Obama hails US-Russia deal on Syrian weapons
Both sides say Assad will not be removed soon
WASHINGTON — President Obama hailed the agreement reached with Russia during the weekend to seize and destroy Syria’s chemical weapons as a “foundation” that could eventually lead to a political settlement of the civil war, but both sides in the conflict see the deal as a sign that President Bashar Assad will not be removed from power any time soon.
Ali Haidar, the Syrian minister of national reconciliation, told a Russian state news agency Sunday that the deal struck a day earlier in Geneva was a “victory’’ for the Assad regime.
‘‘We welcome these agreements,’’ Haidar was quoted as saying by RIA Novosti. ‘‘On the one hand, they will help Syrians get out of the crisis, and on the other hand, they averted a war against Syria by removing the pretext for those who wanted to unleash one.’’
Under the agreement, Syria will provide an inventory of its chemical arsenal within one week and hand over all of the components of its program by mid-2014.
The US-Russian deal was a disappointment for the Syrian opposition because it defers outside intervention for the foreseeable future.
The deal also does nothing to address the broader civil war or the use of conventional weapons, which have been responsible for the vast majority of the more than 100,000 deaths in the conflict.
The main Western-backed Syrian opposition group called on Sunday for a ban on the use of ballistic missiles and air power by Assad’s forces in addition to the prohibition on chemical weapons, the Associated Press reported.
‘‘Chemical weapons attacks are a part of a bigger scheme of crimes against humanity committed by the Assad regime, including using the Syrian air forces and ballistic missiles on residential areas,’’ the Syrian National Coalition said on its official website. ‘‘The Syrian Coalition insists that the prohibition of the use of chemical weapons, which killed more than 1,400 Syrian civilians, be extended to include the prohibition of the use of air forces and ballistic missiles on residential areas.’’
Obama said in an interview broadcast Sunday on ABC’s “This Week’’ that the United States was in a “better position” to prevent Assad from using poison gas again because of the deal forged by Secretary of State John Kerry and Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister.
“Look, we’re not there yet,” Obama said in the interview, which was taped Friday. “We don’t have an actual, verifiable deal that will begin that process. But the distance that we’ve traveled over these couple of weeks is remarkable.”
Republican lawmakers said Sunday the agreement fell short by not mandating military action should Assad not comply.
Representative Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican who is chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said on CNN’s “State of the Union’’ that the United States is ‘‘being led by the nose by’’ Russian President Vladimir Putin.
‘‘So, if we wanted a transition with Assad, we just fired our last round, and we have taken our ability to negotiate a settlement from the White House, and we’ve sent it with Russia to the United Nations,’’ Rogers said. ‘‘That’s a dangerous place for us to be if you want an overall settlement to the problems.’’
Russia already has rejected three resolutions on Syria, its ally. Obama and Kerry have stressed that if diplomacy fails, the United States is prepared to launch a military strike alone to respond to chemical weapons.
In his ABC interview, Obama said the United States was not going to “get in the middle of somebody else’s civil war.” But he said the chemical weapons agreement could be a first step toward a political settlement of the conflict.
Asked about the possibility of a settlement that would leave Assad in power in Syria, Obama said, “It is hard to envision how Assad regains any kind of legitimacy after he’s gassed, or his military has gassed, innocent civilians and children.”
Obama took credit for creating the pressure that led to the deal by threatening — and then backing off from — a military strike in Syria. He also defended his actions during the past two weeks, saying his critics were judging him on style, not on the substance of his policies.
The president said his administration had focused on preventing Assad from using chemical weapons again.
“If that goal is achieved, then it sounds to me like we did something right,” he said.
Obama also responded to criticism that Putin had been playing his American counterpart by seizing control of the diplomatic efforts.
He said the Russian president did not have the same “values” as the United States about the future of Assad, but still played an important role in the Syrian conflict.