WASHINGTON - President Obama said on Saturday that he was ready totake military action against Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime inretaliation for its alleged use of chemical weapons, but that he willseek the approval of Congress before carrying out any military strike.
Obamasays congressional leaders have agreed to schedule a debate and votewhen they return to session. They are scheduled to return from theirsummer recess on Sept. 9.
The president did not say whether he'd forgo a strike if Congress rejects his call to action.
"Aftercareful deliberation, I have decided that the United States should takemilitary action against Syrian regime targets," Obama said. "Thiswould not be an open-ended intervention. We would not put boots on theground. Instead, our action would be designed to be limited in durationand scope.
"This attack is an assault on human dignity," Obamasaid of the alleged Aug. 21 chemical assault the U.S. intelligencecommunity has linked to Assad's regime. "It also presents a seriousdanger to our national security."
The remarks came amid a flurryof briefings for skeptical lawmakers by the president's nationalsecurity team. Shouts from hundreds of activists outside the White Houseprotesting against military action could be heard from the Rose Gardenshortly before Obama spoke.
"Over the last several days, we'veheard from several members of Congress who want their voices to beheard," Obama said. "I absolutely agree."
House Speaker John Boehner announced in a joint statement with theGOP House leadership that he expected to consider a measure that wouldauthorize the president to carry out a military strike the week of Sept.9.
"Under the Constitution, the responsibility to declare warlies with Congress," the statement said. "We are glad the president isseeking authorization for any military action in Syria in response toserious, substantive questions being raised. This provides thepresident time to make his case to Congress and the American people."
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., welcomed Obama's decision.
"Thepresident's role as commander in chief is always strengthened when heenjoys the expressed support of the Congress," McConnell said.
Sen.Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the top Republican on the Senate Foreign RelationsCommittee, praised Obama's decision to seek congressional authorizationas "absolutely the right decision." Corker in recent weeks had been apublic advocate for an authorization vote, contending that the Congresstoo often takes a back seat on determining critical foreign policydecisions.
Obama said some have advised not to seek Congress'approval, noting that the British Parliament this week rejected asimilar call for action by Prime Minister David Cameron. Obama alsorejected Boehner's notion that he must seek congressional authorization.
"WhileI believe I have the authority to carry out this military actionwithout specific congressional authorization, I know the country will bestronger if we take this course, and our actions will be even moreeffective," Obama said. "We should have this debate. The issues are toobig for business as usual."
The president's senior advisers hadinitially advised him not to seek congressional authorization for amilitary strike, according to a senior administration official.
Obamaindicated last Saturday during a National Security Council meeting thathe was leaning toward taking action against Syria, but had not made afinal decision, said the official, who asked not to be identified todiscuss internal deliberations.
But when Obama convened his senioradvisers on Friday night to tell them he had decided to take militaryaction, he also told his advisers that he would seek Congressionalauthorization, the official said.
In the Friday night meeting andagain on Saturday morning, Obama explained his reasoning to his advisersfor seeking congressional backing. The same aides who had advised himnot to go to lawmakers for backing threw their support behind his plan.
Obama'sremarks on Saturday afternoon came hours after United Nations experts,who had been collecting samples from last week's alleged chemicalweapons strike outside Damascus, left Syria bound for the Netherlands.
Thechemical weapons experts were working to determine what occurred in theapparent chemical weapons attack near Damascus on Aug. 21, which U.S.intelligence reports say left 1,429 people dead, including 426 children.They have taken blood and urine samples from victims and soil samplesfrom areas where chemical attacks have been reported. The samples willbe tested in Europe.
Obama attempted to put the onus on Congress,which he suggested has a moral responsibility to take action. He notedthat Americans have become weary after more than a decade of war, butthat something as heinous as a chemical attack could not be ignored.
"Here'smy question for every member of Congress and every member of the globalcommunity: What message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds ofchildren to death in plain sight and pay no price?" Obama said.
Thepresident had long expressed skepticism about the merits of Americaninvolvement in the civil war in Syria that has left more than 100,000dead. But Obama stated publicly just over a year ago that movement ordeployment of chemical weapons was a "red line" that must not becrossed.
The White House had determined earlier this summer thatAssad's regime had previously used chemical weapons against rebels andcivilians on a small scale, but had resisted taking action or offeringany significant new military aid to the rebel groups.
Obama saidthat Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, has advisedhim that the U.S. military's capacity to execute a strike is nottime-sensitive. Five U.S. Navy destroyers equipped with land-attackcruise missiles are deployed in the eastern Mediterranean and standready to carry out an assault on the president's order.
"Inthe coming days, my administration stands ready to provide every memberwith the information they need to understand what happened in Syria andwhy it has such profound implications for America's national security,"Obama said. "And all of us should be accountable as we move forward,and that can only be accomplished with a vote."