Return to Transcripts main page
President Trump Launches Military Strike against Syria. Aired 12-1a ET
Aired April 7, 2017 - 00:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
[23:59:51] BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, as I said, I think you know, if this was just a one off thing, 59 cruise missiles fired at Syria it's not going to make much of a difference. If it's the beginning of some sort of effort to change the regime in Damascus, it will have a huge impact.
Now, Turkey, yes, it hosts millions of Syrian refugees at considerable expense. The Turkish government has been pushing for years for the United States to take a stronger position, to take action, to change the regime in Damascus. They certainly -- in fact, just yesterday, the Syrian -- rather the Turkish president did say that if any action is to be taken against the regime in Syria, it should be more than just words, and that Turkey will do what it -- whatever is needed to help in that effort -- Don.
DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: Ben Wedeman on the Syria/Turkey border reporting for us. Thank you -- Ben.
This is our breaking news: President Trump orders U.S. military strikes on Syria.
This is CNN TONIGHT. I'm Don Lemon.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Wolf Blitzer.
You're looking at the first video of the strike on the Syrian government targets.
That's in retaliation for Syria's chemical weapons attack on civilians earlier in the week and a lot of children were killed in that attack.
On President Trump's orders, U.S. warships launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles targeting a Syrian government air base where the warplanes that carried out the chemical attacks were based. The missiles were launched from warships in the eastern Mediterranean -- two U.S. warships.
LEMON: And a senior administration official, Wolf, says that the President was very affected by the images of dead children among the civilian casualties in the Syrian chemical weapons attack. And he felt compelled to act. You could see that today in his reaction.
BLITZER: It certainly was -- and a powerful impact on the President.
I want to bring in our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr. Barbara -- you're getting a lot of briefings over there. Give us the latest that's coming out of the Pentagon.
BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well Wolf -- here's where we stand at this hour. 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles hitting this air base in western Syria.
We know some more details now about this base, we know that the U.S. believes that the Syrians prior to 2013 stored sarin nerve agent there. And, in fact, as they struck it today, the national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, told reporters that they took special precautions to avoid hitting the areas at the base where they still think there is sarin stored there.
Throughout the day, the U.S. talked to the Russians because the Russians had people there to let the Russians know what the U.S. was going to do and when it was going to happen.
This has now raised the very critical question, how much did the Russians know about what was going on at that air base? How much did they know about that sarin or that nerve agent strike against Syrian people earlier in the week? How complicit were the Russians in all of it.
When the Tomahawks rolled in on this airfield, they struck taxi ways. They struck aircraft, aircraft shelters, fueling points, ammunition storage, air defense and radars -- all the things to basically put this base out of commission for the time being.
Is it a permanent solution? Is it going to get Assad to change his behavior? Likely not. Likely not right away but its going to demonstrate to him and the world that this president is willing to use military action.
The military had given the President a number of options earlier in the week. This is the one he selected -- very visible to the world, very much sending a message -- Wolf.
BLITZER: I just want to be precise -- Barbara. There are plenty of other contingencies, plenty of other options the U.S. military has if the President orders more airstrikes.
STARR: That is absolutely right. The U.S. military always, as you know better than anybody Wolf, has multiple options to present to a commander in chief for whatever he chooses to do.
So the question now is, will President Trump decide that he wants to take this further? You know, the additional targets at various locations around Syria would be helicopters, barrel bombs, those nerve agent-filled bombs that are tossed out of helicopters; manufacturing and fabrication for nerve agents and the artillery and rockets that can also deliver these kinds of deadly agents.
This isn't just a problem from the air, from aircraft or helicopters; it can be delivered on the ground. But the more targets, the more places you're going to run into where there may well be Russian or Iranian-backed forces or civilians it becomes a very complex issue. [00:04:52] If you take it further, we asked tonight, does the President plan to go further? The answer we got -- well, you know, wait and see if additional decisions are made -- Wolf.
BLITZER: And very quickly, Barbara, I used to be a Pentagon correspondent as you well know during the first Gulf War. But usually when the U.S. is engaged in military strikes, the building where you are is buzzing. It's now after midnight here on the East Coast. And it suggests that maybe more activity is planned.
What's the activity level at the Pentagon right now in some of those command structures?
STARR: Well, let me say this. The Pentagon was extremely busy through most of the day, all 17.5 miles of corridors buzzing away. Tonight, downstairs the command center continues 24/7 as it does every night. There are people on station.
This becomes an interesting question because, you know, this is happening on the other side of the world. So the U.S. has considerable military power in the region. There are command centers -- Baghdad, Kuwait -- up and down the Persian Gulf where aircraft and ships are located. So there's an ability to communicate throughout the night.
They will watch very carefully to see if there's any reaction from the Syrian government, from the Russians, any kind of military retaliation. We haven't seen any of that, but that's what they'll be partially watching for through the middle of the night, to make sure the Syrians don't decide to make a move in retaliation.
Everyone is very aware just over Syria's borders -- in one direction you have Israel, you have Jordan, you have Lebanon. The Israelis quite capable, as you know, of looking after themselves in these matters. The Jordanians, the Lebanese, Hezbollah -- all the groups influencing those areas very much being watched tonight -- a lot of caution.
There are neighbors, there are countries on the border that are fragile that may need help if this was a situation to grow -- Wolf.
