Obama Will Seek Syria Vote in Congress

31.08.2013 22:02

WASHINGTON — President Obama
stunned the capital and paused his
march to war on Saturday by asking
Congress to give him authorization
before he launches a limited military
strike against the Syrian government in
retaliation for a chemical weapons
In a hastily organized appearance in
the Rose Garden, Mr. Obama said he
had decided that the United States
should use force but would wait for a
vote from lawmakers, who are not due
to return to town for more than a
week. Mr. Obama said he believed he
has authority to act on his own but did
not say whether he would if Congress
rejects his plan.
Mr. 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. On Friday, President
Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, Syria’s
patron, argued that it was “simply utter
nonsense” to believe Syria’s
government would launch such an
attack and challenged the United States
to present any evidence to the United
“I am convinced that it is nothing more
than a provocation by those who want
to involve other countries in the Syrian
conflict, who want to gain the support
of powerful members in international
affairs, primarily, of course the United
States,” Mr. Putin said in his first public
remarks since reports of the chemical
attack emerged. “I have no doubts
about it.”
At home, Mr. Obama had come under
criticism from both sides of the
political spectrum. Some lawmakers
had maintained that the United States
should stay out of a civil war that has
already cost more than 100,000 lives,
or at least should wait for
Congressional or United Nations
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. United
Nations weapons inspectors left Syria
for Lebanon early Saturday after four
days of efforts to investigate the Aug.
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 due
to deliver the sample to the
Organization for the Prohibition of
Chemical Weapons on Saturday
The samples will be divided so each can
be sent to at least two separate
European laboratories for testing,
according to United Nations officials,
but experts said the testing would not
be completed for several days at the
Angela Kane, the United Nations
disarmament chief, briefed Secretary-
General Ban Ki-moon on Saturday.
While the inspectors were assigned to
determine whether a chemical strike
took place, it was not their mandate to
assign culpability. Martin Nesirky, a
United Nations spokesman, said that
Ms. Kane’s team would give Mr. Ban its
conclusions “as soon as it has received
the results of the laboratory analysis of
its samples.”
Obama administration officials argued
that the United Nations findings would
be redundant, since American
intelligence had already concluded,
based on human sources and electronic
eavesdropping, that Mr. Assad’s
government was responsible for
launching nerve agents in the eastern
suburbs of Damascus.
An intelligence summary released by
the White House on Friday 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 center in
the neighborhood 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
Col. Qassim Saadeddine, a spokesman
for the rebel Supreme Military Council,
said opposition groups in various parts
of the country had been issued
contingency plans for attacks — some
to coincide with and others to follow
any American strike — to take
advantage if government forces were
weakened or distracted.
But he said the council, the armed wing
of the main exile opposition body, had
been given no information from the
United States or any other country that
might participate in the strike.
In Washington, Mr. Obama struggled to
rally the public and its elected
representatives. Secretary of State John
Kerry, Mr. Hagel and Ms. Rice
scheduled back-to-back conference
calls for Saturday afternoon with the
Democratic and Republican
conferences in the Senate. Joining them
were General Martin E. Dempsey,
chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,
and James R. Clapper Jr., the director
of national intelligence.
The participation of Mr. Hagel and
Gen. Dempsey suggested that the
conversation was moving beyond
assessing blame for the chemical attack
to the specific military options now at
hand. Mr. Obama has described a
“limited, narrow act” that would not
involve ground troops or entangle the
United States in the broader civil war
in Syria.
Senator Mitch McConnell, the Senate
Republican leader, said he asked for
Saturday’s briefings to get a better
sense of the administration’s plans and
to offer suggestions. “Senator
McConnell believes it’s important for
the whole conference to have the
opportunity to communicate directly
with the administration on this
important issue,” said Don Stewart, the
senator’s spokesman.
The White House also agreed to provide
a classified briefing on the Syria
intelligence in person on Capitol Hill
for any lawmakers in town at 2 p.m.
on Sunday.
An NBC poll found the public deeply
split about a possible strike. Fifty
percent of Americans opposed military
action, while 42 percent supported it.
When respondents were told the action
would involve only cruise missiles,
support grew somewhat, with 50
percent then supporting it and 44
percent being against it. Unlike most
issues in Washington today, there was
relatively little disparity between
Republicans and Democrats on the
That leaves Mr. Obama facing the
prospect of taking military action with
less public support than almost any
president in almost any instance since
Vietnam. Jimmy Carter’s decision to try
to rescue hostages in Iran, Ronald
Reagan’s invasion of Grenada and
airstrikes on Libya, George Bush’s
invasion of Panama and liberation of
Kuwait, Bill Clinton’s strikes in
Afghanistan, Iraq and Kosovo and
George W. Bush’s wars in Iraq and
Afghanistan all drew support of 60
percent and usually much more in the
days after they began.
The exceptions were Mr. Clinton’s
intervention in Bosnia in 1995, which
the public opposed, and Mr. Obama’s
airstrikes in Libya in 2011, which had
slim majority support. Whether support
would grow for a Syria strike in a
rally-around-the-flag effect after Mr.
Obama issued such an order is unclear
at the moment.