tv Amanpour on PBS PBS April 10, 2018 6:00am-6:31am PDT
welcome to "amanpour on pbs." tonight russia accuses israel after two warplanes strike an air base in syria and denies involvement in saturday's deadly chemical weapons attac outside damascus saying there's no evidence it even took place. i'm joined by retired major general, the former commander of the israeli air force and by former u.s. senate majority leader and middle east envoy george mitchell. plus, reaction from damascus after president trump warns action over syria will be decided soon.
good evening, everyone. and welcome to the program. i'm christiane amanpour in london. international condemnation today and president trump says a major decision is coming on syria in the next 24 to 48 hours. following a suspected chemical attack near the capital of damascus on saturday which killed dozens of people. >> we are studying that situation extremely closely. we are meeting with our military and everybody else, and we'll be making some major decisions over the next 24 to 48 hours. we are very concerned. when a thing like that can happen. this is about humanity. we're talking about humanity. and it can't be allowed to happen. nothing's off the table. nothing's off the table. >> he was speaking during a cabinet meeting at the white house, and the president added whoever bears responsibility for the attack, whether it's the
syrian government, the russian pesident, or iran, they're going to pay a price. they all deny any involvement in the incident which took place just days after trump said he wanted to pull u.s. troops out of syria. in this video which is being broadcast around the world since this weekend's horrifying and it claims to show the aftermath of the attack. though cnn can't independently verify the footage shot by activists and local doctors. in it, men, women and children, are gasping for air and foaming at the mouth as emergency responders frantically try to save their lives while many lie lifeless on the floor of an underground shelter. our senior international correspondent fred pleitgen is in damascus and joins me with the latest. fred, the syrians are obviously denying it. the russians, too. what do they expect will be the next move? >> reporter: well, i think that the russians and the syrians
both are going to wait and see what the americans are going to do, put i think, christiane, they are concerned about the things they heard from the white house, from president trump tonight. at the same time, you hear the russians saying they think this is a hoax. they've not detected anything that would identify chemical weapons having been used on the outskirts of damascus. despite all the videos you've just been showing and all the things we've seen in the videos, the children gasping for air, those dead bodies laying on the ground. the syrian army for its part has said it had no reason to use chemical weapons. syrians do acknowledge they were involved in an offensive in that area at the time this was going on. they say that offensive was moving forward so quickly they would not have needed chemicals to move it along even quicker. one of the interesting things, one of the most remarkable things, christiane is that after all this has taken place, the russians have essentially taken over that district. the rebels there are being bused out of the area. the russians are now in charge of security there.
there's nothing that would prevent the russians from allowing international investigators there on-site. russians have said they believe an investigation is necessary. seems as though it's up to them whether or not that can start quickly, christiane. >> fred, thank you. indeed, the organization for the prevention of chemical weapons wants to conduct that investigation. fred, thank you so much. and early this morning, missiles rained down on a syrian air base near homs 150 kilometers from douma where that chemical attack happened. iran's news agency says four iranians were killed in the strike. russia and syria are blaming israel, though it's neither confirmed nor denied launching the raid, but my next guest strongly suspects it did so. he is the former commander of the israeli air force, retired major general atan and he joins me now from tel aviv. welcome, general, to the program. obviously, your government is not in the habit of confirming these missions, but why do you believe, and why have you concluded it must be israel?
>> well, i think this was under a question mark, 10, 12 hours ago but now everybody understands there is no other reasonable alternative but the israelis to do that. we have a combination of two interests. one is an ongoing policy that we are conducting in order to prevent any invasion or any kind of deployment of this -- of the iranian military into syria territory. we have conducted strikes and many times in the last two or three years. every time it was in order to make it clear that israelis are against any deployment of iranian forces in syria. that's one thing. the other -- and this was, like, in a window of opportunity for us to do that, this is exactly what we're doing every once in a while. that's one thing.
