This story has been corrected.
UNITED NATIONS — The head of NATO said Wednesday that the U.S. threat of a military strike had forced Syria to agree to surrender its chemical weapons and the potential use of force must remain to help compel compliance with its agreement to disarm.
In an interview with McClatchy, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the secretary-general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and a former Danish prime minister, credited President Barack Obama for forcing Assad's hand by threatening military force. Asked whether a drawn-out chemical weapons inspections process might boost Syrian President Bashar Assad because it would require his assistance and take many months to complete, Rasmussen responded that removing Assad's ability to use chemical weapons was the most important thing. And he cited Assad's recent cooperation toward that end.
"The first thing is prevent chemical weapons attacks from happening again," he said. "Until recently, the regime in Damascus denied they possessed chemical weapons at all. Now they have confessed that they do have chemical weapons. Furthermore, they have actually sent a declaration with a description of how big the stockpile is, the amounts of weapons and where they are. And finally they have joined the international convention against the use of chemical weapons. All of these things have been achieved, and that is a huge step forward. And obviously it couldn't have been achieved without collaboration with the current regime in Damascus."
Rasmussen added: "In the long term, we will need a political process to figure out what will be the future of Syria. Ultimately it is for the Syrians to decide what is their destiny including what will be their political leadership."
Rasmussen broke with the Obama administration’s recent claim that moderate rebels were gaining ground in Syria, saying Islamic militants were a growing problem among Syrian rebels trying to dislodge Assad.
“To be very open and frank, it is a fact that the opposition counts extremists and terrorist groups, and I don’t shy away from using the phrase ‘terrorist groups,’ ” Rasmussen said. “Of course, it is weakening the opposition.”
The rise of Syrian fighters from al Qaida-affiliated groups and other radical movements makes it more difficult for Western nations to provide arms and other assistance to the Syrian rebels, Rasmussen said.
“Many nations are reluctant to provide particular weapons in a situation where we can’t be sure those weapons won’t fall into the wrong hands,” he said.
Secretary of State John Kerry told Congress three weeks ago that extremists made up no more than one-quarter of the Syrian opposition, a share that many analysts consider too small.
Turning to another hot spot, Rasmussen welcomed the recent moderate statements by new Iranian President Hasan Rouhani but said concrete steps must follow.
“Nice words are welcome, but action is even more important,” Rasmussen said. “They need to stop their aspirations to acquire a nuclear weapon. What we’re witnessing now is that the tough sanctions on Iran are starting to bite, and the Iranian leadership realizes that if they are to promote a more positive economic development opportunity in Iran, they also need to engage more constructively with the international community.”
In an interview broadcast Wednesday on CNN, Rouhani said there had been preparations for Obama and him to have a brief handshake encounter Tuesday, when both of them addressed the General Assembly, but that there wasn’t “sufficient time to coordinate such a meeting.”
Since taking office Aug. 3, Rouhani has suggested that he wants to improve relations with the United States, and he’s taken other steps to ease distrust, acknowledging the Holocaust, for example, during his interview with CNN. His predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, had cast doubt on whether the Nazis’ extermination of 6 million Jews had occurred.
“Any crime that happens in history against humanity, including the crime the Nazis created towards the Jews, is reprehensible and condemnable,” Rouhani told CNN.
Despite saying the threat of force should continue to be levied against Syria, Rasmussen, who’s headed NATO since 2009, acknowledged that any military intervention there would be more difficult than it had been in Libya in 2011, when a NATO-led bombing campaign helped rebels overthrow Moammar Gadhafi.
“Libya and Syria are two different countries and two very different cases,” he said. “In Libya, we operated on the basis of a U.N. mandate, and we got active support from countries in the region. None of these conditions are fulfilled when it comes to Syria.”
Rasmussen said those conditions were compounded by Syria’s multi-ethnic makeup.
“Syria is a more complicated society – ethnically, religiously and politically – so you can’t forge a political settlement through a military operation. Different ethnic groups are in conflict with each other, and you can’t force them through a military operation to sit around a table and find a solution.”
Rasmussen pushed back at criticism from former Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other military experts of NATO’s performance during the Libya campaign, but he admitted that European nations must upgrade their defense capabilities.
What Gates stressed, he said, “and I agree, is that lessons learned from Libya were that the Europeans lack some critical capabilities like joint intelligence surveillance reconnaissance assets – drones. The Europeans don’t have that many. We also learned that Europeans have many aircraft but not the ability to tank in air, so we need air-to-air refueling. And in general, Europeans lack heavy transport capacity. I agree that the Europeans should focus future defense investments in those areas to fill the gaps.”
Asked whether there has been progress in those areas, Rasmussen responded: “We have seen improvements, but much more can be done.”
Hannah Allam contributed to this report.