“I’m less concerned about style points,” President… (Dennis Brack, Pool Photo )
WASHINGTON — President Obama defended his handling of the biggest international crisis of his second term so far, saying that a diplomatic deal to seize Syria's chemical arsenal without U.S. military intervention ultimately could help end that country's bitter civil war.
Obama said his threats to use missile strikes against Syrian President Bashar Assad's government had created conditions for diplomacy to work.
"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 said in an interview broadcast Sunday on ABC's "This Week With George Stephanopoulos."
The interview was taped Friday, a day before Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov negotiated a broad agreement in Geneva aimed at removing or destroying Assad's chemical weapons by mid-2014.
"If that goal is achieved, then it sounds to me like we did something right," Obama said.
Obama also dismissed criticism of his zigzagging decisions over the last three weeks — first to brush off a chemical attack in Syria, then to threaten to launch missile strikes in response, then to hold back the military and ask for a vote in Congress, only to cancel the vote and seek a diplomatic deal in Geneva.
"I'm less concerned about style points," Obama said. "I'm much more concerned about getting the policy right."
Getting Assad to surrender his toxic weapons could lay "a foundation to begin what has to be an international process" to reach a political settlement to end the bloodshed in Syria, Obama said. The fighting has claimed more than 100,000 lives since early 2011 and displaced more than 6 million people.
The deal announced Saturday calls for Assad to submit a full inventory of his poison gases, precursor chemicals, munitions and relevant sites within a week. Assad also must agree to allow international inspectors into Syria no later than November, and provide them security and unfettered access to do their work.
The disarmament timetable is the fastest by far since the Chemical Weapons Convention, an international treaty that bans production, storage and use of chemical weapons, went into force in 1997. Assad agreed to sign the treaty last week only under pressure from Russia.
Until last week, Obama was considering unilateral missile strikes to punish Assad, who the U.S. says fired rockets filled with nerve gas into rebel-held civilian enclaves near Damascus on Aug. 21. But Congress offered little support for military action, and Obama shelved the strikes in favor of diplomacy.
During a visit to Israel on Sunday, Kerry said a U.S. military strike against Syrian targets remains an option if Assad fails to implement the deal. "We've taken no option off the table," Kerry said.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, after meeting Kerry in Jerusalem, said he supports the effort to rid Syria of its chemical weapons.
"The world needs to ensure that radical regimes don't have weapons of mass destruction, because as we've learned once again in Syria, if rogue regimes have weapons of mass destruction, they will use them," Netanyahu said.
"The determination the international community shows regarding Syria will have a direct impact on the Syrian regime's patron, Iran."
Reaction to the diplomatic deal was mixed in Congress.
"If your goal is to make sure these chemical weapons are never used again, if your goal is to make sure that when the regime falls that, in that chaos, these weapons don't get in the hands of Hezbollah or Al Qaeda, this is about as good a deal as you can get," Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said on CNN.
Critics said that the plan represents a win for Russia, Syria's most powerful ally, and is likely to fail because it's unclear what happens if Assad doesn't fully or quickly disarm.
"Not one ounce of chemical weapons came off the battlefield, but we have 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," Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said on CNN.
Kerry said Saturday that if Assad fails to comply, the United Nations Security Council would consider a resolution to enforce the terms of the deal. Russia, which has veto power on the council, has said it would oppose any armed intervention.
In the interview, Obama confirmed publicly for the first time that he had exchanged private letters with Iran's newly inaugurated president, Hassan Rouhani, a relatively moderate cleric who has signaled a desire for a fresh start with the United States after years of growing isolation.
The Obama administration and its allies have levied harsh economic sanctions against Iran over its disputed nuclear program, but Rouhani has said he would offer greater transparency. Tehran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only.
"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."
Times staff writer Edmund Sanders in Jerusalem contributed to this report.