BLITZER: It will be important to see the official Russian reaction -- Barbara. But the official Iranian reaction, given Iran's involvement in Syria bolstering Bashar al Assad's regime through Hezbollah and other militias, Iranian-backed militias -- that will be significant as well.
STARR: Well, it will be. I think it's fair to say that the U.S. view -- President Obama, President Trump I don't think is going to have a very different view -- is that these groups that are trying to influence the region, the Iranian-backed groups that have moved throughout the region, Syria into Lebanon, Hezbollah, that these are groups and Iranian backed militias. They're trying to influence the situation in a way that is very detrimental to seeing a solution.
So again you're going to see the U.S. keep a very sharp eye out in the coming days to see if any of these groups make a move -- Wolf.
BLITZER: All right. Barbara -- we'll get back to you. Barbara Starr over at the Pentagon working her sources.
And Don -- when I used to be a Pentagon correspondent, I always knew there was some significant military activity when I would show up at night, overnight, and the parking lots would be filling up. That was a sign that the U.S. was either planning or already engaged in some significant military action.
LEMON: A very obvious clue, and also who the President took with him down to Mar-A-Lago and who he didn't as well and leaving the Vice President behind. We're hearing that the Vice President was in the situation room at the time -- Wolf.
And the President with a very important meeting with a foreign leader, Xi Jinping, the president of China, having dinner with him as all of this was taking place.
President Trump announcing tonight why he launched air strikes against Syria:
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Tonight I ordered a targeted military strike on the airfield in Syria from where the chemical attack was launched. It is in this vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
LEMON: The President down in Palm Beach at Mar-A-Lago -- his estate down in Palm Beach, Florida.
I want to bring in now CNN's senior White House correspondent and that's Mr. Jeff Zeleny who is traveling with the President.
Jeff -- the President down -- again he's at Mar-A-Lago, at his place there tonight with his national security team. So what can you tell us about this?
JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Don -- the President was surrounded by the, virtually the entire national security team. And when he flew down from Washington this afternoon, arriving mid to late afternoon, he did have a meeting with his national security advisers. And it was at that point where he gave the decision to go ahead with this.
[00:10:06] Now, let's back up just a little bit.
We came from a briefing just not that long ago with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the national security adviser General H.R. McMaster. And they walked us through the President's thinking and what sort of led up to these events. And they started, of course, on Tuesday, you know, when word of those deadly, gruesome attacks in Syria reached the White House. And the President they said was deeply affected by them. Now, we heard him talk about that on Wednesday in the rose garden. He called it a heinous act, and indeed he seemed moved.
And then again when he was flying down here to Florida this afternoon, he said, you know, something will have to happen with Assad. So in about a 48-hour span or so, Don, this is what happened.
A dramatic turn of events because Donald Trump we know, before he became president was very apprehensive of engaging any type of Syria conflict. In fact in 2013, he said the President did not have the authority to do so without the approval of Congress. Well, tonight he acted decisively.
But the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, he said this -- Don. I was struck by this comment. He said the U.S. could not turn away or turn a blind eye to this.
Now, they did not, you know, suggest that this was going to change U.S. strategy toward Syria at all. They did not talk about removing Bashar al Assad from power.
This was a very limited strike on that specific strip of airfields that had launched the chemical attack earlier. But as Barbara has been reporting all evening, this was designed to send a message -- a message to Assad and a message to Russia as well.
And the Secretary of State had very sharp words for Russia. He said this -- Don. He said, either Russia has been complicit or Russia has been incompetent in its ability to essentially stop these chemical attacks.
So these pointed words from the Secretary of State, he's heading to Russia next week for meetings. So, you know, this, of course, is the underlying question here. What is next from this? Was this -- this was the biggest military strike, the first military strike the President has ordered of this magnitude? Will it be the last -- Don?
LEMON: And Rex Tillerson also saying that -- making it clear that Russia was not the target of these attacks, saying that it was the Syrian regime.
Jeff Zeleny -- joining us now from Palm Beach, Florida. Jeff -- thank you very much.
Wolf Blitzer, I want to get back to you. Wolf -- there was some indication earlier as you were on the air that the President was speaking to officials about the possibility of what actions he could take or possibly take with Syria.
BLITZER: Yes. He was obviously very, very moved by those powerful images of all those little kids who had been killed in this sarin gas attack by the Syrian regime. I want to bring in our senior international correspondent Matthew Chance who's joining us from Moscow. Matthew -- first of all, any reaction official or unofficial from the government in Moscow?
MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: No. All that we've had is word from the Russian foreign ministry that there will be a response from them about these U.S. airstrikes but that response hasn't come through to us yet.
I expect they're still working on a formulation of what they want to say. And obviously we'll bring that to you as soon as we can.
The air strikes though, obviously, are an immensely dangerous, you know, episode in the relationship between Russia and the United States. Not least because they potentially bring into contact Russian forces who are on the ground in Syria, of course, and the U.S. forces.
Now, we understand that the Russians were warned through the normal lines of deconfliction that these air strikes were incoming. And so that probably means that they were able to get their personnel and indeed the Syrian personnel I expect they were working in conjunction with out of the way as it were.
