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EARLY START

U.S. Missile Attack Against Syrian Airbase. Aired 4:30-5a ET

Aired April 7, 2017 - 04:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[04:32:27] ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: In the wake of a campaign where he promised not to intervene, the president launches strikes against the Syrian regime. How does this response to a chemical attack affect the long -- conflict in the long-term?

We have live coverage around the world right now, everyone.

Welcome back to EARLY START. I'm Christine Romans.

DAVE BRIGGS, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Dave Briggs. It is 11:32 in Syria.

We welcome all of our viewers here in the U.S. and around the world. And we start with our breaking news. President Trump launching missile strikes in Syria in response to the chemical weapons attacks by Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. U.S. warships launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian missile airfield, the same airfield where the planes that carried out those chemical attacks were based.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: Assad choked out the lives of helpless men, women and children. It was a slow and brutal death for so many. No child of God should ever suffer such horror.

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ROMANS: This is the first direct action the U.S. has taken against the Assad regime in the country's six-year-long civil war. There are many questions at this point.

What is the reaction from Syria, from Moscow? And what will be the next move by President Trump who not long ago said the U.S. should day out of Syria and would need congressional approval to do so?

Our coverage begins at the Pentagon with the latest on the strike from national security reporter, Ryan Browne.

Bring us up to speed, Ryan.

RYAN BROWNE, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER: Good morning, Christine. That's right. These strikes were targeted at this air base that was linked to the chemical weapons attack. Now, Pentagon officials showed us information that indicated that planes from this air base were involved in a chemical weapons strike, including tracking data showing the planes leaving that air base, conducting the strike and returning.

Now, they weren't targeted at the personnel at the base, but they were targeted at aircraft, radar, anti-aircraft, everything that makes the airfield operational is what officials said. Now, it was also conducted at a time where they expected fewer personnel to be present. This is all part of what is incapacitating this airfield which has a long history with chemical weapons, officials say. In fact, before the 2013 arrangement that was supposed to eliminate Syrian stockpile of chemical weapons, officials say that those types of weapons were stockpiled at this facility.

[04:35:01] And General McMaster, Donald Trump's national security adviser, said steps were taken to avoid hitting any of the facilities that were housing these weapons to prevent them from leaking out.

So, this was a targeted strike, 59 Tomahawk missiles at these key elements of this air base in the hopes that it will deter future chemical weapons strikes from being conducted in the future by the Assad regime.

ROMANS: All right. Ryan Browne, thank you so much for that. And keep us up to speed, as we learn more information about that attack last night.

BRIGGS: Let's get some world reaction. We turn to CNN's chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour live in London.

Good morning to you, Christiane.

Let's take a step back. We know why the United States launched these air strikes sending a message to the Assad regime. What we don't yet know is why the Assad regime after being assured essentially from President Trump, from Nikki Haley, from Rex Tillerson, that they were comfortable with him staying in power, why he would launch this chemical weapons attack?

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: You know, it is the all-important question, why? First of all, why anybody would use those kinds of weapons of mass at the instruction, but why particularly in this context? And that's something that has to be fleshed out in the days and weeks and months ahead. Why did he feel to reckless that this is what he did given that he was in a pretty good position relatively speaking, having seen the fall of Aleppo with no outside intervention at the end on of this last year and sitting there with very powerful support from Russia and Iran as he continues, but also saying that he wanted to continue the war? So, that is Assad's mindset.

Now for the United States and its allies, really important is that they're getting a lot of support. The U.S. is getting a lot of support from its allies. The British defense secretary has said that, look, this chemical attack by Assad was the first major test for the Trump administration and for President Trump in foreign policy and foreign affairs and, therefore, this response was absolutely the right one and that it was aimed at trying to deter Assad from conducting any further chemical weapons attacks.

So, that's what the allies are saying, whether it's France, whether it's Germany, Japan, Israel, all the countries, NATO was informed beforehand, although this was just a unilateral American action. They are all Turkey, Iran -- sorry, the United States, Arab allies and the rest of world have come to the support of the U.S.

