Return to Transcripts main page

CNN Newsroom

Senate's Syria Hearing; Interview With Syrian Ambassador

Aired September 03, 2013 - 14:00   ET


BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, they are feeling better today than yesterday, and they were feeling better yesterday than they were the day before. The White House officials I've spoken with are optimistic, not that they have the votes at this point, but that momentum is on their side. They think it's so key that they got this full-throated response and support from Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner today. Not just them, but as well the number two Republican in the House, Eric Cantor.

And when they add that up with the tentative support that they got from those key Republican senators yesterday, Lindsay Graham and John McCain, they feel like this extraordinary level of outreach that they've seen from President Obama and the White House and his administration, that it is working.

But as we said, it's still unclear whether the votes are where they need to be at this point. There's still a lot of winning over to do and the White House says that they realize that. Officials say that the president is prepared to be engaged in this as he heads overseas. He heads to Sweden this evening and he goes on to Russia for the G-20 through the end of the week.

And then there's still the question of, if he does not get the vote that he wants from Congress, what does he do? Well, officials here say that he has the authority to act alone but, Wolf, they're still not saying that he'll go ahead and do that.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: And he certainly hopes that will not be the case, that he will have the votes in the Senate and the House.

All right, Brianna, stand by. Dana, stand by as well.

We're less than a half an hour away from the start of the hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The secretaries of state and defense getting ready to testify, as is the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey.

I want to send it over now to our chief international correspondent, Christiane Amanpour. She's in London. She's joining us now.

Christiane, you have an exclusive interview with the Syrian ambassador to the United Nations.


And yes, indeed, Wolf, Syria's ambassador to the U.N. It does fall to Bashar Ja'afari to speak for the government of Bashar Assad on the world stage. And from the earliest days of his government's brutal crackdown, Mr. Ja'afari has defended that government's actions.

Now the usually (INAUDIBLE) Syrian government is now trying to flood the zone, as we're all saying, with its case, just as the Obama administration is doing with its case ahead of the congressional debate next week. On Monday, Bashar Ja'afari made this plea to the United Nations. He said, "the Syrian government calls on the secretary-general to shoulder his responsibilities from preventing any aggression on Syria." Bashar Ja'afari joins me now live from the United Nations in New York.

So, Mr. Ambassador, welcome.


AMANPOUR: Mr. Ambassador, you just heard what Wolf has been talking to with the congressional and White House correspondents. That is a formidable array of diplomatic and political power and military power that's arrayed now against Syria. You see who's going to be testifying today later right after our interview, military, the secretary of state, the secretary of defense. Is your government fully aware of how vulnerable it is to the might of the United States and its allies? Are you prepared and are you aware that many of your significant military facilities are possibly going to be destroyed?

JA'AFARI: Well, first of all, give -- please give me some minutes to clarify some very important points. Number one, I'm a diplomat and my main job and mission is to extinguish fires, not to trigger wars and animosity among nations, supposedly sovereign, and members of this big home called the United Nations. Number two, the issue is not related to a war against Syria. It's about an aggression, according to the charter item four of article two of the charter, member states should refrain from any unilateral action or any aggression against any other member states. So the issue for us is not about a military strike coming from here or there, it's about an aggression that will strike the whole Syrian people. And I hope that these wars would be extremely important for the congressional leaders and the Congress members who are discussing in their hearings the -- whether the -- they will allow the White House to strike or not.

We are all in Syria now a victim --

AMANPOUR: Mr. Ja'afari.

JA'AFARI: We are all victims of any escalation of the situation. You cannot save childrens by killing childrens and civilians.

AMANPOUR: Mr. Ja'afari, so what will the -- how will it affect the morale of your government if and when the U.S. takes this action and a lot of your military facilities will be destroyed? They're not saying they're going in as an invading force, but you've seen these actions in the past, you've seen it in other places, cruise missiles, other strikes, they can be devastating. Are you afraid of defections of the government and its allies sort of collapsing? JA'AFARI: We are not war mongers. We are not war advocates. We are a peaceful nation, a small nation, and we don't pretend to be equally strong enough to confront the United States military. This is not the case. We are a victim of any aggression that might happen at any time. We are mainly a keen interest in safeguarding our -- the interests of our people and preventing any aggression.

We have been calling on the American administration for years, since the beginning of the crisis, to get involved, positively speaking, in resolving this crisis, which is dramatic and regretful -- regrettable. But, unfortunately --

AMANPOUR: Mr. Ja'afari.