But what's really interesting to me is that Russia has one of the world's most sophisticated surface-to-air missile systems in place and presumably operational as well inside Syria, S-400 system, S-300s as well. Both of those systems are fully capable of intercepting cruise missiles if they choose to do so.
And I think it's very interesting that these interceptors, these surface-to-air missiles were not used to try and intervene and to try and protect this air base in anyway. And so that implies a degree of tacit Russian consent for allowing essentially these air strikes to take place without any kind of intervention which they had the military capability to do -- Wolf.
[00:15:02] BLITZER: And according to U.S. officials, it looks like all 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles that were launched from those two U.S. warships in the eastern Mediterranean hit various targets at this Syrian air base -- the Al Shayrat Air Base in Syria. None apparently were destroyed by any surface-to-air antimissile that may have been launched by Russians or Syrians or any one else.
As you know, Matthew -- the U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is scheduled to go to Moscow next week. Is that trip still happening? What were they supposed to be talking about?
CHANCE: It was still happening as early as yesterday when we were notified about what was going to be taking place. He's coming on the 12th of April, so the middle of next week. There were going to be -- it was always going to be a difficult meeting obviously because of the longstanding issues outstanding between the United States and Russia; particularly Syria and Ukraine as well and the issue of sanctions. All of that was meant to be discussed.
But it's obviously going to be a much more difficult meeting now if it goes ahead and we're assuming it will go ahead. What's interesting about this whole development is, I think it's perhaps the final nail in the coffin of the idea that there is going to be a reset in relations between Russia and the United States.
It's something Donald Trump when he was a candidate spoke about a lot, talked about, you know, building bridges with Russia, cooperating over international terrorism and cooperating in the war in Syria. I'd be very surprised if that agenda could be pushed through given that the United States is now striking at Russia's ally, its main ally in the Middle East -- Bashar al Assad and its government.
The Russians have put a lot of support behind and it's basically put the United States and Russia very, very strongly at loggerheads. They're always opposed but very strongly at loggerheads in a military way on the ground in Syria and that's a very dangerous situation.
BLITZER: And very quickly, Matthew -- I can only assume that Russian officials must have been stunned by President Trump's order to launch these 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles given the statements he made as a candidate, as president-elect, even as president where he expressed a real reluctance to get involved militarily in Syria. This must have come as quite a shock to the Russians?
CHANCE: I think the Russians have been very disappointed. Obviously their hopes were raised by Donald Trump when he was a candidate when he spoke about recognizing potentially the annexation of Crimea by Russia, when he spoke about joining forces with Moscow in the fight against international terrorism. He said that NATO was obsolete as an organization. It was all music for the ears of the Kremlin.
But really since his inauguration, partly because of the political situation in the United States where the Russia issue has become so toxic, none of that has been able to be followed through on. And it's got to a point now obviously with these huge airstrikes that have taken place over the past several hours against Russia's main ally in Syria where the whole process has gone full circle.
We're in a situation now, the same situation that affected the previous president, President Obama who was in, which is diametrically opposed to not working with Russia in Syria but diametrically to it on the ground and hitting the main ally of the Russians right now.
And the Russians are going to be extremely angry about this. What their response will be though, whether it will be a military response which is highly doubtful, they're not going to want to escalate this; or whether it will just be a political response, we'll find out in the hours to come.
But we are expecting, you know, a very strongly worded statement at the very least coming from the upper echelons of the Russian leadership in the hours ahead -- Wolf.
BLITZER: I'm sure we'll get that statement probably sooner rather than later. We'll see if it's only a statement.
Matthew Chance in Moscow for us -- thank you very much. Don -- it's very interesting that this new American president has now done with the launching of these cruise missile strikes against Syrian targets what the previous president, President Obama, didn't do. And it opens up a whole new area of potential escalating confrontation.
LEMON: We'll talk about that and what happened back in 2013 when the former president wanted to go to Congress to get approval and then Congress didn't act on that. But also, we want to talk about the reaction to how Russia might react to this.
I want to bring in CNN's Fareed Zakaria and also contributor Michael Weiss, an expert on terrorism and military analyst Major General James "Spider" Marks.
Fareed -- Russia has said that there's going to be a reaction but we don't know what. How might they react.
[00:19:58] FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN HOST, "FAREED ZAKARIA GPS": Well, I think Russia said, in effect, they're going to provide a statement reacting. I don't think they're going to amount to some reaction --
LEMON: A strongly worded statement -- yes.
ZAKARIA: But I think, you know, in some ways, this reminds us that international relations is really about hardcore facts on the ground. You know, there's a tendency, particularly in America, to assume that international affairs is a kind of branch of psychotherapy that if you had these two guys and they get on well and they cut a deal -- the United States and Russia have diametrically opposed interests in the Middle East, particularly on this issue.
Russia views Syria as its only stable ally. It's one where (inaudible) -- traditionally they have supported this regime for 40 odd years, perhaps more now 50 or 60 years. And it has always regarded it that stability in Syria was paramount.
The United States has a very different approach. Russia is allied with Iran. Inevitably, there was going to be a clash. You know, a great British foreign secretary once said nations don't have permanent friends and enemies, they have permanent interests. And the permanent interest of the United States in the Middle East and Russia are just diametrically opposed.
