In an interview on Sunday morning with US ABC News, President Obama effectively confirmed — without saying so directly — that the US will no longer support the Syrian insurgency in the challenge to President Assad’s conventional military forces and his hold on power.
The President did so by maintaining a narrow focus on the issue of chemical weapons.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: So just about two weeks ago, exactly at this moment– it looked like you were poised to strike Syria. Took that walk with Dennis McDonough, your chief of staff, went to Congress. And now, two weeks later, you’re in negotiations with the Russians. Is that what you imagined then? And are you confident the U.S. is in a better position now?
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Well, we’re definitely in d –– better position.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Why?
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Keep in mind that my entire goal throughout this exercise is to make sure that what happened on August 21st does not happen again, that we do not see over 1,000 people, over 400 children –– subjected to poison gas –– something that is a violation of international law, and is a violation of ––
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Are you confident that won’t happen again?
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: –– common decency. Well, I think we have the possibility of making sure that it doesn’t happen again. Think about where we were. This event happens, and the initial response is the Syrians act as if they don’t know anything about it. At that point, they’re not even acknowledging that they’ve got chemical weapons.
The Russians are protecting the Syrians, suggesting that there’s no possibility that the Assad regime might have done this. And the inspectors weren’t even in yet. And as a consequence of the pressure that we’ve applied over the last couple of weeks, we have Syria first –– for the first time acknowledging that it has chemical weapons, agreeing to join –– the convention that prohibits the use of chemical weapons. And the Russians– they’re primary sponsors, saying that they will push Syria to get all of their chemical weapons out– out of –– out ––
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: But aren’t they still ––
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: –– of the country. So– look, we’re not there yet. We don’t have– a actual, verifiable deal that will begin that process. But the distance that we’ve traveled over these couple of weeks is remarkable. And my position, and the United States’ position, has been consistent throughout.
Which is that –– the underlying civil conflict in Syria is terrible. I believe that because of Assad’s actions, his response to peaceful protests– we’ve created a civil war in Syria that has led to 100,000 people being killed and six million people being displaced.
But what I’ve also said is that the United States can’t get in the middle of somebody else’s civil war. We’re not gonna put troops on the ground. We can’t enforce– militarily, a settlement there. What we can do–
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: But in the past, you said he had to go.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: What we can do– what we can do is make sure that the worst weapons, the indiscriminate weapons that don’t distinguish between a soldier and an infant, are not used. And if we get that accomplished, then we may also have a foundation to begin what has to be an international process– in which Assad’s sponsors, primarily Iran and Russia, recognize that this is terrible for the Syrian people, and they are willing to come, in a serious way, to arrive at some sort of political settlement that would– deal with the underlying terrible conflict ––
The discussion then is side-tracked into Obama’s relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, both on the specific Syrian question and on general issues.
There is one further exchange where Stephanapoulos tries — and fails — to get Obama to address the Syrian political and military situation beyond the chemical weapons question:
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You said, “Post-Assad.” If, one year from now, Assad is in the process of surrendering his chemical weapons, but he’s strengthened his hold on power, is that a victory?
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Well– the chemical weapons issue is the issue I’m– concerned about first and foremost, simply because that speaks directly to U.S. interests. It speaks to the potential that other countries start producing more chemical weapons, that the ban on chemical weapons unravels, and it becomes more accessible to terrorists– which, in turn, could be used against us.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Is that the ––
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: So I have a –– so I have a –– a primary concern there. I also believe that the U.S. has an interest in seeing a stable– Syria in which people aren’t being slaughtered. And it is hard to envision how Mr. Assad regains any kind of legitimacy after he’s gassed– or his military has gassed –– innocent civilians and children.
And so part of my argument here is that we will not intervene militarily to bring that transition about. But all the countries in the region, and I think the entire world and the United Nations, should have an interest in trying to bring about that stability.