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EARLY START

U.S. Strikes Syria. Aired 4-4:30a ET

Aired April 7, 2017 - 04:00   ET

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


MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I think it probably is.

[04:00:00] And that is, in fact, one of the silver linings of this whole incident from the Russian-U.S. relationship point of view. They were warned in advance through this deconfliction channel of communications. The Russians managed to get their personnel out of the way. We've not had any reports of any Russian personnel being caught up in this.

It's also interesting that the Russians did not use their very capable surface-to-air missile system they've got in place and operational in Syria to take down any of these Tomahawk cruise missiles. They could have done that. They didn't. And so, that was a kind of tacit consent for these airstrikes to have gone ahead. The Russians stood back and allowed their ally in Syria to be struck hard by the U.S. military.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Matthew Chance in Moscow for us -- thanks, Matthew.

DAVE BRIGGS, CNN ANCHOR: It is 4:00 Eastern Time and 11:00 a.m. in Syria.

And with the U.S. no longer on the sidelines in Syria, how do these missile strikes affect one of the world's most unstable regions as we move forward?

Let's bring in CNN's Muhammad Lila live from Istanbul.

Good morning to you. Reaction from our allies in the region continues to pour in. What are we learning this morning?

MUHAMMAD LILA, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, good morning.

And the reaction coming in fast and furious. You have to just look at the regional players involved because Syria really has become a regional proxy war. You've got countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey that have been hoping a day would come like this for years. They've been lobbying the American government to take some meaningful measure in Syria. Well, now, they've got what they've been asking for. Saudi Arabia come out and calling Trump's decision a courageous decision to undertake military operations. Turkey also calling it a positive response, going further and saying the next step should be the immediate implementation of no-fly zones and safe-zones in Syria.

Of course, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are major backers of the armed opposition, including jihadi militant groups. There was a cartoon in the Arab news which is a major publication here in the Middle East. The cartoon shows and summarizes the reaction I think of a lot of these Arab and Sunni Gulf countries. It shows an eagle flying in the air and swooping down on Syria, Iran and ISIS, and that is how a lot of American's allies feel in the region today.

BRIGGS: Arguably the most complicated battlefield on the planet just got more so.

Muhammad Lila live in Istanbul -- thank you.

EARLY START continues right now.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

(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.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BRIGGS: That breaking news: a series of missile strikes by the United States on Syria after this week's chemical attack. Reaction around the world is strong and swift. What's the next move for President Trump?

Live coverage around the world right now.

Good morning, everyone, and welcome to EARLY START. I'm Dave Briggs.

ROMANS: Busy morning. I'm Christine Romans. It is Friday, April 7th. It is just after 4:00 a.m. Eastern Time U.S., 9:00 a.m. in London and 11:00 in the morning in Syria.

We welcome all of our viewers here in the U.S. and around the world.

Our breaking news: President Trump launching missile strikes in Syria in response to the chemical weapons attack by Syrian leader Bashar al Assad. U.S. warships launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian military airfield, the same airfield where the planes that carried those chemical attacks were based.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

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

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BRIGGS: This is the first direct military action the U.S. has taken the against the Assad regime in the country's six-year long civil war.

So many questions this morning. What's the reaction from Syria? From Moscow? And what will the next move be by President Trump who not long ago said the U.S. should stay out of Syria?

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

Good morning, Ryan.

RYAN BROWNE, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER: Good morning, Dave.

That's right. We're learning now that the U.S. military has, you know, targeted several elements of this air base in order to render it inoperable. So, they targeted the taxiways, they targeted Syrian regime aircraft, radar, anti-aircraft. So, it was an effort to deter future action similar to that chemical weapons strike earlier this week, according to the Pentagon.

Now, they're still waiting to get the full assessments of how successful this strike was in accomplishing that, but given the number of missiles, 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles and the targeted nature of these strikes, they weren't trying to hit any of the regime soldiers and they were definitely not trying to hit any of the Russian forces stationed there, actually using the deconfliction channel to warn Russia the day of the strike and had multiple conversations with Russia through that channel to avoid any potential of any Russian forces being hit in this strike.

[04:05:07] But the Pentagon confident they hit what they were aiming at.

BRIGGS: And according to these Syrian armed forces general command and a televised statement, six people were killed in these airstrikes.

Ryan Browne, thank you. We'll check in with you in about a half an hour.

Let's get some world reaction from CNN's chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour, live in London.

ROMANS: Good morning.

BRIGGS: Good morning to you, Christiane.

What is your reaction when you just take where the president was about 36 hours ago to where we are now?

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think it's absolutely where we thought he would go after his reaction in the Rose Garden to the chemical attack.

But I think what the allies are saying is very, very important. The British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon has just said that this chemical attack by the Assad regime was the first the test of the Trump administration and that the United States was trying to act to deter any further such attacks by the Assad regime. So big, big support from the United Kingdom. Also saying that it was only the United States, they did this alone, although the U.K., NATO and others were informed that this was going to happen, but they did not ask for any help with this attack in any way from their allies.

