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President Trump launches a military strike in a Syrian government target; Aired 11:00-12:00mn ET
Aired April 6, 2017 - 23:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
[23:00:20] DON LEMON, CNN HOST: This is our breaking news, the first video of U.S. military strikes on Syria tonight.
You are watching CNN TONIGHT. I'm Don Lemon.
The United States launching a strike on Syrian government target in retaliation for their chemical weapons attacked on civilians earlier in the week. On President Trump's orders, U.S. warship launched between 50 and 60 tomahawk missiles targeting a Syrian government air base where the war planes that carried out the chemical attacks were based. The missiles were launched from warships in the eastern Mediterranean. U.S. defense official says strike or over until quote "another decision is made."
A senior administration official says the President was very affected by the images of dead children among the civilian casualties in the Syrian chemical weapons attack and felt compelled to act.
My colleague Wolf Blitzer is going to join me from Washington to help us get through this. And we are also joined by CNN's Barbara Starr, Jeff Zeleny and Fareed Zakaria. They will join us as well. And then CNN military analyst major general James "Spider" Marks and military diplomatic analyst attache rear admiral John Kirby and also military analyst lieutenant Mark Hertling, all here this evening and we will get you through it.
First I want to get to my colleague Barbara Starr.
Barbara, you are the Pentagon for us. The president has launched a military strike in Syria. Give us the latest.
BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: What we now know tonight, Don, it was about 59 tomahawk cruise missiles flying from two warships. We have video of them being launched off the decks of those warships in the eastern Mediterranean, going to some designated targets at an airfield in Syria.
These are very precise missiles. They are guided to the target by satellite so they were going exactly where they were aimed at. This was a decision to undertake a limited strike with a very specific message that the U.S., the Trump administration would take military action showing it would not tolerate a chemical strike like the regime undertook that resulted in such terrible images.
So the U.S. tomahawks struck a number of targets at this air base, including taxi ways, aircraft, the shelters the aircraft were in and fueling points, the gas station at the airfield so to speak. All of that aimed the making sure it could not be a place where aircraft could take off from again.
And the U.S. wanted this to be very visible in the region. They wanted everyone to see what they were going to do. This was not a stealth strike. This was something right out, you know, for the world to see. They also have radar tracks that they say are the absolute evidence that this was the airfield where Syrian warplanes took off from.
The final point, we know now that there were Russians at the air base and that the U.S. talked to Russia several times through the day to let them know what was going to happen and when it was going to happen. We don't know for sure that the Russians moved out of the air base area. That is something for Moscow to address. But it raises a very critical question. If the Russians were there at the air base, what did they know about that nerve agent strike that the Syrians undertook? Were the Russians there? One U.S. official telling me tonight it happened right under their nose. So the U.S. feels the Russians continue to be very complicit in the activities of the Assad regime -- Don.
LEMON: Barbara Starr at the Pentagon. Again, that's the first video of the U.S. military strikes on Syria tonight. A lot of questions to be answered. And Wolf Blitzer, my colleague, joining us from Washington. The President at Mar-a-Lago, a meeting with the Chinese president tonight having dinner and making decision, Wolf.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST, SITUATION ROOM: A very important meeting with Chinese later. But also, the United States launching airstrikes these tomahawk cruise missile.
I want to go to Jeff Zeleny, senior White House correspondent.
And Jeff, you are there down at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida, with the President. Tell us what you are hearing and what you are seeing. It didn't take long for the President to speak out.
JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: It didn't indeed, Wolf. And this is really a swift-moving series of events here. And we have -- I just came from a briefing just a short time ago with the secretary of state Rex Tillerson and the national security advisor general H.R. McMaster. And they walked us through sort of the President's thinking and what led him making this decision this evening.
Now, of course, the chemicals attacks just happened a couple days ago. And we have been talking and reporting about how the President said he was moved by those attacks, those gruesome images. So his advisers have said he ordered up some options at that moment. But it wasn't until this afternoon when he arrived here in Florida. That he sat down with his national security advisers to go through those options and he ultimately made those decisions and those strikes began around the 8:40 or so Eastern Time. Did the President give Russia, Moscow, a heads up that this was coming, of course? And the secretary of state, Wolf, said this, he said we sought no
approval from Moscow or any other level within the Russian infrastructure. However, the U.S. forces on the ground did make contact with Russians ground forces who work out of similar military bases and other things, who close proximity, it is, you know, through the general channels of deconfliction to try to alleviate any Russian casualties. But the secretary of state very clear saying again and then reemphasizing that they sought no approval or did not inform Moscow this going forward.
And Wolf, another thing. General H.R. McMaster, the national security advisor, he was also giving this briefing this evening just a short time ago. And he said that this was a very limited strike, indeed, specifically as Barbara was reporting in retaliation for that chemical attack earlier in this week. He said this should not be viewed at a change of U.S. policy toward Syria necessarily. He went on to say this. He said this was not a small strike. This was not I think what this does is communicate it's a big shift in Assad as calculus. It should be anyway.
And then the secretary of state also made clear that they sought the approval from several international leaders and they, you know, essentially gave a warning that the U.S. was indeed going to do this.
Now, we know that President has been critical. In fact, in 2013 as a private citizen, he said that President Obama would have to seek congressional approval before doing any action in Syria. Well, this President did not seek congressional approval and we will see how that plays out in coming days. But Wolf, we are being told that the White House contacted some two dozen members of Congress, Republicans, Democrats from the House and the Senate to give them notice that this was happening this evening. The vice President also working his channels back in the White House here. So this was not, as Barbara was also reporting, not a secret mission. They wanted folks to know.
