Obama defends handling of Syria as Damascus thanks 'Russian friends'

Israel gives guarded welcome to deal on Syria's chemical weapons, but hopes for 'complete destruction' of arsenal

President Barack Obama has been defending his handling of the crisis in Syria.
Dennis Brack-Pool/Getty Images

President Barack Obama suggested Sunday that "remarkable" progress on Syria’s chemical weapons was the direct result of U.S. pressure, as a minister in Damascus thanked "Russian friends" and Moscow’s diplomacy for the breakthrough.

In an interview with ABC’s "This Week," Obama defended his handling of the crisis, insisting that U.S. policy had been consistent throughout.

"As a consequence of the pressure that we’ve applied over the last couple of weeks, we have Syria 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, their primary sponsors, saying that they will push Syria to get all of their chemical weapons out of the county," Obama said.

But his comments came as the first response from Damascus put Russian diplomacy at the heart of the agreement.

Speaking to Russian state news agency Ria Novosti, Syria’s minister for national reconciliation Ali Haider, claimed the U.S.-Russian agreement as a "victory for Syria won thanks to our Russian friends."

He added that "Russian diplomacy and the Russian leadership" had prevented a war against Syria.

In an interview aired Sunday, Obama noted that Washington and Moscow still remained divided over the future of the government of Bashar al-Assad. "He has a different attitude," the U.S. president said in regards to his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin.

Putin was still concerned with "protecting" Assad and doesn’t share America's "values" over the issue of Syria he added.

Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave a cautious welcome the U.S.-Russia agreement Sunday.

Netanyahu said he hoped that the development would lead to the "complete destruction" of Syria’s arsenal of chemical weapons. Speaking in Israel, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the deal he helped broker with Russia has the "full ability" to strip Damascus of its chemical weapons.

He added that the threat of force remained real in the event that Syria does not comply with the plan to hand over its chemical weapons.

Netanyahu has suggested that the international community’s action of Syria could prove a "test case" for its future handling of Iran.

Israel, which is believed to be in possession of its own nuclear arsenal, has long maintained that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons and has suggested that the international community's response to the Syrian crisis could be a "test case" for Iran. Iran has denied that it is building up a nuclear weapons program, insisting that its reactors are being used for civilian use.

On Sunday, Obama confirmed that he had communicated with Iran’s new president Hassan Rouhani. He added that Tehran should not draw a lesson from his handling of the Syria crisis that U.S. would not strike if required to, rather that there is the potential to resolve issues through diplomacy.

United Nations chemical weapons inspectors in Syria in August.
Mohamed Abdullah/AFP/Getty Images

What the US-Russia plan for ridding Syria of chemical weapons entails

The agreement aims to completely remove the weapons from Syria by the middle of 2014, along with the elements used to make them. The deal says sanctions could be put into place if the Syrian government fails to comply, but only after debate at the United Nations. It also does not place blame for the Aug. 21 attack. Read more

The U.S.- Russian brokered agreement for removing chemical weapons from Syria was announced by top diplomats from both countries at a press conference Saturday morning in Geneva.

It calls for an inventory of Syria's chemical weapons program within one week. International inspectors are to be on the ground by November to assess Syrian weapons sites, and all components of the chemical weapons program are to be removed from the country or destroyed by mid-2014. The Syrian government has yet to comment publicly on the agreement.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the progress of the removal would need stringent verification, but could represent the first steps to finding a political solution to Syria's two-year-old civil war, which has left more than 100,000 people dead and created a refugee crisis.

The framework calls for the complete removal and eventual destruction of Syria's chemical weapons stockpile -- likely by the middle of next year, Kerry said.

Syria must provide an account of its weapons within a week, according to the agreement.

"We have agreed on a more defined process which includes the unfettered access of inspectors," Kerry said.

The agreement does not include any language regarding the use of force if Syria fails to comply with the deal, Lavrov said.

If Syria fails to comply, the United Nations Security Council would debate punitive measures against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

Kerry added that the "the President of the United States always retains the right to defend the United States of America and our interests."

The United Nations said Saturday it had received all documents necessary for Syria to join the chemical weapons convention and that Syria would come under the treaty starting on Oct. 14.

"The Convention will enter into force for the Syrian Arab Republic on the 30th day following the date of deposit of this instrument of accession, namely on 14 October 2013," the U.N. press office said in a statement.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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