All-Star Panel: US response to chemical weapons reports in Syria

'Special Report' All-Star panel weighs in


This is a rush transcript from "Special Report," March 20, 2013. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I am deeply skeptical of any claim that in fact it was the opposition that used chemical weapons. I have made clear that the use of chemical weapons is a game-changer. And I won't make an announcement today about next steps because I think we have to gather the facts. But when you start seeing weapons that can cause potential devastation and mass casualties, and you let that genie out of the bottle, then you are looking potentially at even more horrific scenes than we have already seen in Syria.


BRET BAIER, ANCHOR: President Obama talking about the possibility that chemical weapons were used in Syria. The House intelligence chairman Mike Rogers says there is a high probably now that they were in fact used. President Obama also saying that President Bashar al-Assad should go. He has been saying that his days are numbered for 19 months. That is about 580 days. Take a listen.


OBAMA: It's not a question of when Assad leaves, or if Assad leaves.  It's a question of when.

Assad will leave power. It's not a question of if but of when.

I am confident that Assad's days are numbered.

I think Assad must go and I believe he will go.


BAIER: That last one was today. Back with the panel, Steve?

STEVE HAYES, SENIOR WRITER, THE WEEKLY STANDARD: If you go back to the very first time that the president made that call, it was August 18, 2011, 2,200 people had died at that point in Syria. Now we're in excess of 70,000. That's one of the reasons I believe that this will be forever a black mark on the Obama administration for basically having done nothing.

And the question he got today at the press conference, the reporter, stipulated or suggested that the United States hasn't done anything and the president pushed back very hard on that, but I thought he was really unconvincing in his suggestion that we have done much. And if you look at those numbers, it suggests that we haven't.

On the question of the use of chemical weapons, I think the president has already shifted his red line a little bit. Remember the first time he talked about chemical weapons he said if they are used or moved. Well, we know that they were moved in December. We know that they've been moved after that. The question now is, were they used yesterday. And if they are, I think it forces the president to act in some way.

Now, I talked to somebody who is familiar with the intelligence on this matter and said basically it's pretty clear that a chemical of some kind was used. Mike Rogers is not known to say things without having been briefed or without a proper understanding of them. So I think we're likely to find out in the next couple of days that there was some kind of a chemical, and either we'll he have a debate what constitutes a chemical weapon or the administration will have to act.

MARA LIASSON, NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO: I think the administration has just set up a situation where it put a lot pressure on itself. He just said it's a game changer. And he's created a red line, and I don't think it will take very long to determine if they were used or not. I would suspect they have been used. And then he's going to have to do something more than he has done up until now.

BAIER: So I guess that is the question, what is that? What is the something that you're going to do?

CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: Well, it's hard to guess because the president has shown a complete reluctance to do anything that would be risky in Syria. It's in some ways understandable after the Iraq war, after the problems that we've had in Libya and the Benghazi affair where we helped topple a government and it turned bad.

In a lot of these revolutions, the bad guys, or the Islamists, have gained an upper hand. Egypt is the most extreme example. The Washington Post had an excellent story today, which is describing Sharia law being imposed in Aleppo, which is one of the major cities in Syria now partly under control of the rebels. The worst part is that many of the jihadists in Syria who appear to be gaining the upper hand now are allied with the Al Qaeda in Iraq in Iraq. And the border right now between Syria and Iraq is one that the government of Syria has lost control of. So what we are getting in Iraq is a regaining of strength by Al Qaeda, which had been smashed, really almost destroyed by the surge. But with complete American withdrawal it has come back. And now it appears to have the tentacles in the Syrian revolution. So it is a dilemma how far do you go today given that the Islamists are so strong in the opposition in Syria.

BAIER: And Mara, isn't there also a credibility issue in the Middle East with what the president's word means for all of those other allies? If he says he must go, and I'm going to have this red line, are we at that point?

LIASSON: You can't keep on laying down red lines if you are going to step over them. Then you are right, you have no credibility. People say that Assad has months, not years to go. In other words, he will be gone. But, I think it sends a bad sign. You've got the rebels in Syria saying, look, if you're not going to help us, then move aside and stop talking.

But I do, as I said before, I think the president has really ratcheted up the pressure. Once they determine that chemical weapons have been used, he's going to have to do something. He's going to have to either send more arms to the rebels or get some assistance to them in some other way.

BAIER: This won't be the last panel on this, but it's the last panel for that. Stay tuned for bracketology panel-style.

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