Now, It's possible that Donald Trump will look at this and recognize, that you know, it's not as easy to cut a deal with a guy you might admire because he seems a tough guy, and then maybe on Ukraine similarly we had just fundamentally opposed interests and we're going to have to deal with the Russians from a position of strength.
LEMON: We keep talking about the Russian reaction, but you mentioned to me as Wolf was speaking to our correspondent that Iran and Iraq, maybe we should be looking to them to see how their response -- what the response will be.
MAJ. GEN. JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, you know, the question was posed will Syria do something against the United States? And I don't think that directly they will. But asymmetrically and through proxies they certainly can. And it would not be inconceivable if Iran's presence in Iraq, which we understand is rather large, and influence is rather large, would do something against the United States presence or against Iraqis in Iraq. Iraq now aligned -- allied with us, and aligned in our interests, relative to what we're doing in Syria.
So we could see something that would put American service members at risk in the region.
LEMON: What does this do for ISIS -- Michael?
MICHAEL WEISS, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: In the short term, I don't think it does much. I mean psychologically, it's actually a blow to ISIS because part of their narrative has been from day one. This is when Baghdadi delivered his first speech in the (inaudible) mosque. The U.S. is in bed with the Russians, in fact by Iran and Assad and all of the Shia against Sunni Arabs.
And my Twitter feed is blowing up, my text messages are blowing up from Syrians who are asking me, oh, my God, we can't believe this actually happened, let alone that Donald Trump was the man to pull the trigger, what does this mean?
And I'm trying to manage expectations because my fear is, Syrian rebels, activists, the opposition are going to take this as a green light that America is now backing the revolution whole hog and is going to inaugurate a policy of regime change. I do not think -- underscore, emphasize -- do not think, that is going to happen.
I got off the phone just before coming on air with a senior administration official. I asked two questions. Number one, is this the end? Is this the one off or are you going to do more? He said we haven't decided yet. So that's interesting.
Number two, it's been reported here by Barbara Starr and elsewhere that the Russians were actually in this air base as of 48 hours ago, while the Syrian soldiers and pilots were putting the sarin gas laden rockets into the SU-22 that was dropped -- then dropped those bombs on Idlib.
I said did the Russians know this was going to happen? Were they privy to this chemical attack as it was taking place? He said we don't know. So this could very well also be a message being delivered to Moscow. Look, this is your client. We cut this deal to Trump's people, an ignominious deal with you to decommission sarin gas and look what you just did.
LEMON: Yes. It's interesting. So why would Assad risk all of this, using sarin gas, Fareed, at his own people? The President of the United States was saying that he was going to let him stay possibly. That was a pretty stupid move?
ZAKARIA: Well, you know, from Assad's point of view, probably what he saw is that things were going pretty well for him. He had stabilized, he had reasserted his power. He had an American administration that said we're going to hand Syria over to Assad.
I cannot but imagine that the Syrian regime took very seriously those statements by Trump and Trump officials that said effectively we're not getting involved in Syria. Assad can handle Syria. All we care about is ISIS.
And Assad is a brutal killer. He wants to send a signal to the people who live outside of his sphere of support. Life will be hell for you. That has really been the message of the Assad regime which is life is going to be one unending hell if you do not support this regime. And they've done it from the beginning.
So In that context obviously he miscalculated but it is not unusual for these kind of brutal dictators to get cocky and, you know, to take one step too far.
LEMON: Yes. And of course, the big question is what happens after this. No one knows what's going to happen after this.
[00:25:01] As you said, Russia, a strongly worded statement; and we'll have to see what happens in Iraq and Iran, and with everyone in the region.
ZAKARIA: And what happens with President Trump if he feels that this has not worked a few months from now.
LEMON: All right.
I want to go back to CNN's Wolf Blitzer. And Wolf -- you have some experts there who can possibly help us answer some of those questions.
BLITZER: We have some very good experts. Our CNN military analyst Colonel Cedric Leighton is joining us; Tony Blinken, global affairs analyst, former Obama administration official; our military analyst, Lieutenant Colonel Rick Francona; and national security analyst Juliette Kayyem.
Rick Francona -- the national security adviser to the President, General McMaster, H.R. McMaster -- he put out a statement telling reporters quote, "There were measures put in place to avoid hitting what we believe is a storage of sarin gas there at that air base that were targeted. So that would not be ignited and cause a hazard to civilians or anyone else."
How precise are these Tomahawk cruise missiles?
LT. COL. RICK FRANCONA, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, precise enough not to hit a warehouse like that. And, you know, these storage areas would be protected and, of course, they wouldn't be just in a regular building so they would be under some sort of shelter.
You just don't hit them hopefully, and I don't know what the Syrians are using, but hopefully these are binary stored weapons. And, you know, they actually have to be mixed before they create a toxic substance. So even if these warehouses were struck, it probably wouldn't trigger that kind of a reaction. Hopefully, any kind of explosion would burn off the gas but it's best just not to hit them.
I'm surprised that the Syrians would store that on an air base. Normally, they're kept in a separate area. So this was the doctrine, you know, I'm going back to the Iraqis, but it's kind of the same thing everybody used to use. You keep them in a specific storage area, and you transport them to the air base, just when they're to be needed.
BLITZER: Very interesting. Colonel Leighton, you heard our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr's report, that this military operation was actually conceived during the Obama administration. Given what we know so far, what's your biggest concern right now?
