NEW: Syrian official: Obama climbed to the top of the tree, "doesn't know how to get down"
Obama sends a letter to the heads of the House and Senate
Obama to seek congressional approval on military action against Syria
Aim is to determine whether CW were used, not by whom, says U.N. spokesman
It’s official: U.S. President Barack Obama wants lawmakers to weigh in on whether to use military force in Syria.
Obama sent a letter to the heads of the House and Senate on Saturday night, hours after announcing that he believes military action against Syrian targets is the right step to take over the alleged use of chemical weapons.
The proposed legislation from Obama asks Congress to approve the use of military force “to deter, disrupt, prevent and degrade the potential for future uses of chemical weapons or other weapons of mass destruction.”
It’s a step that is set to turn an international crisis into a fierce domestic political battle.
There are key questions looming over the debate: What did U.N. weapons inspectors find in Syria? What happens if Congress votes no? And how will the Syrian government react?
In a televised address from the White House Rose Garden earlier Saturday, the president said he would take his case to Congress, not because he has to – but because he wants to.
“While I believe I have the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization, I know that the country will be stronger if we take this course, and our actions will be even more effective,” he said. “We should have this debate, because the issues are too big for business as usual.”
Obama said top congressional leaders had agreed to schedule a debate when the body returns to Washington on September 9. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold a hearing over the matter on Tuesday, Sen. Robert Menendez said.
U.N. inspectors leave Syria
Obama’s remarks came shortly after U.N. inspectors left Syria, carrying evidence that will determine whether chemical weapons were used in an attack early last week in a Damascus suburb.
“The aim of the game here, the mandate, is very clear – and that is to ascertain whether chemical weapons were used – and not by whom,” U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky told reporters on Saturday.
But who used the weapons in the reported toxic gas attack in a Damascus suburb on August 21 has been a key point of global debate over the Syrian crisis.
Top U.S. officials have said there’s no doubt that the Syrian government was behind it, while Syrian officials have denied responsibility and blamed jihadists fighting with the rebels.
British and U.S. intelligence reports say the attack involved chemical weapons, but U.N. officials have stressed the importance of waiting for an official report from inspectors.
The inspectors will share their findings with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon Ban, who has said he wants to wait until the U.N. team’s final report is completed before presenting it to the U.N. Security Council.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which nine of the inspectors belong to, said Saturday that it could take up to three weeks to analyze the evidence they collected.
“It needs time to be able to analyze the information and the samples,” Nesirky said.
He noted that Ban has repeatedly said there is no alternative to a political solution to the crisis in Syria, and that “a military solution is not an option.”
Obama: ‘This menace must be confronted’
Obama’s senior advisers have debated the next steps to take, and the president’s comments Saturday came amid mounting political pressure over the situation in Syria. Some U.S. lawmakers have called for immediate action while others warn of stepping into what could become a quagmire.
Some global leaders have expressed support, but the British Parliament’s vote against military action earlier this week was a blow to Obama’s hopes of getting strong backing from key NATO allies.
On Saturday, Obama proposed what he said would be a limited military action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Any military attack would not be open-ended or include U.S. ground forces, he said.
Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons earlier this month “is an assault on human dignity,” the president said.
A failure to respond with force, Obama argued, “could lead to escalating use of chemical weapons or their proliferation to terrorist groups who would do our people harm. In a world with many dangers, this menace must be confronted.”
Obama decision came Friday night
On Friday night, the president made a last-minute decision to consult lawmakers.
What will happen if they vote no?
It’s unclear. A senior administration official told CNN that Obama has the authority to act without Congress – even if Congress rejects his request for authorization to use force.
Obama on Saturday continued to shore up support for a strike on the al-Assad government.
He spoke by phone with French President Francois Hollande before his Rose Garden speech.
“The two leaders agreed that the international community must deliver a resolute message to the Assad regime – and others who would consider using chemical weapons – that these crimes are unacceptable and those who violate this international norm will be held accountable by the world,” the White House said.
Meanwhile, as uncertainty loomed over how Congress would weigh in, U.S. military officials said they remained at the ready.
Reactions mixed to Obama’s speech
A spokesman for the Syrian National Coalition said that the opposition group was disappointed by Obama’s announcement.
“Our fear now is that the lack of action could embolden the regime and they repeat his attacks in a more serious way,” said spokesman Louay Safi.