Obama’s road forward in Syria: Soft words, big stick

Updated
 
President Barack Obama pauses during his meeting with Kuwait Amir Sheik Sabah Al Ahmed Al Sabah in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington,  Friday,...
President Barack Obama pauses during his meeting with Kuwait Amir Sheik Sabah Al Ahmed Al Sabah in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Friday,...
Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

President Obama defended his administration’s handling of the crisis in Syria Sunday, saying that the tentative deal reached by Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have made it less likely that the Syrian government will again use chemical weapons on civilians. Nevertheless, Obama said the U.S. would keep military options on the table.

“If that goal is achieved, then it sounds to me like we did something right,” Obama said on ABC’s This Week.

Kerry reached the deal with Lavrov Saturday, demanding that Syria hand over a “comprehensive list” of its chemical weapons with the week. Additionally, UN weapons inspectors must be allowed into the country no later than November. If President Bashar al-Assad’s regime fails to comply, then the UN Security Council could take punitive measures, Kerry said.

The agreement had implications throughout the Middle East. In Israel, where Kerry traveled Sunday to negotiate peace between Palestinians and Israelis, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the threat of force was essential to enforcing the deal.

“What the past few days have shown is something that I have been saying for quite some time, that if diplomacy has any chance to work, it must be coupled with a credible military threat,” Netanyahu said. “What is true of Syria is true of Iran, and, by the way, vice versa.”

Obama said that he had exchanged letters with Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani regarding his opposition to western military action against Syria, and said that the diplomatic solution reached Saturday should act as an example.

“What they should draw from this lesson is that there is the potential of resolving these issues diplomatically,” Obama said.

The stops and starts in reaching an agreement with Syria had critics arguing that Obama had bungled the response to the Assad regime’s alleged crossing of the “red line” by using chemical weapons.

“I’m less concerned about style points. I’m much more concerned with getting the policy right,” Obama said to ABC, adding that he recognized his administration’s response has not looked “smooth and disciplined and linear.”

Despite the tentative deal, it was not yet clear how the weapons would be disposed of in the middle of a civil war. Republican lawmakers also pointed out that the U.S. was trusting that Russia would not hinder the transfer.

“If they go to the UN, it’s clear they would veto again,” Republican Senator John McCain said Sunday on Meet the Press of Russia’s role defending Syria on the Security Council. “It is now in the hands of Russia whether Bashar Al-Assad complies or not.”

Obama said that the U.S. has not taken military action off the table, but would still work towards a diplomatic solution.

“But you know, my view is that if you have both a credible threat of force, combined with a rigorous diplomatic effort, that, in fact…you can strike a deal,” he said.

The Obama administration had accused Assad of using chemical weapons against civilians August 21 and a UN report on the attack is expected Monday. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said he expected the report to say that chemical weapons were in fact responsible for the deaths of more than 1,400 people. The report will determine international reaction to an extent, the European Union said it would wait for the UN’s determination before mapping out a course of action.

Obama's road forward in Syria: Soft words, big stick

Updated