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The Horror in Homs; Running against Assad; Keeping the Peace; Imagine a World

Aired May 14, 2014 - 14:00   ET


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

World leaders are preparing to meet in London to try yet again to resolve Syria's civil war now into its fourth year. But prospects for peace look bleaker not better. And even the long-suffering U.N. mediator, Lakhdar Brahimi, has given up.


LAKHDAR BRAHIMI, U.N. SPECIAL ENVOY TO SYRIA (through translator): It's very sad that I leave this position and leave Syria behind in such a bad state.


AMANPOUR: A bad state indeed, over 150,000 people are dead and much of the country has been reduced to rubble. A major report out today from Physicians for Human Rights says that Syrian forces are systematically attacking medical facilities around the country.

France today accused the Syrian government of using chemical weapons with chlorine gas in 14 recent attacks.

The U.N. says that nearly a quarter a million people in Syria are now cut off from food, water and medical supplies. And after a brutal siege, residents of Homs are returning to utter devastation.

This town was ground zero in the revolution. But the government won back the city last week when it offered to bus rebels out with the U.N. looking on. It's a major victory for Bashar al-Assad, ahead of elections which are widely criticized as being a sham, but which are set for next month.

And in a moment, I'll ask one of only two opposition candidates why he thinks he can take on Assad. The United States and the United Nations have called on Damascus to postpone the elections and discuss a transitional government instead.

Joining me now from headquarters in Geneva is Yacoub el Hillo. He's the senior United Nations humanitarian official responsible for Syria.

Mr. el Hillo, welcome to the program. And thanks for joining me.


AMANPOUR: Let me first ask you how people responded to seeing you last week when you went basically to relieve the siege of Homs.

EL HILLO: It was mixed feelings. The majority of the people were happy to be able to finally walk back into what is left of the Old City. They were happy because for the whole of that week, the guns have gone silent; there was no shelling. There was no gun fighting . They were happy because 2.5 years went by and when they fled from their homes, they were never able to come back.

In the meantime, there was a very vicious war going on in the Old City and the results of that war we see today in the total devastation and destruction that has afflicted this icon of a place. Human lives have been destroyed but also World Heritage sites have been damaged.

AMANPOUR: Now there are these famous pictures that we all watched as it was happened last week, these buses, green buses that had the rebels and maybe some family members on and they were taken out.

Where were they taken? Are you sure they reached safety?

EL HILLO: They chose and that was part of the agreement that the opposition representatives and the government had. They chose to leave the Old City of Homs and relocate to a location about 5 kilometers north of Homs City, a place called Riad Dar El Kebira. This area is controlled also by the opposition groups and those groups were ready to receive their fellow fighters, if I can say that.

And they were welcomed. The United Nations was present at the talks but also monitored the movement on the way until these buses entered the area controlled by the opposition.

AMANPOUR: Well, now you've seen that the U.N. and Arab League mediator Lakhdar Brahimi has quit. You have heard the secretary-general Ban Ki-moon say that this situation, this state of affairs, is a failure for all of us. You see that it is impossible to actually get the two sides around a table to make any kind of peace or transitional government.

So I guess my question is do you see the Homs solution being replicated around the country? Is that what you're now sort of left with?

EL HILLO: I think it's always the case when Syrians are able to sit together and agree to discuss the problem -- and it's a big one -- there's always a possibility of reaching a solution.

I think Homs is an experiment that needs to be studied carefully because it does have the potential of actually being replicated elsewhere, where, at the end of the day, there is no victor. There is no winner. The cost of this conflict is too high for anyone to claim victory, frankly speaking.

But if we can stop the senseless killing that has gone for the last three and a bit years, if we can allow civilians to have a little bit of a sense of normality in their lives and if we can also help children grow up in an environment not one where the cultural violence is the order of the day, but a child enjoying childhood in a beautiful country like Syria.

I think there is a lot that can be drawn from the Homs experiment and I do hope that the Syrians, because after all, this is a Syrian-Syrian affair, they will choose to see this can be applied elsewhere.

