Return to Transcripts main page

CNN Newsroom

Congress Debates Syria Bill; Outrage Over New Orleans Shooting

Aired September 05, 2013 - 15:00   ET



BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Brooke Baldwin. The news is now.

(voice-over): Will Congress pass President Obama's military plan? The new changes to the vote board.

Plus, graphic new video of executions in Syria raise the question, who really are these rebels the U.S. wants to support?


ALYSSA MILANO, ACTRESS: OK. Let's see if I can figure out how to...

BALDWIN: A celebrity's attempt to get Americans interested in what could be America's next military conflict.


BALDWIN: And we roll on, hour two. I'm Brooke Baldwin. Thanks so much for being with me.

We are following a huge development this hour which may help the Obama administration's case for military strikes in Syria, Britain now saying it has proof that chemical weapons were, in fact, used in this reported chemical weapons attack in Damascus back in August 21.

They said they tested clothing, they tested soil samples, all taken from a victim from that particular attack.

Atika Shubert has more on this live from London.

And, Atika, specifically what did they find and how did they find it?

ATIKA SHUBERT, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, the prime minister's office has confirmed that they took these clothing and soil samples from a victim of that attack and they have spent the last seven days testing them at the Porton Down. That's chemical testing facility here for the Ministry of Defense.

They say they tested positive for sarin. That certainly adds to the case that's been put forward by Secretary Kerry, by the United States. And it's interesting that this has been unveiled right before -- as the G20 summit is happening, clearly tries to show that Prime Minister David Cameron is putting some pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin. BALDWIN: Bringing up the prime minister, we saw what happened in the U.K. Parliament last week, voting down any kind of help in military intervention, U.S. military intervention. Might this at all change things, this proof?

SHUBERT: I don't think it's really enough to push open that door for a second vote on military action. But if they keep getting this accumulation of evidence, and especially if someone comes out of that U.N. inspectors' report, then that might happen. But at the moment it's just another brick in that wall that they're building to show of evidence. But it's not quite enough yet.

BALDWIN: With this brick in the wall -- Atika, thank you.

With this new proof here, President Obama now coming face to face with his toughest opponent, Russia's Vladimir Putin, at the G20 summit in Russia. Watch this with me. You're going to see the handshake. This is the moment. These two men met after months of tension diplomatic relations on everything, NSA leaker Edward Snowden, Russia's ban on U.S. adoptions.

But, as we have been reporting, the biggest stalemate here, Syria.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I also look forward to having an extensive conversation about the situation in Syria and I think our joint recognition that the use of chemical weapons in Syria is not only a tragedy, but also a violation of international law that must be addressed.


BALDWIN: I want to take you to Russia now.

Jim Acosta, senior White House correspondent who is in St. Petersburg with a new development this hour, a change in the president's schedule -- Jim.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: President Obama wrapped up his first day here at the G20 summit in Saint Petersburg, Russia, with a dinner behind closed doors with foreign leaders from around the world. He is making the case, according to his aides, for military action against Syria.

But there are other issues, of course, on his plate, namely, economic issues. The president talked about that as he was heading into the dinner. One of our photojournalists at CNN asked the president whether or not he had been making any progress with those foreign leaders behind closed doors on Syria. The president said, "No, we have been talking about the economy."

Now, one thing that is going on here is obviously the tense relations between the United States and Russia. That has been playing out obviously very publicly in recent days, with President Vladimir Putin and President Obama locking horns over what to do with the situation in Syria.

Earlier in the day, we had a chance to ask the Russian press secretary about the United States' claim that Russia has been blocking action at the United Nations.

And here's what the press secretary for Russia, Dmitry Peskov, had to say.


ACOSTA: Do you believe the United States is fabricating the evidence or lying about the evidence?

DMITRY PESKOV, RUSSIAN PRESS SECRETARY (through translator): I didn't say that. I said that we all need a convincing and legitimate evidence or proof.

