WASHINGTON – The US should punish Syria with military force for its use of chemical weapons, President Barack Obama said on Saturday, and he would seek authorization from Congress to do so.
“I have decided that the United States should take military action against Syrian regime targets,” he said, speaking from the White House, adding a second decision: “I will seek authorization for the use of force from American representatives in Congress.
“Some things are more important than partisan differences,” Obama said. “Now is the time to show the world that America keeps its commitments.”
Under the War Powers Act, American presidents can and have used military force without congressional approval. Presidents Reagan, H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton all ordered military operations without an authorization of the use of force from Congress. But Obama told reporters in the Rose Garden on Saturday that his decision to seek approval was a demonstration of democracy to the rest of the world.
“Right makes might, not the other way around,” he said.
The president’s decision came after British Prime Minister David Cameron failed to win authorization from Parliament for the use of force in Syria, in a shocking defeat on Thursday that ended the possibility of British intervention.
“Democracy is stronger when the president and the people’s representatives stand together,” Obama said.
Following the presidential announcement, House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner said that his chamber would take up the issue on September 9, when Congress returns from its summer recess.
It was the president’s first formal statement on the Syrian crisis since chemical weapons killed hundreds outside Damascus on August 21.
“We cannot and must not turn a blind eye to what happened in Damascus,” he said.
“This attack is an assault on human dignity. It also presents a serious danger to our national security.”
Obama’s national security team converged on the White House on Saturday, including Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Secretary of State John Kerry and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, to make final preparations for the strike against Assad.
Military leaders, Obama said, gave him the assurance that attack preparations were not “time-sensitive.”
“I am prepared to give that order,” he said.
Pentagon officials said the five US warships off the Syrian coast were prepared to act immediately should the president give to order the attack.
Tomahawk missiles have already been programmed to their destinations, indicating that targets had already been chosen.
The Assad government is preparing for the strike, dispersing key military assets and materials and coordinating a possible response with Iranian government officials on the ground.
The White House will provide a classified briefing to members of the Senate on Sunday and House representatives on Monday.
Cameron responded to Obama’s announcement by sending a message via Twitter.
“I understand and support Barack Obama’s position on Syria,” Cameron said.
The British leader’s political defeat on Thursday shocked the White House, but did not dissuade the president from following his lead in seeking approval from his own legislature.
“This was not a motion to take us to war,” Col. (ret.) Bob Stewart, MP, a member of Cameron’s Conservative Party, told The Jerusalem Post on Friday, calling the vote a “total shock.”
“This was a motion to condemn the Assad regime, and we’ve rejected it,” he said. “What signal does that send to the world?” Stewart, a former Royal Army officer trained on chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, asserted that widely available evidence pointed to an attack in Ghouta perpetrated by organized armed forces, which the Syrian rebels are not. He said his training gave him “98 percent” certainty, even without access to classified intelligence material.
Opposition Labor Party leader Ed Miliband on Friday called Cameron’s push to war “cavalier and reckless,” and commended MPs for voting against the motion.
He accused Cameron of attempting to “bypass the United Nations” as its team of inspectors completed work on the ground near Damascus, gathering evidence on the alleged chemical attack.
US Senators McCain and Graham, who have called for US military intervention to help rebel fighters gain an edge of Assad, said on Saturday that they “cannot in good conscience support isolated military strikes in Syria that are not part of an overall strategy that can change the momentum on the battlefield.
“Anything short of this would be an inadequate response to the crimes against humanity that Assad and his forces are committing,” they said, in a preview of the debate to come in the following week.
Sen. Robert Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, commended the president for referring the issue to Congress.
“There is no fork in the road before us, there is no ambiguity to the evidence, for the use of chemical weapons against the innocent brings us to a point of no return,” Menendez said. “We say what we mean, we mean what we say, and we don't look away when undeniable war crimes are committed.”
The Senate will likely vote for the measure, where the president’s party holds a majority and the Republican caucus appears split on how to proceed. In the House of Representatives, however, the fate of the vote is less assured.
While Labor chairwoman Shelly Yacimovich said Obama was behaving responsibly, morally and impressively, Meretz leader Zehava Gal-On surprisingly slammed the president.
“The use of chemical weapons may finally be enough of an excuse for the US, but the ethical justification to act against Assad’s murders has existed for a long time,” Gal-On wrote on Facebook.
“If anyone has doubts about the legitimacy of international intervention in Syria, I recommend internalizing that this involvement already exists in the form of the shameless support Russia, China, and Iran are giving the Assad regime. You don’t have to love either side in this war – none is exactly a light of democracy – but it doesn’t matter. The international community must do everything possible to stop the ongoing mass killings of tens of thousands of innocents,” she wrote.
Gil Hoffman, Reuters and Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.