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Ex-Syrian Government Insider; "My Goal Is to Get Rid of Hunger"; Imagine a World

Aired February 5, 2014 - 14:00:00   ET


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

Tonight, an exclusive interview with a former Assad insider, the former public face of the Syrian regime, which even after peace talks in Geneva, continues to rain its military might on cities and civilians across the country.

And that much vaunted chemical weapons deal forged with Assad by Russia and the United States last summer has precious little to show for itself so far. Today marks yet another key deadline that Syria has missed to get rid of its chemical stockpiles.

And this week, top U.S. officials have started to admit the obvious, that President Obama's Syria policy is failing. First, it was Secretary of State John Kerry venting behind closed doors. Then the director of U.S. National Intelligence went public before Congress.

In a first for the Obama administration, James Clapper has said that Assad is only getting stronger since the chemical weapons deal he struck to stave off military action against him.


JAMES CLAPPER, DIR. U.S. NATL. INTELLIGENCE: Well, prospects are right now that he is actually in a strengthened position than when we discussed this last year by virtue of his agreement to remove the chemical weapons, as slow as that process has been.


AMANPOUR: And Clapper went on to say there seems to be no hope of Assad shifting out of power anytime soon. And meantime, Aleppo is getting hammered by so-called barrel bombs in a massive assault that was launched just after the Geneva talks ended with no progress.


AMANPOUR (voice-over): Barrel bombs are these huge metal cylinders of explosives that are dropped from planes. And activists on the ground say 150 people were killed in the past three days.


AMANPOUR: Now we turn for the first TV interview to Jihad Makdissi, who as I say, was the government's spokesman for 14 years and right through the first year of Syria's civil war.

In February of last year, he announced that he had resigned and left the country. And he joins me now by telephone from Dubai.

Mr. Makdissi, welcome to the program. And thank you for joining me today.

JIHAD MAKDISSI, FORMER SPOKESMAN, SYRIAN FOREIGN MINISTRY: Hi, Christiane. And thanks for having me. Thank you very much.

AMANPOUR: Let me first ask you about some substance.

Why do you think the Assad regime has unleashed yet another massive aerial assault, as we've seen the pictures and also the U.S. government has severely condemned this, right at a time when there are talks going on in Geneva?

Does he still believe that this is something he can win on the ground?

MAKDISSI: I totally think that the Syrian government is still believing in the security solutions of the problem. And any political concession is not in their dictionary yet. But also the international community should update their narrative about the Syrian uprising and that we should know today, but it's no longer about Assad.

So when you -- when you spoke at first of the presentation about the failure in American policy, that's true because they are concentrating on Assad. And what most Syrians wants international community to concentrate is on Syria and achieving change.

So from that point of view, I can tell you, if you want to have a successful policy, you have to know that the Geneva process, it's the fruit of the mutual understanding between Russia and the U.S.

So the fate of the president is no longer on the table, because if you look the Geneva communique, the Geneva communique is not a place where they need Geneva, the capital. There is elements in this text.

If you read it and if you look into it, you will know that the end game is a regime change.


MAKDISSI: So we need to -- we need to listen a bit, the depersonalization of the conflict and concentrate on Syria and instead of winning by a knockout, the international community can make the Syrian people win through points.

AMANPOUR: All right. Well, let me ask you this, Jihad, because you left your very public position as, let's face it, defending the government's actions. That was your job.

Now what are you saying, that the future of Syria in any kind of peace negotiation, must not be about regime change? In other words, that Assad should stay there?

MAKDISSI: No, no; I'm saying the Geneva communique, the substance of the Geneva communique is, if we manage to succeed in implementing it, we will have regime change -- instead of concentrating on the persona of the president and toppling the president.


MAKDISSI: This is what I'm saying.

AMANPOUR: All right.

Let me now ask you, why did you leave?

Again, that was your job. You'd been there for, you know, 14 years or so.

What made you decide it was --


MAKDISSI: I was --

AMANPOUR: -- untenable?

MAKDISSI: That's a very important question. Look, I first I worked as a diplomat for 14 years and the last year I was a spokesperson of the government, as a civil servant.

I said that Syria is not having to order the political solution and I had hopes that the president would take some reformist action, drastic ones, to absorb the shock, absorb the uprising in the Syrian street. And that didn't happen.

In addition to other reasons also, I don't want to talk about it. It's a bit personal.

But at the end of the day, I just left and resigned. I no longer belong to this agenda. I belong to the agenda where concessions should be given to the Syrian people and a partnership should be built in order to absorb the aspiration of the Syrian people.


Let me go back to the idea of what is now the U.S. position; you heard the National Intelligence director actually say publicly that President Assad has been strengthened by the very chemical weapons deal that he signed last summer with the United States.