AMANPOUR: So does that then mean that the U.N. mandate, which is Mr. Assad and the opposition, please get around the table and discuss a transitional government, is that out the window? I mean, basically the United States and the U.N. have said these elections that President Assad has called are against the Geneva spirit and principle.

Is it finished now, this whole idea of Geneva?

EL HILLO: This is such an intense conflict and a vicious one that has lasted for far too long . I don't think anything should be out the window. The United Nations always and that is at the level of the secretary-general and at the level of Mr. Brahimi have always maintained there is no solution to this conflict except through a political dialogue.

And I think that can never be thrown out the window.

Irrespective of what form or shape that process will take, I think there is no substitute to that because to resolve only to the military option, to resolve this situation will really be to condemn Syria to total destruction. And I don't think anyone in the international community has that interest.

AMANPOUR: Syria has, according to Physicians for Human Rights, according to the U.N., Syria is one of the worst offenders when it comes to targeting medical professionals and medical centers as a weapon of war.

And of course we've also been talking about these brutal sieges that have been laid, a lot of them by the government around towns such as Homs.

I would like to play you a little bit of an interview that the Syrian foreign minister gave to our Fred Pleitgen regarding the nature of these sieges.


FAISAL AL MEKDAD, SYRIAN DEPUTY FOREIGN MINISTER: We are not starving anybody. We are trying to reach all those civilians under their control. And on different occasions, many convoys carrying humanitarian aid have gone but were returned back by the terrorist groups.

If they are speaking about starving of terrorism and terrorists, yes, we have to do our best. And I think this is our right to do it.


AMANPOUR: So the government yet again denies that it has laid siege to any of these towns.

So my question to you as a U.N. officials, was Homs under siege?

Does not that look like a classic state of siege?

And what about their claim that they've allowed a lot of aid in?

EL HILLO: Homs was under siege. We went into Homs in February; it was a difficult mission. It was a dangerous mission. But we did it. And in we took humanitarian supplies and out we facilitated the departure of no less than 1,400 civilians.

So there were civilians in Homs and a smaller number also came out in the operation last week; even if the predominant majority of those who boarded those buses and moved out were fighter, there were civilians with them. Yes, their number was much smaller, much smaller than that which we helped get out of Homs in February.

Homs was under siege. Homs today is not because the issue has been resolved and that is the conflict between the government and the opposition inside.

Are there other places in Syria that are also besieged? Yes and this is true to both sides of this conflict. We see that in the north, where opposition forces have laid siege over communities for reasons that actually don't make sense, as it doesn't make sense when government forces lay siege over cities or towns around Damascus or elsewhere in the country, where civilians continue to live.

Besiegement and denial of assistance and entry of humanitarian workers, delivery of food and medicine and vaccines for children, this is not acceptable. Irrespective of the position of any in this conflict. Therefore, our mission has always been -- and our push has always been all civilians, irrespective of where they are, should be reached, accessed, delivered and their safety, security and physical integrity should be preserved and so should that of humanitarian workers.

AMANPOUR: Yacoub el Hillo, thank you so much indeed for joining me from Geneva, the U.N.'s top humanitarian official responsible for Syria.

Now as we said, President Assad is not just defying the U.N.'s mandate to make up a transitional government, he's holding an election. And that one that he's sure to win is going to happen less than three weeks from now.

The fact that there's a war raging and voting will not be held in rebel-held territory doesn't seem to faze the president or the only two approved candidates who are running against him.

But this does mark a first of sorts, since elections in Syria usually take the form of a simple referendum acclaiming the Assads. So what does candidate and business man Hassan Al-Nouri hope to achieve? He joins me from Damascus.


AMANPOUR: Hassan Al-Nouri, welcome to the program. Thanks for joining me.

HASSAN AL-NOURI, SYRIAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Thank you very much to you for also sharing this moment and opportunity with you.

AMANPOUR: So let me ask you about this moment. The United Nations and of course the White House have called on Damascus to postpone these elections, saying that actually what they really want to see is a transitional agreement and to have those negotiations.

What do you say to that?

Do you really think this election should go ahead?

