WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Saturday backed away from an imminent military strike against Syria to seek the approval of the U.S. Congress, in a decision that likely delays U.S. action for at least 10 days.
Obama, in a statement from the White House Rose Garden, said he had authorized the use of military force to punish Syria for a chemical weapons attack Aug. 21 that U.S. officials say killed 1,429 people. Military assets to carry out a strike are in place and ready to move on his order, he said.
But in an acknowledgement of protests from U.S. lawmakers and concerns from war-weary Americans, Obama added an important caveat: he wants Congress to approve.
Congress is currently in recess and not scheduled to return to work until Sept. 9.
“Today I’m asking Congress to send a message to the world that we are ready to move as one nation,” Obama said.
Obama’s decision was a big gamble that he can gain approval from Congress in order to launch a limited strike against Syria to safeguard an international ban on chemical weapons usage, guard U.S. national security interests and protect regional allies like Turkey, Jordan and Israel.
“I have long believed that our power is rooted not just in our military might, but in our example as a government of the people, by the people, and for the people,” Obama said.
His decision was also a significant shift away from what was perceived to be a strike fairly soon against Syrian targets. He had been prepared to act unilaterally after the British parliament refused to go along with American plans.
Protracted and expensive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have left Americans reluctant to get involved in Middle Eastern conflicts.
Most Americans do not want the United States to intervene in Syria. A Reuters/Ipsos poll taken this week showed only 20 percent believe the United States should take action, but that was up from 9 percent last week.
A debate has raged for days in Washington among members of the U.S. Congress over whether, or how quickly, Obama should take action.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell backed the move, which he said Obama had told him about.
“The president’s role as commander in chief is always strengthened when he enjoys the expressed support of the Congress,” said McConnell.
Maine Sen. Susan Collins, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, also approved of the president’s plan in a statement released following his announcement.
“The Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons against its own citizens is abhorrent and violates international conventions. However, launching an attack on Syria requires serious deliberation in Congress because of the potential consequences,” Collins said. “This afternoon, I participated in a lengthy conference call conducted by Secretary of State Kerry, National Security Advisor Rice, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Dempsey, and Director of National Intelligence Clapper. Those of us on the call had the opportunity to ask a wide variety of questions concerning the effectiveness, timing, and strategic implications of the military strike that the president is advocating.
“Congress must be involved in this weighty decision, and I strongly agree with the president’s decision to seek congressional approval for this military action. In fact, I hope that the president will encourage the leaders of the Senate and the House to reconvene next week to begin further consideration of the administration’s plan immediately. In the meantime, I will continue to receive both classified and unclassified briefings to evaluate the wisdom and feasibility of the president’s plan and look forward to participating in the Senate debate.”
Sen. Angus King also weighed in on Obama’s announcement.
“I believe the president is right to seek the support and approval of the United States Congress before moving forward with military action against the Assad regime,” King said in a statement.
“As a member of the Senate Armed Services and Intelligence Committees, I have been closely monitoring the situation in Syria, including the recent and troubling reports of chemical weapons attacks, and last month I traveled to Jordan and Turkey to gain a better understanding of the impact of the conflict on U.S. national security interests in the region.
“The conflict in Syria is incredibly complex and we must be extremely mindful of the ramifications of any actions we may pursue. As we proceed with this important debate, it is crucial to me that the administration identifies regional coalition partners, sets out the intelligence case for concluding that chemical weapons were used by the Assad regime as clearly as possible, and that it identifies its objectives and plans to achieve them with equal clarity.
“I will review the evidence and arguments with great care before deciding how I will vote on this difficult and important issue,” King said.
Obama’s decision was announced after he met his national security team at the White House. Top aides were to brief senators later in the day and members of the House of Representatives are to receive a classified briefing from administration officials on Sunday.
The objective is to show solid proof that U.S. intelligence officials say shows conclusively that the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad launched a large chemical weapons assault in Damascus suburbs that left among the dead 426 children.
Obama has broad legal powers to take military action, and he insisted he felt he had the authority to launch a strike on his own. But he said he wanted Congress to have its say.