In a dramatic turnaround, President Obama said Saturday that he will wait for congressional authorization to punish Syria for a chemical weapons attack, even though he has decided a military strike is needed.
“We should have this debate,” the president said in an announcement in the White House Rose Garden. “I respect the views of those who call for caution.”
After more than a week of deliberation, Mr. Obama essentially put the onus on Congress to stop him from launching missile strikes against targets of the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Lawmakers are not scheduled to return from their August recess until Sept. 9.
“I have decided that the United States should take military action against Syrian regime targets,” Mr. Obama said, adding that he intends such action to be “limited in duration and scope.”
With Vice President Joseph R. Biden at his side, Mr. Obama said, “I’m confident we can hold the Assad regime accountable for their use of chemical weapons, deter this kind of behavior, and degrade their capacity to carry it out.”
The president said U.S. military forces are positioned in the region to strike at his command.
“The chairman of the Joint Chiefs has informed me that we are prepared to strike whenever we choose,” Mr. Obama said. “Moreover, the chairman has indicated to me that 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’m prepared to give that order.”
But he said he has consulted again with congressional leaders Saturday morning and will wait for lawmakers to vote on military action. The Democratic and Republican leaders of both the House and Senate have agreed to hold a debate and vote on a Syrian military strike, the president said.
“While I believe I have the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization, I know that the country will be stronger if we take this course, and our actions will be even more effective,” the president said. “Today I’m asking Congress to send a message to the world.”
The announcement appears to delay any U.S. military move for 10 days or more. House GOP Speaker John Boehner and the chamber’s top Republicans immediately issued a joint statement praising Mr. Obama’s decision to consult Congress and saying the House would hold its vote when Congress returns to work.
“Under the Constitution, the responsibility to declare war lies with Congress,” the House GOP leaders said. “We are glad the president is seeking authorization for any military action in Syria in response to serious, substantive questions being raised. In consultation with the president, we expect the House to consider a measure the week of September 9th.”
The announcement came as a surprise because Mr. Obama had been signaling for the past several days that he intends to send a “shot across the bow” to the Syrian regime. He said Friday he was contemplating “limited” action against Syria.
For the past week, administration officials have deflected questions about seeking congressional authorization for military action, saying only that Mr. Obama was willing to “consult” lawmakers.
While the GOP suggested that Mr. Obama still has a burden of proof to overcome about protecting U.S. national-security interests, the president said lawmakers now bear responsibility for upholding international rules against wartime atrocities.
“What message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children to death in plain sight and pay no price?” Mr. Obama asked. “If we won’t enforce accountability in the face of this heinous act, what does it say about our resolve to stand up to others who flout fundamental international rules?”
The president’s announcement came only hours after UN inspectors left Syria after investigating the aftermath of the suspected chemical weapons attacks on Aug. 21 that killed more than 1,400 civilians, said to be perpetrated by elements of the Assad regime.
The inspectors will share their findings with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who has said he wants to wait until a final report is completed before presenting it to the UN Security Council — which could take a week. The Obama administration has said there’s no point in waiting for the UN because Russia would veto any proposed punishment for Syria.
Mr. Obama said of the U.N., “I’m comfortable going forward without the approval of a United Nations Security Council that, so far, has been completely paralyzed and unwilling to hold Assad accountable.”
A U.N. spokesman said it was “grotesque” to speculate that the organization’s weapons inspectors left Syria early Saturday to give room for the U.S. to launch an attack.
An unnamed Syrian security official told the AFP news agency that Syria was “ready to retaliate at any moment” to any attack by the U.S.
Mr. Obama and Secretary of State John F. Kerry said Friday the U.S. had convincing proof via intelligence and witness accounts that Mr. Assad’s military was responsible for the chemical attack, citing detailed evidence of the rocket barrages that targeted 12 neighborhoods east of Damascus. Mr. Kerry, in particular, was very forceful in his accusations. Mr. Obama was more reserved about a possible “limited” military response, and spoke of the public’s war-weariness, and his own.
The president’s comments came after more than a week of deliberations in which he sought the support of allies such as Britain and France, and consulted with congressional leaders. The British Parliament voted on Thursday not to participate with the U.S. in any military action against Syria; French President Francois Holland voiced his support for a move.
The White House also has scheduled a classified briefing with key lawmakers in Congress for 2 p.m. Sunday.
An anticipated attack by the U.S. has prompted concerns about Syria’s potential responses. Israel has canceled weekend leave for its military members, and Israelis have been lining up for hours to obtain government-issued gas masks.
As the president spoke, demonstrators could be heard outside the north fence of the White House, shouting “hands off Syria” and other slogans.
After he concluded his remarks Saturday, Mr. Obama ignored a question from the press after his remarks about whether he would move forward if Congress did not authorize a strike.
About 25 minutes after concluding his remarks, Mr. Obama departed the White House with Mr. Biden in a motorcade to play golf at Fort Belvoir in suburban Virginia.