President Obama gave six interviews to six different networks on Monday in order to talk about Syria. While the interviews, scheduled last week, were originally framed as the president's chance to sell military action in Syria to Americans, Monday's evolving proposal suggesting Syria give up its chemical weapons to stave off an attack became the focus of discussion. Probably not by accident, given that an authorization for military strikes, is, well, less than sure to pass Congress. As the president's interviews ran, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid pulled his planned vote on Syria, set for Wednesday.
Referring to the proposal that Syria turn over its chemical arms to be destroyed, the president called the plan a "modestly positive development." He added, speaking to CNN, "It's unlikely that we would have arrived at that point without a credible military threat." The president also indicated that his tone might change for tomorrow's big speech, but his response to questions on the proposal varies slightly from interviewer to interviewer.
- Obama repeatedly referred to the proposal embraced by Russia as a "positive development," one which he (and the State Department) intend to "run to ground." Until that effort is completed, any strike is "absolutely" on hold, he said to ABC News.
- The proposal that Syria might exchange its chemical weapons for the United States' abandoning its strikes did come up in conversation between Obama and Russian president Vladimir Putin last week at the G20 summit.
- The president is comfortable with Congress delaying votes on the authorization for the use of force. Regardless, he consistently reinforced that it was the threat that the United States might strike which led Syria to accept this possible solution.
- Contrary to UN Ambassador Samantha Power's assertion last week that "we have exhausted the alternatives" to military strikes, Obama told PBS' Gwen Ifill that the one could still run its course. "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," he said, "then I'm all for it."
We'll add the videos and transcripts of each response as they come in.
SCOTT PELLEY: Can you accept the Russian/Syrian proposal?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, we don't know the details of it yet. But I think that it is a potentially positive development. I don't think that we would've gotten to the point where they even put something out there publicly, had it not been -- and if it doesn't continue to be a credible -- military threat from the United States and those who support Syria's responses to what happened inside of Syria. But, you know, my central goal throughout this process has not been to embroil ourselves in a civil war in Syria.
I have shown great restraint, I think, over the last two years, despite the heartbreak that's happened there. But what I have said is that the ban on chemical weapon use is something that is of U.S. national interest. It protects our troops, so that they don't have to wear gas masks whenever they're in theater, the weapons by definition are indiscriminate and don't differentiate between somebody in uniform and a child.
And when we see images of 400-plus children being slaughtered without a mark on their body through these weapons, I think it is important for the international community and the United States to stand up and say, "This cannot happen." Now the good news is I think that Assad's allies, both Russia and Iran, recognize that this was-- this was a breach, that this was a problem.
And for them to potentially put pressure on Assad to say, "Let's figure out a way that the international community gets control of-- of-- of these weapons in a verifiable and forcible way" -- I think it's something that we will run to ground. So John Kerry will be talking to his counterparts in Russia, we will contact the U.N. Security Council members as well as the Secretary General of the U.N. And let's see what happens over the next several days to see if in fact what they're talking about is realistic.
WOLF BLITZER: The latest idea floated by Secretary of State John Kerry, picked up by the Russians, is it possible this could avert a U.S. military strike on syria?
OBAMA: It's possible if it's real, and, you know, I think it's certainly a positive development when the Russians and the Syrians both make gestures towards dealing with these chemical weapons. This is what we've been asking for, not just over the last week or the last month, but for the last couple of years, because these chemical weapons pose a significant threat to all nations and to the United States in particular. That's why 98% of humanity has said we don't use these. That protects our troops, and it protects children like the ones that we saw in those videos inside of Syria. so it is a potentially positive development.
I have to say that it's unlikely we would have arrived at that point where there were even public statements like that without a credible military threat to deal with the chemical weapons use inside of Syria. But we're going to run there to ground. John Kerry and the rest of my national security team will engage with the russians and the international community to see, can we arrive at something that is enforceable and serious? You know, one reason this may have a chance of success is that even Syria's allies like Iran detest chemical weapons. Iran, you know, unfortunately was the target of chemical weapons at the hands of Saddam Hussein back at the Iraq/Iran war, so we may be able to arrive at a consensus in which it doesn't solve the underlying problems of a civil war in Syria, but it does solve the problem that I'm trying to focus on right now, which is making sure you don't have over 400 children gassed...
BLITZER: Ban Ki-moon, the Secretary-General, says not only control of the stockpile of chemical weapons, but then go ahead and destroy them. He's ready to take that to the U.N. Security Council. that's a lot better than deterring the Syrians from going ahead and using these chemical weapons.
