President Barack Obama reassured an uneasy nation on Saturday that any attack on Syria will be limited in scope and will only come after a debate of the people's representatives in both houses of Congress.
Speaking in the Rose Garden, the president said he had already made the decision that military action was warranted following a chemical attack earlier this month that was believed to have been ordered by Syrian President Bashar Assad.
"In a world of many dangers this menace must be confronted," Obama said, adding that the attack on civilians "risks making a mockery of the global prohibition on chemical weapons" and "could lead to escalated use of chemical weapons."
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He said he contacted congressional leaders on Saturday and that they plan to hold a debate and a vote as soon as Congress comes back in September.
Obama says he has the authority to act on his own, but believes it is important for the country to have a debate. The U.S. says 1,429 people, including at least 426 children, were killed following the deadly Aug. 21 attack.
House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio issued a joint statement with other Republican leaders Saturday announcing that the House would vote on a measure approving military intervention in Syria once it returns from recess during the week of Sept. 9.
“Under the Constitution, the responsibility to declare war lies with Congress," the leaders said in a statement. "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. This provides the president time to make his case to Congress and the American people.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada is considering recalling the upper chamber for an earlier vote.
Secretary of State John Kerry characterized the aftermath of the deadly attack as the "indiscriminate inconceivable horror of chemical weapons" and he dubbed Assad a "thug and a murderer" on Friday. He told reporters that Syria had the largest chemical weapons program in the "entire Middle East."
Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul and other GOP lawmakers had been urging the president to seek congressional approval before taking any unilateral decisions to strike Syria as U.S. warships are already in place in the Mediterranean Sea.
They are carrying cruise missiles, long a first-line weapon of choice for presidents because they can find a target hundreds of miles distant without need of air cover or troops on the ground.
Reacting to the speech, Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich told CNN that Congress should press the administration on the desired outcome from a military strike.
“If this is just an exercise in petulant anger it’s not going to impress the world. It’s not going to impress dictators,” he said. “If we bomb him even for two or three days and he survives, how does that teach the next dictator not use these weapons?”
Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying he was appealing to a Nobel Peace laureate rather than to a president, urged Obama to reconsider. A group that monitors casualties in the long Syrian civil war challenged the United States to substantiate its claim that 1,429 died in a chemical weapons attack, including more than 400 children.
Immediately following Obama's speech on Saturday British Prime Minister David Cameron tweeted:
Cameron's attempt to win a vote of approval in the U.K. Parliament for military action ended in ignominious defeat on Thursday. American attempts to secure backing at the United Nations have been blocked by Russia, long an ally of Syria.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell also took to Twitter to welcome the president's call for a debate:
"I'm confident in the case our government has made," Obama said in his address. He noted that many people have advised him to make the decision for a strike without taking the decision to Congress.
While he believes he has the authority to do so "the country will be stronger" if Congressional authorization is sought, the president said.
Obama said the United States has already presented a powerful case to show that Syria's Assad dictatorship ordered the chemical weapons attack into highly populated suburbs of Damascus.
"Hospitals were overflowing and there are terrible images of the dead," said Obama, noting
that the attack was not only an assault on "human dignity," but presents a serious danger on national security and endangers the borders of U.S. allies near Syria.
"This menace must be confronted," said Obama. "I have decided that the U.S. should take military action."
But Michigan Republican Rep. Justin Amash, who sponsored the failed amendment to the House defense spending bill that would have stopped the collection of phone records, tweeted that the president faces opposition on Syria:
In what appeared increasingly like the pre-attack endgame, U.N. personnel dispatched to Syria carried out a fourth and final day of inspection as they sought to determine precisely what happened in last week's attack. The international contingent left Syria early Saturday and crossed into Lebanon. They were heading later to laboratories in Europe with the samples they have collected.
Video said to be taken at the scene shows victims writhing in pain, twitching and exhibiting other symptoms associated with exposure to nerve agents. The videos distributed by activists to support their claims of a chemical attack were consistent with Associated Press reporting of shelling in the suburbs of Damascus at the time, though it was not known if the victims had died from a poisonous gas attack.