The question is, does it lead any further than this and what will happen with the Russia piece of this? Which has obviously condemned.

A very important reaction is from the Chinese and, of course, we know that the Chinese president is in Florida meeting with President Trump. They have said today that they condemn the use of chemical weapons at any time by any party, and that's significant because the Chinese, with the Russians, vetoed or obstructed any kind of anti-Syria chemical weapons resolution that's been trying -- for instance, last month. So, it's an important statement from China.

ROMANS: You know, and one wonders how this administration, Christiane, evolves on the humanitarian crisis in Syria. The president clearly moved by those pictures of the innocent babies, he said, who were murdered. Yet he has also said that there would be no Syrian refugees on U.S. soil. And, actually, won the election by saying he was going to keep those people out of this country.

AMANPOUR: Well, look, it's hard to know whether that will change, but certainly something did change regarding how you react to this kind of horror. And the president, President Trump, even back in 2013 when President Obama laid down a chemical weapons red line and then failed to follow up on it, at the time, President Trump tweeted that President Obama should not get involved, should not do it, don't get involved there. Save your powder for something more important I think were the actual words.

And then on the campaign trail, he sort of switched tack and blamed President Obama for not doing enough in Syria. So, all of that is before he entered the White House, before he's inaugurated and before he's faced with these grave issues that has to have some kind of action and reaction.

And so, we saw in the Rose Garden when he was speaking with the king of Jordan that he had done what I term a 180 on this. That he -- his language, his body language indicated that this attack by Assad was so heinous that it required some kind of response and that is what he's done, under advisement, obviously, from General Mattis, from General McMaster, his two main national security and defense advisers.

BRIGGS: And to that point, Rex Tillerson, secretary of state, say the said this strike did not represent a change in our policy or our posture in Syria. Can we view this in a vacuum as a reaction to the chemical attack and as a statement to the Assad regime and nothing more? AMANPOUR: Well, it could be. It depends on the administration, how

far it wants to take this.

[04:40:01] By how far, we obviously don't mean an invasion, a full scale regime change. But there are other measures that even this administration had been sort of talking about, whether they extend the idea of safe zones inside Syria. We know that the Turks would like that to happen, the Turkish government today while supporting this response said now it's time to talk about, you know, increasing the protection for civilians and, of course, we do know that the United States is very heavily involved on the ground now in Syria to try to surround and eventually annihilate ISIS inside Raqqa. Moving on from what it hopes to accomplish and finish in Mosul within, you know, with a certain period of time to come.

So, that is their plan and that's what they're doing right now. So that is the main focus of the U.S. and it's the main focus now of the West. But it does -- you know, we constantly keep being unpleasantly reminded that it is actually Assad that started this war, that caused the war, that enabled ISIS to incubate and Assad has not gone against ISIS.

So, it does require also dealing with the Assad problem. And this potentially, although it's very difficult to see how right now, but is something that needs to happen in conjunction with Assad's main allies Iran and most importantly Russia.

ROMANS: These are fascinating days ahead.

Christiane Amanpour, we're so happy you're here to walk us through it -- thank you so much. Talk to you again soon.

BRIGGS: All of this happening while President Trump and President Xi meet in Mar-a-Lago.

ROMANS: Yes.

BRIGGS: The most important relationship on the planet.

Well, how did President Trump decide what action to take in Syria? Our military expert explains how the president weighs his options, next.

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[04:45:54] BRIGGS: Welcome back to our breaking news coverage of the U.S. missile strike against Syria. Now, before green-lighting the attack, President Trump was briefed by Defense Secretary James Mattis on every military action available.

Let's go live to Washington and get some perspective now from retired Colonel Cedric Leighton, a CNN military analyst, a former member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Good morning to you, Colonel. Let's start with the tactic the United States used here. Tomahawk missiles, 59 of them. Why Tomahawk missiles and what does that say about our intentions?

COL. CEDRIC LEIGHTON, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, good morning, Dave.

