WHITE HOUSE — U.S. President Barack Obama has delayed an expected military strike against Syria, instead telling Americans he will seek congressional approval to punish the Syrian government for its alleged use of chemical weapons.
In a Saturday address at the White House, Obama said he has decided the United States should take military action against Syrian government targets, saying that while he holds authority to order a strike, he thinks it is important for the country to have a debate on the issue.
The president ruled out any action that would put American ground troops in Syria, and called what happened in Damascus nearly two weeks ago the worst chemical weapons attack of the 21st century, adding that the U.S. must not turn a "blind eye" to it.
Obama has said he has confidence in a report from the U.S. intelligence community that indicated the Syrian government of President Bashar al Assad was responsible for the attack, referring to an unclassified document that directly blames the government for planning and carrying out the August 21 chemical attack that, the document says, killed at least 1,429 Syrians, including 426 children.
Calling the attack "an assault on human dignity," Obama said not responding risks making a mockery of the global prohibition on the use of chemical weapons, and that he does not feel compelled to await the outcome of the U.N. probe.
"I am comfortable going forward without the approval of a United Nations Security Council that, so far, has been completely paralyzed and unwilling to hold Assad accountable," he added.
The Syrian government has denied having any role in chemical weapons attacks and threatened to retaliate and defend itself against any foreign military attack. Syrian allies expressed support for the Assad government.
As he spoke in the White House Rose Garden, protesters outside the grounds chanted and waved signs to voice opposition to U.S. military intervention in Syria.
"We don’t think that the U.S. should be judge, jury and executioner in this situation, and that a U.S military intervention will not assist in bringing peace to the region, it will only further inflame war," said Eugene Puryear of the Answer Coalition, which is protesting any U.S. intervention in Syria. "So, regardless of the chemical weapons situation, we’re saying U.S. intervention is not the answer."
Heba Boustany was with a group supporting Syrian rebels and calling for action.
“We don’t exactly want intervention with bombs and missiles and everything, we just want someone to at least acknowledge that [President Bashar al-Assad] used chemical weapons and to say something about it and tell him ‘no more.’ Just make him scared to do anything more, because if you don’t say anything to him, he’s going to keep on using it.”
Later Saturday the president formally asked Congress to allow him to use military force in Syria to "deter, disrupt, prevent and degrade" the potential for more chemical attacks.
Senior administration officials briefing reporters said the president's determination to respond to the chemical attack in Syria was generally set a week before, and that Obama wrestled with issues such as the role of Congress in authorizing use of military force, and the need to take into account the feelings of Americans weary of war.
In his statement, Obama recognized the anti-war sentiment that follows the war in Iraq and coincides with a war winding down in Afghanistan, but said the U.S. has an obligation to act.
Senior administration officials also said Obama was assured by Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey that the precise timing of when a possible military strike in Syria would occur does not matter. On the likelihood Syrian targets will be hardened before any strike, the officials said the U.S. military has capabilities and options and is not concerned about this.
In a White House meeting with advisers Friday night, senior administration officials said, there was robust debate about risks of any decision and the question of seeking congressional authorization.
Senior national security officials held conference calls with Senate leaders on Saturday. On Sunday, the White House plans to hold a classified briefing on Syria for the House of Representatives.
Republican leaders in the House say they are glad Obama is seeking authorization for any military action, and in a Saturday statement they said that under the U.S. constitution, "the responsibility to declare war lies with Congress."
U.S. congressional leaders expect the House and Senate to take up the matter when they return from their summer recess the week of September 9.
Obama said Congress would be voting for the national security of the United States.
UN probe, world reaction
A United Nations inspection team wrapped up its work in Syria and left the country Saturday. A spokesman for Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says the U.N. chief will get a briefing on Sunday from the head of the inspection team. There is no word about when the team will present its full report. The U.N. spokesman said the team collected samples that will be analyzed in laboratories, as well as witness statements and interviews with doctors and survivors.
Protesters around the world took to the streets on Saturday to protest for and against a possible U.S.-led attack on Syria. Anti-war demonstrations were held outside the White House and in other countries including France, Germany, Britain, Australia, Jordan and Turkey.
Amnesty International issued a statement calling on the U.S. Security Council to refer the Syrian situation to the International Criminal Court, to impose an arms embargo on the Syrian government, and to deploy international monitors to investigate and report on human rights abuses in Syria.
Some world leaders also expressed support for military action. British Prime Minister David Cameron sought but failed to get parliament's approval for Britain's participation in a strike on Syria, but he said he supports the U.S. president's decision not to let the Syrian government go unpunished for war crimes.
Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr expressed confidence that the Obama administration has carefully weighed an appropriate response.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for a volunteer coalition to stop the killings in Syria. In a televised speech Saturday, he also criticized Russia and China for blocking a U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria.
Also Saturday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said it would be "utter nonsense" for the Syrian government to use chemical weapons when it is winning the war against "rebels."
In a statement, Putin urged the U.S. to allow the U.N. chemical weapons team to present its findings.
"As for the position of our American colleagues and friends who state that the government forces have used weapons of mass destruction, in this case used chemical weapons, and say that they have evidence — let them present them to the U.N. inspectors and the U.N. Security Council."
An Iranian delegation visited Damascus Saturday to consult with the Syrian government, following a similar visit Friday by an official delegation from Yemen.
Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.