By Tom Watkins and Catherine E. Shoichet
(CNN) — It’s official: U.S. President Barack Obama sent lawmakers his request for authorization to take military action in Syria on Saturday.
Obama’s letter to the heads of the House and Senate came hours after the U.S. president announced he would seek congressional approval for military action in Syria over the alleged use of chemical weapons.
It’s a key step that is set to turn an international crisis into a domestic political battle.
The proposed legislation 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.”
In a televised address from the White House Rose Garden earlier Saturday, the president appealed for members of Congress to consider their responsibilities and values in debating U.S. military action over Syria’s alleged chemical weapons use.
“Today I’m asking Congress to send a message to the world that we are united as one nation,” he said.
Obama said top congressional leaders had agreed to schedule a debate when the body returns to Washington on September 9.
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. “This attack is an assault on human dignity,” the president said, referring to the toxic gas assault. “It also presents a serious danger to our national security; it risks making a mockery of the global prohibition on the use of chemical weapons.”
Obama worried aloud that a failure to respond with force “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.”
Any military attack would be neither open-ended nor include U.S. ground forces, he said.
Though he said he believes he has the authority to carry out military action without specific congressional authorization, Obama was seeking it because “I know that the country will be stronger if we take this course of action and our actions will be even more effective. We should have this debate because our interests are too big for business as usual.”
Obama decision came Friday night
Obama had been wrestling with the idea of the proper role of Congress in the matter all week, senior administration officials said.
On Friday night, the president made his decision to consult lawmakers.
There was a robust debate among Obama’s senior advisers over whether that was the right move, the officials said. All the advisers who disagreed with the president now support his decision, the officials said.
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 Saturday, the officials said.
“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.
“We continue to refine our targeting based on the most recent intelligence,” said Col. Edward Thomas, spokesman for General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff.
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. “So we are quite concerned.”
Some members of Congress applauded Obama’s decision.
House Speaker John Boehner, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy and Conference Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers, all Republicans, issued a statement Saturday praising the president
“Under the Constitution, the responsibility to declare war lies with Congress,” their statement said.
“We are glad the president is seeking authorization for any military action in Syria in response to serious, substantive questions being raised. In consultation with the president, we expect the House to consider a measure the week of September 9th. This provides the president time to make his case to Congress and the American people.”
More than 160 legislators, including 63 of Obama’s fellow Democrats, had signed letters calling for either a vote or at least a “full debate” before any U.S. action.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, whose own attempt to get lawmakers in his country to support military action in Syria failed earlier this week, responded to Obama’s speech in a Twitter post Saturday.
“I understand and support Barack Obama’s position on Syria,” Cameron said.
An influential Russian lawmaker had his own theory.
“The main reason Obama is turning to the Congress: the military operation did not get enough support either in the world, among allies of the US or in the United States itself,” Alexei Pushkov, chairman of the international-affairs committee of the Russian State Duma, said in a Twitter post.
Syria’s government unfazed
After Obama’s speech, a military and political analyst on Syrian state TV said Obama is “embarrassed” that Russia opposes military action against Syria, is “crying for help” for someone to come to his rescue and is facing two defeats — on the political and military levels.
Syria’s prime minister appeared unfazed by the saber-rattling.
“The Syrian Army’s status is on maximum readiness and fingers are on the trigger to confront all challenges,” Wael Nader al-Halqi said during a meeting with a delegation of Syrian expatriates from Italy, according to a banner on Syria State TV that was broadcast prior to Obama’s address.
The Syrian government has denied that it used chemical weapons in the August 21 attack, saying that jihadists fighting with the rebels used them in an effort to turn global sentiments against it.
British intelligence had put the number of people killed in the attack at more than 350.
On Saturday, Obama said “all told, well over 1,000 people were murdered.” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Friday cited a death toll of 1,429, more than 400 of them children. No explanation was offered for the discrepancy.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem said rockets carrying chemical payloads landed in areas held by Syria’s own troops. Why would his government gas its own soldiers? he asked.
Not true, Kerry said Friday.
“We know rockets came only from regime-controlled areas and went only to opposition-controlled or contested neighborhoods,” he said.
A year ago, Obama said that such an attack by the Syrian regime would cross a “red line,” which he would not tolerate, but as he mulls military options, he is facing resistance.
Russia, which has a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, has said it would block any measure that includes military force against its ally, Syria.
Obama accused the U.N. Security Council of being unable to “move in the face of a clear violation of international norms.”
The assertion that the Syrian government used chemical weapons “is utter nonsense,” Russian President Vladimir Putin told reporters Saturday, state media reported.
He told the Russian state news agency Ria Novosti that he had seen no proof that al-Assad’s government was behind any chemical weapons attacks.
“Claims that the proof exists, but is classified and cannot be presented to anybody are below criticism,” Putin said. “This is plain disrespect for their partners.”
Putin said he was hoping to take up the matter with Obama during the upcoming G20 summit in Russia’s Saint Petersburg next week.
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