COL. CEDRIC LEIGHTON, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, Wolf -- I think the biggest concern is really, this is going to have some blow back. One of the big things that we have to look at, is the fact that we are doing this in an area that has actually had Jabbat al Nusra, which is an al Qaeda affiliate, actually working in that area.
So we risk supporting an al Qaeda affiliate. We also risk alienating other elements of the Syrian opposition. And that can be a significant blow back.
However, I think that this was one of the major efforts that needed to be done right now in order to send a message to President Assad. And the fact that they sent this message at this point is really very, very important from the standpoint of actually telling him that he can go up to a certain point and then no further.
BLITZER: Stand by for a moment. I want to bring Tony Blinken into this. Tony -- you well remember the launching of more than 100, 110 I think Tomahawk cruise missiles at various targets in Libya back in 2011 targeting Moammar Gadhafi's regime. How did that work out in the long run?
TONY BLINKEN, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: Well, Wolf -- you raise a very good point, because what we have to be aware of here, and first let me say, I think the President did absolute the right thing. This use of a weapon of mass destruction by Assad against his own people could not stand with impunity. The President was right to try to reinforce the norm that was established after World War I against the use of chemical weapons and biological weapons in war.
But Libya's a good example because you have to be aware of mission creep. Libya -- which I supported -- started out trying to protect civilians and we wound up with regime change and we were left holding the bag in Libya. If we wind up in the same place in Syria, that's a far heavier bag, a far more difficult one to deal with.
BLITZER: Because Libya today is a failed state. There are terrorists all over the place in Libya, including ISIS right now. Gadhafi and his sons may be gone, but Libya has turned out to be a disaster -- right?
BLINKEN: That's right. Be careful what you wish for. If we break it, we own it when it comes to Syria. But again, the main thing is the President did do the right thing.
What really matters, Wolf, now is what comes next. There's an opportunity to leverage what we did to really try to push for a more durable cease-fire, to stop the ongoing use of chemical or biological weapons and maybe even to get Assad to the table on a negotiation toward a transition. You have to use this to leverage the Russians -- there's a real opportunity to do that.
[00:30:00] BLITZER: Well, if you were still in the government right now, Tony, what advice would you be giving this American president and his Secretary of Defense, his national security advisor, the intelligence community because you can launch 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at these targets in Syria, but that doesn't necessarily bode well in the long term?
BLINKEN: First, and Mr. Tillerson is going to be going to Moscow next week. I would make it very clear to the Russians that we will hold them accountable for Assad's actions going forward. They need to rein him in and they need to work to get him back to the negotiating table.
Now, Russia may have a real interest in doing this now. We talked about Russia being upset by these actions. I think that Russia's equally upset with what Assad did. They gave him the upper hand in the civil war.
He had no need to use this sarin gas, which effectively he stopped using after we enforced diplomatically the red line with Russia back in 2013. Absolutely no need to do this. He's put Russia in a terrible position.
And so, I would think that Mr. Putin is livid with Assad. The United States should play on that. It should play on the fact that we're going to hold Russia to account for Assad's actions and seek their support.
The other thing I'd say is this, Wolf. Russia increasingly risks blowback for its ongoing support for Assad, especially when he commits these kind of atrocities. It has a large Sunni Muslim population of its own.
We saw that this ethnic -- Uzbek ethnic national who apparently committed the attack on the subway in St. Petersburg, who was probably radicalized by the civil war in Syria. It's going to risk more and more of that, including the alienation of all of the Sunni Arab countries if it remains complicit with Assad.
So, this is a moment to really leverage to see if we can move Russia to a place to help end the civil war.
BLITZER: Juliette Kayyem, you used to work in the Department of Homeland Security. Given this US assault, this US attack on this Syrian airbase, 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles, presumably officials of the Department of Homeland Security are worried about retaliation in the form of terrorism, terrorists who may be supportive of Bashar al- Assad's regime or Iranian backed or others. They're presumably taking some steps, right?
JULIETTE KAYYEM, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY, INTELLIGENCE AND TERRORISM ANALYST: Yes, they would do. They'll be taking steps both internationally, in particular, with immigration and flows of people who may be coming in and domestically.
I think the challenge is to pick up on what Tony said is, this is one night and what's the policy behind it. We're hearing the administration officials are saying this is a one-off. I think that really does depend on what Assad's reaction is and what we're going to hear from the Russians.
And certainly, ISIS is going to take advantage of this because the sort of comfortable alliance that we've had with Russia in terms of fighting ISIS in Syria is certainly going to take some sort of hit because of this attack.
Domestically, for people watching and a little bit nervous, there are plans in place when there is military action. Local and state officials are notified.
Our bases here, as well as recruitment centers, are notified, so we ratchet up just a little bit. There's probably no specific threat at this time, I would assume. And one would -- I have not heard yet, I would just say, from your reporters whether Secretary of Homeland Security Kelly was in the room or down at Mar-a-Lago as well.
BLITZER: Yes. He's a retired US general as well. And as you also know, Juliette, there is fear -- there is always fear when the US launches a military strike like this that it could become a recruitment tool for terrorists, whether Al Qaeda or ISIS or al- Shabaab, what's your analysis?
KAYYEM: Any action like this, because we are the United States, will be an opportunity for that action, even if it's justified, to be manipulated by our enemies to say, 'look, they're always against us or -- here's one of the challenges we're going to have. It's the expectation management challenge.