Now, of course, how this impacts the President's summit here with the Chinese President certainly interesting, but it does show the White House believed that this President is willing to act and act aggressively, certainly in Syria. We will see if that extends to other threat regions likes North Korea, Wolf.
BLITZER: And Jeff, it didn't take very long for the President himself to go out and speak to reporters before the cameras. Let me play exactly what the President had to say. Listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: On Tuesday Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad launched a horrible chemical weapons attack on innocent civilians, using a deadly nerve agent Assad choked out the lives of helpless men, women and children. It was a slow and brutal death for so many. Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack. No child of God should ever suffer such horror.
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. There can be no dispute that Syria used banned chemical weapons, violated its obligation under the chemical weapons convention and ignored the urging of the U.N. Security Council. Years of previous attempts at changing Assad's behavior have all failed and failed very dramatically. As a result, the refugee crisis continues to deepen and the region continues to destabilize, threatening the United States and its allies.
Tonight I call on all civilized nations to join us in seeking to end this slaughter and bloodshed in Syria and also to end terrorism of all kinds and all types. We ask for god's wisdom as we face the challenge of our very troubled world. We pray for the lives of the wounded and for the souls of those who have passed. And we hope that as long as America stands for justice, then peace and harmony will in the end prevail. Good night and God bless America and the entire world. Thank you.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
[23:10:59] BLITZER: A very strong statement from the President of the United States.
Jeff Zeleny, you are there at Mar-a-Lago down in Palm Beach, Florida. I don't think we can overstate what a departure the statement that the President just made and the orders that he just gave, what a dramatic shift from the statements he made as a private citizen, from the states he made as a Presidential candidate, from the statements he made as President-elect. And even as President of the United States, all of this the result, Jeff, of the images that he saw, those horrific pictures of those little kids that had been gassed to death?
ZELENY: Indeed, Wolf. I mean, that was the sense that we got. I mean, this happened on Tuesday. And of course, there had been so many chemical attacks but none to this magnitude since he has been President. And of course, you know, Donald Trump has said so many things about so many issues over the years, but as he gains information and the intelligence and suddenly has the burden of responsibility, he acted differently here.
Now, I was flying down to Florida with him earlier today, Wolf, aboard air force one and we asked him again and again about Assad and we paused the final time when we asked if Assad should, you know, leave power and he said something has to happen. Well, of course, he knew in his mind at that moment that, you know, that a strikes were certainly an option. And about six or still hours after he talked to us, he did that, Wolf.
So, you know, this is an evolving administration and an evolving presidency. The question here is what, you know, will this be enough? This was not -- General H.R. McMaster, the national security advisor was clear that this was significant strike. But he said this is not enough to take out Assad. And indeed, that was not the mission of this evening's strikes, Wolf. So the President certainly the biggest military operation he had had mission but it certainly wouldn't be the last -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Yes, certainly it won't be.
You know, Don, it was very clear that what the President wanted to do was send a powerful message to the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad but to a whole bunch of other folks in the region as well and beyond the region, including the Russians.
LEMON: Absolutely. And officials are saying this is the last of it until another decision is made and that decision can possibly be made.
So let's go to the ground here and talk about what this means in Syria and also what it means for foreign policy .I'm going to bring in major general James "Spider" Marks, Wolf, and I also with Fareed Zakaria.
So General Marks, more than 50 tomahawk missiles have been launch tonight targeting a taxi-way aircraft, fuel points. What's your reaction? Because as I understand, the President of presented with three options from his team and he went with tomahawk missiles.
MAJ. GEN, JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS: Well, I think what the President was given was a very narrowly scoped requirement and options to go after that very narrowly defined mission statement. This is retaliatory in nature and it's very proportional. So what secretary Mattis I'm certain and general Dunnford and General McMaster came forward, and they were all together. They linked arms I understand. I'm certain there was no dissension among those gentlemen, and they said, look Mr. President, we need to go after Assad's ability to deliver weapons of mass destruction, that's chemical weapons. He has done this from this airfield, let's keep it very narrowly scope. We are not trying to boil the ocean. We are not trying to conduct a regime change. We are not reyng to eleeliminate all his military capabilities. This is simply a very narrowly defined mission.
LEMON: Is this to send a message?
MARKS: I would say that the political objectives were met. We care. We are going to act and we are going to act with impunity. We are going to notify our allies. We didn't ask permission, we notified our allies and we told Russian. By the way, guess what we just did. We just launched some t-lams towards some targets in Syria. I mean, I'm sure that is what the communications was, not in time for Russia to do anything to alert Assad. I'm certain to say those t-lambs are away, but we're letting you guys know.
[23:15:01] MARKS: And I'm also, I don't know for sure, but I would imagine that Assad in advance of this scrambled his aircraft, his fixed-wing aircraft and got them off the runway. So we achieved our objectives to act. We did not degrade in any substantial way Assad's ability to execute something like this again.
LEMON: When you look at the video, the first video coming in just about 15 or 20 minutes ago, when you look at the video, what this tell you? What is happening here, general?
MARKS: That tells me that the Navy's doing its job. Those are tomahawks being launched from incredibly talented sailors and leaders aboard ships in the Mediterranean. That's what they do for a living. What I'm interested in is what does the effect of that t-lam on the other end look like in Shayrat airfield. I want to see what the battle damage assessment is. We know this thing was launched. We know that incredibly precise. I would like to see, and we will through intelligence collection, we will start to get images that the Syrians will send out in social media but we will also start be able to begin to compare those against intelligence collection. It tells us very precisely to what we receive.
LEMON: As we know, Fareed, the President did not want to go into Syria. He has said as much even 48 hours ago he didn't want to go into Syria. It appears this is a change in strategy and a change in policy and very quickly.
FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN HOST, FAREED ZAKARIA GPS: Well, it's a change in policy. I'm not sure it's a change in strategy because the President seems to have said that, you know, this is retaliation. That this was tied to Assad's chemical reproduce (ph). But secretary Tillerson has briefed reporters saying we are not changing our strategy on sail. We are not, you know, (INAUDIBLE). So this is almost an expression of moral outrage and who can quarrel with that. I mean, Assad is a horrible dictator. What he did was ghastly. The fact that we can in some way, you know, show that, make him pay some kind of a price for it makes, you know, it makes us all feel that the United States is in some sense affirming its role as a moral leader.
But, you know, military strategist Samuel Huntington used to say military force is not a good instrument of communication. It is an instrument of compelence (ph). You have to have something you are trying to get the other side to do a political strategy that you are using the force full.
What is our political strategy? There is a civil war in Iraq between Assad essentially and ISIS and a bunch of other Jihadist. Are we now saying we are against Assad? Do we want to strengthen ISIS? Do we, you know, do we want Assad regime to fall? If so, are we willing to commit ourselves to that goal? If not, we have just thrown bombs in the middle of one of the most complex civil wars in the country and now we are going to step back and say, well that's it, we are done.
LEMON: And the reason it's hard to answer many of the questions that you are asking is because this is such a young Presidency and we really don't know what the foreign policy is especially when it comes in Syria.
ZAKARIA: Well. And there is this bizarre and coherence at this point right. As you said, there are 24 tweets that Donald Trump made in 2013 when there were worse chemical attacks than this one in which he said do not get involved in Syria. Do not bomb Syria. This would be a big mistake.
Sean Spicer said two days ago reacting to this very chemical attack. We shouldn't be trying to get Assad out, that's not realistic. So if that's the case, what have we just done? And what is the purpose of it and what will we do tomorrow?
You know, as I say, there's a tremendous feel good, and I don't mean that in a superficial sense, there is a kind of morally affirming element to this act, this military act that I applaud. But what is the political strategy behind it? Are we now going to try and topple the Assad government? If so, that means tens of thousands of troops on the ground. If not, what exactly have we achieve? There is a danger. Ben Wedeman mentioned it on Anderson. There is a danger that we have effectively acted as ISIS' air force. Because anything that weakens Assad in a strategic sense in Syria strengthens ISIS. Those are the two principle players on the ground.
LEMON: And that is really the dilemma here, what happens with ISIS as it comes to this.
Stand by, gentlemen. We are going to need you throughout the evening. I want to get back to my colleague, Wolf Blitzer, who has some experts with him as well.
Wolf, what do you have?
BLITZER: Yes. Very, very dramatic and important developments unfolding on this night, Don. I want to bring in General Mark Hertling and admiral John Kirby, two of our analysts.
General Hertling, you planned strikes like this before these tomahawk cruise missiles coming off these ships in the Mediterranean launching the strikes. Obviously, no pilots involved so if the Syrians do have a good air defense system, there's not going to be any U.S. casualties. But tell us about the mission and the target.
LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, the mission was obviously Secretary Mattis probably presented several courses of action after discussion with General Votel and others in the area saying this is what the President wants to do. Give us a couple of course of actions to take that one (ph). They probably took at least two, probably four. And the president pick which one do you wanted to do. And as we have seen, Wolf, it was a very bold, tactical strike. But again, you have to consider what is going to be the operational and the strategic objective.
One of the things, just listening to Don and Spider and Fareed talk about, specifically, they talk about the advancement of the political dynamic. What are we trying to achieve? That's one of the three piece. There's the political piece, there is certainly the psychological piece because when they wake up in the morning, you know, both in Syria and in Russia, they are going to say holy smokes, America, the United States, is now involved in this. But then there's also the physical piece. What construction actually occurred at that airbase.
It sends a message not only in what was destroyed but the very fact that we have entered this war. But there is going to be a new mindset but not on in Syria but in other nations like Iran and Russia and many other countries in the Middle East in terms of what occurred tonight.
[23:21:13] BLITZER: How do you expect Bashar al-Assad, General Hertling, to respond in terms of what he is going to do, shift things on the ground, continue these kinds of strikes he has launched against his own people?
HERTLING: He will know not to launch another chemical strike. That's for sure. I don't think we expect to see that happening anytime soon. So from that perspective, this bold, tactical strike will probably be successful? How does it affect his continued operation against people in Idlib province and in other areas of Syria? I don't know, Wolf. I think he will probably continue fighting this mission.
But as we talked about before, Mr. Assad was on his heels about a year plus ago. When Russia came to his aid, not only with artillery and advisers and the sisters but primarily air power, he was able to turn the tide and start defeating the rebels that were trying to oust him from power. It was critical the fact that Russia came to his aid. So what will happen now, not only from the standpoint of what decisions will Mr. Assad make, but what decision will Mr. Putin make?
And not only will it affect him in Syria, but it may affect him in other places of the world, like Ukraine and in other parts of Europe. We got to consider all these things. And then there is also that additional effect that how will Iran react on this because they are not on Russian advisers throughout Syria but there have been many Hezbollah forces helping the Syrians in their fight against the rebels. And I think they may be affected by this as well.
BLITZER: Yes. The Iranians support the Hezbollah militias that are in that - in Syria right now supporting Bashar al-Assad. And there is no doubt plenty of those Iranian revolutionary guard advisers as well.
Admiral Kirby, you bring a unique perspective. You were the spokesman at the Pentagon later at the state department. Secretary of state Tillerson says Moscow failed to read Syria of its chemical weapons under that 2013 agreement that had been reached during the Obama administration.
He said this, and I'll read it to you. Clearly Russia has failed in its responsibility to deliver on that commitment. Either Russia has been complicit or Russia has been incompetent in its ability to deliver.
