothing surprising. All of those things come from the contracts which we have concluded with the Syrian government well before the start of the conflict. Our military, our navy is present in the Mediterranean from time to time. So --

AMANPOUR: But there seems to be a rapid and recent escalation --

CHURKIN: I wouldn't describe it like that. The way we made no secret, we are trying to act in a very transparent way, that we have had contracts with the Syrian government for air defense and this is something which has nothing to do with the current domestic conflict in Syria.

It is not -- when you talk about the arms race, you create an impression that like we're supplying the government and somebody else is supplying the opposition --


AMANPOUR: Well, that is exactly what's happening, as you know. I mean, you are supplying the government --

CHURKIN: No, not with our participation.

The people who are supplying weapons to the opposition, they are supplying weapons to be used in the domestic -- some call it civil war conflict. Our weapons are kind of a footage (ph) and our stability going back to the Syrian situation as a country in the Middle East. So it's a completely different proposition.

AMANPOUR: It might be, in your mind, it might be. But certainly a senior Russian official has told me on this program that, in fact, these S300 missiles at least -- the ones I asked them about -- are specifically designed to deter and send a message to the West not to get involved in this.

CHURKIN: They are specifically designed to shoot down aircraft. This is what your military systems are about.

AMANPOUR: Correct.

CHURKIN: And of course --


CHURKIN: They are specifically designed not to be a part of any kind of a domestic confrontation or domestic civil war.

But, yes, we are against foreign military intervention in Syria. So to the extent those systems, if deployed in Syria, can deter foreign military intervention, I think it will help focus minds on a political settlement. This is what we need to do if we want this conference in Geneva to be convened and to be successful eventually.

AMANPOUR: As you know, both the U.S. secretary of state and the prime minister of Israel, Mr. Netanyahu, have visited Moscow, have talked directly to President Putin and other officials about many things, including these weapons. The Israelis do not want these weapons going to the Damascus regime. They believe they could end up in the hands of Hezbollah.

This is what the Israeli defense minister said about this.


MOSHE YAALON, ISRAELI DEFENSE MINISTER (through translator): The shipments are not on their way yet. This I can say. I hope they will not leave and if, God forbid, they reach Syria, we will know what to do.


CHURKIN: Well, in the case of a government, you can have proper end use arrangements. And we do have those arrangements with the Syrian government. There were situations in the past when the Israelis expressed their concerns about the ultimate address of weapons --


CHURKIN: -- and who are double checking with the Syrians and in the occasions when the Israelis were specific enough in telling us what their concern was, we were able to ascertain that that was not the case. (Inaudible) not redirected to anybody else, that they continue to be in the hands of the Syrian government.

AMANPOUR: Aren't you not concerned, though, that Israel has already taken action by some advanced weapons they think were headed toward Hezbollah and has bombed that convoy? And the --


CHURKIN: -- everybody must act very prudently. I think the Israeli --

AMANPOUR: You don't see a wider war happening?

CHURKIN: -- I see -- well, there is a -- there are great risks involved. So I think the Israelis, too, will keep their heads cool and will refrain from reckless actions, because --

AMANPOUR: But don't you think this is reckless, Mr. Ambassador?

CHURKIN: No, I don't. This is a transparent arms sale which has nothing to do with the current conflict, which everybody is concerned about in Syria. So one has -- well, sometimes we do things which some countries do not like. Sometimes they do things which we do not like; it happens. But everybody must react in moderation.

AMANPOUR: Yes, Ambassador, nobody, but nobody believes this has nothing to do with this current conflict, and everybody believes that this is designed to --


CHURKIN: -- if it was a contract which was concluded, as everybody knows, in 2007, I mean, (inaudible).

AMANPOUR: They haven't yet left Russia, apparently. Will the (inaudible)?

CHURKIN: I understand they are supposed to go. But I'm not running those things. So I cannot tell you when and how those things are going to happen.

AMANPOUR: Tell me why --

CHURKIN: It is our intention to carry out the contracts we have with the Syrian government.

AMANPOUR: Tell me why we find ourselves here, Russia, aligning itself with Iran, paramilitaries who are in Damascus right now, revolutionary guards, et cetera, with Hezbollah, who most of the world thinks are extremists and with Bashar al-Assad. I mean, you have now aligned yourself with Iran, with Hezbollah and with Bashar al-Assad. Is that where Russia wants to be?

CHURKIN: No. We want to be --

AMANPOUR: That is what's happened.

CHURKIN: -- if you choose to put it this way, (inaudible).

AMANPOUR: But it is factual.

CHURKIN: Well, this is your factual description of a very complex situation. I would suggest that it's a very simplified description. We are, from the outset, we are telling people that the conflict should not happen in the first place, that Bashar al-Assad doesn't have no intention to step down within four months, as some people were predicting, and that we must help the Syrians reach dialogue.

And we are instrumental in having this Geneva document worked out. We're telling people let's do what is said we need to do with the Geneva document, put the parties to the negotiating table. So we are with the Syrian people, with the regional stability and with the need to avoid further escalation of the conflict. This is where we stand.

