US insists military strikes still an option despite deal with Russia

Secretary of state John Kerry says ‘threat of force is real’ if Syria does not comply with plan to hand over weapons

US secretary of state John Kerry shakes hands with Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem yesterday. Photograph: Reuters/Larry Downing

US secretary of state John Kerry shakes hands with Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem yesterday. Photograph: Reuters/Larry Downing


The White House scrambled to regain the political initiative over Syria yesterday, insisting that US military strikes remained an option despite its deal with Russia to secure chemical weapon stockpiles through a UN resolution.

Under pressure from hawks in Washington and Israel, US secretary of state John Kerry maintained that “the threat of force is real” if Syria does not comply with the plan to hand over its weapons, which was announced in Geneva on Saturday.

“We cannot have hollow words,” he said during a stopover in Jerusalem yesterday to help sell the deal to Middle East allies.

Critics in Washington
Meanwhile, US president Barack Obama urged critics in Washington to focus on what had been achieved through the talks with Russia rather than the twisting and sometimes contradictory foreign policy path that led him there.

The US strategy was working, though it may not always have been “smooth and disciplined and linear”, Mr Obama conceded in an interview with George Stephanopoulos that was broadcast on ABC’s This Week yesterday morning.

Mr Obama added: “I’m less concerned about style points. I’m much more concerned with getting the policy right.”

US reaction to Saturday’s deal, which was struck by Mr Kerry and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, has been split squarely along party lines – a stark contrast to the swirling alliances that characterised earlier efforts to seek congressional authorisation for military action.

Republicans have been overwhelmingly hostile, accusing Mr Obama and Mr Kerry of “selling out” to the Russians and allowing Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to stay in power without any firm guarantee that he will fulfil the promise to hand over weapons.

“This is a Russian plan for Russian interests,” Mike Rogers, chairman of the House intelligence committee, told CNN yesterday morning.

“They got exactly what they wanted: Assad here for a year at least and not one ounce of chemical weapons came off the battlefield but we have given up a lot of leverage.”

He added: “[Russian president Vladimir] Putin is playing chess and we’re playing tic-tac-toe.”

Vexed issue
Democrats were generally more sympathetic to the White House, amid relief that many would no longer have to vote against the president on the vexed issue of military action.

“I don’t know if I trust the Russians but this agreement is a very positive step,” said representative Adam Schiff, a member of the intelligence committee. “It’s been ugly getting here. If your goal is to use military force, it’s a bad deal, but if your goal is to stop the use of chemical weapons this is about as good a deal as you are going to get.”

Mr Obama insisted that dealing with Russia over Syria’s chemical weapons did not mean the US had given up wider hopes of seeing Dr Assad removed from power.

“I don’t think that Mr Putin has the same values that we do,” he said in the ABC interview, which was recorded on Friday, before the deal with Russia was announced.

“And I think – obviously – by protecting Mr Assad he has a different attitude about the Assad regime.

“But what I’ve also said to him directly is that we both have an interest in preventing chaos, we both have an interest in preventing terrorism.

“The situation in Syria right now is untenable – as long as Mr Assad’s in power, there is gonna be some sort of conflict there – and we should work together to try to find a way in which the interests of all the parties inside of Syria, the Alawites, the Sunnis, the Christians, that everybody is represented and that there is a way of bringing the temperature down.” – (Guardian service)