Does that surprise you, that he's been strengthened?

MAKDISSI: I don't think he'll be strengthened. I think he bought some time because if you want to fulfill the deal that the U.N. signed with the government, you need to have a government in place. The government in place means the current regime in Syria.

So he managed to buy time. But this is not the issue I mean that the tragedy in Syria is not about what type of weapon the Syrian government possess. People can be killed not through chemical weapon only. Can be killed by beheading, by knives, by bullets, by missiles.

So I don't know that there is a sort of (INAUDIBLE), something inside the Syrian city that they look at it in a -- they see it as -- excuse me to say it, but a bit hypocritical attitude from the international community.

AMANPOUR: Well, let --

MAKDISSI: I'm sorry to say it, but.

AMANPOUR: -- OK. Let me ask you about your attitude towards this.

Let me remind you that back in 2012, you said -- and it was broadcast around the world, on Syrian state television after the first reports of chemical weapons, let me play you what you said on Syrian television.


MAKDISSI: Any stocks of WMD or any unconventional weapon, that the Syria republic possess would never -- would never be used against civilian or against the Syrian people during this crisis, at any circumstances, no matter how the crisis would evolve, no matter how.


AMANPOUR: Now, Jihad Makdissi, I want to know whether you believed what you said then, that this would never happen and are you surprised that actually chemical weapons were used by the regime?

MAKDISSI: Look, regardless, Christiane, what I did is I read a ready- made statement issued by the foreign ministry. So I'm not a decision- maker. I was reading a statement. And that was the position of the Syrian state.

So I am not a minister. I'm a spokesperson.


AMANPOUR: Did you believe it then?


AMANPOUR: Did you believe it?

MAKDISSI: That what? That they will not use it?


MAKDISSI: Yes, absolutely, I did believe back then that it will not be used, and if it used eventually, as we witnessed, I think whoever used it, he should be held accountable.

AMANPOUR: So you do believe that it was the regime?


AMANPOUR: You -- well, I understand what you just said. I'm sorry to interrupt you.

Do you believe that it was the regime as the rest of the world believes?

MAKDISSI: It's not about believing. It's about satisfying (ph) the mission. And if you have the truth and we can prove it --

AMANPOUR: They did.

MAKDISSI: -- whoever it is should be held accountable, Christiane.

AMANPOUR: Are you -- are you satisfied with the fact-finding missions that so far has said that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons?

MAKDISSI: Yes, absolutely. If this is the case by expert, absolutely.

AMANPOUR: All right.

MAKDISSI: I'm no longer representing the foreign ministry.

AMANPOUR: No, I know.

MAKDISSI: You have --

AMANPOUR: I'm just asking you as person.

MAKDISSI: -- today I'm talking as a Syrian and whoever, whoever caused Syrian deaths should be held accountable, no matter who he is.

There is no -- how to say -- immunity to anyone for killing.

AMANPOUR: Can I ask you --

MAKDISSI: It shouldn't be the case.

AMANPOUR: I want you to react to the story that we broke here on CNN several weeks ago of those pictures with the complicity of elements of the Syrian intelligence and security services, that showed systemic killing of prisoners and torturing of prisoners by starvation, by strangulation and other such beatings.

Did you -- were you shocked by that?

What was your response to when you saw those pictures?

MAKDISSI: Oh, absolutely. It's appalling. I'm shocked. Every bad feeling that you may have, because it could happen to me, to anybody in Syria.

But the problem today is we want to achieve a true cease-fire (ph) and then we work on reconciliation. And if we don't achieve transitional justice in Syria, people will not go back to their houses. They will continue fighting and wanting to seek vendetta.

So the best way to calm people and to put them back to their houses and to their normal lives is to serve justice.

AMANPOUR: Those pictures, many Syrians have said, this isn't just what happened in the civil war. This has been going on for years. Many Syrians say that many of our people were put into jail and just disappeared and we never knew what happened to them. We were told they died of natural causes in prison.

Did you ever have any inkling when you were a foreign ministry spokesman that this kind of systemic torture and killing was going on?

MAKDISSI: Well, I can tell you that the Syrian government didn't have a brilliant record in human rights. That's a fact.

But today, today, demonizing and demonizing each other would serve who? Today we need to put an end for the bloodshed in Syria. And to put this bloodshed end to it, we need to have a process, political process in place to get rid of people who are implicated in these crimes and to build a new Syria.

So to keep describing something that is known by everybody in the region inside Syria, outside Syria, it will serve nobody. It's demonizing each other and continuing this -- the cycle of violence in the country.

So we want to move on, to achieve change in Syria, according to what the Syrians want.