We have now gone in. There are a lot of rebels in Syria. There are a lot of people in Syria, who will hope that we go in a lot further. It is not clear to me the Trump administration is going to do that. So, denied expectations are often used as a form of recruitment.
So, all of that, we're going to have to be watching because, if this was just a one-off, there are a lot of people in Syria probably applauding this now, hoping that this is the beginning of the end of Assad. We've been down this path before.
The administration statements are not -- I would say just not precise about Assad at this stage about whether we want him in or out. I think we're just going to have to wait and see, but the expectation setting is going to be a challenge for the United States.
BLITZER: It certainly will be. All right. Everybody, standby. We're going to continue following the breaking news. Much more coming up. President Trump launches a military strike against Syria. We'll take a quick break. We'll be right back.
[00:38:40] LEMON: This is our breaking news on CNN. Russia says the US military strike tonight will undermine the fight on terror. US warships firing 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian airbase.
Now, back with me now, CNN military analyst Major General James "Spider" Marks. So, general, we're over here at the map. I want you to take us again through the target. Tell us why they chose this particular target.
MARK: Let me take one step further back. What you have over here in the Eastern Med is where you have the pre-positioned ships that launched the 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles.
They came after this airfield because -- probably two reasons, very significant reasons. One is, the attack on Idlib originated here. That's number one.
And number two, probably most significantly from a collateral damage estimate perspective, in other words civilian casualties, is that this airfield is kind of in the middle of pastureland, agricultural land. There isn't a large build-up of population in and around this location. So, that's the airfield that the United States went after.
LEMON: Let's go in close to -- and show the specific airfield itself. And again, this is -- they believe this is where they launched the chemical weapons.
MARKS: What you're looking at is a piece of imagery that was taken by a satellite that becomes part of a target. There's a little bit of pedantic how the intelligence cycle works. And so, you have this picture. And you have these different assessments of what the airfield has the capability of doing and what the current inventory of aircraft and stuff is like.
[00:40:07] So, this is a piece of imagery that was used to then upload the TLAMs, the Tomahawk missiles, to go after this airfield. So, you're looking at helicopters. What you don't see on this piece of imagery is the fixed wing aircraft. And that's fine. They could be in bunkers someplace else when they had this imagery.
LEMON: This is Assad's.
MARKS: This is Assad's military helicopters at this airfield.
LEMON: Let's look at the video because we've got video of the airstrikes. So, these are the Tomahawk missiles, right?
LEMON: Being launched from here. So, tell us, 59 Tomahawk missiles. What kind of damage?
MARKS: Significant damage on buildings and any aircraft that happened to be on the airfield. Now, I think it's probably fair to assess that the fixed wing aircraft and maybe some of the rotary wing, the helicopters, were scrambled and went someplace else before the airstrike. If Assad felt like they were at risk, he might have given the order to launch those aircraft away from that airfield.
What I'm interested in seeing is the bomb damage assessment as a result of these TLAMs striking the airfield.
LEMON: No, we hear that there were some Russians who were there. You would say that they were complicit --
MARKS: They are complicit. If they are there -- Russia owns their relationship with Assad. And if they're at the airfield, they can't say, well, we didn't know. We didn't know what was going on the airfield. We didn't see them uploading the chemical weapons. Of course, you saw them. Whether that was their job or not, they were at the airfield. They are complicit.
LEMON: Before this happened, they warned about -- when the president was saying -- considering what sort of action to take, they warned about what would happen, what the fallout would be, now there is going to be a reaction from Russia.
We're hearing from our correspondent there that it will be a statement, but might there be more?
MARKS: There could be, but Russia and the United States -- again, let's take the big picture. Russia and the United States or the Soviet Union have never gone to war. We've never fired at each other intentionally. We might have bumped into each other, but we have not gone to war.
We've had a very long and very potentially hugely dangerous Cold War. We've never had a hot war against Russia. This is the real -- has the real possibility of escalating to the potential of a hot war. We don't want that.
LEMON: How many Russians in Syria and where?
MARKS: I don't know. But I do know that they are at Tartus, which is on the coast that the Soviets -- the Russians -- Soviets and Russians have had a military base in the Mediterranean for the longest time. And they've had a military presence throughout Syria. So, I couldn't estimate the numbers. But they're significant and they're in multiple locations.
LEMON: I want to talk about what's next because -- we saw Ben Wedeman on the border there --
LEMON: What's next? Do we know? MARKS: Well, the real thing that concerns me is if this is the first step, although it's been stated that this was a one-and-done, we're going to strike and we're finished, but I really think we've opened the door for an escalation over the course of time that could eventually lead to the removal of Assad from Damascus.
And what his disposition is, I don't care and I don't think the United States wants to necessarily send him to jail or make that the long pole in the tent of his disposition.
But Ben Wedeman is on the border right now. I'm concerned that if a regime change is going to occur, you're going to have refugees that we haven't seen in terms of numbers going both north up to Turkey and potentially down into Jordan. That's when the United States has an obligation and they will do it to support their NATO partner in Turkey and a very dear friend -- a very dear friend in Jordan.
The United States would probably put some type of forces to provide logistics and medical support, humanitarian assistance in this part of the world.