JA'AFARI: The American administration closed its embassy in Damascus, shut down all channels, diplomatic channels, and worked out a secret strategy to help the insurgents and the (INAUDIBLE) against the government.

AMANPOUR: Mr. Ja'afari, you are portraying your government as the victim. Presumably that's your job at this point. But, obviously, what's happening is, because of the aggression by your government against Syrians, including, right now, the use of chemical weapons. There is a forensic Syrian chemical weapons expert who has defected, according to the opposition, and is now in Turkey and will, he says, make public what he knows about the regime's involvement in the use of chemical weapons. That is going to seal this situation, isn't it?

JA'AFARI: Christiane, these allegations are false and unfounded. You can repeat the same mistakes that the previous American administrations did at many times during Vietnam War or during the Cuban crisis or the Iraqi War with Colin Powell and the Security Council presenting high confidence, evidence, as he said at that time. By the way, he used the same description used by Mr. Kerry three days ago, when Mr. Kerry said, also, high -- he had high evidences -- high confidence evidences. So any opponent in (ph) any opposition could come -- could come out to the media or to any other intelligence sponsoring him and say that his government did this and that. You may remember what Mr. Anchelibi (ph), the Iraqi guard, did before the invasion of Iraq when he pushed the American intelligence towards the hypothesis of Iraq having chemical weapons also and weapons of mass destruction.

AMANPOUR: Mr. Ja'afari. Mr. Ja'afari.

JA'AFARI: Then everybody apologized later on, including Mr. Colin Powell, for this allegation. I'm really afraid that we are repeating the same tragic and regrettable scenario in the case of Syria todays. The Syrian government -- when --

AMANPOUR: Now the problem -- the problem with what you're saying though -- the problem with what you're saying is that you are confusing Iraq and Syria. Syria does have chemical weapons and many, many doctors and independent investigators, as well as national intelligence, have concluded that those weapons have been used and have been used by the Syrian government. And this is not the first time on August 21st. There's been many occasions and there have been many tests of victims of biomedical tests, you know, hair and blood and urine samples, which have proven it. Are you saying that there are no chemical weapons in Syria, or are you just saying that you didn't do it?

JA'AFARI: Thank you very much for asking this very important question. Number one, the Syrian government did not say that the sarin gas was not used in (INAUDIBLE). Actually, we were the first to say that in March the 20th, which means one day after the attack by chemical substances on (INAUDIBLE). And we insisted in our request to the (INAUDIBLE) on two things, A, to prove that the chemical weapons were used, B, who did it? The American delegation, the French and the British at that time, objected to B. They just wanted to focus on whether the chemical weapons were used or not. So we were highly interested from the beginning in shedding light on the use of chemical weapons by the armed (ph) groups in (INAUDIBLE). This is number one.

Number two, we are not saying that chemical weapons were used -- I mean chemical weapons in its conventional definition as one type of the weapons of mass destruction. What Mr. Kerry said two days ago about the signatures of sarin found in the results he referred to is not a big discovery because the Syrian government said it five months ago. We said from the beginning that the sarin gas neurotoxic gas were used in (INAUDIBLE) and nobody cared about it at the time because all of them knew who did it. And the British intelligence, as you may remember, sneaked illegally inside Syria, took samples from (INAUDIBLE), analyzed the samples and came out with the result, which is that the armed (ph) groups used the chemical weapons in (INAUDIBLE).

AMANPOUR: Mr. Ja'afari.

JA'AFARI: So then the Russians --

AMANPOUR: Mr. Ja'afari --

JA'AFARI: The Russians then said (INAUDIBLE).

AMANPOUR: Mr. Ja'afari, the British, the French, the United States -- sir, the British, the French, the United States all say that chemical weapons have been used, as you say, but that they have been used by your government because the opposition does simply not have access to the delivery systems, to the wherewithal, to the stockpiles. And it kind of begs (ph) belief, sir, and this is unfortunately a historical precedent, to think that people are gassing themselves. So this is a major problem with your argument.

And it does sound, right now, that the Syrian government is pretty afraid. All of a sudden, all of you are out giving interviews. The President Assad to Le Figaro. You are talking to me. Others are talking to, you know, to other journalists. I'm trying to figure out, you believe, don't you, that there is going to be a major U.S. strike on your military facilities?

JA'AFARI: Christiane, the reports emanating from USA, France and Britain are not and could not be taken seriously and they are not credible because these three governments are deeply involved in the Syrian crisis in helping the under (ph) groups against the government.

