After a week of will he or will he not, President Barack Obama announced at Aug. 31, 2013 press conference from the White House Rose Garden that he will let Congress ultimately decide if the United States will take military action against Syria and its President Bashar al-Assad in response to a suspected Aug. 21, 2013 chemical weapons attack that killed over 1400 Syrian citizens. Obama's decision comes after a week of planning and discussions with leaders of allied nations, and two statements by Secretary of State John Kerry on the issue, and one only yesterday from the President.
President Obama gave his decision at the press conference with protests heard from in front of the White House, saying; "Now, after careful deliberation, I have decided that the United States should take military action against Syrian regime targets. 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. But I'm confident we can hold the Assad regime accountable for their use of chemical weapons, deter this kind of behavior, and degrade their capacity to carry it out." Vice President Joe Biden was standing by the President's side during his statement.
However, Obama would not proceed on an attack without Congressional approval, stating; "Over the last several days, we've heard from members of Congress who want their voices to be heard. I absolutely agree. So this morning, I spoke with all four congressional leaders, and they've agreed to schedule a debate and then a vote as soon as Congress comes back into session."
The President said he believes a response is necessary, saying; "But we are the United States of America, and we cannot and must not turn a blind eye to what happened in Damascus." And he urged Congress to vote in favor of a military strike, concluding; "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 together as one nation."
President Obama also spoke on Friday, Aug. 30 about a possible military intervention stated he had not yet decided, saying; "Now, I have not made a final decision about various actions that might be taken." The President also assured the American public that type of military action would not be sending U.S. ground troops to Syria, stating; "But we are looking at the possibility of a limited, narrow act that would help make sure that not only Syria, but others around the world, understand that the international community cares about maintaining this chemical weapons ban and norm."
The White House also released on Friday a document; "Government Assessment of the Syrian Government's Use of Chemical Weapons on August 21, 2013" on their website, which outlines the U.S.'s proof that the attack took place. The document declared that "A preliminary U.S. government assessment determined that 1,429 people were killed in the chemical weapons attack, including at least 426 children, though this assessment will certainly evolve as we obtain more information."
Earlier on Friday, Secretary of State John Kerry emphatically made his case for an attack speaking about strong proof of a chemical weapons attack in Syria in his remarks, urging a US response to the loss of life. Kerry concluded; "And that is at the core of the decisions that must now be made for the security of our country and for the promise of a planet where the world's most heinous weapons must never again be used against the world's most vulnerable people."
This was Kerry's second public statement this week; the Secretary of State also spoke on Monday, condemning the attack, calling it a "moral obscenity" and a "cowardly crime." On Sunday, Kerry will make his case on each of the five television network news shows.
Both political parties in Congress have voiced concern about Obama making a decision by himself about a prospective military strike in Syria. Congress is more cautious and critical since the long drawn out wars in Iraq and in Afghanistan that began over a decade ago, and the political fallout that resulted from the two wars. Earlier in the week 116 lawmakers signed a letter dated Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2013 addressed to President Obama and his administration urging a Congressional vote prior to any military action.
The American public is also cautious; an NBC poll conducted this week showed that 50 percent do not want a military intervention, 50 percent would approve a limited military missile strike, with 44 percent in opposition, while 80 percent believe Congress should vote on the matter.
Republican leaders were pleased and approved of Obama's decision. Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner issued a statement saying; "We are glad the president is seeking authorization for any military action in Syria in response to serious, substantive questions being raised." While Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell stated; "The president's role as commander in chief is always strengthened when he enjoys the expressed support of the Congress."
The administration has been trying to keep Congress involved in the decision making process for military action. Prior to Obama's press conference on Saturday, Aug. 31, members of the President's national security, defense, and military teams briefed by phone ranking members of the Senate, doing the same on Thursday for leaders in the House of Representatives. The White House kept Congressional leaders updated throughout the week.
Besides, President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry other members of the Obama Administration this week spoke out about the matter and any proposed response indicating the President was leaning towards a limited strike. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Tuesday, Aug, 27 said "We're ready to go," that the U.S. was prepared for a military intervention. However, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney made it clear in his daily press briefing on the same day that any military action would be limited, stating; "I want to make clear that the options that we are considering are not about regime change."