AMANPOUR: And again, many people are really scratching their heads, trying to figure out what is it that's motivating Russia.

Is it because you don't want to see a precedent set? Is it because you're angry about what happened over Libya? It is because, because, because?

We're not entirely sure. But there are more and more people who think that Russia, particularly President Putin, simply wants to stick it to the West and stick it to the United States of America. And to that end, many things have happened over the last several weeks.

Much has been made of the way Russia kept Secretary Kerry, for instance, President Putin kept him waiting some three hours before meeting him when he went to see him in Moscow. The day Secretary Kerry arrived, a former U.S. official, now in the private sector, was held for some 17 hours at Moscow's airport, interrogated and deported after being deprived of --


AMANPOUR: -- the parading of (inaudible).

CHURKIN: Listen, I don't know -- I haven't even heard about (inaudible) --

AMANPOUR: -- almost like a slap in the face.

CHURKIN: No, no, again, you are putting too many things in one bucket.

AMANPOUR: No, I'm not.

CHURKIN: -- completely different (inaudible). I don't know what kind of official you're talking about. Secretary Kerry received a three-hour audience with President Putin.

AMANPOUR: Having been made to wait three hours.

CHURKIN: Well, you know, things happen. Things happen in every country. Sometimes you have to wait; sometimes they call you in sooner than you expect. You know, this is hectic diplomatic life. But whoever gets a three-hour audience with President Putin should not complain about anything.

And if you recall Secretary Kerry's press conference after that, where together with Sergey Lavrov they announced this initiative for a conference, he went out of his way, thanking President Putin for the kind of open and lengthy and substantive discussion he had with our president. So let's focus on that. Let's focus on the substance of our relations.

AMANPOUR: The last time I interviewed you, when you were kind enough to come into the studio, was about a year ago. And at that time, the U.N. had said 10,000 Syrians had been killed in this conflict. Today, as you well know -- you're the U.N. ambassador -- the United Nations says 80,000 have been killed, and it's probably more, because they've been saying that for the last several weeks.

I really want to know, does Russia care about the number of people who have been killed? It doesn't seem like it.

CHURKIN: Of course we do. We care about them. We cared about 100,000 Iraqis who were killed --

AMANPOUR: I'm talking about Syria now.

CHURKIN: I meant, let's -- you allowed yourself to like take some side steps in this conversation. So let me make some side steps as well.

Of course, we do care. That's why we said from the outset that there should be no military solutions, that they should be brought to the negotiating table instead of some others, who are saying topple President Assad.

But he was not about to step down. And a large segment of the population, even now, even now some revival of Western sources, analysts, believe that if their elections were conducted now in Syria, he would have a very good chance of winning those elections, even now.

AMANPOUR: Do you believe that?

CHURKIN: Well, this is what they say for a variety of reasons because you cited Libya, you cited other things. The situation in every country is different. So when we are told we're -- we felt that some of our colleagues, Western colleagues believed that it was going to be as easy in Syria as it was in Libya, we knew right away that they were wrong.

And we are trying to do our best because we knew what the consequences of their policy was going to be. So now hopefully we have this moment, which incidentally Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. special representative, was urging for in the U.S. and Russia working together. Now we have this moment.

So let's not -- let's not allow others, like this unfortunate decision of the European Union, to step in at this crucial moment and try to derail this process. So I hope that the United States and Russia will be focused, will not get distracted by newspaper accounts of somebody waiting for 15 hours in the Moscow airport.

Let's focus on the problem at hand. And this is a very important task and challenge of trying to put an end to the Syrian crisis.

AMANPOUR: Ambassador Churkin, thank you very much for joining me.

CHURKIN: Thank you very much. Thank you.


AMANPOUR: And when we come back, beating swords into plowshares sounds noble enough. But will it really happen? I'll ask the head of the Syrian Free Army (sic) if he's ready to sit down at the peace table with members of the Assad regime.

But before we take a break, take a look at these pictures. Those men are smuggling diesel fuel from Syria into Turkey across the Al-Assi River. They can sell the fuel there for a hefty profit. But that leaves people back in Syria not just under fire but also forced to pay higher prices for their own fuel and other basic goods. We'll be right back.




AMANPOUR: Welcome back to the program. U.S. Senator John McCain has become the highest ranking American government official to enter rebel-held territory in Syria and meet with the Free Syrian forces that he has long supported.

A frequent guest on this program, McCain calls for arming the opposition to President Assad and imposing a no-fly zone to protect them and civilians.

With the prospect of a U.S.-Russia peace summit in June, fighting on the ground has intensified, especially in Qusayr, in the strategically important Homs District on the Syria-Lebanon border. It's held now by the opposition, but thousands of Hezbollah fighters have come over to fight for Assad.

General Salim Idriss is the leader of the Free Syrian Army and he took Senator McCain into Syria. He joined me from there just a short time ago.


AMANPOUR: General Idriss, welcome to the program. Thank you for joining me.


AMANPOUR: General, what did you get from the visit of John McCain?

How important was that for the Free Syrian forces?