AMANPOUR: Jihad Makdissi, thank you so much for joining me. Look forward to talking to you again.

And now there is another effort as well from the United Nations to force the regime to allow vital aid into Syria, even amidst the new offensive that it's unleashed, which John Kerry calls, quote, "the latest barbaric act of a regime that has committed organized, wholesale torture, used chemical weapons and is starving whole communities by blocking delivery of food to Syrian civilians in urgent need."

The U.N. estimates 250,000 people in opposition-held areas are completely cut off from food and medicine, and another 2.5 million people barely can find the basics for survival because of the war.

Meantime, inside the United States of America, hunger is also stalking the land, 50 million Americans never know where their next meal is coming from. We'll tell you why after a break. And you'll meet the unusual champion of the hungry who wants to hold the politicians to account.




AMANPOUR: Welcome back to the program. And Washington has just dealt another cruel blow to working class American families who are struggling to keep food on the table.

The U.S. Senate has passed a trillion-dollar farm bill which cuts $8 billion in food stamp funding, and that is an essential component of an already tattered safety net which is meant to protect the poor.

Fifty million citizens of the world's richest country are hungry and never know where their next meal will come from.

But Tom Colicchio is one of America's premier chefs, starring in the popular food program, "Top Chef," and he wants to rebrand hunger by holding politicians accountable.

He produced a documentary on the topic, calling "A Place at the Table."



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I haven't received a pay raise in four years. And what I used to spend on a month in groceries now gets me about two weeks.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's amazing how the need has increased.

JEFF BRIDGES, ACTOR: Charity's a great thing. But it's not the way to end hunger.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're weakening our nation.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I don't really know what to do.


AMANPOUR: Now making this documentary, Colicchio realized that charity, even on the largest scale, will never be more than a Band-Aid. He told me when we met this week at the upscale Landmark Restaurant in New York how he plans to set the table for change.


AMANPOUR: Tom Colicchio, welcome to the program.


AMANPOUR: Here we are in a nice upscale Manhattan restaurant and we're going to talk about hunger in this country; 50 million Americans are in what you call -- what we call food insecurity.

How is that possible in this rich nation?

COLICCHIO: Well, it's possible because we don't have programs that support poor people. We, at one point, pretty much got rid of hunger in this country and then the ideology changed. We started talking about a thousand points of light and we started talking about charity can take care of the ills of society.

AMANPOUR: So the government --

COLICCHIO: And it didn't work.

AMANPOUR: -- and it left it --


AMANPOUR: -- up to people.


AMANPOUR: It didn't work.

COLICCHIO: No, it didn't. It didn't work. We saw hunger come back to the point where it's near epidemic proportions.

When you have a sixth of the population that struggles to feed themselves, not only that, but when you have a sixth of the population that can't really participate in the American dream, you start questioning whether or not the American dream is pretty much over.

AMANPOUR: And these are not people who are homeless. These are actually, most of them, employed.

COLICCHIO: No, and I'm glad you said that because when you talk to the average person you start talking about hungry people, they'll automatically go to the homeless, oh, homeless people are hungry. They have no idea that these are working people. These are people who are working.

More than the majority of people who receive food stamps have at least one member of the family working. And so this is a -- this is a problem of equality. It's really a problem of civil rights, I believe.

AMANPOUR: You're obviously impassioned about this. And you talked about individuals not being able to do what government should do.

But you are an individual. You've been trying to do this. You're a top chef. You're a well-known person. You've put all your resources to this.

How are you changing, then, how you lobby to alleviate hunger?

COLICCHIO: Well, we started, along with Ken Cook from the Environmental Working Group, something called Food Policy Action. And Food Policy Action, sort of our goal is to take the food movement and change it from a social movement into a political movement.

And we do that in various ways. We have a scorecard. So we're grading Congress on how they vote around food issues.

AMANPOUR: And how do you force those politicians to make this or to accept that this will be a voting issue?

COLICCHIO: Well, you got to get people to start going to the polls and voting. It's really frustrating to me that you had, at the last presidential election, you had 23 primary debates and three presidential debates. Not one mention of hunger.

AMANPOUR: The farm bill that's going through the Senate, should the president sign it? It slashes so much for those who are struggling with hunger.

COLICCHIO: No, I think the president should veto this bill. You know, a farm bill should do two things. It should support farmers, and farmers as we kind of think of farmers, small farmers.

And it shouldn't make one person hungrier.

This is -- this is a terrible bill. And at the same time it makes hungry people hungrier.

So you know, if you want to -- if you want to do the big giveaway, don't take it off the backs of hungry people. It's just not a good idea. I would really urge the president not to sign this bill.

