President Barack Obama said the world would still be better off if Bashar Assad left power, but on Tuesday stressed that his top priority was removing chemical weapons from the Syrian president's arsenal.
Obama told Telemundo in an interview that he wouldn’t “prejudge” a diplomatic breakthrough this weekend with the Russian government, in which an international coalition would take possession of and destroy Syria’s chemical weapons by the middle of next year.
“There's an underlying challenge that we've gotta deal with, which is that there's a civil war going on inside of Syria and we've got a murderous dictator who, so far at least, has resisted efforts at a political settlement,” Obama said. “So this will only be the first step, even if we get an agreement on chemical weapons.”
Senator Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., speaks in Chicago, Ill., Monday about Russia's involvement with Syria potentially handing over its chemical weapons to the international community.
The accord prompted the administration to back off somewhat from its threat to launch military strikes to punish Assad for allegedly using chemical weapons against rebels in Syria’s protracted civil war.
Obama faced stiff opposition to intervention from members of Congress in both parties, and had appeared likely to lose a vote seeking permission to launch strikes against Assad.
In the meanwhile, Obama reiterated his belief that the civil war in Syria could only be resolved through diplomatic means, and that it should see Assad leave power.
“I don't think that anybody in the world community should accept the notion that somebody who kills tens of thousands of his own people, including children, women, defenseless civilians is the preferable ruler of any country,” he said.
But the president also warned that he’ll reserve the right to take military action if the interests of the United States come under a more direct threat.
“I always preserve as commander in chief the possibility that if in fact U.S. interests are directly impacted ... we may end up having to do something,” he said.
This story was originally published on Tue Sep 17, 2013 6:31 PM EDT