IDRISS: The visit of Senator John McCain to Syria and his meeting with the commander of the Free Syrian Army was very important. And it is very, very useful visit. He met the commander. He spoke to them. He asked them about many, many things, about their needs, about the extremist group and about their vigilance to Syria and a future after falling the regime.

AMANPOUR: Did you ask for weapons? Did you ask for a no-fly zone?

What did you ask for specifically from the United States and the West?

IDRISS: Yes, we first thanked the United States and the Western countries for all kind of support. And we asked for military support, for weapons and ammunition and especially for quality weapons, the like anti- tank missiles and anti-aircraft missiles.

And we asked for a no-fly zone and we asked for political support to stop the Russians, to continue supporting the regime, to stop the Iranians, to send fighters, to stop Hezbollah who was inviting Syria now and to stop the Iraqi fighters who is coming and supporting the regime.

AMANPOUR: General Idriss, the Russians have, as you know, along with the United States, convened a summit for next month, they say, in Geneva. Will the Free Syrian forces go, militarily, politically? Will the opposition be represented?

IDRISS: I said to our American friends and to our European friends, we like that, the Syrian opposition, go to the conference in Geneva as one theme, with one head. And they have to ask for three main points, Bashar, the murderer Bashar, the killer of the Syrian people Bashar, must leave the power.

And the commander of the security forces and the high rank commander of the army must be brought to justice. And after that, there -- they can build a transitional government and the war and the fights can stop immediately.

AMANPOUR: General Idriss, is that your condition for going to the talks?

IDRISS: We go. We -- I like that the representative of the Syrian opposition, they have to go to Geneva. And on the table there they must ask for these conditions. At the end of the day, we must -- we must have a clear sight that Bashar will leave the power, that the commander of the security forces and of the army must be brought to justice.

And when anything else discussed, there will be no result. And it will be very dangerous for the team who goes to Geneva when they go and discuss -- and discuss and win time. We know exactly what the Russians want to arrive. They like to win time for the regime. They are lying. The Russians are lying. The regime is lying. The Iranians are lying. They just want to win time.

AMANPOUR: General Idriss, the Russian ambassador to the United Nations told me just now that they want to see a negotiated end to this war.

But let me ask you about Hezbollah. Hezbollah and Hassan Nasrallah have said now publicly that they are in this war. Let me play you a little bit of a speech that Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah, just delivered.


HASSAN NASRALLAH, SECRETARY GENERAL, HEZBOLLAH (through translator): Syria is the backbone of the resistance in the region and its main support and the resistance will never stand by while its backbone is exposed.

Regarding this battle in Qusayr, like all battles before it, our men are there and we will make victory there.


AMANPOUR: General Idriss, that's Hassan Nasrallah, saying they are going to win on the ground, especially in Qusayr. What do you say to that?

IDRISS: We are fighting very hard in al-Qusayr now. And I like to tell you that the fighters of Hezbollah are very well armed and very well organized. And they are supported from the air force of the regime. The regime is using vacuum (ph) bombs, is using Scud missiles, is using long- distance artillery, is using heavy weapons against the people inside of Qusayr.

And we in the Free Syrian Army, we just have light weapons. We don't have anti-tank missiles. We don't have anti-tank weapons. There will be a great massacre in al-Qusayr. Al-Qusayr is a town where more than 50,000 people live there. They are surrounded. And we are afraid that Hezbollah will make a big massacre there.

I have pleaded to the international community, to the friends in the USA, in the free world. They have to act right now. We don't have the needed weapons to face Hezbollah fighter. But in spite of that, we are doing whatever we can to stop them. We will fight till the end. We will fight till the end. And I promise Hassan Nasrallah, he will not have a victory in Syria.

Repeatedly, I appeal to the international community, to the president in the USA, to the European Parliament, to the leader in Europe, please, we need your help. Don't wait more time. Maybe when you come late, we will be in a situation that we can't use your help.

AMANPOUR: General Idriss, thank you for joining me from inside Syria.

IDRISS: Thank you. Thank you. Bye-bye.


AMANPOUR: A desperate sounding plea indeed. And after a break, we'll let the pictures tell the story of a nation in freefall from the glory that once was Syria to the wreckage that it is today, when we come back.




AMANPOUR: And finally tonight, for two years now we keep trying to find the right words to describe the nonstop destruction in Syria. But imagine a world where few pictures tell the story of what's been lost.


AMANPOUR (voice-over): This grand mosque in the outskirts of Damascus was first built in the 12th century. It was later destroyed and then rebuilt in 198. Here it is today, a shell of itself, charred by two years of civil war.

And here was the main street in the town of Homs, once alive with cars and pedestrians. Today, that same street lies empty and deserted, a no- man's land caught in the crossfire.

And then there's Aleppo's ancient medieval market, a World Heritage site, it was considered the soul of the city. Last year, amid the fighting, a fire destroyed the legendary souk. And like the soul of Syria itself, it now lies in ruins as well.


AMANPOUR: That's it for tonight's program. Meantime, you can always contact us on our website, You can always follow me on Facebook and Twitter. Thanks for watching and goodbye from New York.