The U.S. did not respond militarily in 2013 as you remember admiral Kirby because the Russians promised to make sure all of Syria's stock piles of weapons of mass destruction, poison gas, sarin gas, chemical weapons would be destroyed. Clearly they were not.
REAR ADM. JOHN KIRBY (RET.), CNN MILITARY AND DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: Well, we got 99 percent, I think it was, of the declared stock piles and even the OPCW was able to affirm that - of the declared stockpiles, we know we got the vast majority. But even at the time we said and I'm pretty sure OPCW said we couldn't rule out the fact that there undeclared stockpiles that they still had. And either way, and I don't disagree with secretary Tillerson, but I would broadly to say that Russian is complicit in a whole lot more than just the potential failure to get chemical weapons out of Syria.
They have basically propped up Assad. They have made the games that he has made over the last two years possible, quite frankly. And I do think it is going to be important to see how they react to this, both in rhetoric but also in action going forward.
I also agree and disagree with secretary Tillerson on two things. He said it is not a small strike, I agree. There is nothing small about what we did tonight. Nothing. It does change the situation on the ground.
And to say that we are not, you know, we can just guarantee that it's a one-off. That we are not going to potentially have to do more kinetic military action here, I think it's too early to say that. And I think we are in now. We are in. And when I listened to the President talk tonight, I took away a different tone from him when I saw secretary Tillerson's comments. I took away from the President that he is now putting his thumb on the scale in this civil war. Whether he likes it or not, we have done that. And I think we are going to have to see how that plays out now in the future.
[23:25:19] BLITZER: One thing that is pretty extraordinary, U.S. officials we are told U.S. officials tell us that the U.S. military, Admiral Kirby, had multiple conversations with the Russian military today throughout the day in fact. I can only assume that whatever the U.S. told the Russians, the Russians would then pass along to the Syrians and tell the Syrians you better get your jets in some sort of bunker because the U.S. is about to launch some sort of strike.
KIRBY: Yes. It would be interesting to find if the Pentagon reveals sort of how much deconfliction conversations there were, over what period of time, how details they were. I'm not at all surprised that didn't - that they used that channel to have that kind of discussion because they have an obligations that they take seriously to reduce and minimize civilian casualties. We obviously, didn't want to hit Russian targets. So I think I applaud that effort and make sense that they would use it.
I'm also not surprised at all that there was no government to government communications between Washington and Moscow at a higher level about what we are going to do. I think this played out probably the best way it could. Obviously, there were Russian forces at this base and as I understand it, there was Russian aircraft at that base. It will be interesting to see if any of those Russian aircraft were hit as a result of being there. So we will have to see how this plays out. Again, I think this is why you have a deconfliction channel and it looks to me like it was used appropriately in this case.
BLITZER: Do you know or do we know, does anyone know if there were any back channel alerts given to Iran because the Iranians, as you know Admiral Kirby, they have plenty of forces in Syria as well working with Bashar al-Assad's regime.
KIRBY: Yes, they do. People I have talked to this evening haven't indicated that there was deconfliction with Iran. Now, there's also no existing deconfliction channel with the government of Iran or Iranian forces. And this aren't just in an Iranian state forces. This is Republican guard that's there in Hezbollah. So I doubt seriously that there was any deconfliction with Iran and nobody I have talk to tonight seems indicate that that would have been the case.
BLITZER: Let me read the statement we just got in from Senator Ted Cruz on Syria. I will read the entire thing then we will discuss.
Today after eight years of Obama foreign policy failures, Syria is a humanitarian disaster. Bashar al-Assad is a monster, a puppet of Russia and Iran and he has once again used chemical weapons against his own citizens, murdering innocent men, women and children. Senator Cruz's statement goes on. Any military action in Syria must be justified as protecting the vital national security interest of America including decisive action to prevent chemical weapons from falling it to the hands of radical Islamic terrorist. And I look forward to our commander in-chief making the case to Congress and the American people how we should do so in the days ahead.
A very strong statement, admiral Kirby from Senator Cruz. You know, a lot of lawmakers, they wanted the passage of authorization for the use of military force before the U.S. once again got involved militarily whether in Syria, Iraq, any place else. Clearly, there was no legislation, no formal congressional authorization for the launching of these tomahawk cruise missiles. Go ahead.
KIRBY: No, that's right. I mean, OAF that exist is based on the 2001 which authorized the use of military force against al-Qaeda. Now we have been using that in the last several years to go after ISIS as a sort of an Al-Qaeda affiliate. So it's still valid.
We have argued, or at least the Obama administration argued for new authorization for use of military forces. It wasn't able to get that. We weren't able to get that done. I think authorities from Congress are important in this regard. And I'm sure they are going to work that out.
It was interesting but this is the point I really wanted to get to. In Senator Cruz's statement and when you listen to the President's statement, both of them talked about this being in the vital national security interest of the country in terms of dealing with weapons of mass destruction, the proliferation and distribution and use of them. I think that was very deliberately inserted in the president's remarks, very deliberately inserted in the (INAUDIBLE) to convey that even though we didn't have a technical AUMF for tonight's action. That it was in the bio-national security interest of the United States to conduct the sort of a strike against a WMD capability.
It does beg the question, though, about going forward. And you caught a little bit that in Senator Cruz's statement. But I was thinking the same thing when I heard the President that if it is in fact a vital national security interest and I believe it is to prevent the spread of WMD. They use these kinds of weapons, then it does beg the question or the possibility that these kind of strikes will probably or could happen again in the future.
