PRESIDENT Obama vowed on Saturday night that the US will take military action against Syria over a chemical weapons attack that killed more than 1,000 people but only after seeking congressional approval.
Speaking from the Rose Garden of the White House, Obama said the Syrian attack was an assault on human dignity and presented a serious danger to US national security.
“This menace must be confronted,” he said. “The US should take military action against the Syrian regime. This would not be open-ended. There would be no boots on the ground. But we are prepared to take whatever action we choose.”
Obama’s stark remarks came after the Russian president Vladimir Putin urged him to show restraint as the likelihood of US-led air strikes against Syria moved a step closer with the departure of the United Nations weapons inspectors.
Speaking for the first time since the suspected chemical weapons attack in Damascus on 21 August, Putin called on the US president to consider whether military intervention would help end the violence or be worth the civilian casualties it would inevitably cause.
Putin, Syrian leader President Bashar al-Assad’s key international ally, also tried to cast doubt on American claims that Assad’s forces were behind the chemical attack which reportedly killed 1,429 Syrians, including 426 children.
The US Secretary of State, John Kerry, has insisted that intercept intelligence provided “compelling” evidence that Assad’s regime was responsible for the brutal attack.
The Russian leader said the claims were “utter nonsense” and that if Obama had credible evidence that Assad’s forces used chemical weapons Washington should present it to the UN.
“If there is evidence it should be presented,” Putin said. “If it is not presented, that means it does not exist.”
The UN inspection team left Syria in a 13-car convoy yesterday after four days of site visits to the rebel-held Damascus suburb where the attack took place. The blood, urine and soil samples they collected will now be analysed in two separate laboratories in Europe with the results not expected to take several days.
Last night the UN’s leading disarmament official, Angela Kane, briefed the Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, on the team’s preliminary findings.
The departure of the UN weapons inspectors clears the way for punitive air strikes. Military action was thought unlikely as long as UN officials were on the ground inside Syria.
Last night a spokesman for the Syrian government said the army was ready for any potential attack and that its “finger was on the trigger”.
Putin’s intervention came as Obama was said to be finalising plans for “limited and narrow” action against Syria. The Russian leader said Obama, as a Nobel peace prize laureate, should not rush into a military attack but wait until a meeting of the G20 later this week to discuss the issue with other world leaders.
It would be unusual, but not unprecedented, for a US president to launch an attack while out of the country. But for Obama, who will fly to Sweden on Tuesday before heading to the G20 in St Petersburg, to order air strikes when he was in Russia would be seen as highly provocative. Yesterday the White House said the president’s travel plans were still in place.
As military preparations were honed on board the five US Navy destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean, Obama convened an emergency meeting of his national security team at the White House.
Secretary of Defence, Chuck Hagel, national security adviser, Susan Rice, and director of national intelligence, James Clapper, joined Obama and Kerry for crisis talks ahead of a round of telephone briefings with Democrat and Republican senators.