We have also reaction from Germany which says, this is understandable, that particularly after Russia and China failed to be able to even come to a resolution to condemn the chemical attack and before that having vetoed resolutions condemning the chemical attack, this reaction from the United States is, quote, "understandable." That's from Germany.

Japan has also said that it finds this absolutely the appropriate action, another key ally of the United States in this in the Pacific. Israel has said the same and so on and so forth.

And I think it's really important, also, very important, to see the reaction come from China, particularly as China has long been an obstructionist over this in the Security Council along with Russia. The Chinese, according to the AFP, have said, "We condemn the use of chemical weapons under any circumstances by any party." That's a change because, as I said, not so long ago, they were party to vetoing any sort of resolution towards condemning that.

And it happens at the same time that President Xi is in Florida with President Trump.

So, this is the context and the atmosphere around the reaction to this strike.

ROMANS: And one wonders how much of this is meant to send a message to North Korea, as well, because, obviously, the president must be talking to President Xi about the options with North Korea.

AMANPOUR: Exactly. The president faces -- the world faces a two- pronged crisis, Syria and North Korea. It said that President Obama warned or advised President Trump that his most important international crisis would be a rapidly nuclear arming North Korea. And so, here we have this happening right now, this response to Syria, at a time when the president of the United States, his allies, need to figure out a way forward with China to deter North Korea.

So, this also is a very, very important moment to clarify the realities on the table for the United States and for the rest of the world. Not just over Syria, but also, most importantly over North Korea.

BRIGGS: Christiane, I thought an interesting point by Matthew Chance where he said Russia does have the ability to shoot down our missiles in Syria. They were warned about this imminent military action, saying one thing, doing another. What do you make of that?

AMANPOUR: Well, they were warned about it. It is in nobody's interest and it is not in Russia's interest to get into a military confrontation with the United States. The United States would win that war on a conventional sense. It is nobody's interest. Obviously, the Russians do not want to do that, nor does the United

States. But I think what's very, very interesting is what Matthew said, that essentially Syria can see that Russia essentially stood back and let this happen, whether it liked it or not. And that also should send a very, very strong message, if that turns out to be the case, to President Assad.

And the Syrians are being actually defiant today. A military commander is quoted by their state media as saying, well, we're going to, you know, repair this airfield and we're going to be back in action pretty soon. And President Assad just a couple of days ago was published as saying, we are going to continue this war. We have no option, no matter what, we're going to do it.

So, you know, they don't show any sign of being at all interested in a political resolution to this war and the fact that they've used chemical weapons, again, weapons of mass destruction is a very clarifying moment.

BRIGGS: Speaking of the politics of this, I want to ask you in the next half hour about the lack of congressional approval here. Some criticism coming in, at least from Senator Rand Paul. Will that grow? And that's something President Trump has hit President Obama on in the past. We'll get into that in about a half hour.

[04:10:00] ROMANS: That's right. He said he couldn't do anything in Syria without congressional approval. Christiane, we'll talk about the politics and the geopolitical implications when you come back in a few minutes.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BRIGGS: Welcome back to our breaking news coverage of the U.S. missile strike against Syria. Before green-lighting the attack, President Trump was briefed by Secretary James Mattis on every military option available.

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

Good morning to you, Colonel.

ROMANS: Good morning.

COL. CEDRIC LEIGHTON, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Good morning.

BRIGGS: Above all always, was this intended to accepted a message to the Assad regime of what we will not tolerate?

LEIGHTON: Absolutely, Dave. And the reason it was a message to the Assad regime is this was done right after a chemical attack that got the attention of the world press.

[04:15:00] And because of that, I think that compelled President Trump to act and he felt that he had to do something, not only because of the moral implications, which he clearly talked about, but also because it simply violates international law to use chemical weapons in this way, in fact, to use chemical weapons at all. And that becomes I think the main issue for the president in this particular case.

ROMANS: He was presented, we assumed, yesterday afternoon a suite of options, what to do in the region. This sounds as though it is the least fraught with potential I guess unintended consequences. It looks like it was carefully planned. They warned the Russians to open channels, you know, usual military channels that this was going to happen.

Your response to choosing this particular option?

LEIGHTON: Well, I do agree, Christine, that it was probably the option that was the least dangerous, the least fraught with issues, like you said. And I think what, you know, normally happens, I know from my experience, you basically give decision-makers three options.

And that seems to have been the case in this particular situation. So, he could have done nothing, he could have gone with a much more extreme response, or he could have gone with what we would call basically by comparison a measured response. And that is what happens.

He decided -- the president decided that he needed to send this message to Assad because this kind of behavior was just getting, in essence, too much for the United States to take and certainly for the Trump administration to take. What is interesting about this is that this response puts us on a collision course with the Russians. And the fact that it does that, that creates other problems, not only in the relationship between the United States and Russia, but also in the relationship that we need in order for us to prosecute the war against ISIS. And that's where, I think, the difficulties are going to come in.

BRIGGS: And again, as Matthew Chance pointed out now, the Russians were warned about this imminent attack. They have the ability to shoot down United States missiles in Syria. They did not make that decision.

But let's talk about the president's decision to do this without congressional approval. He is taking some criticism on that this morning from Rand Paul, the senator from Kentucky, "While we all condemn the atrocities in Syria, the United States was not attacked. The president needs congressional authority for military action as required by the Constitution."