Also commenting on the issue on Tuesday, Aug, 27, Vice President Joe Biden speaking at the American Legion National Convention in Houston denounced the suspected chemical attack, stating; "There is no doubt that an essential international norm has been violated -- violated. Chemical weapons have been used. And there is no doubt who is responsible for this heinous use of chemical weapons in Syria: the Syrian regime."
Earlier in the week Obama spoke with world leaders trying to gain support for a military strike on Syria, particularly allies in the United Kingdom, Northern neighbor Canada and also France. At that point it seemed all but certain military air strikes were imminent until Britain and Canada backed down.
Great Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron was second only to Obama in denouncing the alleged attack. The Prime Minister discussed the issued on the phone with Obama on Sunday, Aug. 25. He strongly spoke of a united military action with the U.S., until a vote from the House of Commons on Thursday evening cut Cameron's plans short; Parliament struck down any military action by a vote of 285-272. After the vote Cameron stated; "I get that and the government will act accordingly."
Prime Minister Cameron, a Conservative presiding over a coalition government could not garner support from Ed Milliband and the Labour Party for a strike. The failing vote is creating a leadership crisis for Cameron. Cameron remains involved in the discussions, and after Obama's announcement on tweeted his approval; "I understand and support Barack Obama's position on #Syria."
The President spoke with Canadian Prime Canadian Stephen Harper on Tuesday, Aug. 27, who agreed a "firm response", was needed. With pressuring mounting to recall Parliament to vote on any military intervention, Harper announced on Aug. 29, that Canada will not actively participate, stating; "This is a very big risk and we do believe and we do support our allies who are contemplating forceful action to deal with this. That said, at the present time the government of Canada has no plans of our own to have a Canadian military mission."
Obama still has the support of France and President Francois Hollande, who announced on Saturday that France will make their final decision after the U.S. Congress votes. The U.S. has considered this week that even without allied support they still might go it alone if they ultimately decide on a military intervention.
Meanwhile, Israel, who is directly threatened by both Syria in a potential retaliation for a U.S. military strike, has been handing out gas masks to all its citizens this past week. On Wednesday, Aug. 28, The Israel Defense Forces called up reservists, and deployed missile defense systems, and on Friday, deployed its Iron Dome missile defense system over Tel Aviv and northern Israel.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with his security cabinet twice during the week on Aug. 27 and 29. On Tuesday, Aug. 27, and he publicly encouraged that the country's citizens continue their daily lives, saying "There is no need to change our routine at this time," assuring Israelis that there will be retaliation for any aggression from Syria, saying; "We will respond and we will respond with strength."
The United Nations completed their inspection of Syria early on Friday rather than the original date of Monday. The United Nation;s Security Council refused Britain's proposal for military intervention at the appeal of two council members, Russia and China who support the Assad regime. Even after the findings of their inspection, it is unlikely they will approve a military response.
Obama's decision on a military strike was diverted this week because of the festivities honoring the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, where the President gave a key address on Wednesday Aug. 28 at the Lincoln memorial invoking Martin Luther King's "I have a Dream" speech in 1963 at the same location.
President Obama has the power to authorize the military action without Congressional approval. The 1973 War Powers Act allows the president to do so for 60 days without formally declaring war and U.S. involvement in most military conflicts since the Korean War have been done without any formal declaration.
Congress will not convene early from their summer recess to debate and vote on the issue, they return on Sept. 9.
Everything You Need to Know About the Syrian Civil War, ABC News, Aug. 31, 2013.
President Barack Obama's Statement on Syria, Aug. 31, 2013.
- Government Assessment of the Syrian Government’s Use of Chemical Weapons on August 21, 2013, White House, Aug. 30, 2013.
- President Barack Obama's remarks on Syria crisis, Aug. 30, 2013.
- Secretary of State John Kerry's Statement on Syria, Treaty Room; Washington, DC, Aug. 30, 2013. Video on YouTube
- Secretary of State John Kerry Remarks on Syria, Press Briefing Room; Washington, DC, Aug. 26, 2013. Video on YouTube
Bonnie K. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes History Musings: History, News & Politics. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. Her specializations are US, Canadian & Israeli politics.