AL-NOURI: Well, let me tell you. This is Syria. And in Syria, we have the constitution that force to run a new presidential election 60 days before the end of the current president's time.

And I do believe that this is our right; this is our freedom. We own our decision. This is a national decision. And we ran for the election and it was a good opportunity for me to run for the election in order to introduce also my view, my vision and my strategy how to run the country and how to lead the country later on.

AMANPOUR: Since so much of the country is unable to vote and prevented from voting because of the war, nobody in rebel-held territory can vote; certain people outside cannot vote.

I mean, you know, is this even minimally representative? It's not fair; it's not free because of the war and everything else.

What's the point?

AL-NOURI: First of all, concerning that there is a crisis, yes, concerning that there is a kind of insecure areas, I do agree with you 100 percent.

I do believe that the external factor is creating a pressure on us to go for the first time democratic, transparent and clean election.

And I really do not understand until now why we do not find or seek or receive help from the international community.

AMANPOUR: The international community says Assad must go.

Do you think you have a chance of winning?

And do you think he will go?

AL-NOURI: I hope Assad will go and I will take his position. This is why I'm running for this -- for this election.

Believe me; I was raised in the United States. And I grew up studying and I received my post-graduate education and the people call me I'm a Wisconsin bachelor.

Anyway, and I think my chances are not bad.

I'm not saying that my chances are better than President Assad. But I can see that I am doing fine until now in this campaign.

AMANPOUR: Look, you say you were educated and you spent a long time in the United States. So you know that democracy means everybody gets a chance to vote, all those of voting age.

That is not the case in your country because of the war; half the country is not going to be able to cast a vote. So is that satisfactory to you?

AL-NOURI: I wish the situation was better and of course it's not good enough for me. But I think it is enough to see the percentage of people -- you know, the number of people who are able to vote in Syria, probably between 14 million and 15 million.

Let's see what is the percentage that will go to vote.

In our constitution, this percentage should be 50 percent plus one. If not, then the election probably will not be approved.

AMANPOUR: You're running against President Assad, but you do seem to say a lot of good things about him when you've been asked.

Is there any criticism you have about him, for instance, the way this war has been conducted?

We've just heard these reports from the United Nations and from physicians' groups that the government of President Assad has been responsible for 90 percent of the destruction of medical facilities for the last several years during this war around Syria, and the death of about 460 medical professionals.

Do you criticize the president for that?

AL-NOURI: I am criticizing the president in many different areas. I was a member of his government one day. And you know, I spent only two years as a minister of administrative development. You know why they kick me out?

They kick me out because they couldn't handle what I was saying and how I was criticizing his government. But I cannot --


AL-NOURI: -- stand against Assad on the way of fighting terrorism in Syria.

AMANPOUR: OK. Mr. Hassan Al-Nouri, thank you for joining me from Damascus.

AL-NOURI: Thank you very, very much for having me on your program. Thank you.


AMANPOUR: So with conflicts like Syria raging, would a U.N. peacekeeping force eventually bring a measure of calm? We asked the first woman ever to be appointed commander of a U.N. peacekeeping mission. That's after a break.




AMANPOUR: Welcome back to the program.

My next guest is making history as the first-ever female commander of a United Nations peacekeeping mission.

On Monday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appointed Maj. Gen. Kristin Lund, a former deputy commander of the Norwegian Armed Forces, to head the mission in Cyprus, which is divided between Greece and Turkey right now.

And right now, women make up just 13 percent of the U.N.'s 125,000 peacekeepers. Maj. Gen. Lund takes up her new role in August and she joins me now from New York for her first interview outside her home country of Norway.

Firstly, congratulations. Thank you for joining me.

And I want to know what you think this historic appointment will do to make a difference.

MAJ. GEN. KRISTIN LUND, U.N. PEACEKEEPING COMMANDER: First of all, thank you very much. I think it's good to be the first so other women can see that it's possible to reach this level at the U.N.

AMANPOUR: And do you think that you might have, as a woman commander, different abilities to sort of bring the peace, to see what's going on on the ground?

What precise difference do you think it makes?

