President Barack Obama said Monday that he would “absolutely” put plans for strikes on Syria on hold if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad gave up control of his country’s chemical weapons.
“Absolutely — if, in fact, that happens,” Obama said in an interview with ABC’s Diane Sawyer, which was one of six interviews he gave at the White House on Monday.
Obama’s comments came after a day of unexpected developments in the Syria situation that signaled a potentially dramatic shift in course on Syria. Secretary of State John Kerry first made what appeared to be an offhand remark in London early Monday, suggesting that Syria could potentially avoid a U.S. attack if it handed over “every single bit of his chemical weapons” to the international community in the next week.
Russia immediately jumped on the offer, despite the State Department’s furious walk-backs of Kerry’s remarks as “rhetorical” and “hypothetical.” And Syria said it would “welcome” the offer.
Obama echoed his sentiments in an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer.
“It’s possible if it’s real,” Obama said. “… It’s certainly a positive development.”
Obama told PBS’ Gwen Ifill and Fox News’ Chris Wallace that he had “conversations” with Russian President Vladimir Putin about this issue during their conversation last week at the G20 summit in St. Petersburg. But he emphasised that even if this deal led to a “breakthrough,” it would require strict conditions and follow-up.
In interviews with NBC and Fox News, Obama quoted former President Ronald Reagan, saying he would “trust but verify” Russia’s offer. After the interview on NBC, Savannah Guthrie reported, citing a senior administration official, that Putin initiated the conversations.
“We will pursue this diplomatic track,” Obama told Fox News’ Wallace. “I fervently hope that this can be resolved in a non-military way. But I think it is important for us not to let the, you know, the pedal off the metal when it comes to making sure that they understand that we mean what we say about these international bans on chemical weapons.”
Obama also took credit for Russia’s offer, noting that it did not come without the threat of U.S. military action.
“I don’t think we would have gotten to this point unless we had maintained a credible possibility for a military strike and I don’t think now is the time for us to let up on that,” Obama told ABC.
As Obama’s interviews aired, Senate Majority Harry Reid pulled a critical test vote that was scheduled for Wednesday.
“I don’t anticipate that you would see a succession of votes this week or anytime in the immediate future,” Obama told ABC. “So I think there will be time during the course of the debates here in the United States for the international community, the Russians and the Syrians to work with us and say is there a way to resolve this.”
He also said on multiple networks that he still planned to address the nation in a primetime speech on Tuesday night, amid rising opposition from both the public and in Congress. Obama told NBC that he “wouldn’t say I’m confident” about the chances of Congressional authorization.
When asked by NBC whether he would carry out strikes in case Congress denies his request, he said he hadn’t made up his mind.
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