WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama said Saturday he will ask Congress to approve military strikes against Syria’s government, a risky step likely to delay action for at least 10 days that could signal broad popular support but also could end in rejection by the legislative branch.
Obama’s surprise decision to go to Congress, and his somewhat defiant way of explaining it, were likely to ratchet up the tension in Washington and the nation, where Americans are skeptical about the mission. As he delivered his 10-minute statement in the White House Rose Garden Saturday, chants of protesters outside the gates could be heard. And even as Obama made the move toward engaging the people and their representatives in Congress, the White House said the president would not rule out acting on his own if Congress fails to give its consent.
Congress is not scheduled to return to Washington until Sept. 9, and its debate is likely to take much of that week. Most lawmakers have refrained from taking any position on Syria but have been unusually unified in demanding more information and a chance to debate.
Many members of the House of Representatives and Senate hailed Obama’s move Saturday, though a few staunch supporters of intervention in Syria criticized the president’s willingness to wait for a congressional debate.
Obama announced the decision after explaining his insistence that Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime face consequences for any use of chemical weapons.
“I have decided that the United States should take military action against Syrian regime targets,” Obama said.
The president said the mission’s scope would be limited and he was “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.”
Secretary of State John Kerry Friday presented evidence that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons in an August 21 attack in a Damascus suburb.
The U.S. evidence, Obama said Saturday, “corroborates what the world can plainly see -- hospitals overflowing with victims; terrible images of the dead. All told, well over 1,000 people were murdered. Several hundred of them were children -- young girls and boys gassed to death by their own government.”
The attack, Obama said, “is an assault on human dignity,” and “presents a serious danger” to U.S. national security.
“It risks making a mockery of the global prohibition on the use of chemical weapons,” he said. “It endangers our friends and our partners along Syria’s borders, including Israel, Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq. It could lead to escalating use of chemical weapons, or their proliferation to terrorist groups who would do our people harm.”
Congress wants more details, and senators Saturday were briefed by administration officials, the third such briefing in three days. Another is scheduled Sunday for House members, and more briefings are planned during the week.
Obama administration officials began writing a resolution -- but not a declaration for war -- for Congress to consider when it returns.
Obama knew last Friday -- Aug. 23 -- what had taken place in Syria and that the U.S. needed to respond, but he didn’t know how or when. During the course of the week, Obama spoke to his aides and military leaders about a possible strike, though no one pushed him to seek congressional approval—except members of Congress from both parties.