[23:30:08] BLITZER: A good point aiming of that authorization for the use of military force. That's the legislation. Many lawmakers would like to see pass before the U.S. once again gets involve in military action along these lines and very initial step. We will see what happens in the days to come.
Let's go back to Don for more.
LEMON: All right. Wolf, thank you very much. We will get back to Wolf in just a little bit.
And again, the video you are looking at, the first video of U.S. military strikes in Syria tonight.
Let's get to the politics of all this. I want to bring in my colleague, White House correspondent Jim Acosta.
Jim, I understand that you have been talking to the White House - to White House officials just now. What are they telling you? What's the latest?
JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, I talked to one senior administration official, Don, about whether we should be expecting any future airstrikes in the coming days going after Bashar al-Assad's chemical weapons capabilities. And according to this one senior administration official, this person did not want to get ahead of any Presidential decisions that may be forthcoming. But this official said that the President very clearly tonight quote "laid down a marker for the Assad government, that it should cease using chemical weapons against its civilians or risk inviting another strike by the United States." It is a very clear message at the White House is trying to send tonight.
And keep in mind, Don, the national security general Lieutenant general H.R. McMasters when he was briefing reporters here earlier this evening, he very clearly said to reporters that, no, that the strike tonight did not eliminate Bashar al-Assad's chemical weapons capabilities and that those chemical weapons capabilities still exist.
And so, what the president is hoping tonight, from what I am hearing from talking to top officials, is that he has laid down a marker to the Assad government that this has to stop. No more chemical weapons attacks or there are going to be future consequences. And this official went on to say sort of underlining the point that the response in the international community has been quote "extraordinarily positive." So the thought being inside the White House I think at this point, Don, is that yes, that tonight's airstrikes against these chemical weapons capabilities in Syria were successful. But at the same time, they feel like they have the international backing from the global community. If Bashar al-Assad strikes his people again with chemical weapons, that the U.S. is going to have essentially the backing of the global community to go ahead and do this again if it is necessary - Don.
LEMON: A fair amount of positive backing here at home as well.
Jim Acosta down in Florida. Jim, thank you very much.
I want to bring back Fareed Zakaria now and general Marks. Also CNN's Jamie Gangel joins us.
Jamie, I understand that you have been speaking with your sources in Washington. Why did the President attacked after saying that he did not want to become involve in Syria?
JAMIE GANGEL, CNN SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT: Everybody I have spoken to has said this was a very personal reaction. That he saw those pictures obviously just a few days ago as Fareed's been saying, he had a completely different policy. This was a dramatic shift. But also that he wanted to send a message. And that this was the kind of aggressive move he is prepared to make.
One of the sources said to me that he wants to send a message that he will use military power and he wanted that message also to go to North Korea and Iran. In other words, when provoked, he is willing to do something.
LEMON: Fareed, Jim Acosta talked about international backing and international support. I want to read now. This is from a spokesperson for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and he says in both word and action President Trump sent a strong and clear message today that the use and spread of chemical weapons will not be tolerated. Israel fully supports President Trump's decision and hopes that this message of resolve in the face of Assad as regime, horrific actions will resonate not only in Damascus but in Iran, Pyongyang and elsewhere. What do you think?
ZAKARIA: I think more than just Israel, I think the Trump administration will get broad international support for what it has done, partly because of as Spider been pointing out, it's fairly narrowly targeted. There isn't a danger of just turning in to something larger and snowballing.
But look, the Assad regime is a brutal, thuggish regime. And people have been trying to figure out some way to get its attention to get it to, you know, maybe adhere to some red lines. And you know, the big hope is and secretary Tillerson talked about this, to get the Assad regime to Geneva to talk about a political transition in Syria. The only hope for the end of violence is Syria is for some kind of political deal.
Assad is not going to be able to rule the whole country, but his opponents are not going to be able to rule the whole country. So somebody has to share power. There will have to be the partition or some kind of power share deal.
And everyone is going to look at this and hope that it maybe lose the ball forward.
[23:35:02] LEMON: But what will be the timeline, you know, if Assad continues to be a bad actor? What is the timeline here? We know chemical weapons, the President saying off-limits, but does Assad still stay in place when you go back to the administration?
ZAKARIA: Yes. The timeline is, you know, just what it's always been. This really is in many ways in that larger strategic picture that you are asking, Don. This is a one-off because it doesn't degrade Assad's military capacity. Remember, he kills thousands and thousands of children with bombs, barrel bombs and bullets. He kills lots of people to establish or maintain his control. All that stays he continues to try to maintain his part of Syria. ISIS is trying to maintain its part. Al-Qaeda is involved (INAUDIBLE). That 50-sided civil war continues. I don't think this has changed very much of anything, other than maybe this red line about chemical weapons.
LEMON: This was not about degrading Syria's capabilities, right? This was sending a message as we have spoken.
LEMON: But just to be clear, he did not seek the approval of any nation.
LEMON: He simply notified.
MARKS: Notification. And look, the United States is looking for buy in. So you pick up the phone and you talk to those folks that you are most interested in getting their support and you say this is what we are going to do. I'm letting you know. And then we also did that with Russia. Just to inform them as well to put their heads down.
LEMON: Why the change now since 2013? I will ask you and then I will Fareed as well. Why this change? It was the pictures? He was affected by this 70 people who, you know, were killed in this including children and babies. Why now? Because as Fareed said that hundreds of people are killed barrel bombs and other --.
