Obama defends timeline for military aid to Syrians

He said his administration has since the start of the uprising in March 2011 been able to identify the groups it can work with.

Obama also pushed back against critics such as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) who have been calling for a beefed-up U.S. presence such as a no-fly zone. Obama said that would require stopping not only Syrian warplanes but missiles as well, including by going after their launchers in Damascus — with the attendant risk to civilians.

“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,” he said. “We know what it's like to rush into a war in the Middle East without having thought it through.” 

He defended his decision to play a greater role, however, despite the concerns of the public and many lawmakers. Some 70 percent of Americans oppose his decision to arm the rebels, according to a Pew poll released Monday.

Obama said the United States has “humanitarian interests” in the region and has practical geopolitical reasons to avoid the further destabilization of allies such as Jordan and the risk of Assad's chemical weapons stockpiles getting loose. During the G8 summit in Northern Ireland, he announced an extra $300 million in increased food aid, medical care, clean water and shelter to people in Syria and refugees in neighboring countries, bringing U.S. humanitarian assistance to $815 million since the conflict began.

“We're not taking sides in a religious war between Shi'a and Sunni,” Obama said. “Really, what we're trying to do is take sides against extremists of all sorts and in favor of people who are in favor of moderation, tolerance, representative government, and over the long-term, stability and prosperity for the people of Syria.”

Finally, he took a shot at Russian President Vladimir Putin, faulting him for offering crucial support to Assad.

“What's been clear is that Assad, at this point — in part, because of his support from Iran and from Russia — believes that he does not have to engage in a political transition, believes that he can continue to simply violently suppress over half of the population,” Obama said. “And as long as he’s got that mindset, it’s going to be very difficult to resolve the situation there.”

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