We disagree with the fact that somebody in the world is trying to impose their will on other country, trying to change the regime and power in the country.


ACOSTA: Even though President Obama is here in Saint Petersburg, Russia, he is working both sides of the Atlantic when it comes to Syria. According to administration officials, the president called a bipartisan group of senators in Congress to make that case for congressional authorization for a military strike on Syria.

Also, White House officials say the president has canceled a trip out to California for an expected fund-raiser. That was supposed to happen early next week. He wants to be back in Washington to continue working on Syria.

Jim Acosta, CNN, Saint Petersburg, Russia.

BALDWIN: OK. Jim, thank you.

And in this months-long debate over whether or not the U.S. should aid the Syrian rebels, the argument quickly comes around exactly who they are. Today's "New York Times" illustrates this problem concretely and quite graphically as well. You see this picture the shirtless men there face down on the ground. They are captured Syrian soldiers. Seconds away from death, execution by a group of Syrian rebels. You won't see the execution here. But you will hear what happens next, horrible scene there in northern Syria.

And it illustrates this conundrum. Whose hands are clean? Is there anyone the U.S. can back in good conscience and without it coming back to bite Americans?

Joining us now from Washington, Elizabeth O'Bagy. She's made a number of trips to Syria, senior research analyst for the Institute for the Study of War and political director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force. Welcome to you. We are also joined from -- with Fareed Zakaria of CNN's "FAREED ZAKARIA GPS." Welcome to both of you.

And I just -- you saw the video from "The New York Times." I just want to illustrate the problem one more way. You're going to hear from these two top American officials giving completely different estimates of the percentage of Syrian rebels who are the -- quote, unquote -- "bad guys here." Take a listen.


GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY, JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF CHAIRMAN: We have adapted our approach based on what we know of the opposition. And if you recall in the beginning of the year there was a period where it was pretty evident that the extremist groups were prevailing inside the opposition.

JOHN KERRY, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: I just don't agree that a majority are al Qaeda and the bad guys. That's not true. There are about 70,000 to 100,000 oppositionists. About somewhere, maybe, 15 percent to 25 percent might be in one group or another who are what we would deem to be bad guys.


BALDWIN: So you hear these two men, Joint Chiefs chairman saying that as recently as February the bad guys were prevailing among the opposition. Then John Kerry saying it's only 15 percent or 25 percent.

Elizabeth, first to you. You have been there. You have done all this research. What do you say?

ELIZABETH O'BAGY, INSTITUTE FOR THE STUDY OF WAR: I think that it really depends on the times at which you're making these assessments.

And the situation on the ground in Syria is so fluid that things -- conditions do change very quickly. I can say kind of even back at the beginning of January, February into March, conditions were favoring the extremists. They were on the rise. They were gaining territory and authority. And they were actually making a significant impact in terms of kind of gaining control in different opposition avenues.

That being said, there were two significant developments that really shifted the dynamics and helped revive the mainstream insurgency. The first is the fact that Jabhat Al-Nusra, the main kind of extremist group operating in Syria, openly identified with al Qaeda.

This had a significant impact on their support base and their ability to maneuver inside of Syria. The second is the fact that Saudi Arabia and a number of allied countries actually began to empower the more moderate forces through a train-and-assist program in which they were providing weapons and providing assistance that had a significant impact on empowering these groups and giving them the capacity to marginalize the extremists and assert their own authority.

That's why you can see kind of some of the difference in opinions between Dempsey's statements that were made in the kind of looking at dynamics previously, and Kerry, who's looking at a more current situation.


BALDWIN: Fareed, where do you stand? More bad guys than good?

FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN WORLD AFFAIRS ANALYST: I think the truth of the matter, Brooke, is that nobody knows. What you see, as Elizabeth said, the situation is very dynamic, a lot of flux. I was in Turkey last week.