the other thing is this specific target, t4 airfield, as we noted two months ago on february 10th, they deployed uavs, drones, into israel, which followed by retaliation by the israeli air force against this specific target. but this time the attack was spread all over the field. meaning that it was aimed against the iranian forces, the infrastructure of the airfield, and this specific airfield is used also for airborne platform to take off in order to use a chemical weapon. >> all right. >> or intentionally want to use a chemical weapon. >> general, that just strategic -- >> if i look at the whole picture -- >> yes, sorry to interrupt you. >> please, go ahead. >> you've given us a strategic vision of israel. do you believe there was any notion of responding for the chemical attack? >> well, as i said, this was a
combination of responding to the chemical attack. morally, we must do something. this is our next door, you know? we also, besides our interest in order to prevent the iranians we also have to make clear we will not allow and we'll do anything we can do in order to prevent any use of chemical weapons in the middle east. you can imagine what can happen if we let it go. >> yeah. >> so -- so as i mentioned, this was, the two reasons were in place this time. also, if i may, i would like to mention the fact that we have done it, like, you know 12 hours ago and are listening to the american president is now talking about 48 hours that they need lead time to make the decision, to deploy the forces. israel is capable to respond very quickly. >> right, you are, and apparently you believe that they did. but what is the strategy? what do you think should happen?
what should the united states do? and if there is a more expanded military effort, are you concerned that it could stir up, i don't know, a shooting war between the united states and russia? or whatever in that complicated country now? >> well, i would say that we are -- we have to be careful. every notion should be under control. as of now, we're not that close to any, you know, clash, you know, between the russians and the americans. but i have to say that if the united states will launch a singular attack, one attack, over after 24 hours, you know, you know, disasters in syria for the last six, seven years, it will make nothing. if they do want to -- to launch
an effective strike, it needs to be more than one time or at least to join with the israelis and support israel. we can do that. we can continue that and we do that with a very close support from the united states, we can launch more and more and more attack and this will be the change between every once in a while, like every two, three months, if you do it almost on a daily basis. >> okay. so let me ask you quickly -- >> by the israeli -- >> very, very quickly. do you believe what many are saying that all the airfields should be taken out? >> well, yes, i do. >> well -- >> i certainly do. >> on that very conclusive note, major general, the former commander of the israeli air force, thank you for joining us tonight. now, the u.s. defense secretary, james mattis, echoed president trump's remarks today saying that the united states will carefully assess who's responsible and respond.
>> now, the first thing we have to look at is why are chemical weapons still being used at all when russia was the framework of removing all the chemical weapons? and so working with our allies and partners from nato to qatar and elsewhere, we're going to address this issue. >> can you rule out taking action, launching air strikes against assad, mr. secretary? >> i don't rule out anything right now. >> and you just heard. the israeli major general said that they should take out all the airfields to stop this capability once and for all. now, in this time of heightened tension, i did have the good fortune today to speak to the former regional envoy for the united states and the bona fide peacemaker. george mitchell who served as architect for the good friday a accord and he also, of course, was the senate majority leader and he did bring peace to warring sides in northern
ireland. he's in dublin today celebrating the 20th anniversary of that peace process, and as i said, he also served as president barack obama's envoy to the middle east. i asked him about this administration's next steps in syria as they're currently considering what to do, and about lessons to be learned from his years of building bridges and bringing warring sides together. senator mitchell, welcome to the program. >> thanks for having me. >> so before we get to northern ireland and your key role there, i just want you to focus a little bit on the terrible news of the day. the chemical attack in syria and what president trump has said that there will be a big price to pay. and he singled out syria, russia, iran. what do you think is the next step? >> well, i don't know, because just last week the president announced that we were pulling out of syria. so -- the policy will have to be completely different from what it was last week, and i think
