President Obama gave a hastily-scheduled address on Saturday to announce his intentions to launch a "limited" US military strike on Syria. "Now after careful deliberation, I have decided the US should take military action against Syrian regime targets," Obama said. "This would not be an open-ended intervention, we would not put boots on the ground. Instead our action would be designed to be limited in duration and scope," adding that he would seek Congressional authorization for such a strike before launching it, despite the fact that he doesn't technically need it to move forward. Obama didn't specify whether the strike would involve missiles or other weapons.
"we would not put boots on the ground."
Obama said that the Syrian regime had committed the "worst chemical weapons attack of the 21st century" in August. "Our security and our values demand we cannot turn away from the massacre of thousands of innocent civilians with chemical weapons," Obama explained, adding: "I'm ready to act in the face of this outrage. Today I'm asking Congress to send a message to the world that we are ready to move forward as one nation." The US Congress is out of session for the Labor Day holiday through September 6th, but Obama said that he had spoken with Congressional leaders who were ready to hold a vote on a military strike as soon as they return. Reuters reported that one Congressional leader said a measure would be considered the week of September 9th.
Obama said he had made his decision to ask for a strike "based on what I am convinced is in our best national security interest," and said he was "comfortable going forward without the approval of a United Nations security council that has so far been completely paralyzed and unwilling to hold [Syrian President Bashar al] Assad accountable." Obama acknowledged he was elected "in part to end" US military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan, but asked "what message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children to death in plain sight and pay no price? What's the purpose of the international system that we've built — if a prohibition on the use of chemical weapons that has been agreed to by the governments of 98 percent of the world's people, and approved overwhelmingly by the Congress of the United States — is not enforced?"
"what message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children to death in plain sight and pay no price?"
The alleged chemical attack in question took place outside Damascus in late August, and reportedly resulted in the deaths of nearly 1,500 people, including over 400 children, according to a US intelligence report released last week. While both sides in Syria's internal conflict — the government and opposition — have accused each other of chemical warfare, the US and several European nations quickly attributed the latest attack to the Syrian government.
US Secretary of State John Kerry called the attack a "moral obscenity," saying that the Assad regime had lost all claim to credibility and had shelled the attack site to destroy evidence of its guilt; France came out in favor of military action; and US President Obama on Friday said that the US was "looking at the possibility of a limited, narrow act" of military force in Syria. But unlike the 2011 internal conflict in Libya, which drew broad support for strikes by America's European allies, the British parliament on Thursday voted down a proposal from Prime Minister David Cameron for UK participation in a possible strike on Syria.
"a military solution is not an option."
Obama's speech followed a brief, tense update Saturday morning from a UN spokesperson, who spoke about the organization's ongoing investigation into the use of chemical weapons in Syria. A UN inspection team just returned to the Netherlands after collecting evidence and conducting interviews on the ground there last week despite being shot at, but the UN spokesperson said there was no timetable on when their results would be published. The spokesperson said "whatever can be done to speed up the process is being done," and urged a political solution to the conflict in the mean time, saying "a military solution is not an option." The UN spokesperson also said the notion that the inspectors leaving Syria "somehow opens window for military action" is "grotesque," as thousands of UN aid staff still remain in the country now.
Other US lawmakers, commentators in the press, and former Bush Administration officials have questioned the value of the US launching a strike on Syria at this time, arguing it's not in the country's national interest. At the very least, some say that the US Congress should vote to approve the strike, but the president has legal grounds under the US Constitution to launch military action at his discretion.
The conflict in Syria has stretched for two and a half years, beginning with a March 2011 protest over the arrest and reported torture of 14 or more schoolchildren in the city of Deraa. The Assad regime responded with a brutal crackdown, leading to more protests and, eventually, calls for Assad's resignation and greater civil liberties, as well limits on presidential power. As violence continued, loosely organized military opposition groups formed, eventually coalescing into the Syrian National Committee, which represents the anti-Assad Syrian movement in international relations. The UN estimates that since the start of the civil war, over 100,000 have been killed, and 1.7 million have fled the country.
Dante D'Orazio and Adi Robertson contributed to this report.