The Syrian government said administration claims were "flagrant lies" akin to faulty Bush administration assertions before the Iraq invasion that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. A Foreign Ministry statement read on state TV said that "under the pretext of protecting the Syrian people, they are making a case for an aggression that will kill hundreds of innocent Syrian civilians."
Syrians awoke Saturday to state television broadcasts of tanks, planes and other weapons of war, and troops training, all to a soundtrack of martial music. Assad's government blames rebels in the Aug. 21 attack, and has threatened retaliation if it is attacked.
Residents of Damascus stocked up on food and other necessities in anticipation of strikes, with no evident sign of panic. One man, 42-year-old Talal Dowayih, said: "I am not afraid from the Western threats to Syria; they created the chemical issue as a pretext for intervention, and they are trying to hit Syria for the sake of Israel."
In addition to the dead, the U.S. assessment reported that about 3,600 patients "displaying symptoms consistent with nerve agent exposure" were seen at Damascus-area hospitals after the attack. To that, Kerry added that "a senior regime official who knew about the attack confirmed that chemical weapons were used by the regime, reviewed the impact and actually was afraid they would be discovered." He added for emphasis: "We know this."
The assessment did not explain its unexpectedly large casualty count, far in excess of an estimate from Doctors Without Borders. Not surprisingly — given the nature of the disclosure — it also did not say expressly how the United States knew what one Syrian official had allegedly said to another.
Mindful of public opinion, Kerry urged Americans to read the four-page assessment for themselves. He referred to Iraq — when Bush administration assurances that weapons of mass destruction were present proved false, and a U.S. invasion led to a long, deadly war. Kerry said this time it will be different.
"We will not repeat that moment," he said.
Citing an imperative to act, the nation's top diplomat said "it is directly related to our credibility and whether countries still believe the United States when it says something. They are watching to see if Syria can get away with it because then maybe they, too, can put the world at greater risk."
While Obama was having trouble enlisting foreign support, French President Francois Hollande was an exception. The two men spoke by phone, then Hollande issued a statement saying they had "agreed that the international community cannot tolerate the use of chemical weapons, that it must hold the Syrian regime responsible and send a strong message to denounce the use of (such) arms."
Prior to Obama's speech, Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said Obama needed to go further than he seemed to be planning. "The goal of military action should be to shift the balance of power on the battlefield against Assad and his forces," they said in a statement.
But a spokesman for Boehner, Brendan Buck, said if the president believes in a military response to Syria, "it is his responsibility to explain to Congress and the American people the objectives, strategy, and legal basis for any potential action."
The looming confrontation is the latest outgrowth of a civil war in which Assad has tenaciously — and brutally — clung to power. An estimated 100,000 civilians have been killed in more than two years, many of them from attacks by the Syrian government on its own citizens.
Obama has long been wary of U.S. military involvement in the struggle, as he has been with turbulent events elsewhere during the so-called Arab Spring. In this case, reluctance stems in part from recognition that while Assad has ties to Iran and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, the rebels seeking to topple him have connections with al-Qaida terrorist groups.
Still, Obama declared more than a year ago that the use of chemical weapons would amount to a "red line" that Assad should not cross. And Obama approved the shipment of small weapons and ammunition to the Syrian rebels after an earlier reported chemical weapons attack, although there is little sign that the equipment has arrived.
With memories of the long Iraq war still fresh, the political crosscurrents have been intense both domestically and overseas.
Dozens of lawmakers, most of them Republican, signed a letter saying Obama should not take military action without congressional approval, and top leaders of both political parties are urging the president to consult more closely with Congress before giving an order to launch hostilities.
Senior White House, State Department, Pentagon and intelligence officials met for an hour and half Friday with more than a dozen senators who serve on the Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees, said Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del. He described the discussion as "open and constructive."
Obama's efforts to put together an international coalition to support military action have been more down than up.
Hollande has endorsed punitive strikes, and told the newspaper Le Monde that the "chemical massacre of Damascus cannot and must not remain unpunished."
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has urged a delay in any military action until the inspectors can present their findings to U.N. member states and the Security Council.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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