The basic intention I think is this, to preserve as much U.S. life as possible. And an unmanned weapon like the Tomahawk missile is ideal for something like that, that it is a precision weapon, it is a weapon that can go in and do the job, but it doesn't put any pilots at risk. And that is what you're seeing here. You're getting a big bang for your buck in essence, you are going in. You're t taking out the things that you've targeted, but you're not putting your pilots at risk. That is one of the key things that I think led President Trump to his decision, was it minimized the risk to U.S. personnel.

ROAMNS: Do you think -- you've been involved in these decisions before. Do you think he was offered a suite of options and the president and his advisers chose this one. What other options were on the table, in your view?

LEIGHTON: Well, there usually are three options, three big, different options that they give a decision-maker like the president. Now, of course, each individual case is going to be different, but in this case, I think it could have been everything from do absolutely nothing and let this pass or go in and attack multiple targets at the same time.

I think they felt the risk of doing that was far too great and what they decided to do was go ahead and send a message. It was from a moral perspective and judging by the president's reaction to what he saw from the Syrian situation on April 4th, he decided that it was time to do something and to put Assad on notice. And the best way he felt he could do that was a demonstration strike like this which clearly took out large segment of this air base, rendered it inoperable and made it basically a showcase for the capabilities of the Tomahawk missile.

BRIGGS: Just to reiterate, the administration making clear this does not show an evolution of their policy in Syria. Does it need to be, though, followed by further military action in your opinion?

LEIGHTON: In my opinion, based on this one action, it would be insufficient to get everything lined up so that the United States could achieve its goals, both vis-a-vis the Syrian regime as well as against ISIS. So, these are two different things. But the only thing that they can really do is get something in there that puts Assad on notice, but they are going to have to take advantage of what they created through this attack on the Syrian air base, use that as leverage to move forward in further efforts to get something done against the Syrian regime.

They have a chance to do this. Whether or not they will seize that opportunity, of course, is another question.

ROMANS: What about the Russia risk? The Russians aren't happy about this at all. The Russians were working there -- the Russians actually stationed at this particular airfield at the forward operating base for them. They were alerted through proper channels from the U.S. that this was going to happen. What about the risk of some conflict with Russia over this?

LEIGHTON: Well, I think the risk with Russia is really high. And one of the ironies of this is that the Russians have basically said they're going to shut down the very channel that gave them the information that saved their soldiers lives. So, this is one of the things that the United States and Russia are going to have to work out because what is happening here, the United States is demonstrating its power.

We are clashing with the Russians. They see Syria as an area that is in their sphere of influence. We believe that the Russians should stay out of Syria and at the very least not support someone like Bashar al Assad.

[04:50:03] And the fact that this is going like this really indicates that the United States and Russia have a lot more that they have to accomplish with each other and that is going to be put at risk.

BRIGGS: And at this point, Rex Tillerson, secretary of state, is set to be in Russia to meet directly with Vladimir Putin for the first time. That is the back drop here.

Colonel, we really appreciate the analysis.

ROMANS: That will be a fascinating trip next week. And the foreign minister says that trip is still on.

All right. The reaction to all of this in Russia. We go there. The reaction quite strong. We're live in Moscow.

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ROMANS: We're following breaking news.

The U.S. lunching Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian military air base in response to the chemical attack that killed scores of civilians. The U.S. strike prompting a fierce response are from Russia. Russia has backed the Assad regime.

CNN senior international correspondent Matthew Chance, live for us in Moscow with Kremlin reaction.

[04:55:01] Good morning. They're angry?

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: They are pretty angry, on the face of it, at least. Vladimir Putin, the Russian president through his spokesman, has said this is "an act of aggression against a sovereign state, a violation of international law on what he called the farfetched pretext." The Russians, of course, disagree that a chemical weapons strike was carried out in the first place.

The Russian foreign ministry has announced a very important measure in fact, which is an end to the flight safety, the air safety agreement between Russia and the United States inside Syria. That's an agreement that prevents the aircraft, the air forces of these two nations from coming into contact with each other in the skies as they carry out airstrikes in Syria.