AMANPOUR: Sir -- sir -- sir --

JA'AFARI: So the Russians (INAUDIBLE) submitted a report --

AMANPOUR: Nobody can take seriously --

JA'AFARI: Give me some --

AMANPOUR: Sir, nobody takes seriously the idea --

JA'AFARI: Give me some time, please, to clarify my point. The Russians submitted that report of 80 pages to the Security Council.

AMANPOUR: You've made your point on that. You've made your point.

JA'AFARI: The judge (INAUDIBLE) from Geneva testified that according to her information the armed (ph) groups used the chemical weapons in (INAUDIBLE). So, please, we have other resources of information who say exactly the opposite of what the America and the British and the French are saying. And then why anticipating on the results of the team of investigators who are currently working very seriously on obtaining results of their mission in Syria? Why preempting the results by this kind of irresponsible anticipation? Why preparing the ground for an illegal military aggression against Syria? Let us wait and see --

AMANPOUR: So if indeed the -- if --

JA'AFARI: What would be the result of the investigation -- investigative team.

AMANPOUR: Well, they seem to say they have taken a lot of samples. And as I say, yet again, sorry to keep repeating myself, but there have been many, many tests done over the last year or so because you haven't used them just once, you've used them several times, according to intelligence and according to opposition figures. So, again, if indeed, given what's going on, would you -- would Syria agree to a proposal that's happening and being floated right now, to allow the U.N. or others to come in and simply remove all your stock piles, all chemical weapons from Syria?

JA'AFARI: This is -- this is not the issue right now. The issue right now is about preventing the American aggression against my country. Then any related issues to the weapons of mass destruction could be examined seriously later on. I would like to remind you that Syria, when it was a member of the Security Council in 2003, submitted a draft resolution to the Security Council on the establishment of a zone free from all weapons of mass destruction and we were objected to at that time by the American delegation. So we are keen interest in having all weapons of mass destruction out of the area of the militaries, including the Israeli nuclear armament, which is the most dangerous weapon of mass destruction.

AMANPOUR: OK. All right, let me ask you this, sir. Nobody believes you basically because everything you've said -- not just you, but I mean your government, and you speak you're your government, everything you've said over the last two and a half years have simply been, you know, swatted away by the facts. You have simply escalated this war and the use of different weapons, conventional and now nonconventional, and so you are in a very, very weak situation in terms of having the credibility on your side. You're trying to say that it's the others who are using them and not you. Can I ask you, because there are countries which favor you, such as Russia, China, the others, are you getting military or intelligence help from the Russians?

JA'AFARI: Christiane, I'm really --

AMANPOUR: In terms of what's going on now.

JA'AFARI: I'm really worried at hearing these bellicose talks in the American media. The media is a very important weapon of mass destruction also. So you, the media, whether in America or outside --

AMANPOUR: I don't think you can say that.

JA'AFARI: You should lead the public opinion towards the right path. We don't need wars or aggression in the area. We are fed up with wars. The American people are fed up with wars. You have -- you have had thousands of American soldiers killed in our area, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Libya, elsewhere, in Lebanon. We don't need wars. We need peaceful settlement of conflicts according to the charter of the United Nations. Why being war mongers?

AMANPOUR: All right, Mr. Ja'afari, the problem is you're prosecuting this war. You're prosecuting this war and the way you have put it out is that you are fighting against terrorists. That is your government's position. And so that's how you've been --

JA'AFARI: Absolutely. Absolutely.

AMANPOUR: That's how you've been justifying it.

But here's the thing. Even your Arab brethren, even the Arab League, has said that the use of chemical weapons is obviously illegal and those who use them, and they also believe that it has been the Syrian government, they kicked you out of the Arab League, those who use them should be tried like war criminals. I guess I want to know in our --

JA'AFARI: The Arab League --

AMANPOUR: In our final -- in our final minute or so, how do you sleep at night, Mr. Ja'afari, defending a regime, a government, that has caused so much bloodshed and that has really crossed the line from any kind of civil war into weapons of mass destruction, into one of the highest crimes of international law? How do you personally sleep at night?

JA'AFARI: I believe that the use of chemical weapons or biological weapons, or nuclear weapons is a horrible, appalling crime. And those who perpendicular such a horrible crime, whether they are Israelis or others, should be held accountable through the internationally established mechanisms, not through the bully of the war, the policemen of the war represented by the American intelligence reports or false allegations coming from France or Britain or Saudi Arabia or Israel.