LEMON: You bring up a very important part of this and that's the refugees. So, if you walk back over here with me, I want to bring in now Rula Jebreal. She is a professor of international relations at American University in Rome. And back with us as well is Michael Weiss.
Rula, he brought up the refugees. The president said that the pictures of the children and the babies really changed him, really moved him. I wonder if it's changed what he thought about the refugees because these are the people, many people who are seeking solace and shelter here in the United States?
RULA JEBREAL, PROFESSOR OF INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS, AMERICAN UNIVERSITY OF ROME: I don't know if the president really changed his views about the Muslim ban. And Syria was, I think, one of the countries -- was number two or maybe number one probably of the countries.
So, when he talked about banning refugees coming from certain countries or six countries, he's talking about these kids that were killed and slaughtered.
When you are somebody that is escaping war zone, the water is becoming safer than staying on the ground. That's why they've been escaping. Remember, and I'm sure you mentioned this, this is the sixth year of this war.
Assad has been slaughtering his own people from day one. When this revolution was started in 2011, I was sent actually by Tina Brown to -- who was editor-in-chief of Newsweek at the time to the Syrian- Lebanese border to monitor what was going on.
[00:45:05] The Syrian revolution started as a peaceful revolution. People demanded democracy, dignity, social justice and some kind of participation. They did not even demand regime change. What Assad did, and that was his survival strategy, to release jihadists from jail. In the same time, he started cracking down and killing and slaughtering pro-democracy activists.
The very first victim was a child. His name is Hamza Al-Khateeb. He was from a city called Daraa -- from a town. He was tortured. He was shot with three bullets in his head -- on the back of his head. He was 13 years old. Why? Because he was singing on the street, chanting, down with the regime.
That is the kind of regime we're dealing with. So, basically, if you're talking the refugees, Assad is the number one cause of why we have this refugee crisis.
WEISS: Just to give you another sense of what kind of regime you're doing with, that boy, the 13-year-old Hamza Al-Khateeb, who also had his genitals cut off, burnt cigarettes put out on his skin before he was killed, his body was delivered to his parents and his parents were forced by Syrian security services to go on state television and say that it was the terrorists that did this under the threat that they too would suffer the same fate.
So, this is the height of Machiavellianism, really unseen since the 20th century, I would argue.
LEMON: How might this behavior change Assad -- how might this change Assad's behavior?
WEISS: Look, I said earlier this evening, this is a man who as of two weeks ago was sitting pretty. He had what, to all intents and purposes, was a putatively pro-Assad president in the White House, a guy who wanted no quarrel with the regime.
You've talked about Rex Tillerson in Ankara saying the Syrian people will decide -- that's what Russia and Iran say, right? That's a euphemism for he ain't going anywhere.
What happened? As of 2014, he was meant to have released -- relinquished all of his stockpiles of chemical weapons -- sarin gas, VX, mustard. John Kerry issued a statement. I remember it very well. "We congratulate all parties in successfully ridding Syria of its chemical weapons."
Not only did he not -- Assad has been dropping chlorine gas ever since that chemical deal was struck between Obama and Putin. Now, he drops sarin, a nerve agent he's not meant to possess. Obviously, denies it. Killing 70 people, which is not going to strategically change the dynamics in Idlib by any means. Not even going to tactically change the dynamics in Idlib.
And all of a sudden, the front pages of every newspaper in the world in saying, Assad the butcher, Assad the war criminal, nobody is talking about ISIS anymore, nobody is talking about the terrorism anymore.
This is the height of stupidity and insanity. (CROSSTALK)
LEMON: We have much more to talk about.
JEBREAL: He did it before. Actually, two months ago, remember in February, there was a Security Council resolution and Russia voted -- vetoed it and it was about the use of chemical weapons. Guess what, two months after, they're using it.
So, they're enabling this behavior.
LEMON: Stick around everybody. Much more to talk about. Straight ahead, more on our breaking news. President Trump launches a military strike against Syria. The Russians says this will hurt the fight against terror. We'll speak to our expert, Peter Bergen.
[00:51:51] BLITZER: Our breaking news, President Trump launches a military strike against Syria. US warships firing 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian airbase. Joining us now on the phone our national security analyst Peter Bergen.
Peter, we're just getting a statement in from a Russian official Viktor Ozerov. He's head of the defense committee of the Federation Council. This is according to the Russian state news agency.
Let me read it to you and get your reaction. US strikes on Syrian aviation base may undermine the efforts of the fight against terrorism in Syria. Russia will demand an urgent UN Security Council meeting after the US airstrike on Syrian aviation base. This is an act of aggression against a UN member.
Your reaction, Peter.
PETER BERGEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, clearly, this may mark an irrevocable split between the Trump administration and Vladimir Putin who after all -- President Trump has said a number of things about President Putin that were warm.
Clearly, this is a potentially irrevocable split. Assad owes his existence -- continued existence to the fact that the Russians intervened in 2015. And essentially, he's largely won the war in Syria as a result of their intervention.
BLITZER: Are you surprised that President Trump ordered this airstrike?
BERGEN: When I saw the president and his reaction to those indelible images of these kids choking up and being hosed down, anybody who watched those images -- these are some of the most powerful images imaginable.
