Barack Obama photo

Interview with Wolf Blitzer of CNN's "The Situation Room"

September 09, 2013

BLITZER: Mr. President, thanks so much for joining us.


BLITZER: This latest idea floated by the Secretary of State John Kerry, picked up by the Russians, is it possible this could avert a U.S. military strike on Syria?

THE PRESIDENT: It's possible, if it's real. And you know, I think it's certainly a positive development when the Russians and the Syrians both make gestures towards dealing with these chemical weapons. This is what we've been asking for, not just over the last week or the last month, but for the last couple of years, because these chemical weapons pose a significant threat to all nations and to the United States in particular. That's why 98 percent of humanity has said we don't use these. That protects our troops and it protects children like the ones that we saw on those videos inside of Syria.

So it is a potentially positive development. I have to say that it's unlikely that we would've arrived at that point, where there were even public statements like that, without a credible military threat to deal with the chemical weapons use inside of Syria.

But we're going to run this to ground. And John Kerry and the rest of my national security team will engage with the Russians and the international community to see, can we arrive at something that is enforceable and serious.

You know, one reason that this may have a chance of success is that even Syria's allies, like Iran, detest chemical weapons. Iran, you know, unfortunately was the target of chemical weapons at the hands of Saddam Hussein back during the Iraq/Iran War. And so we may be able to arrive at a consensus in which it doesn't solve the underlying problems of a civil war in Syria, but it does solve the problem that I'm trying to focus on right now, which is making sure that you don't have over 400 children gassed indiscriminately by these chemical weapons.

BLITZER: Ban Ki-moon, the U.N. secretary general, says not only control the stockpiles of chemical weapons, but then go ahead and destroy them. He's ready to take that to the U.N. Security Council. That's a lot better than deterring the Syrians from going ahead and using these chemical weapons.

THE PRESIDENT: Absolutely, and that's why we're going -- we're going to take this seriously, but I have to consistently point out that we have not seen these kinds of gestures up until now. And in part, the fact that the U.S. administration and I have said we are serious about this, I think, has prompted some interesting conversations.

And these are conversations that I've had directly with Mr. Putin. When I was at the G20, we had some time to discuss this and I believe that Mr. Putin does not see the use of chemical weapons as a good thing inside of Syria, or any place else. And so it's possible that we can get a breakthrough, but it's going to have to be followed up on and we don't want just a stalling or delaying tactic to put off the pressure that we have on there right now. We have to maintain this pressure, which is why I'll still be speaking to the nation tomorrow about why I think this is so important.

BLITZER: Is this Bashar al-Assad's last chance?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, you know, I think that it is important for Assad to understand that, you know, the chemical weapons ban which has been in place is one that the entire civilized world, just about, respects and observes. It's something that protects our troops, even when we're in the toughest war theaters, from being threatened by these chemical weapons. It's something that protects women and children and civilians because these weapons, by definition, are indiscriminate; they don't just target somebody in uniform. And you know, I suspect that some of Assad's allies recognize the mistake he made in using these weapons and it may be that he is under pressure from them as well.

You know, again, this doesn't solve the underlying terrible conflict inside of Syria, but if we can accomplish this limited goal without taking military action, that would be my preference. On the other hand, if we don't maintain and move forward with a credible threat of military pressure, I do not think we will actually get the kind of agreement I'd like to see.

BLITZER: You're being seen right now on CNN and CNN International around the world, including in Damascus. What I'd like you to do, Mr. President, if you're amenable to doing it, look into the camera, talk directly to President Bashar al-Assad, tell him specifically what you think he must do to avert a U.S. military strike.

THE PRESIDENT: You know, I don't need to talk in the camera. I suspect he's got people who will be watching this.

BLITZER: He's probably watching it himself.

THE PRESIDENT: We've been very clear about what we expect, and that is, do not use chemical weapons, control the chemical weapons and now, because we've seen Assad's willingness to use chemical weapons, we're going to have to go further and give the international community assurances that they will not be used potentially by getting them out of there, at minimum, making sure that international control over those chemical weapons takes place. That can be accomplished and it does not solve the broader political situation.

I would say to Mr. Assad, we need a political settlement so that you're not slaughtering your own people and, by the way, encouraging some elements of the opposition to engage in some terrible behavior as well.

You know, what I'm thinking about is right now, though, how do we make sure that we can verify that we do not have chemical weapons that can be used, not only inside of Syria, but potentially could drift outside of Syria?

BLITZER: He said in an interview with Charlie Rose that if you, United States, attack, launch military strikes, he said he will respond anything -- he said expect anything, not only from him, but from his allies. That sounds like a threat to the United States.

THE PRESIDENT: Mr. Assad doesn't have a lot of capability. He has capability relative to children. He has capability relative to an opposition that is still getting itself organized and are not professional, trained fighters. He doesn't have a credible means to threaten the United States.

His allies, Iran and Hezbollah, could potentially engage in asymmetrical strikes against us, but frankly, the kind of threats that they could pose against us are typical of the kinds of threats that we're dealing with around the world that I've spoken of recently, which is embassies that are being threatened, you know, U.S. personnel in the region. Those are threats that we deal with on an ongoing basis. They are always of concern. Obviously, we saw the situation in Yemen just a few weeks ago where we wanted to respond by getting some of our folks out of there. But the notion that Mr. Assad could significantly threaten the United States is just not the case.

BLITZER: One final quick question. 9/11, the anniversary this Wednesday, should Americans expect some sort of attack?

THE PRESIDENT: I think that we are always on heightened alert on 9/11 and we will continue to be. You know, what we've seen over the last decade is, because of the heroism of our troops, because of enormous sacrifices of them and their families, America is safer than it was right before 9/11. But we still have threats out there, particularly outside of the homeland. And we also have lone-wolf threats as we saw during the Boston Marathon bombings.

So we have to remain vigilant. We're not going to be able to protect ourselves 100 percent of the time against every threat, but what we can do is make sure that we understand these threats are real. We have to be prepared, but not overreact in ways that potentially compromise our values and our ideals over the long term.

BLITZER: Mr. President, thanks very much.

THE PRESIDENT: I appreciate it. Thank you, Wolf.

Barack Obama, Interview with Wolf Blitzer of CNN's "The Situation Room" Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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