Obama backs off Syria; will seek Congress' OK
WASHINGTON -- Delaying what had loomed as an imminent strike, President Obama abruptly announced Saturday that he will seek congressional approval before launching any military action against Syria for its alleged use of chemical weapons in an attack that killed hundreds.
With U.S. Navy ships on standby in the Mediterranean Sea ready to launch their Tomahawk cruise missiles, Obama said he had decided the United States should take military action and that he believes, as commander in chief, that he has "the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization."
At the same time, he said, "I know that the country will be stronger if we take this course and our actions will be even more effective." His remarks were televised live in the United States as well as on Syrian state television, with translation.
Congress is scheduled to return from summer vacation on Sept. 9, and in anticipation of the coming debate, Obama challenged lawmakers to consider "what message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children to death in plain sight and pay no price."
The president didn't say so, but his strategy carries enormous risks to his and the nation's credibility, which the administration has argued forcefully is on the line in Syria. Obama long ago said the use of chemical weapons was a "red line" that Syrian President Bashar Assad would not be allowed to cross with impunity.
It is not clear what options would be open to the president if he fails to win the backing of the House and Senate for the military measures he has threatened. Only this week, British Prime Minister David Cameron suffered a humiliating defeat when the House of Commons refused to support his call for military action against Syria.
Either way, Saturday's developments marked a stunning turn in an episode in which Obama has struggled to gain international support for a strike, while dozens of lawmakers at home urged him to seek their backing.
Halfway around the world, Syrians awoke Saturday to state television broadcasts of tanks, planes and other weapons of war, and troops training, all to a soundtrack of martial music. Assad's government blames rebels in the Aug. 21 attack, and has threatened retaliation if it is attacked by the West.
Russian President Vladimir Putin -- saying he was appealing to a Nobel Peace laureate, rather than to a president -- urged Obama to reconsider his plans to attack Assad. A group that monitors casualties in the long Syrian civil war challenged the United States to substantiate its claim that 1,429 died in a chemical weapons attack, including more than 400 children.
By accident or design, the developments allow U.N. inspectors time to receive lab results from the samples they took during four days in Damascus and to compile a final report. After leaving Syria overnight, the inspection team arrived in Rotterdam a few hours before Obama spoke.
The group's leader was expected to brief Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon Saturday.
Republicans generally expressed satisfaction at Obama's decision to seek congressional support, and challenged him to make his case to the public, and lawmakers alike, that American power should be used to punish Assad.
"We are glad the president is seeking authorization for any military action in Syria in response to serious, substantive questions being raised," House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and other House Republican leaders said in a joint statement. "In consultation with the president, we expect the House to consider a measure the week of September 9th. This provides the president time to make his case to Congress and the American people."
New York Republican Rep. Peter King was among the dissenters - strongly so.
"President Obama is abdicating his responsibility as commander in chief and undermining the authority of future presidents," he said. "The president doesn't need 535 members of Congress to enforce his own 'red line.'"
Senior administration officials said Obama told aides Friday night that he had changed his mind about ordering a strike against Syria without first seeking congressional approval, making a final decision after a long discussion with his chief of staff, Denis McDonough.
It was unclear Saturday what pressure Republican or Democratic lawmakers might have brought on Obama, although dozens have signed letters calling on him not to act unilaterally.
Had he gone ahead with a military strike, though, he would have become the first U.S. leader in three decades to attack a foreign nation without mustering broad international support or acting in direct defense of Americans. In 1983, President Ronald Reagan ordered an invasion of the Caribbean island of Grenada to restore constitutional government after a military coup. Not since then, has the United States been so alone in pursuing major military action.
It appears the Obama administration's efforts at persuasion are well underway. The administration plunged into weekend briefings -- classified and unclassified -- for lawmakers, and Obama challenged them to consider "what message will we send to a dictator" if he is allowed to kill hundreds of children with chemical weapons without suffering any retaliation.
At the same time, a senior State Department official said Secretary of State John Kerry spoke with Syrian Opposition Coalition President Ahmed Assi al-Jarba to underscore Obama's commitment to holding the Assad regime accountable for the alleged Aug. 21 attack.
While lawmakers are scheduled to return to work Sept. 9, officials said Saturday that it is possible the Senate might come back into session before then.
Obama said Friday he was considering "limited and narrow" steps to punish Assad, adding that U.S. national security interests are at stake. He pledged no U.S. combat troops on the ground in Syria, where a civil war has claimed more than 100,000 civilian lives.
In Syria, some rebels expressed unhappiness with the president, with one commander saying he did not consider Obama's decision to be a retreat.
"On the contrary, he will get the approval [from] Congress, and then the military action will have additional credibility," said Qassem Saadeddine. "Just because the strike was delayed by a few days doesn't mean it's not going to happen."
With Obama struggling to gain international backing for a strike, Putin urged him to reconsider his plans.
"We have to remember what has happened in the last decades, how many times the United States has been the initiator of armed conflict in different regions of the world, said Putin, a strong Assad ally. "Did this resolve even one problem?"
Even the administration's casualty estimate was grist for controversy.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an organization that monitors casualties in the country, said it has confirmed 502 deaths, nearly 1,000 fewer than the American intelligence assessment claimed.
Rami Abdel-Rahman, the head of the organization, said U.S. officials did not contact him about his efforts to collect information about the death toll in the alleged Aug. 21 attack.
"America works only with one part of the opposition, that is deep in propaganda," he said, and urged the Obama administration to release the information its estimate is based on.
Obama was buffeted, as well, by some lawmakers challenging his authority to strike Syria without congressional approval, and also by others who urged him to intervene more forcefully than he has signaled he will.
In the hours before Obama's Rose Garden announcement, top advisers joined him at the White House.
Vice President Biden, who had planned a holiday weekend at home in Delaware, was among them. So, too, were Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry.
In the famously flammable Middle East, Israel readied for the possible outbreak of hostilities. The Israeli military disclosed it has deployed its "Iron Dome" missile defense battery in the Tel Aviv area to protect civilians from any possible attack from next-door Syria or any of its allies.
Missile defenses were deployed in the northern part of the country several days ago, and large crowds have been gathering at gas-mask distribution centers to pick up protection kits.