OBAMA: Absolutely. That's why we're going to take this seriously, but I have to consistently point out that we have not seen these kinds of gestures up until now. The fact that the U.S. administration and I have said we are serious about this, I think, has prompted some interesting conversations. These are conversations that I've had directly with Mr. Putin when I was at the G20, we had some time to discuss this and I believe that Mr. Putin does not see the use of chemical weapons as a good thing inside of Syria or anyplace else. And so it's possible that we can get a breakthrough, but it's going to have to be followed up on, and we don't want a stalling or delaying tactic to put off the pressure that we have on there right now. W have to maintain this pressure, which is why I'll still be speaking to the nation tomorrow about why I think this is so important.
CHRIS WALLACE: There has been this interesting development. Today, the Russians say they're going to push Syria to put chemical weapons under international control. the Syrian foreign minister says he welcomes that. Will you delay a strike to see how that plays out?
OBAMA: I think it's fair to say that we would not be at this point without a credible threat of a military strike, but I welcome the possibility of the development. and John Kerry will be talking to his Russian counterparts. I think we should explore and exhaust all avenues of diplomatic resolution of this. but I think it's important for us to keep the pressure on and to, quote — or to paraphrase, at least, a former U.S. president, Ronald Reagan, it's not enough just to trust, I think we're going to have to verify. The question is, can we construct something that allows the international community to have confidence that these terrible weapons will not be used —
WALLACE: So would you delay a congressional vote until you see where this goes?
OBAMA: Well, I think that in discussions with members of Congress, what we've said to them is that there's a reason why I slowed this thing down to allow for a congressional debate. Part of it was because given that the threat was not directed imminent to the United States, despite me believing I have the authority to take action, I thought it was best for us to actually have this debate because we've gone through a lot of war and people are, frankly, suspicious of a lot of decisions —
WALLACE: But, sir, we have limited time — will you delay a vote?
OBAMA: I am going to make sure that this does not change the calendar of debate in Congress. but there was no expectation that this would be — the congress would be finished with its deliberations over the next week or so. Clearly it's going to take more time, partly because the American people aren't convinced. I'm doing interviews tonight. I'm speaking to the American people tomorrow. A debate will begin in Congress.
SAVANNAH GUTHRIE: Syria's Foreign Minister said to today that Syria would consider placing international inspections around its chemical arsenal. Do you believe it? Are you skeptical? Do you think it might be a stalling tactic?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, I think you have to take it with a grain of salt initially. But between the statements that we saw from the Russians-- the statement today from the Syrians-- this represents a potentially positive development. We are going to run this to ground. John Kerry will be talking to his Russian counterpart. We're going to make sure that we see how serious these proposals are.
And my preference consistently has been a diplomatic resolution to this problem. But what we have to also keep in mind is that Syria has large chemical weapon stockpiles-- they have been in denial mode for quite some time-- we have been in discussions for a long time now about trying to do something about these chemical weapons with the Russians as well as the Syrians and we haven't gotten movement.
SAVANNAH GUTHRIE: So does it feel like a ploy?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, you know, I think what we're seeing is that a credible threat of a military strike from the United States, supported potentially by a number of other countries around the world has given them pause and makes them consider whether or not they would make this move. And if they do, then this could potentially be a significant breakthrough. But we have to be skeptical because this is not how we've seen them operate-- over the last couple a years.
If Syrian President Bashar al-Assad gives up his chemical weapons, a military strike would "absolutely" be on pause, President Obama said today.
"I consider this a modestly positive development," Obama told ABC News' Diane Sawyer in an interview at the White House when asked whether Syria's apparent willingness to relinquish control of its chemical weapons would prevent a U.S. strike.
"Let's see if we can come up with language that avoids a strike but accomplishes our key goals to make sure that these chemical weapons are not used," the president said.
Obama's comments come after the Russian foreign minister suggested today that Syria could avoid a U.S. attack by turning over its chemical weapons stockpiles over to international control and destroying them, a proposal the Syrian government "welcomed."
Obama said that Secretary of State John Kerry would pursue the proposal with Russia, an ally of Syria.
GWEN IFILL: You said you were hoping to make a shot across the bow. John Kerry talked today about a limited, targeted, "unbelievably small" effort. And now we're hearing news that Russia has a plan — a solution perhaps — which would allow Syria to take all of its weapons and put it under international control. Is that something you've had any conversations at all with President Putin about when you were in St. Petersburg last week?
OBAMA: I did have those conversations. And 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. It is a ban on the worst kinds of weapons, that are indiscriminate, that don't distinguish between somebody in uniform and an infant child, and for that reason the overwhelming majority of the world has said, "You can't use these." My intentions throughout this process has been that the blatant use of chemical weapons that we saw doesn't happen again. If, in fact, there's a way that can happen diplomatically, that is overwhelmingly my preference.
I have instructed John Kerry to talk directly to the Russians and run this to ground. 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. And I think it is reasonable to assume that we would not be at this point if there were not a credible military threat standing behind the norm against the use of chemical weapons.