Or doesn't it?

LUND: I think it makes a difference because my experience, for example, from Afghanistan, was that I could reach out in uniform. I could reach out to 100 percent of the population. And I think peacekeeping today, you really need to have an holistic approach. And I think that's where I can make a difference.

AMANPOUR: And just to talk about the mission you're going to be taking up in August, it's a very tense situation; it's been like that for decades in Cyprus.

What do you think you're going to find there?

LUND: Well, when I got my assignment, I know there will be a new mandate or a new mandate this summer. And as a good military leader, you have to go into the mandate and see how you will make analysis of -- see how I can support and bring things forward.

AMANPOUR: I want to ask you about something that has cropped up over the years within U.N. peacekeeping missions. There are, as you know, a number of situations in which the very peacekeepers who were meant to protecting the civilians that they'd been sent into help are responsible for sexual abuse, not to mention corruption and other such things.

And there's quite a controversy over the fact that they are immune from prosecution in those countries, and there is a move underway to try to change that.

What is your view on that?

And do you think peacekeepers who violate the law and violate the basic tenets of looking after those civilians should be immune from prosecution or should they be held accountable?

LUND: I think when you do a peacekeeping operation it's important because you are so visual. So for me, I can just talk for myself and when I have been in operations before, it's important to follow the rules and regulations and of course if you do something wrong, you have to take the consequences.

AMANPOUR: So if it happened under your command, you would insist that they be prosecuted?

LUND: I have to follow the rules and regulations by U.N. and I will do that. And as I -- you know, I just got the post yesterday. So there's a lot of time that I need to go into all the regulations, what is -- what is the thing to do there. I mean, so far, they are not prosecuted. So I have to follow what U.N. tells me to do.

AMANPOUR: And what about how that might affect your mission? Do you think that civilians or the people who you're meant to be protecting, as a peacekeeper and as a commander, do you think that their trust would be increased if they -- if they had these kind of protections?

LUND: I think most of all what will be one of my tasks is to build confidence. And I think the most important thing we can do to build relations and I hope that by doing that these things also will be things that will be discussed between the different contingent commanders that I will have under my command. And we -- and I will try to motivate them to follow up what is appropriate.

AMANPOUR: On that note, Maj. Gen. Lund, thank you very much indeed for joining me.

LUND: Thank you.


AMANPOUR: And while the United Nations is often called upon to mitigate the tragedy of war, there are some disasters that you can only watch and wait for the outcome.

Frantic rescue efforts continue right now to save more than 100 Turkish miners who are still trapped underground a day after an explosion at their plant in the southwestern part of the country. More than 200 of them have already been killed.

As anxious families await news of their relatives down that mine, we remember the terrible anxiety the whole world felt more than a decade ago; the 9/11 Museum finally opens in New York -- when we come back.




AMANPOUR: And finally tonight, it's become the most controversial piece of real estate in America perhaps, the site of the September 11th attacks. But 12.5 years after that frightful day, imagine a world where memories and artifacts finally have a home. Tomorrow President Obama will open the official 9/11 Museum in New York, above ground, victims' names have already been engraved on a memorial that marks the footprints of the two World Trade Center buildings. But descend into the bowels of the Earth, where so many met their fate, entombed by tons of cascading glass, concrete and steel, and you'll now find that day frozen in time.

A watch that was worn on September 11th by Todd Beamer, who you remember helped bring down United Flight 93 in Pennsylvania; a mangled fire engine, testament to the unimaginable forces that brought down those towers.

A few days after 9/11, President George W. Bush walked through the rubble and vowed that he would avenge all those deaths.


GEORGE W. BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you. And the people --


BUSH: -- and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.



AMANPOUR: Indeed they did. A month later, the United States and its allies went on to defeat Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. But in a tragic post- 9/11 legacy, there was a misguided foray into Iraq and now the hands-off approach to Syria, which have combined to give Al Qaeda new life just as the world mourns at this museum.

That's it for our program tonight. Remember you can always contact us at our website,, and follow me on Twitter and Facebook. Thanks for watching and goodbye from London.