Turkey has a much better sense of what's going on because they share a border with Syria. They have been deeply involved in trying to help the rebels and insurgents for the last two years. And they will openly admit to you, as far as they can tell, there are hundreds of small insurgent groups in various cities around Syria.

It's not clear whether these people coordinate with one another. They clearly have no unified military command or unified political command. So how people can determine what the percentages are of good guys vs. bad guys, moderates vs. extremists, completely mystifies me.

I think, frankly, everyone is winging it to a certain extent. What we do know is that there is no unified chain of command. There is no central figure either in the military or the opposition. And we do know that a large number of these groups tend to be fairly tough or radicalized Sunni groups.

The reason I say this is because the regime itself is highly sectarian. The regime has always been, for at least 20 years now, very, very tough on Islamic fundamentalists, on the Muslim Brotherhood. They committed a massacre in Hama about 20 years ago. And since then, the regime has been sectarian. Its opposition has been sectarian.

It's highly likely a large number of these groups are quite radical in terms of their identification with Sunni causes. That doesn't make them jihadi. That doesn't make them militant. But I think it's very important we understand, we want to read this whole narrative as good guys vs. bad guys, as democrats vs. dictators, violations of international rule.

BALDWIN: It's murky.

ZAKARIA: What is going on, on the ground in Syria is a sectarian battle between a minority Alawite regime and some of its allies and a highly radicalized Sunni opposition movement.

BALDWIN: So let's just...


BALDWIN: I was going to say, let's throw the percentages out of this.

But go ahead, Elizabeth. Respond to that. O'BAGY: I was just going to say, I would actually push back on kind of the sectarian nature of the conflict. I

think it has taken on an increasingly sectarian dynamic, especially with the involvement of Iran and Hezbollah. But that being said, what really started and initiated this process was really based on socioeconomic conditions that have continued to today. To the extent that the regime has operated as a sectarian regime, that's simply not true.

A large support base for the Syrian government has been a Sunni business class that had economic interests in preserving the current governing structures. Again, when you really are on the ground talking to people and looking at these dynamics on a very localized, small level, you can see that these socioeconomic dynamics play much more importantly into their calculations than the sectarian narrative does.

BALDWIN: Here's what I want to know. If the U.S. ultimately decides to go in, then, and with some sort of military intervention, and I know I have talked to a lot of experts on this who say that the best fighters over there, as we talk about opposition and groups, is al Qaeda, that they're the ones who will get the backing of Assad's many enemies in the Arab world.

Is that a fair assessment? To either of you.

ZAKARIA: Well, it's not entirely clear. Obviously, the jihadis tend to be the most motivated. They're the ones willing to die for their cause.

But I'm not suggesting that these people are all al Qaeda-affiliated in any way. Many of them are not. Large numbers of them are not. What I'm trying to get at is, look, we heard the same story that Elizabeth is telling in Iraq, another minority regime that was overturned. We were told, oh, there are lots of secularists here. There are moderates.

Look at the current government in Iraq. It is a Shia, religious- oriented government, hard-line, somewhat allied with Iran, supporting Bashar al-Assad's regime that has systemically persecuted Christians, persecuted minorities and persecuted Sunnis. Remember, 2.5 million Sunnis and Christians fled Iraq. So all I'm saying is that in these highly sectarian situations, the dynamic is always that the nice, moderate, secular guys that we like and who do exist get marginalized.

The tough, radical hard-liners tend to win out. And because this regime, whatever Elizabeth may say, has systemically persecuted the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamic radicals, has been at war with them for 20 years, those are the most spirited opponents of the regime.

Yes, there are lots of other people who don't like Bashar al-Assad's handling of the economy. They're not willing to die for their cause. The Islamic fundamentalists are willing to die for that cause.

BALDWIN: Fareed and Elizabeth, thank you both. I appreciate it. Coming up, as we continue pushing forward on the crisis in Syria, have to take you to Russia. Vladimir Putin is calling the man you're looking at here, Secretary of State John Kerry, a liar, this as the world watches him. We will break down John Kerry's big moment in the spotlight.

