WASHINGTON — Defending his handling of the biggest international crisis of his second term, President Obama said a deal to seize Syria's chemical arsenal could be the foundation for a political settlement to resolve that country's civil war without U.S. military intervention.
In an interview taped Friday, the day before the United States and Russia reached a deal that would impound or destroy Syrian President Bashar Assad's chemical stockpile by mid-2014, Obama said his decision to seek a diplomatic resolution, which critics have sharply derided, would stop Assad's use of his most indiscriminate weapons.
"As a consequence of the steps that we've taken over the last two weeks to three weeks, 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 told ABC's "This Week With George Stephanopoulos," which aired his comments Sunday.
"If that goal is achieved, then it sounds to me like we did something right."
Forcing Assad to implement the disarmament deal, which Secretary of State John F. Kerry hammered out with his Russian counterpart in three days of intense negotiations in Geneva, could represent "a foundation to begin what has to be an international process" to reach a political settlement to end Syria's 2½-year civil war, which has claimed more than 100,000 lives, Obama said.
After a major Aug. 21 chemical attack in the Damascus suburbs that U.S. officials have blamed on Assad's forces, Obama said "it is hard to envision how Mr. Assad regains any kind of legitimacy." But the diplomatic path now relies heavily on Assad's cooperation, and includes no curbs on his use of conventional weapons. Obama reiterated that "we will not intervene militarily" to topple Assad.
The seeming contradictions have fueled criticism from lawmakers in both parties. Obama said his primary goal always has been to prevent the use or seizure by armed groups of Assad's chemical stockpile, which he declared last year would represent a "red line" triggering a U.S. response.
"I'm less concerned about style points," Obama said. "I'm much more concerned about getting the policy right."
Obama confirmed publicly for the first time that he had exchanged letters with Iran's newly inaugurated president, Hassan Rouhani, who has signaled a desire for a fresh start with the United States after years of growing isolation. The Obama administration has levied harsh sanctions against Iran over its disputed nuclear program, but Rouhani has said he would offer greater transparency into a program that Tehran maintains is for peaceful purposes.
Critics on the right, including Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), have said Obama's decision not to punish Assad with airstrikes could embolden Iran to continue its defiance of the United States and Western allies.
"My suspicion is that the Iranians recognize they shouldn't draw a lesson that we haven't struck [Syria] to think we won't strike Iran," Obama said. "On the other hand, what they should draw from this lesson is that there is the potential of resolving these issues diplomatically."
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