President Obama defended his tentative deal with Russia to confiscate Syria’s chemical weapons as critics Sunday accused the president of caving to Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
Mr. Obama, in an interview taped Friday and broadcast Sunday on ABC’s “This Week,” said that although his administration’s handling of the Syria crisis may have appeared shaky at times, it has produced results.
“We’re definitely in a better position,” Mr. Obama said. “I’m less concerned about style points. I’m much more concerned with getting the policy right.”
U.S. and Russian negotiators reached an agreement Saturday calling for an inventory of Syria’s chemical weapons program and seizing all of its components within a year. The plan includes imposing penalties if Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government fails to turn over its stockpile.
Mr. Obama called it “an important step” toward ridding the world of chemical weapons. But critics in Congress said the deal was toothless because the administration agreed to withdraw from a proposed U.N. resolution the threat of military action if Syria fails to comply.
“It’s not a matter of trust. It’s a matter of whether it will be enforced or not,” Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “[Russia] will not agree to the use of force no matter what Bashar Assad does.”
Rep. Mike Rogers, Michigan Republican and chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said the U.S. gave up an important bargaining chip.
“Not one ounce of chemical weapons came off the battlefield, but we’ve given up every ounce of our leverage when it comes to trying to solve the broader Syrian problem, because we’ve taken away a credible military threat,” the Mr. Rogers said on CNN.
But Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat, called the deal “a diplomatic breakthrough that is full of opportunity and fraught with danger.”
“The opportunity is that we actually end up in a better place than we envisioned with the use of force, which is the elimination of all of Assad’s chemical weapons and his production facilities; in essence, closing down these factories of death,” Mr. Menendez said.
Selling the deal to allies
Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who negotiated the deal, traveled Sunday to Jerusalem to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Mr. Kerry also was scheduled to fly to Paris for discussions with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and British Foreign Secretary William Hague.
Mr. Fabius said the deal on destroying Syria’s chemical weapons was “a significant step forward, but it’s a first stage.”
“On one hand, we are going to move forward with the destruction of chemical weapons — bravo — but on the other hand, hundreds of deaths every day are mounting in Syria and that’s also what we must tackle, that is to say find a political solution to the Syrian crisis,” Mr. Fabius said.
Mr. Netanyahu said Israel hoped the plan would lead to the “complete destruction” of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal and would push the world to stop Iran from nuclear weapons armament. But Israeli Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz told Army Radio that the agreement’s deadline was not speedy enough, and that Mr. Assad could try to hide weapons.
Mr. Kerry, speaking to reporters in Jerusalem after meeting with Mr. Netanyahu, said the threat of U.S. force remains if Syria doesn’t comply with the agreement. “Make no mistake: We’ve taken no options off the table,” Mr. Kerry said.
In the ABC interview, Mr. Obama warned that Iran should not misinterpret the proposed diplomatic deal on Syria as U.S. reluctance to take military action on Tehran’s nuclear weapons program.
“I think what the Iranians understand is that the nuclear issue is a far larger issue for us than the chemical weapons issue,” he said. “What they should draw from this lesson is that there is the potential of resolving these issues diplomatically.”
Mr. Obama said he has exchanged letters with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. “I think this new president is not going to suddenly make it easy,” he said. “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.”
China, Syria’s other main ally, welcomed the U.S.-Russian agreement Sunday.
“We believe the framework agreement will ease the current tense situation that may be triggered at any moment in Syria and creates new prospects for resolving the chemical weapon issue in Syria through peaceful means,” said Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Beijing. China and Russia have consistently blocked resolutions at the U.N. Security Council aimed at sanctioning Mr. Assad’s regime.
Lawmakers weigh in
Critics in Congress expressed the concern that Mr. Putin and Mr. Assad now would stall on complying with the agreement and block any U.N. sanctions.
“I think it’s a loser, because I think it gave Russia a position in the Middle East which they haven’t had since 1970,” Mr. McCain said. “We are now depending on the good will of the Russian people if Bashar Assad violates this agreement. And I am of the firm belief, given his record, that is a very, very big gamble.”
Mr. Rogers said the Russian leader “is playing chess, and we’re playing tick-tack-toe.”
“This is a Russian plan for Russian interests. They got exactly what they wanted,” he said.
Asked by ABC’s George Stephanopoulos whether he was being “played” by Mr. Putin, who has thwarted several of the administration’s foreign policy objectives, Mr. Obama replied, “I welcome him being involved. I welcome him saying, ‘I will take responsibility for pushing my client, the Assad regime, to deal with these chemical weapons.’”
“Mr. Putin and I have strong disagreements on a whole range of issues, but I can talk to him,” Mr. Obama said. “This is not the Cold War. This is not a contest between the United States and Russia.”
The president’s announcement Aug. 31 that he would seek congressional authorization for U.S. military strikes against Syria was followed by the cancellation of a vote last week and the pursuit of a diplomatic plan led by the Russians.
The diplomatic effort with the Russians, Mr. Obama said, has a good chance of achieving his original objective of preventing another gas attack like the one Aug. 21 that killed more than 1,000 Syrians.
“My entire goal throughout this exercise is to make sure what happened on Aug. 21 does not happen again,” Mr. Obama said.
Mr. Obama defended the administration’s handling of Syria, saying his actions might not have looked “smooth and disciplined and linear,” but he is getting results on disarming the Assad regime of its chemical weapons.