WASHINGTON - Bowing to domestic and international pressures, President Barack Obama said Saturday that while the United States has decided to use military force against Syria in response to the alleged August 21 chemical weapons attacks near Damascus, he has decided to seek congressional authorisation for such a strike.
Analysts noted that the announcement appeared to put off an imminent cruise missile attack on Syria and opens the door to what will almost certainly be a contentious and protracted debate.
“Over the last several days, we have heard from members of Congress who want their voices to be heard,” Obama said at a hastily appearance at the White House. “I absolutely agree.”
Obama’s announcement followed several days of faltering support for military action in Congress as well as in foreign capitals.
Congress is in recess until Sept 9, and it was not immediately clear whether lawmakers would try to convene earlier for an emergency vote. Leading lawmakers who had called on the administration to seek congressional approval were pleased by Obama’s announcement.
“At this point in our country’s history, this is absolutely the right decision, and I look forward to seeing what the administration brings forward and to a vigorous debate on this important authorisation,” said Senator Bob Corker, a Republican.
Obama said he reached agreement on seeking authorisation with the big four in Capitol Hill leadership, House Speaker John Boehner, Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
As recently as Friday, President Obama said that although his administration believes it had obtained proof that chemical weapons deployed by the Syrian government, he had not yet reached a decision on how to proceed. Publicly available White House reports state that 1,429 were killed in an attack on August 21, including at least 426 children.
“After careful deliberation, I’ve decided that the Unites States should take military action against Syrian regime targets,” he said. “This would not be an open-ended intervention, we’d not put boots on the ground. Instead our action would be designed to be limited in duration and scope. But I’m confident we can hold the Assad regime accountable for their use of chemical weapons, deter this kind of behaviour and degrade their capacity to carry it out.”
The president did not put a timetable on the possible attack, stating an order to the military to proceed would be “effective tomorrow or next week or one month from now.”
Also, President Obama did not take questions from the press for the announcement and ignored a shouted question from a pooled press reporter over whether he would forgo a strike if Congress ultimately disapproves. A low din of chanting could be heard during the president’s remarks as demonstrators both for and against US intervention staged afternoon rallies outside the White House compound.
Many people have advised against taking this decision to Congress,” Obama continued. “And undoubtedly they were impacted by what we saw happen in the United Kingdom this week when the parliament of our closest ally failed to pass a resolution with a similar goal, even as the prime minister supported taking action.”
Acknowledging the realities of a war-weary public and a seemingly perpetual state of congressional gridlock, the president made a plea to lawmakers:
“Here’s my question for every member of Congress and every member of the global community: What message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children to death in plain sight and pay no price? What’s the purpose of the international system that we’ve built if a prohibition on the use of chemical weapons that has been agreed to by the governments of 98 per cent of the world’s people and approved overwhelmingly by the Congress of the United States is not enforced?”
Agencies add: Syria expects a military attack ‘at any moment’ and is ready to retaliate, an official said Saturday, after UN experts probing a suspected gas attack blamed on the regime left the country.
Syria’s army is ready for potential foreign strikes against it and has its “finger on the trigger,” Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi said in comments carried Saturday on state television. “The Syrian army is fully ready, its finger on the trigger to face any challenge or scenario that they want to carry out,” he said in a written statement aired on television.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose country is a close ally of Syria, said claims the regime had used chemical weapons were “utter nonsense” and demanding proof.
“Common sense speaks for itself,” he told journalists in Vladivostok.