president trump is caught in the same bind that president obama was in. a recognition that the overwhelming majority of american people and the congress don't want the united states to get deeply into another conflict in the middle east, given the experiences in iraq and afghanistan. and yet at the same time, facing the horrific situation where a government in syria remains in power by bombing its own citizens and by using gas on its own citizens, and so american presidents typically have talked tough and done very little and that's the bind that the president is in, and complicated, as i said, by the fact that just a few days ago he announced that we were pulling all of our troops out of syria and going to leave it up to others to solve the problem. which is obvious that they can't do so. >> so, senator, let me just drill down on that one issue,
first. so do you agree, then, with senator john mccain who tweeted, "potus pledged to withdraw from syria has only emboldened assad, backed by russia and iran to commit more war crimes in douma." potus responded after last year's chemical attack he should do so again and make assad pay the price for his brutality." >> the problem, of course, is the attack last year had virtually no effect. less than 24 hours after the attack struck an airfield in syria, syria planes took off on that very same airfield to bomb the very same place that they had attacked the day before. it was a feel-good moment, but it had no effect whatsoever on the balance of power or on the conflict that's continuing there. >> do you believe that congress would respond to president trump galvanizing some kind of alliance, you know, to face down
this wickedness? >> yes. i think that's what the united states should do. this cannot be an america-led war. the american people don't support that, and we live in a democratic society. at the same time, there is worldwide revulsion at the assad regime, and at the actions of russia and iran in supporting that regime, and it seems to me that proper policy all along should have been a much broader, sustained american effort to organize and maintain a worldwide coalition of forces to deal with the issue under american leadership but not make it an exclusively american or even a principally american in terms of troops effort. >> so you were leader of the majority, senate majority leader. if this president, and he has a
republican-controlled congress, decided to do that, would congress back him? >> i hope they would. i don't know what they would do. i can't predict it. to the extent there was actions beyond words and the extent to which we're able to rally allies around the world. one of the problems president trump faces is he spent so much time denigrating alliances that it makes it tough when you do need allies, when you do want to organize a worldwide alliance, to get people onboard. i believe they will do so because i think the horrors inflicted by the assad regime on their own people -- think of it, a government dropping bombs on its own schoolchildren, using poison gas against its own citizens, including schoolchildren. i think there is worldwide revulsion about that and i think they will respond to a clear, strong american plan. not just a single missile attack.
not just words, but a sustained effort to see to it that assad does not remain in office and to the extent possible -- and i don't underestimate the difficulty and the complexity here, there can be peace re-established or at least absence of violent conflict in syria. >> do you think russia can be brought into the tent? because right now, the foreign minister of russia, the president of russia, is basically warning the united states to keep its hands off, to the extent they're saying there was no chemicals used. >> i believe that russia's interests in syria are longstanding, far deeper than those of the united states. keep in mind that russia has had a large military in base in syria for over a half century. there are thousands of russian men in syria, security officials, military officials, others married to syrian women. they have a deeply embedded
interest there. at the same time, i think it's clear that they are aiding, abetting and propping up a brutal and murderous regime. i don't think they will come into a coalition that intends to do anything serious about syria. i think their purpose in coming into a coalition will be to sabotage its efforts, as they have done at the security council, at the united nations. the sabotage any effort to do anything about syria. so my view is that we're better off creating a coalition outside of the countries that now other principal supporters of the assad regime. >> are you now concerned the united states and russia could now get into a shooting war in that case? >> yes, of course, that's a concern. there is no course of action that is free of risk. there is no course of action that can guarantee success. you can take any possible proposal regarding syria and
think up a dozen objections to acting that way. that's, of course, what's happened. the fears of failure, of complications, have led to inaction that have resulted in the horrors that we've seen. i'm not advocating an american military invasion. i know the american people don't support that, and a policy that is not supported by the people in our democratic society cannot be sustained. what i am suggesting is an american-led worldwide effort with countries in the region. saudi arabia, others, turkey, who have an interest there and trying to organize an effort to end the slaughter and end the dramatic displacement of people within syria and a dramatic outflow of people from syria that is so much a burden on the surrounding governments and is causing so much turmoil in europe as millions of people
