US attack on Syria delayed after surprise U-turn from Obama

The Guardian – Paul Lewis in Washington – Aug 31, 2013


Photo: President Barack Obama and Joe Biden at the White House Aug 31, 2013

President insists the US should take military action against Assad but says he will seek the authorisation of Congress first.

A US military attack against Syria was unexpectedly put on hold on Saturday, after president Barack Obama said that while he backed the use of force after what he called “the worst chemical weapons attack of 21st century”, he would first seek the approval of Congress.

Obama said he had decided the US should take military action against Syria and had been told by his advisers that while assets were in place to launch strikes immediately, the operation was not “time sensitive”.

“After careful deliberation I have decided that the United States should take military action against Syrian regime targets,” he said in an address to the nation. “This would not be an open-ended intervention. We would not put boots on the ground.”

He added: “Instead, our action would be designed to be limited in duration and scope. But I am 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.”

Obama said his most senior military advisor had told him an attack would be “effective tomorrow, or next week, or one month from now” and added that he was willing to wait for the approval of Congress. He did not say whether he would launch military strikes if Congress voted against the measure.

Congress is not due to return from the August recess until 9 September. A statement from Republican leaders including John Boehner, the House speaker, said there would be no early recall. The statement said: “In consultation with the president, we expect the House to consider a measure the week of September 9. This provides the president time to make his case to Congress and the American people.”

An earlier recall of Congress remains a possibility, but it would be highly unusual.

Mitch McConnell, the Republican minority leader in the Senate, welcomed Obama’s decision, saying in a statement that the president’s role as commander-in-chief is strengthened when he has the support of lawmakers.

Obama’s decision to seek the formal backing of Congress took Washington by surprise. Obama was widely believed to be on the cusp of military action against Syria over the chemical weapons attack last week, which the administration has said killed almost 1,500 people.

It was a dramatic turnaround by the White House, which had indicated it was on the verge of launching strikes against Syria without the approval of Congress.

Obama said that while he still believed that as president he has the authority to launch strikes, he was mindful of the need for democratic backing and would “seek authorisation for the use force from the American people’s representatives in Congress”.

The announcement was a sign of the growing sense that the White House feels exposed over Syria, amid waning international support, minimal public backing and a chorus of concern on Capitol Hill. In 2011, Obama was strongly criticised for not consulting Congress before launching strikes against Libya.

The president’s critics in Congress were emboldened by the vote against military action in the British parliament on Thursday, and there was growing pressure on Obama to show he had the backing of the Senate and House of Representatives.

Obama directly referred to the vote in Britain, saying that some advisers had advised against a congressional vote after “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.”

But he insisted that taking limited military action against Syria was the right choice, even without the support of the United Nations security council, which he said was “completely paralysed and unwilling to hold Assad accountable”.
Russia and China have used their veto to block authorisation for the use of force against Syria.

“I respect the views of those who call for caution, particularly as our country emerges from a time of our war that I was elected to end,” Obama said. He added that the US should not turn a “blind eye” to the use of chemical weapons.

“Young boys and girls gassed to death by their own government,” he said. “This attack is an assault on human dignity. It also presents a serious danger to our national security.”

He added: “What message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children to death in plain sight and pay no price?”

Immediately after Obama made his televised remarks from the White House Rose Garden, he and the defence secretary, Chuck Hagel, began briefing US senators for the start of what will be an intense lobbying campaign.

The UN inspectors who have spent almost two weeks investigating the alleged chemical weapons attack outside Damascus are now out of Beirut and headed for their headquarters at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, at the Hague. The UN team departed Syria earlier than expected, in what some interpreted as a sign that military strikes were due to take place over the weekend.

Earlier on Saturday, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, who has supported Bashar al-Assad since the start of the Syrian civil war, challenged the US to present its case for military intervention to the UN security council and urged further talks at the G20 summit in St Petersburg next week.

Putin rejected US intelligence claims that Assad’s regime used chemical weapons in Syria, saying it would be “utter nonsense” for government troops to use such tactics in a war it was already winning.

Read entire article here

Posted by Teri Perticone

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