But there are also signs and this is interesting coming to us now, signs that Russia is prepared to take this on the chin. First of all, they were warned in advance about these strikes taking place. They lost none of their personnel and apparently none of their aircraft or equipment, either. They didn't, interestingly, use their very capable S-400 surface-to-air missile system, either, which were designed to take out Tomahawk air cruise missiles.

We just had this statement from the Russian foreign ministry, as well, he said he's disappointed, the foreign minister, by the way this damages U.S.-Russian relations, but he does not think it will lead to an irreversible situation. So, the Russians leaving the door open on better ties in the future.

ROMANS: I guess they can talk about. That was Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state next week, when he goes to Moscow.

Matthew Chance, thank you so much.

BRIGGS: 11:56 a.m. in Syria. Let's get regional reaction now from Istanbul and join CNN's Muhammad Lila.

Muhammad, we're starting to hear from some of our allies in the region. Is it positive reaction to these U.S. air strikes?

MUHAMMAD LILA, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESONDENT: Well, Dave, you know, it's an interesting contrast. We know the Russians are furious, but America's allies in the region are actually quite happy.

You have to remember countries like Turkey and Saudi Arabia who have been backing some of these militant jihadi groups on the ground, they have been hoping and waiting for this day for several years. They pleaded with the Obama administration to take some sort of meaningful action against Bashar al Assad. Obama chose not to.

In comes Trump, a new presidency, and what's one of the first things he does is well, he undertakes this operation overnight. Saudi Arabia calling it a courageous discussion by President Trump. Turkey going a step further and saying now, the next step should be implementing some sort of no-fly zone in the northern part of the country.

So, while America's allies are celebrating, I should point out, the one group that we haven't heard from -- we've heard from Iran, Russia, America's allies, but the one group on the ground that's critical is Hezbollah. And we haven't heard a word out of Hezbollah. It's estimated they have more than 10,000 fighters on the ground. They're helping back up and prop up the Assad government and we still haven't heard what their response to this is -- Dave.

BRIGGS: We know the Syrian army says in effect this makes the U.S. a partner with ISIS. Muhammad Lila live in Istanbul -- thank you.

ROMANS: So, the strike in Syria has investors on edge. Dow futures down slightly. The futures sank more than 120 points right after the strike. But the futures climbing back here as we sort through the severity of this strike.

Stock markets in Europe lower right thou. Shares in Asia traded mixed amid these developments. Gold prices rising. That happens when investors seek safe haven amid international turmoil.

Oil price is the other big mover right now, not a surprise here, crude jumping almost 2 percent, above $52 a barrel. The thought here is military action in Syria could disrupt supply in the Middle East is the escape conflict escalates. You've got Russia and Iran, two huge oil players here.

It's come to see this kind of reaction following military strikes in the Middle East, you know, violence or geopolitical, you know, disarray in the Middle East. On top of all of that, there's a monthly jobs report due in about 3 1/2 hours. The economists are expecting a solid gain of 187,000 new jobs, the unemployment rate should hold steady at 4.7 percent. Wages expected to tick up 2.7 percent increase over the past year.

A lot going on. We'll be closely watching in oil, in bonds and maybe in the dollar and gold. That's where you see the reaction to this airstrike.

Thanks for joining us here on EARLY START. I'm Christine Romans.

BRIGGS: And I'm Dave Briggs.

Our breaking news coverage continues right now with NEW DAY."

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. This is a special edition of NEW DAY.

And we de begin with breaking news. President Trump ordering military strikes in Syria. Nearly 60 Tomahawk missiles fired at a Syrian air base.

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CAMEROTA: Strikes in retaliation for President Assad's chemical weapons attack Tuesday on his own people, including dozens of children being killed.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: U.S. officials say the Tomahawk missiles did hit their target, the Al-Shayrat Base, used by Syrian airplane toes carry out that chemical attack.