President Barack Obama said the U.S. isn’t moving closer to taking military action in Syria even with the stalemate in the fighting and concerns about missed deadlines on chemical weapons destruction.
“We still have a horrendous situation on the ground in Syria,” the U.S. president said at a joint news conference with French President Francois Hollande from the East Room of the White House. The state of Syria is “crumbling” and “extremists have moved into the vacuum in a way that could threaten us over the long term,” he said.
While saying he reserves the right to use military force, Obama said that “right now we don’t think that there’s a military solution, per se, to the problem.”
Obama is hosting Hollande for a state visit as the U.S. and France are promising closer cooperation on a range of global issues, including the response to the civil war in Syria, blocking Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, ending the war in Afghanistan and negotiating a trans-Atlantic trade agreement.
At the same time, differences between the allies remain. The news conference follows a Feb. 4 visit to Iran by a French business delegation that prompted a call by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to his French counterpart, Laurent Fabius, to express concern.
The French delegation of more than 100 business representatives met with top Iranian trade officials to explore opportunities that would arise if international sanctions on Iran were relaxed.
Hollande, questioned during the news conference about why the delegation visit was acceptable at a time when the allies were trying to exert pressure on Iran, said he didn’t control the actions of business executives.
Hollande added that he’s made it clear no commercial agreements could be signed as long as the Iranian sanctions regime remains in place.
Obama said warned that businesses make contacts with Iran “at their own peril right now because we will come down on them like a ton of bricks” if there’s anything less than full compliance.
Hollande and Obama were conferring while Bashar al-Assad Assad’s regime and the Syrian opposition are meeting in Geneva. The talks have yielded little progress toward peace.
At the UN today, Western and Arab members circulated a draft resolution calling on all parties to agree to ceasefires and ensure access for humanitarian aid, according to a UN diplomat who asked not to be identified commenting on continuing negotiations. It calls for the use of force and economic sanctions against those that fail to comply.
Assad’s ally Russia has vowed to veto the draft should it be put to a vote.
In his appearance with Hollande, Obama called Russia a “holdout” and accused it of complicity in the Syrian regime’s policy of starving cities.
“They cannot say that they are concerned about the well-being of the Syrian people when they are starving civilians, and that it is not just the Syrians that are responsible, the Russians, as well, if they are blocking this kind of resolution,” Obama said.
The U.S. supports the draft resolution because it is clear that prior efforts aren’t yielding the needed progress.
“The Security Council needs to speak with one voice in the interest of the innocent men, women and children of Syria whose lives are hanging in the balance,” U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power said today in an e-mailed statement. “Every day the Council remains silent, we let down the Syrian people, and we fail to uphold our role as guardians of international peace and security.”
The UN has helped evacuate more than 1,130 civilians from a besieged area in the central Syrian city of Homs since warring parties on Feb. 7 agreed to a temporary cease-fire to let people out and aid in, UN spokesman Martin Nesirky told reporters today in New York.
Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN’s top mediator for the Syria peace talks, told reporters today in Geneva that the humanitarian pause in Homs was “six months in the making” and diplomats need to “move a little bit faster” in the so-called Geneva II talks.
Syria has been gripped by violence since peaceful protests calling for an end to Assad’s rule in 2011 descended into violent conflict and eventually civil war. More than 130,000 people have died, at least 2.4 million have been displaced, and sectarian rifts have been created that will be hard to heal.
A growing number of Syria’s opposition fighters are inspired by al-Qaeda, allowing the government to tout its claims that the country is embroiled in a fight against terrorism, and not a civil war.
Hollande’s visit has highlighted the historic ties between the two nations. It comes a century after World War I and months before the 70th anniversary of the invasion of Normandy. The alliance has been rejuvenated following a rift over the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.
The U.S. is now preparing to delay a security agreement and decisions on how many if any coalition troops will remain in Afghanistan after this year, until President Hamid Karzai leaves office. Troop levels are to be a main topic at a NATO ministers meeting at the end of this month.
Elections to choose Karzai’s successor are scheduled for April, and it may take months before a new government is fully in place, even if the process goes smoothly. The White House has said without a security accord, no U.S. troops can remain in Afghanistan beyond this year. The inability to reach a similar security pact in Iraq triggered a complete pullout of U.S. forces in 2011.
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