President Barack Obama told PBS NewsHour co-anchor Gwen Ifill Monday evening that he would prefer a diplomatic solution in Syria and has spoken to Russian President Vladimir Putin about those efforts.
President Obama said Monday, a day before his prime-time address to the nation justifying military action in Syria, that he would prefer a diplomatic solution over a military strike. “I did have those conversations” with Russian President Vladimir Putin, he told PBS NewsHour co-anchor Gwen Ifill at the White House when asked whether he had discussions with the Russian leader about the idea of putting Syrian chemical weapons under international control.
“This is a continuation of conversations I’ve had with President Putin for quite some time. As I said to you the last time we spoke, this chemical weapons ban matters to us, to the United States,” the president said.
He added that he has instructed Secretary of State John Kerry to talk directly to the Russians about that option.
“And if we can exhaust these diplomatic efforts and come up with a formula that gives the international community a verifiable, enforceable mechanism to deal with these chemical weapons in Syria, then I’m all for it. But we’re going to have to see specifics.”
President Obama also acknowledged the difficulty in getting all Americans on board for using military force. “I’m not sure that we’re ever going to get a majority of the American people, after over a decade of war, after what happened in Iraq, to say that any military action, particularly in the Middle East, makes sense, in the absence of some direct threat or attack against us.”
He said he would explain on Tuesday in his 9 p.m. EDT address that the planned strike is not akin to the U.S. wars in Iraq or Afghanistan or even the same as the targeted airstrikes in Libya that helped depose Moammar Gadhafi. “We’re talking about very specific action” to degrade Assad’s capability to launch another chemical attack. “It is in our long-term national interest” to do so, he said.
A suspected chemical weapons attack near Damascus on Aug. 21 killed more than 1,400, U.S. officials said.
Assad said there is no conclusive evidence about who used the chemical weapons and suggested it was rebels in an interview airing Monday at 9 p.m. EDT on the PBS program Charlie Rose.
On Assad’s assertion that the United States was making up its evidence that the chemical weapons came from his regime, Mr. Obama said, “Mr. Assad has been making claims that proved to be untrue for quite some time.”
In terms of the possibility of Syria or its neighbors retaliating against a U.S. airstrike, the president said Iran and Hezbollah could carry out attacks against U.S. embassies in the region, but “we don’t think they would do that.”
Iran, which has had chemical weapons used against it in the past by Iraq, “has an aversion to chemical weapons.”
President Obama has been working to garner support from other world leaders for a limited military strike against Syria, but so far has had little success. Eleven leaders signed a statement at the G-20 economic summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, condemning the use of chemical weapons in Syria but not endorsing military action.
Mr. Obama said in the interview that there’s no one in the international community who doesn’t think chemical weapons were used, and very few people who don’t understand that the weapons were delivered via rockets from regime-controlled areas.
“We have made a very compelling case about Assad’s use” of the weapons, he said.
- Aug. 28, 2013: President Obama: ‘I Have Not Made a Decision’ on Syria
- Sept. 2, 2013: Your Cheat Sheet to the Syrian Conflict
View highlights of our Syria coverage in the above YouTube playlist.