Plus, let's role some new video. Just getting some new video, as we know, the president and many world leaders in Saint Petersburg Russia for the G20 summit. And the president, you see this, actually pulling aside the British prime minister, David Cameron. This is part of this working dinner. Keep in mind, the big news in the last hour, we have just now gotten confirmation from the U.K. that, in fact, it was sarin gas used in that chemical weapons attack in Damascus on August 21 from a victim, from Britain.

Be right back.


BALDWIN: The voice for a U.S. strike in Syria, Secretary of State John Kerry, is now in the spotlight as he pushes for American military action. And that also makes him a target of more and more critics, including anti-war activists.

Briefly, you can see, shook things up when he testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee yesterday, painting fake blood on their hands.


MEDEA BENJAMIN, CODEPINK: We wish we had the old John Kerry back. I thought when he came to be secretary of state, we would see a lot of diplomacy. And he started out that way. Now, he turns -- I think we should rename him the secretary of war.


BALDWIN: Want to turn now to CNN's Elise Labott at the State Department for us.

Elise, the push for U.S. action in Syria has really become Kerry's moment. Is he the front guy? Is he the fall guy?


I mean, as you can see, Secretary Kerry admitted while he was doing this testimony that when he was young, he was an opponent of war. But he said that's why it's so important to debate this with the American people and Congress.

But you have got to feel a little bad for Secretary Kerry. Last week he was out there giving this emotional, really forceful case for quick U.S. action in Syria. Then he had to walk it back a little bit on Sunday on those talk shows saying that he supported the president's decision to go ahead and seek authorization from Congress. But what aides are telling me now, Brooke, is that he does support the president's decision and he thinks, in fact, this will help his case when he makes the case to allies. He says it'll strengthen the U.S. resolve. But a lot of allies not so sure right now.

BALDWIN: I want to ask you about a former secretary of state. In doing that, I want to read a tweet from CNN contributor Ari Fleischer.

This is what he tweeted Tuesday -- quote -- "It's 5:00. Does anyone know where Hillary Clinton is on Syria?"

Of course, we now know she supports the president's stance. But it's a pretty low-key statement. We haven't seen her publicly. What do you make of that, Elise?

LABOTT: She did put out a statement through an aide, an anonymous aide, saying that she supported limited, targeted intervention.

But you got to remember, Secretary Clinton is -- a lot of people think she's going to run in 2016. She doesn't want to be a lightning rod for criticism if she, in fact, makes that decision. But I also think she doesn't want to get in the way of president's decision-making. If she supports it, she doesn't want to speak too loudly because she knows that that will be seized by the right in terms of criticizing the president.

So she really has to walk a careful balance. But I think as you have seen, she has given some speeches in the past. I think she will be asked about this and might speak out a little bit more.

BALDWIN: OK. Elise Labott, thank you.

And we're going to take you back to our special CNN coverage of Syria in just a moment. But, coming up next, I want to share this chilling story sparking a lot of outrage similar to the Trayvon Martin case, an unarmed black teenager shot after trespassing in a white homeowner's yard. But, for some, this one's not adding up. Stay tuned.


BALDWIN: On the heels of a trial that divided the nation on race, another case of an unarmed black teenager getting shot has surfaced, causing division in a neighborhood in New Orleans.

Police say Merritt Landry shot 14-year-old Marshall Coulter late one late in July because he felt threatened after spotting Coulter on his property. But there are others in this New Orleans community who say Landry's actions were uncalled for. They argue a human life should be valued more than control of someone's private property.

And now they are seeking justice.

Sara Ganim reports.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) SARA GANIM, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Fourteen-year-old Marshall Coulter may never wake up. And if he does, his family says, he will probably never fully recover.

REV. CHRISTIANA FORD, FAMILY FRIEND: Well, you know he's been shot in the head. And...

