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Obama defends Syria handling to skeptical public, critical congressmen

Earlier action by the United States to arm rebels seeking Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad’s overthrow would not have meaningfully slow the violence in that country’s ongoing civil war, President Barack Obama said in his first extensive comments about the situation in Syria.

Obama defended his administration’s handling of the protracted Syrian civil war following the U.S. government’s announcement late Friday that it would provide military and economic aid to rebel groups looking to oust Assad.

The decision – following Obama’s determination that Assad had used chemical weapons, crossing the president’s “red line” for U.S. involvement – has been beset by criticism that the United States waited too long to act, and faces deep resistance among most Americans.

A look back at the conflict that has overtaken the country.

“[T]his argument that somehow we had gone in earlier, or heavier in some fashion, that the tragedy and chaos taking place in Syria wouldn’t be taking place, I think is wrong,” Obama told talk show host Charlie Rose in an interview which was taped on Sunday, but aired Monday evening.

The president went on to say, “I don’t think that anybody would suggest that somehow that there was a ready-made military opposition inside of Syria that could somehow quickly and cleanly defeated the Syrian army or Assad or overthrown it.”

The White House announced on Friday evening that it had decided to amplify its support for rebels in Syria – most notably the Supreme Military Council – after having determined with a high degree of Syria that Assad’s fighters had used weapons of mass destruction (namely, the nerve agent sarin) in its violent clashes with rebel groups.

The use of chemical weapons crosses the “red line” established by Obama in August 2012, which he said would prompt further U.S. involvement. But the administration’s pivot also follows acknowledgements earlier this year that Assad was likely to have used chemical weapons, which prompted some Republicans to push the administration to act sooner.

The issue of Syria is expected to be the central matter of discussion at this week’s G-8 summit in Northern Ireland. On that matter, the U.S. and its European allies faces stiff resistance from a lone G-8 member, Russia, whose leader, President Vladimir Putin, has been generally supportive of Assad.

In the interview on Sunday, Obama sought to defend his handling of the situation in Syria while straddle a delicate balance between committing to more involvement in Syria and justifying U.S. intervention in the first place.

“Unless you’ve been involved in those conversations, then it’s kind of hard for you to understand that the complexity of the situation and how we have to not rush into one more war in the Middle East,” the president said, describing the months of deliberations among his national security staff in the White House situation room.

Obama said that his team had long been frustrated by the lack of any “silver bullet” it could use against the Assad regime. The president explained that the U.S. lacked any discernible opposition group with which they could partner until recently.

President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin talk about their conversations regarding Syria at the G-8 summit Monday.

What prompted the U.S. to act, Obama asserted, was the use of chemical weapons, as well as frustration that a political solution to the civil strife in Syria had become much less likely. But Obama argued that the new, increased involvement by the U.S. was justified on both humanitarian and geopolitical grounds.

“[T]he fact of the matter is, is that we've got serious interests there, and not only humanitarian interests, we can't have the situation of ongoing chaos in a major country that borders a country like Jordan which in turn borders Israel,” Obama said. “And we have a legitimate need to be engaged and to be involved.”

The matter of Syria is just one of the delicate topics on the agenda at the G-8, and the issue is fraught with complicated politics back home for Obama, as well. Senior lawmakers in both parties have begun to openly question whether the administration’s decision to become more involved in Syria will make much of a difference.

“Last year, Assad was isolated, he had very few friends, he was hanging by a thread,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a proponent of increased action in Syria, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday. “This year, he's entrenched with Hezbollah, Iran, and Russia.”

Said Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on CNN: “You can't just simply send them, you know, a pea shooter against a blunder bust at the end of the day. Our vital national security interests – you know, time is not on our side, and our vital national security interests will not be pursued.”

But Obama also faces countervailing pressure from the American public, only further putting the president in a difficult spot on the matter of Syria. A whopping 70 percent of Americans – including 71 percent of Republicans, 74 percent of independents and 66 percent of Democrats – said in a Pew Research Center poll released Monday that they opposed the U.S. and its allies sending arms to anti-government forces in Syria. 

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