We are in favor of a peaceful settlement of all the conflicts in the area. And my country has been a victim of intrusion, interference in its domestic affairs by foreign intelligences. Mainly speaking, don't forget that there is room of operation in Jordan right now operating by the Saudis and the Pentagon and where they are training and instructing thousands of Syrian mercenaries and foreign mercenaries to invade Syria from the south. And the same thing exists in the north within the Turkish territory. So, please, we have to look at the picture in its entirety and its comprehensiveness. We are not training for wars or for agressing anybody else. We haven't declared war to the United States or to any of our neighbors.

AMANPOUR: Mr. Ja'afari.

JA'AFARI: All what you have said is that, yes, we do have a domestic crisis. Yes, wrong doings happened in the past. Yes, injustices took place in Syria in the past. We need to correct this and we believe in what Obama said as his logo in the elections, that change, yes, we can. And yes we need in Syria itself, as well as outside of Syria. The whole area needs peace. We don't need further wars. We don't need further destabilization. After all, all these bloodshed, that would happen sooner or later. All the victims will be innocence, whether they are American --

AMANPOUR: Mr. Ja'afari.

JA'AFARI: Syrians, Iranians, Turkish and Saudis or Jordanians. Our -- our own --

AMANPOUR: Ambassador Ja'afari.

JA'AFARI: Sons will be the victims.

AMANPOUR: Ambassador Ja'afari, thank you for joining me.

JA'AFARI: Thank you.

BLITZER: And, Christiane, thanks very much. Christiane Amanpour with a very, very provocative, shall we say, interview with the Syrian ambassador to the United Nations.

Christiane, I just want to pick your brain for a second before I let you go. What did you think? It's not often we hear a Syrian official, a high ranking Syrian official, this official -- the envoy from the government of President Bashar al-Assad to the United Nations, making their case. Give me your reaction because you had, obviously, a very forceful, tough interview with the ambassador.

AMANPOUR: Well, it's to be expected. He's obviously defending his government. They obviously don't want to be struck by the United States. It is, obviously, going to be something whereas, as I tried to get out of him, will degrade their military facilities, at least many of them, even if it's not an invasion, which nobody's planning. But it will affect their military capabilities, at least according to a lot of the commanders and the politicians who are talking about it.

I think also what's really interesting is that they are now, quote/unquote, what you're saying, flooding the zone. It's very hard, as you know, to get the Syrian government to talk. And they only do when they want to or when they need to. So they believe something is going to happen and they're trying to put their spin on what is going to happen. I'm sure Mr. Ja'afari won't argue with that use of that word because he is now having to, you know, talk the party line.

I think what's interesting though is, you know, they fail to realize how they brought this on themselves. I mean it couldn't be clearer that neither President Obama, nor President Hollande, nor Prime Minister Cameron, nor any of the international community wanted to intervene in Syria. For two and a half years they have not. And yet it is the Syrian regime with these accusations and what most people believe is their use of chemical weapons, not once, but several times, that has brought the international community to this point where we are right now, Wolf.

BLITZER: A very, very sensitive moment, not only in regional history, in world history right now. We're standing by for an important hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Christiane, thanks very much. We'll be talking to you throughout the day here on CNN and CNN International.

We're standing by. We'll go to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. We're going to hear the secretaries of state and defense, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, they're getting ready to testify before Republicans and Democrats. A critical vote coming up maybe as early as next week on the floors of the Senate and the House of Representatives after President Obama urged them to authorize the use of military force in Syria.

We'll also get immediate reaction to what's going on, including Christiane's exclusive interview with the Syrian ambassador. The former Republican presidential candidate, the former congressman, Ron Paul, he'll join us live.

Also, we'll get a different perspective from another congressman, Mike Quigley, a Democrat of Illinois.

Much more of our special coverage coming up right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: We're only minutes away from the start of an important hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. We'll hear the chairman gavel this hearing, Bob Menendez of New Jersey. Then the secretaries of state and defense will testifying, together with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

As we await the start of the hearing, lots of anticipation. Let's bring in two guests, the former Republican presidential candidate, former Congressman Ron Paul is joining us, also Democratic Congressman Mike Quigley of Illinois.

Congressman Paul, first to you. You are totally -- correct me if I'm wrong -- totally opposed to any U.S. military force in Syria right now despite all of that evidence that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons against its own people, is that right?

RON PAUL (R), FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Yes, but I don't accept your statement because I think that a lot of people question some of that evidence. But I don't -- that is beside the point because of the policy that I advocate is a noninterventionist foreign policy. I don't believe it's in our interest. I don't believe it's our national (INAUDIBLE) best interest to be involved. I don't think it's legal under national law or international law. I think just killing more people because he has killed some people, if that is the case, doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

So a noninterventionist doesn't pretend that they are all wise, that they can go into a country that has been in civil war, where there's several different factions fighting and killing each other. There's Christians getting killed by rebels and the Assad regime being blamed for doing this and that. I don't believe it's capable, morally, nor are we able to go in and say, we know who the good guys are. We know there's three different groups on the rebels, but we know that we won't give any help to the al Qaeda, we just have to punish Assad.

