(Left) President Obama and Vice-President Biden at the White House on Saturday. (AFP)
Washington, Aug. 31: President Obama stunned the capital and paused his march to war today by asking Congress to give him authorisation before he launches a limited military strike against the Syrian government in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack.
In a hastily organised appearance in the Rose Garden, Obama said he had decided that the US should use force but would wait for a vote from lawmakers, who will not return to town for more than a week. Obama said he believed he has authority to act on his own but did not say whether he would if Congress rejects his plan.
Obama’s announcement followed several days of faltering support for military action in Congress as well as in foreign capitals.
On Thursday, Britain broke with its longtime American ally as its parliament voted against a military attack on Syria.
At home, Obama had come under criticism from both sides of the political spectrum. Some lawmakers had maintained that the US should stay out of a civil war that has already cost more than 100,000 lives, or at least should wait for Congressional or UN backing. Others complained that the limited strike envisioned by the President would be ineffectual, especially after days of virtually laying out the plan of attack in public.
The debate came as the region braced for an attack that Syrian officials told regional news media they were expecting “at any moment” and were ready to retaliate against. UN weapons inspectors left Syria for Lebanon early today after four days of efforts to investigate the August 21 attack.
American officials had made clear they would hold off using force until the inspectors departed safely but had no intention of waiting until they had delivered a formal report.
The inspectors were heading to The Hague with blood and urine samples taken from victims of the attack, as well as soil samples from areas where the attacks took place. They were supposed to deliver the sample to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
The samples will be divided so each can be sent to at least two separate European laboratories for testing, according to UN officials, but experts said the testing would not be completed for several days at the earliest.
Angela Kane, the UN disarmament chief, briefed secretary-general Ban Ki-moon today. While the inspectors were assigned to determine whether a chemical strike took place, it was not their mandate to assign culpability.
Martin Nesirky, a UN spokesman, said that Kane’s team would give Ban its conclusions “as soon as it has received the results of the laboratory analysis of its samples”.
Obama administration officials argued that the UN findings would be redundant, since American intelligence had already concluded, based on human sources and electronic eavesdropping, that Assad’s government was responsible for launching nerve agents in the eastern suburbs of Damascus.
An intelligence summary released by the White House yesterday said 1,429 people were killed, including at least 426 children. The summary concluded with “high confidence” that the Syrian government had carried out the attack.
In Damascus, residents described an atmosphere of quiet suspense as they waited and prepared for an American attack. They described new troop movements as the government placed more security forces in schools in central Damascus, the prominent al-Akram mosque in the well-off Mezze district, a women’s cultural centre in the neighbourhood of Abu Roumaneh and in residential buildings near a cluster of security buildings in the Kafr Souseh district.
There were signs elsewhere in Syria, too, that times were not normal. “I noticed a serious change,” said Maya, 29, who drove from the coastal city of Tartus to Damascus, a route that in recent months usually required passing at least 10 government checkpoints. “I saw only one checkpoint on the whole road.”
In Washington, Obama struggled to rally the public and its elected representatives. Secretary of state John Kerry, Hagel and Rice scheduled back-to-back conference calls with the Democratic and Republican conferences in the Senate. Joining them were Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and James R. Clapper Jr, the director of national intelligence. The participation of Hagel and Dempsey suggested that the conversation was moving beyond assessing blame for the chemical attack to the specific military options now at hand.