And, clearly, when you saw his speech tonight, he reacted very emotionally. And the fact is we've had half a million dead in Syria. We had 40 million Syrians being displaced. There comes a point where the United States, the sole superpower, had to do something, in particular when weapons such as sarin nerve gas are being deployed.
BLITZER: You wrote a piece for CNN.com this morning before this military strike, Peter, that the president had, in your words, and I'm quoting you now, "a menu of bad options." Now that he's gone ahead with his military option, what happens next.
BERGEN: Wolf, as you well know, every international crisis that lands in the president's inbox doesn't have a set of easy options. And there are a serious of questions here, which is, is this cruise missile strike just part of potentially what could become a larger campaign?
Think about to the missile strike that Bill Clinton in the years before 9/11 after the embassy attacks in Africa in 1998. Those did not deter Al Qaeda. And Al Qaeda carried out the 9/11 attacks. So, one cruise missile strike may send a message, but the message may not be entirely received.
What does the Trump administration really have in terms of the plan to protect Syrian civilians going forward? The United States has essentially tried to ban the entry of Syrian refugees into this country.
[00:55:04] The president on the campaign trail did talk about potentially a plan for creating safe zones for Syrian civilians. That would not be particularly easy to do, but certainly would be a much bigger step than just a cruise missile strike.
And what if this portends -- the larger question, Wolf, also about military action against Syria. Is this a case where Congress needs to weigh in? After all, the kinds of attacks we've seen since 9/11 have been really authorized by the post 9/11 Authorization for the Use of Military Force against Al Qaeda. Clearly, this doesn't fall into this.
Will there be moves in Congress to actually ask for some kind of Congressional resolution about future military action in Syria?
Might there be an attempt to get a UN resolution? Of course, Russia and China will probably try and veto it. So, there's going to be a lot of questions in coming days.
BLITZER: Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader in the House of Representatives, issued a statement saying this, Peter. Let me read it to you. Part of it, "tonight's strike in Syria appears to be a proportional response to the regime's use of chemical weapons."
But then she goes on to say, "If the president intends to escalate US military's involvement in Syria, he must come to Congress for an authorization for the use of military force, which is tailored to meet the threat and prevent another open-ended war in the Middle East."
And we're getting statements similar to that from other -- not just Democrats, but Republicans as well. But do you think there's an appetite in Congress, Peter, for that kind of legislation, authorizing the US military -- US military force in Syria? BERGEN: Well, Wolf, as you well know, there hasn't been much of an appetite in Congress for this, for these kinds of authorizations. But I think this is a little bit different. We are not talking about Al Qaeda or its associated forces.
This is potentially another military campaign, which has nothing to do with 9/11 directly. And it seems that there are voices in Congress who want to have a vote on this. And by the way, that would be great because, after all, Congress is supposed to authorize these sorts of actions. The commander-in-chief is merely supposed to carry them out, not unilaterally without congressional authorization.
So, I think for the Republic, it's good if there's a real discussion about what are we doing in Syria, what kind of length of campaign that might be, what kind of resources should be devoted to it, these are the sorts of things that Congress should actively be debating.
BLITZER: Peter, thank you very much. I want to bring back our panel of experts. Col. Cedric Leighton, Tony Blinken, Juliette Kayyem.
Tony Blinken, is the president authorized to use this kind of military force against the Syrian government, the Syrian regime of Bashar al- Assad? Does he have that authority?
BLINKEN: Well, he has the authority in terms of US law, although he has to go to Congress and inform it under the War Powers Act. And ultimately, if this is to last more than 60 days, he needs Congress' approval.
It's a somewhat more complicated question under international law. Juliette and others can speak to that. But it's a little bit more challenging to find that basis on international law.
Now, one of the results of what happened in 2013 when we enforced diplomatically President Obama's red line is we forced Syria to sign on to the chemical weapons convention. It's in gross violation of that convention through the use of sarin gas. That may be one basis under international law to have taken this action, in direct response to what Syria did and, as Nancy Pelosi pointed out, proportional to his actions.
BLITZER: Well, Juliette, let me ask you about the statement from this Russian official. This is an act of aggression against a UN member. Is it?
KAYYEM: Wolf, the Russians will say so, but I have to say, just taking a step back, this is not the reaction that I bet you the Trump administration wanted because they will take it to the UN. And we're also hearing from Syrians, AP is reporting that there might've been fatalities or deaths. That's not the reaction of countries that might have heard our message.
And so, while the military mission may have been quick and strategic, which our military is fantastic at doing, the next 24 to 36 hours are going to be very telling because the Trump administration is going to have this international legal question arising from Russia and we're going to have the domestic legal question about whether this attack is authorized under the AUMF or other legal authorities.
I don't see how it is authorized under the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, which has -- let's just say, gracefully, it's been widened over the years to encompass a lot of military actions. But I cannot imagine the Trump administration is going to seek congressional approval.
BLITZER: It's fair to say Col. Leighton -- and I think you'll agree -- that the US used these cruise -- Tomahawk cruise missiles without any pilots. If the US would have gone in with fighter aircraft and bombs, potentially American warplanes and pilots could have been endangered. Is that right?
LEIGHTON: Oh, yes. Absolutely true, Wolf. And one of the big reasons to use cruise missiles is precisely what you outlined. We're trying to not only save lives, but we're trying to save our pilots' lies.