Published Saturday, Aug. 31, 2013 | 11:10 a.m.
Updated Saturday, Aug. 31, 2013 | 11:47 a.m.
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama stunned the capital and paused his march to war 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 attack.
In a hastily organized appearance in the rose garden, 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. Obama said he believed he has authority to act on his own but did not say whether he would if Congress rejects his plan.
Obama’s announcement followed several days of faltering support for military action in Congress as well as in foreign capitals.
President Vladimir Putin of Russia 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 Nations.
“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,” Putin said in his first public remarks since reports of the chemical attack emerged. “I have no doubts about it.”
Obama came under criticism at home as well, and from both sides of the political spectrum. Some lawmakers 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 U.N. 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. U.N. weapons inspectors left Syria for Lebanon early Saturday after four days of efforts to investigate the Aug. 21 attack. U.S. 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 afternoon.
The samples will be divided so each can be sent to at least two separate European laboratories for testing, according to U.N. officials, but experts said the testing would not be completed for several days at the earliest.
Angela Kane, the U.N. disarmament chief, was scheduled to brief U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. While the inspectors were assigned to determine whether a chemical strike took place, it was not their mandate to assign culpability.
Obama administration officials argued that the U.N. findings would be redundant, since U.S. intelligence had already concluded, based on human sources and electronic eavesdropping, that 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 a U.S. 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 road.”
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 U.S. 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, Obama struggled to rally the public and its elected representatives. Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Susan E. Rice, the president’s national security adviser, scheduled back-to-back conference calls for Saturday afternoon with the Democratic and Republican conferences in the Senate. Joining them were Adm. James A. Winnefeld Jr., the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence.
The participation of Hagel and Winnefeld suggested that the conversation was moving beyond assessing blame for the chemical attack to the specific military options now at hand. 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.
Sen. 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.
“Sen. 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. Sunday. The timing of the briefing may indicate that the president would wait on any strike until afterward, but White House officials would not discuss timing of any strike and he would not necessarily be bound to hold off.
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 question.
That leaves 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 Clinton’s intervention in Bosnia in 1995, which the public opposed, and 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 Obama issued such an order is unclear at the moment.