MARKS: All the time. Syria has got - is guilty of immense acts of brutality that are horrendous and have been doing that for years. It has to do with context. Look what happened at 2013. President Obama was looking at 2013. We had just been about to get out if Iraq. That was a good decision or not, we did. And we were also looking at -- at that point we were starting to - we have ramped up our presence in Afghanistan. We are now trying to figure out how do we achieve a similar type of withdraw or a normal scene Afghanistan that we could sustain. And now we have this challenge in Syria. And I'm sure the President's calculation was this was horrendous but I can't afford to do this right now for whatever motivated me. I'm sure there were political motivations. I'm sure there are domestic motivation that always are. Fast forward now, we have a new president, more (INAUDIBLE) in his speech. He is not dealing with those issues. This is his problem. President Obama is history.
LEMON: It's certainly now.
MARKS: And I hope, I pray that every issue that this administration sees right now they will embrace as their own. You know, you embrace the chaos. You have to lean into the storm. If you are going to have to weather the storm and get through it. It's yours.
LEMON: It is certainly is interesting because now we are talking about this. But it doesn't completely take Russia off the table because who Russia react to this? How does do they fit in to this entire thing? Because we said we have ISIS on the table. But also Russian is also complicit in what's happening in Syria.
ZAKARIA: And Iran. This is one of the most complicated international crisis I have ever seen in my life because you have many, many actors internally. You know, the CIA has estimated a thousand different militias in Syria. But then, you have many outside powers supporting various ones of these.
But the core issue I think and to answer your question, Don, was just a very good one. Because there are very few issues on which Donald Trump has been as consistent as he was on non-intervention in Syria. And I think what happened is a lot of what's (INAUDIBLE) that he is, I think Donald Trump thinks of himself as tough guy. He confronted this issue and his reflex was I'm going to do something tough. And in this particular case, I think it's morally admirable that he wanted to do it.
The danger here is what if this doesn't change much on the ground? What if in a sense a few months from now we are looking at the same Syrian civil war and Assad has embolden and (INAUDIBLE) and defiant, then has the United States been humiliated? How will Donald Trump react to that idea?
You know, this was one of the things that always dragged America further and further in foreign engagement which is you commit a certain amount of American prestige, power and credibility and it doesn't work. Now, do you back down or do you throw good money after bad?
GANGEL: I want to add two names to that scenario and that is General Mattis and H.R. McMaster. President Trump decided he wanted to do this, but he didn't make the decision alone. Those two men weighed in and they approved this. And there may be a question about what comes next, what comes tomorrow, you know, what kind of influence with Russia, but those are two experienced military men, who said to him they thought this was OK.
[23:40:11] ZAKARIA: I think that, as Spider's been pointing out, they took his impulse and they translated it into a very narrow, limited, targeted policy, which is tactically very effective as a result. One airfield, one set of strikes, you are air route and it's over.
LEMON: But I got to ask Ms. Jamie. Since you have been speaking to folks in Washington, just on the political side, right, his advisers know that this changes the narrative from what the news had been about.
GANGEL: Right. So let's be realistic for a moment. I was here tonight because we were supposed to be talking about palace intrigue and what was going on in the White House and who was up and who was down and is Steve Bannon out of power now and is Jared Kushner -- that seems, you know, prosaic in comparison to trivial in comparison to what's going on now, but it does. This does change the discussion and it is going to change it for several more days. LEMON: Yes.
ZAKARIA: And I hope it changes the man. I hope that one thing that this does is make Donald Trump realize he is President of the United States. He is leader of the world. He should put away the twitter app. He should recognize that he is making decisions about war and peace, take them as seriously as he can, do the best he can and, you know, enough with the antics, enough with the social media.
GANGEL: I love that. I don't think twitter is going away. And actually, I was thinking I wonder what the first tweet will be.
LEMON: Yes. I was going to ask you. Will he suddenly realize the gravity of the position that he is in now because of all of this and put down twitter? We will see. Maybe it does change the man. But you know, as we have been talking about, it changes the narrative. But as my colleague Wolf Blitzer knows in Washington, it all gets back to politics very quickly. But this is certainly very serious military operation underway right now, Wolf.
BLITZER: We have 59 tomahawk cruise missiles targeting this Syrian air base.
I want to bring in rear admiral John Kirby once again, retired lieutenant general Mark Hertling. Also joining us retired lieutenant colonel Rick Francona.
And Rick, you have been to this air base, the al-Shayrat air base in Syria. You were former U.S. military attache in Syria. Tell us a little bit about this base.
LT. COL. RICK FRANCONA, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: It's not one of their larger air bases. It's pretty utilitarian, kind of barebones. It's got basically two runways, two squadrons area. And they have two squadrons of aircraft there simply 22s. This is an older reliable Russian air-to-ground bomber. It's the backbone of the Syrian air-to- ground effort. They have got a lot of them and they fly them every day.
And this base here is a very great location because they can get from this base up into that Idlib province where much of the fighting is going on now. You know, after the fall of Aleppo, almost all of the bombing shifted to the southwest of Aleppo into that Idlib province. So this is a very central located base.
It doesn't surprise me at all that this was the base used to launch this attack the other day. So you have got two squadrons there and also your administrative area, your refueling area, armament area and all that. It's kind of isolated. There are only a couple of small towns around it. So the chances of civilian casualties in like neighboring cities would be very, very minimized. So it was a good target to pick. And as I said, it is not very big, 59 tomahawks will definitely make an impact.
BLITZER: They certainly will from two U.S. ships in the eastern Mediterranean. The statement put up by the Pentagon, Colonel Francona, from the
Pentagon spokesman captain Jeff Davis. Among other things says this, Russian forces were notified in advance of the strike using the established deconfliction line. U.S. military planners took precautions to minimized risks to Russians or Syrians personnel located at the airfield. So that basically means what, the Syrians or the Russians at that air base, we were told, go into bunkers because U.S. missiles were on the way?
FRANCONA: I don't know what the timeline was. I don't know how much advance notice they have got. I know that we have often conducted these strikes at night just to minimize the number of casualties. We want to blow up things and facilities, not necessarily kill people. So I think that would probably the thinking behind that.