GANIM: The reverend Christiana Ford is a family friend.

FORD: The doctor is really trying to work with him, really trying to save him.

GANIM: Police say Coulter was shot July 26 by a New Orleans homeowner, 33-year-old city building inspector Merritt Landry. According to court documents, Landry said he was defending his home after discovering the teen in his yard.

RON EVANS, FRIEND: I have known him since he was a toddler.

GANIM: Landry declined our request for an interview. But longtime family friend Ron Evans says he's a good man, a good man who was afraid of an intruder, protecting his pregnant wife and his 2-year- old.

EVANS: I could see that happening to myself very easily. And who knows what reaction you take if you walk out to inspect a noise in your house and someone jumps at you. You don't know.

GANIM (on camera): It was early in the morning when police say 14- year-old Marshall Coulter hopped this fence. He was in Merritt Landry's backyard when police say Landry shot at the teenager, hitting him in the head. Landry was charged with attempted second-degree murder, and that's when the story moves into the streets.


GANIM (voice-over): You can see the protests are heated. The man on the right is the Reverend Raymond Brown.

REV. RAYMOND BROWN, PRESIDENT, NATIONAL ACTION NOW: The Trayvon Martin trial had just ended. And it was a national march that Saturday. And then a few days later, you got a young man shot in the head, a black man shot in the head. So, you know, the whole issue will arise.

GANIM: Police say Landry was charged because his story of self- defense didn't add up. He told police he was near his car when the teen made a thwarted move. Police say that conflicts with a witness account and with evidence that his shot came from 30 feet away. They say the teen wasn't armed and posed no imminent threat.

BROWN: It's terrible to see a kid out that time of morning. But it does not give you a right to shoot someone because they are in your yard.

GANIM: Landry's supporters disagree. NADRA "CAPTAIN BLACK" ENZI, CRIME ACTIVIST: And homeowners should be able to defend their property and their families, more importantly, because the concept of home is just that. It's not just personal belongings. This man had a pregnant wife and child.

GANIM: The case is now in the hands of prosecutors, who will have to decide if it should go to court.

EVANS: In most places in the United States, he wouldn't be charged.

GANIM: Meanwhile, this community remains divided.


BALDWIN: Sara Ganim, so I just heard you in your piece saying it's not hands of prosecutors. They ultimately have to determine whether or not this thing should go forward.

GANIM: It's an important distinction, because even though Merritt Landry has been charged with attempted second-degree murder, prosecutors still haven't decided if they're going to take this case to court. But they have a few options. And they have a few weeks to make this decision.

They can accept the case, they can go to a grand jury and let the grand jury decide or they can decline. So this isn't a definite that he is going to go to trial on this yet.

BALDWIN: I understand some of the comparisons with what happened with Trayvon Martin. But it's not the same. I think it's just important to say that. There are similarities, but yet one similarity being the fact that race is playing a role.

GANIM: Right. You know, it depends on who you ask in that community whether or not race played a factor. But I have to say, my own personal observations from being there, from reporting on this, is that there are people from both races on both sides of this issue.

BALDWIN: Really?

GANIM: There are white folks who are supportive of the charges against Merritt Landry. And then there are people from the black community who are calling for the charges to be dropped.

Really, the question I felt was not more -- was not race. It was more philosophical. It's more of a question, should this man have used self-defense in this way? It's more a question of self-defense than it is of race when you talk to these people, when you have the conversation, what they're thinking.

BALDWIN: Let us know. Let us know if and when this case moves. Sara Ganim, thank you.

And I want you to take a look at this now. This video has gone viral online.


MILANO: OK. Let's see if I can figure out how to get this up here.


BALDWIN: Oh, yes. That is actress Alyssa Milano getting creative to get Americans interested in Syria.

And we're getting word from one high-profile senator, speaking of Syria here, that she is getting overwhelmingly negative feedback from her constituents on President Obama's plan. We will discuss next.