AMANPOUR: What turned you on to this? You are, as I say, a top chef. I mean, you're used to providing luxury food for high-paying clients.

COLICCHIO: Yes. It's not just me, but I think most chefs feel that people should have adequate food and healthy food and it should be accessible --


AMANPOUR: Did you start feeling guilty? Did you start seeing food waste? What -- ?

COLICCHIO: No. Going back to 25 years ago, 30 years ago, for as long as I've been a chef in New York, we had been -- when I say we, collectively, many chefs in New York and across the country raise money for hunger-related issues, working through fundraisers mostly.

And it wasn't until my wife started working on a film, "A Place at the Table," that I sort of changed my thinking around hunger and realized that it's a political condition, not so much a condition that we can get -- we can't food bank our way out of this.

You know --

AMANPOUR: It has to be bigger, organized and politically organized.

COLICCHIO: Yes. Well, it has to -- the government has to step in to fix it. And only way now to get government to do this is to make government do it.

AMANPOUR: And how do you make government do it? You want people to score congresspeople because you also need to advertise, don't you? Or you need to get the message out.

You've made this film. But is that enough?

COLICCHIO: Well, the film -- on the film side of it, we're actually working with a company called Media Invest (ph) and we are starting a campaign to rebrand hunger.

AMANPOUR: How do you rebrand hunger?

COLICCHIO: Rebrand hunger, well, look to understand who's hungry, why they're hungry.

You know, the idea that people are hungry because they're lazy and they don't want to work just is not true. The average person is on food stamps for only nine months. The average person who is on food stamps was working the year before and the year after.

This is not a handout. This is a -- it's an investment. It's an investment in people. It's an investment in our -- in our country. You know, hunger becomes a health care issue as well. We spent about $168 billion because of health -- because of food-related diseases in this country.

My goal is to just get rid of hunger in this country, not to just put a Band-Aid on it, not to manage hunger. And the only way to rid the country of hunger is through strong government programs.

AMANPOUR: And can one?

COLICCHIO: I believe they can. Yes. I -- we did it before. We could do it again.

See, that's what's so -- that's what's so amazing about this problem, it's solvable. You know, it's not like the AIDS epidemic and it's not like, you know, the track for problems that you're seeing in Syria right now, in the Middle East, and it's a problem that we've solved before. We could do it again. It just takes political will and courage.

AMANPOUR: Tom Colicchio, thank you very much indeed for joining me.



AMANPOUR: And as Tom Colicchio just said, we did it before and we can do it again. It happened back in 1968, when a gripping U.S. TV news report on hunger in America cast an unblinking eye on 10 million Americans back then who went to bed hungry every night.

The outrage that followed prompted President Richard Nixon -- no one's idea of a soft touch -- to challenge the U.S. Congress to take action.


RICHARD NIXON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The central question has been whether we as a nation would accept the problem of malnourishment as a national responsibility. On May 6th, I asserted to the Congress that the moment is at hand to put an end to hunger in America itself for all time.


AMANPOUR: With the kind of bipartisan support unheard of today, Congress then expanded the food stamp program, making it much more acceptable and eliminating some of the most extreme pockets of hunger in America.

Now imagine if that power to change could be channeled today. We'll do just that when we come back.




AMANPOUR: And finally tonight, Jesus said that the poor are always with you and in the Book of Revelations, famine is one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse.

But imagine a world where hunger is not gospel and the unflinching eye of the camera has the power to bring about sweeping change.

Eight years before the documentary, "Hungry in America," shocked the country, the legendary correspondent Edward R. Murrow, who famously covered the London Blitz in World War II, exposed the fight of migrant workers in America in the groundbreaking documentary called, "Harvest of Shame."


EDWARD R. MURROW, BROADCAST JOURNALIST: These are the forgotten people, the underprotected, the undereducated, the underclothes, the underfed.


AMANPOUR: It first aired on Thanksgiving Day 1960, and it stirred the conscience of a bountiful nation with haunting black-and-white images that still move us half a century later.

The faces of those who harvested America's food and yet lived in squalor on its crumbs also reached the inner circles of Washington.


MURROW: The Secretary of Labor looked at the migrant plight and said.

JAMES P. MITCHELL, FORMER SECRETARY OF LABOR: I think they're the great mass of what I called the excluded Americans. They are people who cry out, the workers and their children and their wives, who cry out for some assistance and whose plight is a shame. It's a shame in America.


AMANPOUR: Public outcry back then led Congress to pass legislation to provide health care and education for farm workers and their families. And still Americans find themselves as we've just reported in a land of plenty where too many still go hungry.

Whether it's the United States of America or Syria or the whole world, some words bear repeating, "We did it before. And we can do it again."

And 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.