But you know, this -- all the aircraft should have been stored in these hard aircraft shelters. Each squadron area has enough shelters to store their 12 aircraft. And if there in those harden aircraft shelter, it would take more than one tomahawk to take out those shelters. But you know, as the admiral has said before, these are very precise weapons. And it's not inconceivable you could put one, two, three tomahawks into those shelters and obliterate what was inside.
So all in all, I think this was a good target to hit, 59 tomahawks sounds about right. And I think it sends the right message without risking a lot of collateral damage.
[23:45:17] BLITZER: Yes. Admiral Kirby, they said in the Pentagon statement that the 59 tomahawk cruise missiles targeted aircraft, hardened aircraft shelters, petroleum and logistical storage as well as ammunition supply bunkers, air defense systems and radars. If they hit all of that, it would have been a pretty successful operation, right?
KIRBY: Without question. And my guess is that is what they were targeting and they used nearly 60 tomahawks to launch these strikes that they probably hit all that stuff and therefore can say I think truthfully that they very much had a degradation effect on the Syrian air force, particularly - well, especially at that base. But that's a significant set of targets and a significant number of missiles to go get it.
BLITZER: And let me bring in our other military analyst who is with us, general Hertling. The statement also said and it's very significant, the statement says this air base, the al-Shayrat airfield was used to store chemical weapons and Syrian air forces.
So the U.S., and this is the where the chemical weapons attack that killed all those civilians, including a lot of children, it was launched, the Syrian fighter jets launched from this specific air base. But if the U.S. knew there were still chemical weapons there, storage of chemical weapons, this was clearly once again a violation of what the Russians had promised in 2013 that the Syrians would destroy all their chemical weapons capabilities. HERTLING: It's not only a violation of that, Wolf, it's also a
violation of international law. There's a chemical warfare prevention requirement of all nations that are signatories to the Geneva Convention. So just knowing that this was there and knowing that it was going to be used is not only a bain on the Syrian military and government but also as stated in the statements against Russia too.
One of the things, if I can go back to that question you asked both Rick and John, that the comment about the precision of the strikes, 59 or 60 tomahawk missiles targeting facilities, targeting hardened shelters, not targeting people and, in fact, being given warnings, either informally or in a nuanced way to both Syrian and Russian government. Jacks-a-pose (ph) that against what has been happening not only with the Syrian military dropping arbitrarily barrel bombs and dumb bombs on civilian populations, but also the support they received from the Russian military in doing the same thing. That's arbitrary killing of anybody who happens to be in the battle space. And it goes to that way of war versus the American way of war to try and denigrate the capabilities of the enemy force versus just targeting innocent civilian. So I think that is an important point to be made too as well.
BLITZER: That certainly is. Everybody, standby for a moment. I want to go back to Don.
And Don, as I go back to you, the statement from the Pentagon also said initial indications are that these strike, these 59 tomahawk cruise missiles, this strike has severely damaged or destroyed Syrian aircraft and support infrastructure and equipment at this al-Shayrat airfield reducing the Syrian government's ability, the statement says, to deliver chemical weapons. The final sentence in the statement is significant. The use of chemical weapons against innocent people will not be tolerated.
LEMON: As the sun comes up, we will get more picture and we will see. There's that statement that Wolf was reading right there on the FM, Jeff Davis, the Pentagon spokesperson. We will get back to Wolf in just a little bit.
I want to bring in now Jill Doherty, a former CNN Moscow bureau chief. She joins us now by phone.
I understand you have some news for us. You got reaction to the U.S. strike from a Russian official tonight. What can you tell us, Jill?
JILL DOHERTY, EVANS SCHOOL, UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON (on the phone): Don, it's not a real reaction yet. They are obviously formulating what they're going to say. I did contact (INAUDIBLE) who is the spokesperson for the foreign ministry. And she said there will be a response. Right now, I have been monitoring media, Russian television. There is actually now beginning quite a lot of coverage with some video, lots of quotes coming from President Trump.
Interestingly in some of the report, the more detailed ones, they are paying a lot of attention to the justification for this action. President Trump saying it was in the vital national security interests of the United States. And also paying a lot of attention to the significance of chemical weapons and defend being the United States.
Now, if you would normally think how the Russians would respond to something like this, they would definitely not condone any unilateral action whatsoever. But -- and they are not directly saying that yet, that they are beginning now to quote the Syrian media as saying, well, the United States didn't get approval from the United Nations, et cetera.
Also, you know, President Putin traditionally would not condone any action against Assad, not because they particularly like him at all, but they believe that he is the elected President. So, it's an interesting kind of morphing right now, and getting their position.
I would point out, just one other thing, quotes from the spokesperson from -- for President Putin, Dmitri Peskov, an interview that was done before these attacks. But he said, saying to the AP, Russian support for Assad is not unconditional. Moscow can't make Assad follow its orders. And that would seem to be an answer to some of the statements by secretary Tillerson, saying, you know, essentially, that Russia can influence Assad and should and if it's not, it's complicit. So, I think we are going to see a more formulated response pretty soon from the Kremlin, but that's what we've got right now.
[23:51:24] LEMON: Hey Jill, I want to ask you, because the secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, clarified some information for us yesterday, said the U.S., about the U.S. being in contact with the Russians, said no contacts were made with Moscow, with President Putin. He said, but U.S. military did make contact with Russian military officials in accordance with deconfliction agreements in Syria. So, we know that there were some Russians at the base, and that the U.S. notified Russia ahead of this military action, Jill.