He goes on, "Now, President Trump spoke to that, saying this is a vital national security interest to the United States."

Is it? LEIGHTON: So what the with president was doing was he was taking that

one piece that traditionally we use when it comes to either the War Powers Act or any authorization to use military force. And what he was doing is he was saying, this is in the national interest of the United States to after a sovereign country and the installations in that sovereign country because they have violated international norms.

So, in the president's interpretation of the Constitution and of the statutes that govern this kind of action, what he was basically saying was I have the authorization to quickly go in and surgically handle a military matter of this type by directly attacking a foreign adversary because they have violated international norms of the behavior. And that is the type of interpretation we have actually seen used in somewhat modified form by several different administrations, everything from the first Bush administration to Bush 43, even the Clinton administration used it and to some extent the Obama administration using something similar to this, as well.

ROMANS: You know, Colonel, we're showing a tweet from 2013 that says, 'The president must get congressional approval before attacking Syria. Big mistake if he does not." And he goes on in another tweet to talk about how bad our leaders made us look, "Stay out of Syria. We don't have ability to win wars or even strategize."

What an evolution of thinking.

LEIGHTON: Absolutely. Well, it kind of goes to the old adage of where you sit is where you stand. So, as a result of this, the president is now in a completely difference position.

He is commander in chief. He gets more information that he had before as a private citizen. He sees compelling images. He perhaps saw something that we have not privy to through intelligence channels.

ROMANS: Right.

LEIGHTON: As a result of that, he felt that he had to react this way and I think that is why he evolved his decision making and his view on Syria has evolved from what you saw in that tweet to today.

ROMANS: Real politics. Once you have the job in the White House, everything changes.

Cedric Leighton, Colonel Leighton, thank you so much for that.

The already fraught relationship between the U.S. and Russia now hitting a rough spot with these strikes.

[04:20:03] There's some pretty, pretty sharp reaction from Moscow. We've got that next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROMANS: All right. Twenty-four minutes past the hour.

We're following breaking news: the U.S. launching Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian air base in response to the chemical attack this week that killed scores of civilians, including children. The airstrike prompting a fierce response from Russia, which has backed the Assad regime.

CNN senior international correspondent Matthew Chance live in Moscow with the Kremlin reaction.

Good morning.

CHANCE: Good morning to you, Christine.

That's right.

[04:25:00] The Kremlin has said that this was an act of aggression against a sovereign state in violation of the norms of international law and under a false pretext, a far-fetched pretext, in fact, was the word they used. A reference to the fact that they don't agree with the allegations that Syrian forces use chemical weapons on their strike in southern Idlib a few days ago that caused such a massive loss of life. They say it was a regular air strike, which targeted a storage depot that the rebels were using to store their own chemical weapons. And that was what caused the loss of life.

So, there was a difference of opinion there, but, you know, condemnation, sharp condemnation coming from the Kremlin, also from the Russian foreign ministry who have condemned it. But also saying that there is measure now being taken by Russia against the U.S. and that is that they are suspending the air safety agreement between the United States and Russia on the ground in Syria. It's a mechanism by which the two countries can deconflict in the skies over Syria. They both got their air forces in action in Syria. Of course, the Russians have got a big amount of their air force there.

This measure is important to make sure the two countries don't come into contact with each other in the skies and, of course, it was the conduit by which the Russians were warned on this occasion that the U.S. strikes were in coming. That won't be there in the future.

ROMANS: All right. Thank you, Matthew Chance, for keeping us up to speed on that and keep us -- any new developments from the Kremlin, let us know. Thanks.

BRIGGS: But with the U.S. no longer allied with our -- let's get to Muhammad Lila, sorry, some miscommunication here. As we're start to go learn, Muhammad, some reaction from our allies in the region.

What are they saying this morning?

LILA: You know, we've been talking about how complicated the situation on the ground is in Syria. But for America's allies, this isn't complicated at all. This is the day that they have been waiting for. Saudi Arabia and Turkey, which are two big backers on the opposition groups on the ground, including some jihadi Islamist militant groups are very happy today.

Saudi Arabia putting out a statement calling Trump's decision a, quote, "courageous decision to launch a military action in Syria." Turkey even taking it a step further, saying that they believe it's an appropriate response, they're quite pleased with the response, but pushing forward even more now and saying this is the time to implement an immediate no-fly zone in the northern part of Syria, as well as safe zones inside Syria.

In fact, there's a newspaper, "The Arab News", which is a major newspaper here putting out a cartoon which summarizes the approach and attitude of America's allies here. It's an eagle, an American eagle that is no longer shackled by chains and it is now swooping down on Iran, Syria and ISIS. That is the reaction, at least, of America's allies here in the region.

BRIGGS: At 11:28 in Syria this morning, Muhammad Lila, thank you so much.

And the latest from Syrian air forces general command, six killed in these U.S. airstrikes. Fifty-nine Tomahawk missiles struck that airfield in Syria.

ROMANS: So, so with that U.S. airstrike in Syria, is the regime change any closer or will this simply embolden President Assad?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)