The dangers of Putin's power play in Syria

This is a rush transcript from "Special Report," September 30, 2015. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

JOSH EARNEST, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: That means Russia will not succeed in imposing a military solution on Syria any more than the United States was successful in imposing a military solution on Iraq a decade ago, and certainly no more than Russia was able to impose a military solution on Afghanistan three decades ago.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, R-ARIZONA: What the fact is that we are now seeing an unleashing of Russian air power to take out the Free Syrian Army.
And that is disgraceful.

ASHTON CARTER, DEFENSE SECRETARY: But it does appear that they were in areas where there probably were not ISIL forces, and that is precisely one of the problems with this whole approach.

SERGEY LAVROV, RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTER: Did you say something about Pentagon? Everything, everything was said by the Russian minister of defense. Don't listen to Pentagon about the Russian strikes.


BAIER: Well, Sergey Lavrov said don't pay attention to the Pentagon. But multiple U.S. officials, intelligence community and at the Pentagon, say the Russian strikes today were not in ISIS areas. They were in Syrian rebel areas, many of them U.S.-backed Syrian rebel areas. This comes just a day, two days after the president met with Vladimir Putin at the United Nations.

So let's -- how this started today was a Russian general going to Baghdad. Here's what the State Department said about it, "A Russian official in Baghdad this morning informed U.S. embassy personnel that Russian military aircraft would begin flying anti-ISIL missions today over Syria. He further requested that the U.S. aircraft avoid Syrian airspace during these missions. We've seen media reporting that has suggested Russian missions have begun. The U.S.-led coalition will continue to fly missions over Iraq and Syria as planned and in support of our international mission to degrade and destroy ISIL." Our Pentagon team broke that story this morning.

Let's get in our panel, Jonah Goldberg, senior editor of "National Review," A.B. Stoddard, associate editor of "The Hill," and syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer. OK, so let's get this straight, Charles.
The president and Vladimir Putin meet at the U.N. They say they're going to have this de-confliction about the Russian military in Syria. The way we find out that Russia is going to start strikes that are not on ISIS, by the way, is a Russian general essentially knocking on the door of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad.

CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: And delivering what's called a demarche, which is a pretty nasty statement, a kind of ultimatum. We are doing this. We're going to do it within an hour, and we don't want you in the air when we're doing this.

I mean, it's one thing to be humiliated. It's another thing to have that demonstrated to the world when our allies are looking at us and wondering who's in charge here. The United States is told by Russia one hour earlier that they're going to attack ISIS. The Soviet ministry announces that they hit ISIS targets. Everyone knows it is a lie like all the lies issued in the Ukraine. They were not hitting ISIS. ISIS isn't in the area. They were hitting the city of Homs, which is a stronghold, as you said, for the Free Syrian Army, our allies who we are supposedly supporting and training and the allies of our Arab allies, the ones in the gulf and elsewhere.

And we do -- not only do we do nothing, but then you've got the scene you showed, Bret, about 20 minutes ago of before the show, actually, live of our secretary of state coming out in a jolly with Lavrov, the foreign minister of Russia, as a buddy, and saying, well, you know, we've got a little problem about the nature of the targets that Russia attacked today, but we'll go on to other stuff and worry about that later.

BAIER: There's a video of it.

KRAUTHAMMER: As if it's a side issue. The point of the Obama inviting in the Russians, first time in half a century, a complete revolution in our position on the Russians staying out of the Middle East, was under the premise they were going to join a coalition against ISIS. As I was saying last night, the Russians have no interest in fighting ISIS.
Their only interest is supporting Assad. Keeping him in place. And the reason they are hitting Homs, is because it's the center of resistance from the legitimate pro-western opposition. They are hitting our allies and we do nothing except have a palsy-walsy statement with the Russian foreign minister as if nothing has happened.

BAIER: It's pretty striking, A.B., to see that image of Secretary Kerry and Sergey Lavrov on this day of all days, when pretty much everybody in the U.S. government concedes they were flat-footed by this.

A.B. STODDARD, ASSOCIATE EDITOR, "THE HILL": Well they tried to pretend that they weren't surprised and that they had known because of the build-up in Syria of Russian military in recent weeks that some sort of strike would come. But they did not know that they were going to be given an hour's notice and told to stand down in our own attacks on ISIS in Syria, obviously lied to about the kind of target. And so they tried to pretend they weren't surprised, but it was beyond startling.

They did not have an answer for why this was a non-ISIS target except that they're still trying to get to the bottom of determining what kind of target it was. And they let Sergey Lavrov say things like don't listen to the Pentagon and we're disagreeing just on the details, but we all want the same goal in Syria for a secular, united, whole democratic Syria.

And it's quite clear to the rest of the world that no matter the meeting between Putin and Obama on Monday this is not a coordinated effort between two countries. This is the Russians telling the U.S. what's going on.

BAIER: And there is the rub, Jonah, because it's not a coordinated effort. Someone who also didn't have answers was the defense secretary at the Pentagon today. The key question here is the possibility of an accident, the possibility of U.S. warplanes and Russian warplanes somehow converging, the possibility of something happening that escalates the situation. And that was the question put to Ash Carter at the Pentagon.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think you've testified on the Hill that the coalition has a responsibility to protect the opposition forces, specifically the ones that are trained by the U.S. But the larger opposition forces, what is the coalition responsibility if they're coming under airstrikes by the Russians.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: -- strikes by the Assad regime?

CARTER: We have conducted air operations against ISIL, al-Nusra and, and every other target. It is not our practice to conduct air operations against all of those who are fighting Assad.


BAIER: Well, no, because the U.S. is backing some of them. And the question was, let's say the U.S.-backed Syrian rebels come under attack by the Russian, does the U.S. support the people that we've trained and equipped to be, even though there are not many of them, on the ground in Syria?

JONAH GOLDBERG, SENIOR EDITOR, "NATIONAL REVIEW": Yes. I keep thinking of that scene from "The Hunt for Red October" where Fred Thompson says "This is going to get out of hand and people will die." And that's sort of what everyone is afraid of, and that's why everyone keeps talking about de-confliction.

The problem with this and the images that we're all hearing for the first time, or most of us, is they're talking about it as if that is the diplomatic priority is de-confliction, when in reality what is happening is the Russians are bombing our de facto and sometimes in reality allies on the ground as part of their larger strategy, deflect from Ukraine, reassert influence in the Middle East.
And to me this has been a perfect seminar in what you get in reality when you go into the White House with the ideology that the president had. He honestly and sincerely thought from day one that if America withdrew from the world, this wonderful tooth fairy-like organization called the international community would fix all of our problems and they would step in and everything would be great. No. It turns out that when you create a vacuum worse actors than even the United States, like Russia and China and Iran, they all seek to take advantage of the vacuum, exploit it, and become hegemons regionally or globally, and that is exactly what we're seeing. It will take us decades to put this thing back together.

BAIER: All right, so what is next? We're going to talk about that on this issue, the biggest story of the day. We'll talk about Hillary Clinton's emails in the online show, but more on Syria and Russia after this.

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