DOHERTY: Well, the way they notified, I think, is important. They did not, at least as far as we know, contact directly President Putin, or the Kremlin in a kind of political way, to say, we are going to do this.
LEMON: So, why would Russian forces still be there, Jill?
DOHERTY: Well, Russian forces -- depends on how many there were, but they have been at air bases, because after all, when they carry out air attacks, they have been working with the Syrian air force. So, there could have been, and apparently were some Russians there. I would want to know how many and what their jobs were. But the way, again, that the United States apparently informed them was through the channels that we have got right now, which is deconfliction, as it's called, with the Russians, it's a more, let's say, hands on, on the ground type of notification that, you know, something is going to happen, and we don't want to hit you.
Barbara would know more about that than I do. But this is a not a high level political, you know, Trump calling Putin type of notice. And that's very important to point out. LEMON: Jill, I want you to stick with us, because also, major general
James "Spider" Marks would know about that.
So General, if the chemical weapons were launched from this same base, did the Russians know about that, were they complicit in this?
MARKS: I'm certain that the Russians were complicit. I would state with confidence, yes. They didn't give authorization, but they knew about it. If they are at the -- at the air base that we just struck, I can guarantee you that those capabilities that Russia has there probably are air defense and maintenance. And in and about their daily business, as Syrian aircraft are uploading chemical weapons, they are aware and they are doing their jobs and they are kind of intermingling. So, the short answer is yes.
LEMON: So, Jill, you said, this wasn't an official reaction. When might we have an official reaction from Russia, Jill Doherty?
DOHERTY: Well, it's always a question. You never know. But this spokesperson definitely said there will be. And I'm sure they want to formulate things as already know it's eight hours ahead of eastern time, so, morning will be coming, and they are going to have to have some type of response.
LEMON: Yes. Well, the secretary of state said, Jill, that our target in this attack was not the Russians, it was not the Russians. Our target was the airfield and the Syrian regime. Could there be a retaliatory attack on the U.S.?
DOHERTY: By whom? By Russians?
LEMON: By Russia or by Syria.
DOHERTY: Well, by Syria, yes, I presume in one way or another. But what kind of attack and where? I mean, you would have to figure where American troops or what could they do, let's say. But I don't think that they're going to want to do something that's very overt, because they could be knocked out very quickly by U.S. forces, if need be. There may be other ways of retaliating.
I don't, at this point, think that the Russians would retaliate. I think we are going to see more political action, diplomatic action, perhaps criticism for unilateral action. But again, you know, there was -- there's really no love lost between Putin and Assad. They know that he is a problem. But the only thing is, they support him for a variety of other reasons. And so, I think it's going to be a nuanced response as far as who, but we have to watch very carefully.
[23:55:31] LEMON: Jill Doherty, stand by. And thank you very much. We will be getting back to Jill.
Our breaking news tonight, President Trump launches a military strike in a Syrian government target in retaliation for their chemical weapons attack on civilians earlier this week.
CNN's senior international correspondent is Ben Wedeman. He is live for us on the Syrian border. We can see the sun is coming up, Ben, so good morning to you there. You are there on that border. It is daylight now. What's the reaction?
BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, the reaction, I mean, what we have heard from the Syrian media. We have been reporting on, no reaction from those people who have borne the brunt of the aggression by the Syrian regime now for well over six years.
But it's important to keep in mind, when looking at this situation in Syria that the vast number of the victims of this regime, more than 400,000, they were killed by the regime, not by ISIS. And therefore, many Syrians will be happy to see some sort of punishment given to the Syrian regime.
Even though, at the moment, until just a few days ago, our focus, at least, as journalists here and in Iraq was very much on ISIS. And, of course, the worry is that with a weakened Syrian regime, there may be a vacuum into which, of course, ISIS will rush, which has always been the case in this area, when it comes to the weakening of an old regime and something that takes its place. So, it's a volatile and dangerous situation regardless of how it plays out -- Don.
LEMON: Ben, and let's dig in a little bit more with that, because you have been reporting for years now that the Syrian people have given up hope for any American action. So, how do you think they're going to react to this attack?
WEDEMAN: Well, I think many people will be saying, Don, it's a too little too late, given that more than 400,000 people have been killed in this Syrian civil war so far. It's interesting that there were real high hopes during the administration of Barack Obama that he would do something. After all, you know, it was the Americans who supported the Libyan uprising. They were a bit late in Egypt, but they supported a change of regime there.
But in Syria, of course, the administration of Barack Obama found that that was a very hard nut to crack. The Syrian regime was not easily undermined. And, of course, they had the undying support of the Russians.
So, I think that people, you know, the sort of people we have been speaking to, who witnessed the attack the other day that left so many people killed, that chemical attack, they will be happy to see that the Syrian government pays a price for what it did. But, you know, this is not just a one-off thing. What comes next? Is this something just to, for the new administration to say, look, we did something? Or, is it the beginning of a serious attempt to, as we heard secretary of state Tillerson say, to change the regime in Syria?
And, of course, you know, when you're talking about regime change, and I said it before, there's -- who are the other players? Who could replace the regime of Bashar al-Assad? At the moment, the only force strong enough, I'm afraid, is ISIS.
LEMON: ISIS. Listen, and we are going to talk about what that means for ISIS, is that an opening for ISIS, which many of our experts have been discussing. But Ben, in the statement tonight, the President spoke about the refugee crisis saying in part, years of previous attempts of changing Assad's behavior have all failed and failed very dramatically. As a result, the refugee crisis continues to deepen and the region continues to destabilize, threatening the United States and its allies. Turkey has taken many Syrian refugees. What impact do you think this is going to have on that region?
WEDEMAN: Well, as I said, I think, you know, if this was just one-off thing, 59 cruise missiles fired in 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 --