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Obama defends Syria stance

Says threat of strike made diplomacy work

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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (left) said Sunday, during a visit with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a military strike against Syria remains an option.

LARRY DOWNING / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS Enlarge Image

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (left) said Sunday, during a visit with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a military strike against Syria remains an option.

WASHINGTON -- U.S. President Barack Obama defended his handling of the biggest international crisis of his second term so far, saying a diplomatic deal to seize Syria's chemical arsenal without U.S. military intervention ultimately could help resolve that country's bitter civil war.

Obama said his threats to use missile strikes against Syrian President Bashar Assad's government had created conditions for diplomacy to work.

"We now have a situation in which Syria has acknowledged it has chemical weapons, has said it's willing to join the convention on chemical weapons, and Russia, its primary sponsor, has said that it will pressure Syria to reach that agreement," Obama said in an interview broadcast Sunday on ABC's This Week With George Stephanopoulos.

The interview was taped Friday, a day before Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov negotiated a broad agreement in Geneva aimed at removing or destroying Assad's chemical weapons by mid-2014.

"If that goal is achieved, then it sounds to me like we did something right," Obama said.

Obama also dismissed criticism of his zigzagging decisions over the last three weeks -- first to brush off an alleged Syrian chemical attack, then to threaten to launch missile strikes in response, then to hold back the military and ask for a vote in Congress, then to cancel the vote and seek a diplomatic deal in Geneva.

"I'm less concerned about style points," Obama said. "I'm much more concerned about getting the policy right."

Getting Assad to surrender his toxic weapons could lay "a foundation to begin what has to be an international process" to reach a political settlement to end the bloodshed in Syria, Obama said. The fighting has claimed more than 100,000 lives since early 2011 and displaced more than 6 million people.

The deal announced Saturday calls for Assad to submit a full inventory of his poison gases, precursor chemicals, munitions and relevant sites within a week. Assad also must agree to allow international inspectors into Syria no later than November, and provide them security and unfettered access to do their work.

The disarmament timetable is the fastest by far since the Chemical Weapons Convention, an international treaty that bans production, storage and use of chemical weapons, went into force in 1997. Assad only agreed to sign the treaty last week under pressure from Russia.

Until last week, Obama was considering unilateral missile strikes to punish Assad, who the U.S. says fired rockets filled with nerve gas into rebel-held civilian enclaves near Damascus on Aug. 21. But Congress offered little support for military action, and Obama shelved the strikes in favour of diplomacy.

During a visit to Israel on Sunday, Kerry said a U.S. military strike against Syrian targets remains an option if Assad fails to implement the deal, however. "We've taken no option off the table," Kerry said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, after meeting Kerry in Jerusalem, said he supports the effort to rid Syria of its chemical weapons.

"The world needs to ensure that radical regimes don't have weapons of mass destruction, because as we've learned once again in Syria, if rogue regimes have weapons of mass destruction, they will use them," Netanyahu said.

"The determination the international community shows regarding Syria will have a direct impact on the Syrian regime's patron, Iran."

Kerry said Saturday that if Assad fails to comply, the United Nations Security Council would consider a resolution to enforce the terms of the deal. Russia, which has veto power on the council, has said it would oppose any armed intervention.

In the interview, Obama confirmed publicly for the first time that he had exchanged private letters with Iran's newly inaugurated president, Hassan Rouhani, a relatively moderate cleric who has signalled a desire for a fresh start with the United States after years of growing isolation.

 

-- Tribune Washington Bureau

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 16, 2013 A8

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