It's a civil war and there's no way you're going to figure it out. I smell Iraq all over again. I remember the assurances that were given us 10 years ago and members of Congress believed that. But let me tell you, the situation is a lot different. The American people are on my side on this issue today and there's a lot more people in Congress now who are saying, it makes no sense.

And just listen to the military commanders. They said, you know, we don't even have the money for this. We have to have a supplemental. Now, how about all these war mongers getting ready to bomb and kill and invade or do whatever they think necessary and they don't even have the money and then they have to appropriate the money, which means more money drained from our economy.

BLITZER: All right.

PAUL: So the policy of a noninterventionist, as a matter of fact, is -- it's pretty easy. We just mind our own business, take care of America and obey the law and obey the Constitution and then you don't have to pretend, oh, I know how bad Assad is and I know that he's a little bit worse than the al Qaeda, so let's go on the side of the al Qaeda. It makes no sense whatsoever to us.

BLITZER: All right, Congressman Ron Paul, totally, totally opposed to any U.S. involvement in Syria and doesn't necessarily even believe the president of the United States, the secretary of state when they say they have high confidence that the Syrians did, in fact, use chemical weapons against their own people.

Congressman Quigley, give us your reaction. Do you think Ron Paul is right or do you think President Obama is right?

REP. MIKE QUIGLEY (D), ILLINOIS: Well, let me just say this. It is clear to me, after being briefed, that gas attacks took place and as the Assad regime was responsible. The question is, what do we do now? I have every faith that the administration was honest and forthright about that process.

This is an extraordinarily messy sectarian struggle. It is not exactly clear to me at this point that our involvement will help the situation and perhaps not create unintended consequences. So I think there are serious questions to be answered, but trust in the administration isn't one of those.

BLITZER: Ron Paul, as you take a look at what's going on, and, you know, there's been the huge debate that begins within the next few minutes in the Senate, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The House is going to take up all of these matters. There will be floor to (ph) based close (ph) votes I assume in both the House and the Senate. We know how you would vote if you were still a member, but why is it that so many Republicans, including John McCain, Lindsay Graham and others, they not only want the president to go ahead and launch strikes against targets inside Syria, but they want to go even further than what the president says he wants to do. These are members of your own party. Why is there this serious split between those -- shall we say more libertarian isolationist types, noninterventionist types like you and your son, Senator Rand Paul, and people like John McCain and Lindsay Graham?

PAUL: Well, I think people are waking up. There's been a Tea Party movement, a grass roots movement. The young people in the Congress, the newer members, are on our side on this. Just take a look at the bipartisan support we got for trying to reign in NSA. That was Democrats and Republicans but sort of grass roots. And the leadership at both levels, they want the NSA and all this spying going on.

This is what's going to happen on this vote. Leadership will probably get together and get some sort of authority passed for the president to try to make him feel better or something. But how many people does he have to kill to feel better because he drew a line in the sand or had this red line? I mean what was the purpose of all that? Nobody knows why we're going in there and nobody's sure who the good guys and the bad guy is.

But the people are waking up. They remember 10 years ago. They remember and they witnessed the results today of what's going on in Iraq. Now, even some people in Iraq are saying, well, do not go in there and bomb because we're going to help Assad. Some of the Shia wants to come in. You know, al Sader (ph) wants to go in and help them. So this thing could easily spread.

But who created -- who created Iraq? We did. It's our country. And now they're aligned with the Iranians. So the whole theory is that we're going into Syria because that's the way you march into Iran.

At the same time, we've made it tougher. We've made it tougher for Israel. We've made it tougher for the people who want to live in peace in Iraq. And now we're just stirring it up in Syria. It's a civil war we don't have the authority and the vote in England, the British vote in the parliament, that is fantastic.

BLITZER: All right.

PAUL: The first time since 1782. The people are getting in charge. The people --

BLITZER: Ron Paul -- I've got to wrap it up. But I just want to clarify one point. You're not blaming the United States for the civil war in Syria over the past two and a half years that have already resulted in more than 100,000 people dead?

I think we just lost Ron Paul. Unfortunately the satellite must have gone down. But we'll -- we'll have him back for sure. Ron Paul joining us.

Congressman Quigley, thanks to you as well. Mike Quigley joining us from Illinois.