Mr. Obama said the United States was in a “better position” to prevent President Bashar al-Assad of Syria from using poison gas again because of the deal hammered out by Secretary of State John Kerry and Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister.
“Look, we’re not there yet,” Mr. Obama said in an interview with George Stephanopoulos on the ABC News program “This Week.” “We don’t have an actual, verifiable deal that will begin that process. But the distance that we’ve traveled over these couple of weeks is remarkable.”
Mr. Obama said the United States was not going to “get in the middle of somebody else’s civil war.” But he said the chemical weapons agreement could be a first step toward a political settlement that would “deal with the underlying terrible conflict.”
Asked about the possibility of an overall political settlement that would leave Mr. Assad in power in Syria, Mr. Obama said, “It is hard to envision how Mr. Assad regains any kind of legitimacy after he’s gassed, or his military has gassed. innocent civilians and children.”
Mr. Obama took credit for creating the pressure that led to the deal by threatening — and then backing off from — a military strike in Syria. He also defended his actions over the past two weeks, saying that his critics were judging him on style, not on the substance of his policies.
“Had we rolled out something that was very smooth and disciplined and linear they would have graded it well, even if it was a disastrous policy,” Mr. Obama said, adding: “We know that, because that’s exactly how they graded the Iraq war.”
He said his administration over the past several weeks had focused on preventing Mr. Assad from using chemical weapons again, after an attack last month that is said to have killed more than 1,400 civilians.
“If that goal is achieved, then it sounds to me like we did something right,” he said.
Mr. Obama also responded to criticism that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia had been “playing” his American counterpart by seizing control of the diplomatic efforts. He said the Russian president did not have the same “values” as the United States, but still played an important role in the Syrian conflict.
“I welcome him being involved,” Mr. Obama said. “I welcome him saying, ‘I will take responsibility for pushing my client, the Assad regime, to deal with these chemical weapons.’ ”
Mr. Obama added that despite the disagreements between the United States and Russia recently over a range of issues — including the granting of asylum to Edward J. Snowden, who is wanted by the United States government for leaking classified documents — the two presidents were still able to work together on issues like the chemical weapons in Syria.
“I know that sometimes this gets framed or looked at through the lens of the U.S. versus Russia, but that’s not what this is about,” he said.
Mr. Obama declined to say how long the Syrian government should be given to identify and destroy the chemical weapons. He said those were details that were being worked out by Mr. Kerry and Mr. Lavrov.
But he said the outcome of the negotiations should send a strong signal to other countries, including Iran, that the United States and the rest of the international community were willing to use force, and diplomacy, to resolve disputes.
He said he had had indirect communications with Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani. He said he believed that the Iranians understood that the United States viewed the possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran as an even bigger threat to national security and regional stability than Syria’s chemical weapons.