President Barack Obama announced Saturday that he has decided to take military action against the Syrian government over alleged chemical weapons attacks, but will seek congressional approval before carrying out strikes. His decision to seek legislative authorization portends a significant delay in military action that many had expected might come as early as this weekend.
“We are prepared to strike whenever we choose,” Obama told reporters in the Rose Garden outside the White House. “Our capacity to execute this mission is not time-sensitive. It will be effective tomorrow, or next week, or one month from now, and I am prepared to give that order.”
However, Obama said he had spoken earlier Saturday with congressional leaders, who agreed to schedule a debate and vote on the use of force against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The White House followed this up with a letter to Congress later Satruday to formally request authorization for military strikes on Syria.
In the letter Obama requested the use of the U.S. armed forces to prevent or deter the use or proliferation "of any weapons of mass destruction, including chemical or biological weapons" and to "protect the United States and its allies and partners against the threat posed by such weapons."
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said Congress would take up the debate when it reconvenes the week of Sept. 9. Likewise Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D-Nev) said a vote would take place no later than the week beginning Sept. 9.
The Obama administration has accused Assad’s forces of killing more than a thousand people in an Aug. 21 poison gas attack as they attempt to stifle an armed rebellion that has lasted more than two years. Other Western countries have joined Washington in condemning Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons, but so far none -- including staunch ally Britain -- have conclusively agreed to join a military action in Syria.
“This attack is an assault on human dignity,” Obama said of Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons. “It also presents a serious danger to our national security,” he said, adding that the situation in Syria threatened the stability of the surrounding region.
But Obama, who has previously advocated limited punitive action in Syria, reiterated that any military response would not be a full-scale or “open-ended intervention.”
“We will not put boots on the ground,” he said.
Republican senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said in a joint statement that they would be unable to support isloated military strikes in Syria if that meant a failure to change the overall battlefield momentum.
A U.S. intelligence report released Friday said 1,429 people, including at least 426 children, were killed in the chemical weapons attack just outside Damascus.
A team of United Nations inspectors left Syria earlier Saturday after conducting investigations into the attack, but it could be weeks before they are able to present results.
Following Obama's announcement, Secretary of State John Kerry spoke with Syrian Opposition Coalition President Ahmed Assi al-Jarba to underscore the president's "commitment to holding the Assad regime accountable for its chemical weapons attack against its own people on August 21st," a senior State Department official said.
Obama called France President François Hollande prior to announcing his plan to ask Congress for approval to intervene in Syria.
"The two leaders agreed that the international community must deliver a resolute message to the Assad regime," the White House said in a statement.