flee there from the middle east as well as from africa. >> so let us go back 20 years, then, to northern ireland. it was the intractable violent conflict of the day, and many people thought exactly perhaps what they're thinking today, that there was no way it could end, there was nothing to be done, this was going to play its bloody way out, if i might say. but you guys came in. the americans. you were the special envoy. tell us how you did it and what is the result 20 years later? >> well, the truth is, it wasn't me or president clinton or any outsider who did it. it was the people and the political leaders of northern ireland. the people strongly supported the effort to achieve agreement. they were exhausted and fearful after a quarter century of bitter sectarian conflict, a great deal of violence. many deaths, many people being
permanently maimed and crippled. and they wanted to resolve their differences peacefully, not through violent means. and so we provided the vehicle by which they could come together, and we talk about political leaders in our society mostly in a critical way. certainly much of that is deserved, but we don't pay enough attention or tribute to those occasions when political leaders demonstrate courage and vision when they rise to the occasion and do the right thing, and that's what the political leaders of northern ireland did 20 years ago. those ordinary men and women who spent their entire lives in conflict, they are the heroes of the process, and what they brought about was not an end to all of the problems of northern ireland. it's a society like any other. there continue to be many disputes. they brought about an end to violent conflict. an end to the notion that the way you deal with political
problems is to fight wars, and they established the principle that the way you deal with political problems in a democratic society is through democratic and peaceful means. >> what does that tell you about the need for the u.s. as an honest broker? i guess i ask again because in the middle east, for instance, there's syria, but there's also the israel/palestine conflict where president trump has come down, many believe, sort of throwing the honest broker hat. recognizing jerusalem as the sole capital of israel, moving the u.s. embassy. what is the long-term impact of that, do you think? >> first, i would say, christiane, no two conflicts are the same. each is unique to the history and culture of the area in which it occurs. each requires a specifically unique situation. the common thread to which you refer is that the united states is the world's dominant power. will be for as far in the future
as human beings can see, and the united states has played a critical leadership role in establishing the institutions and patterns of trade and efforts that govern us around the world over the past half century from which we have benefited enormously. president trump takes the view that the united states is always giving in alliances and gets nothing back. i respectfully disagree. i think we have benefited enormously from the alliances into which we have entered. they serve as force multipliers for us and that's going to be necessary in the middle east as well. i believe that the united states is indispensable to the resolution of conflict, even though ultimately, if you narrow it to israel and the palestinians, they will have to act on their own, and i believe they will because circumstances are changing there in a manner favorable to a resolution and because it is so much in the
interest of the two societies. there is no real alternative to that conflict other than a two-state solution, and the sooner the two societies recognize and accept it, get into meaningful negotiations with the assistance of the united states, the sooner they'll do what's best for their people. >> and i guess final question, then. today is the first day on the job of national security adviser of john bolton. a notorious hawk on all these issues we've been talking about, as well as on north korea. how do you think the trump administration foreign policy is going to develop under a national security adviser john bolton? a secretary of state mike pompeo? and president trump. all of whose views seem to coalesce. >> well, i hope that mr. bolton succeeds because i am an american and i want our nation's
policies to succeed, but i think he must reverse his prior positions expressing his favor of bombing iran and his favor of bombing north korea. i think it's a reflexive get tough guy policy that puts military action first and scorns diplomacy and private effort and i think also his policy of opposition to the u.s. agreement with iran on nuclear weapons which in my judgment is a positive step in the region. because it deprives iran of the enormous influence it would have increasing its efforts in the region if they possessed a nuclear weapon. and this defers that for a very long period of time and allows the united states to create the kind of international coalition
needed in opposition. should they decide to violate the terms of that treaty. so i hope he reverses his policy on bombing iran. i hope he reverses his policy on bombing north korea, and i hope he reverses his policy on tearing up the iran agreement. >> senator george mitchell, thank you so much. great to get the benefit of that wisdom. >> thank you. and as we await and monitor president trump's next moves over syria, that is it for our program tonight, and thank you for watching "amanpour on pbs" and join us again tomorrow night.