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CBS "60 Minutes" - Transcript: Syria

Interview

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A day after that interview, the White House scheduled a brief conversation for us with President Obama as the situation was beginning to change, with negotiations led by Russia to secure Syria's chemical weapons.

Scott Pelley: What do you need to see in a diplomatic deal?

President Obama: To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, that we don't just trust, but we also verify. And so the importance is to make sure that the international community has confidence that these chemical weapons are under control, that they are not being used, that potentially they are removed from Syria and that they are destroyed. And there are a lot of stockpiles inside of Syria. It's one of the largest in the world. Let's see if they're serious. But we have to make sure that we can verify it and enforce it and if in fact we're able to achieve that kind of agreement that has Russia's agreement and the security council's agreement, then my central concern in this whole episode is result. It doesn't resolve the underlying terrible conflict in Syria. And that I've always said is not amenable to a military solution. We're going to have to get the parties to arrive at some sort of settlement. But this may be a first step in what potentially could be an end to terrible bloodshed and millions of refugees throughout the region that is of deep concern to us and our allies.

Scott Pelley: Is the only agreement you would accept one in which we can be assured that all of Syria's chemical weapons are destroyed?

President Obama: I-- you know, I think it's premature for me to start drafting language. I think, I want to see what exactly is being proposed and in the interim, it is very important for Congress and the American people to recognize that we would not be getting even ticklers like this if it weren't for the fact that we were serious about potentially taking action in the absence of some sort of movement. It's in part humanitarian. Any parent who sees those videos of those children being gassed I think understands what a human tragedy it is.

Scott Pelley: Assad essentially put you on notice. In the interview with Charlie Rose, he said of the United States, "If you strike somewhere, you have to expect the repercussions somewhere else in a different form, in a way that you don't expect." He brought up 9/11 as an example of the kind of thing America did not expect. Do you take that as a threat?

President Obama: Well-- I mean, I think it was intended as a threat. I don't take it as a credible threat in the sense that Mr. Assad doesn't have the capacity to strike us in a significant way. Some of his allies like Iran and Hezbollah do have the capacity to engage in asymmetrical strikes against us. Our intelligence, I think, is very clear that they would not try to escalate a war with us over limited strikes to deal with this chemical weapon issue. Keep in mind, Iran was subjected to chemical weapons use by Saddam Hussein. So the Iranian population thinks chemical weapons are terrible and probably consider what Assad did to be a grave mistake. So I don't think they would start a war with us over that. But what is true is that-- you know, our embassies in the region, U.S. personnel in the region-- they're always potentially vulnerable to asymmetrical attacks. But the truth of the matter is, those threats already exist from a whole range of groups. And we understand what those threats are and take those precautions very seriously.

Scott Pelley: Mr. President, the administration has described evidence to the American people and the world but it hasn't shown evidence. And I wonder at this point, what are you willing to show? What are we going to see in terms of the evidence that you say we have?

President Obama: Well keep in mind what we've done is we have provided unclassified evidence. But members of Congress are getting a whole slew of classified briefings. And they're seeing very directly exactly what we have. Keep in mind, Scott, that this is not a problem that I'm looking for. I'm not looking for an excuse to engage in military action. And I understand deeply how the American people, after a decade of war, are not interested in any kind of military action that they don't believe involves our direct national security interests. I get that. And members of Congress, I think, understand that. But in this situation where there's clear evidence that nobody credibly around the world disputes that chemical weapons were used, that over a thousand people were killed, that the way that these weapons were delivered makes it almost certain that Assad's forces used them, when even Iran has acknowledged that chemical weapons were used inside of Syria. I think the question now is how does the international community respond. And, I think, it is important for us to run to ground every diplomatic channel that we can. There's a reason why I went to Congress in part to allow further deliberation not just here domestically but also internationally. But I think it's very important for us to make sure that we understand this is important. And if the American people are not prepared to stand up for what is a really important international norm, then I think a lot of people around the world will take that signal that this norm is not important.

Scott Pelley: The people aren't with you.

President Obama: Yeah, well, not yet. If you ask the average person, including my household, "Do we need another military engagement?" I think the answer generally is going to be no. But what I'm going to try to propose is that we have a very specific objective, a very narrow military option, and one that will not lead into some large-scale invasion of Syria or involvement or boots on the ground, nothing like that. This isn't like Iraq, it's not like Afghanistan, it's not even like Libya. Then hopefully people will recognize why I think this is so important.


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