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Obama says he’ll seek Congress okay to act in Syria

US president says he’s ready to strike against Assad regime for its use of chemical weapons, but thinks it right to get approval from Capitol Hill. Israeli analyst says president’s apparent hesitancy will give Netanyahu nightmares about thwarting Iran

President Barack Obama stands with Vice President Joe Biden as he makes a statement about Syria in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, Saturday, Aug. 31, 2013. (Photo credit: AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
President Barack Obama stands with Vice President Joe Biden as he makes a statement about Syria in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, Saturday, Aug. 31, 2013. (Photo credit: AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

US President Barack Obama has spoken in the White House Rose Garden to update the public about his decisions on how to proceed regarding Syria. The full text is here. His key message: In principle, he’s made up his mind to strike at the Assad regime, but he will seek authorization from Congress.

President set to address the public day after Kerry’s speech

A day after his Secretary of State, John Kerry, insisted that the US knew that Syria’s President Bashar Assad was behind last Wednesday’s chemical weapons attack in the suburbs of Damascus, and that 1,429 Syrians were killed, President Barack Obama is about to address the American public.

Kerry set out passionate reasons why the US administration had to hold Assad to account. But Obama insisted later Friday that he had yet to make a decision on how to respond.

President behind schedule; UN inspectors in Amsterdam

Obama’s briefing is half-an-hour behind schedule.

Earlier today, AP reported, Obama’s top national security advisers gathered at the White House, and Syrian television broadcast scenes of fighter jets, tanks and troops in training, flip sides of a countdown to a likely US military strike meant to punish Assad’s government for the alleged use of chemical weapons.

A White House official said Obama’s remarks would not be about an imminent military operation in Syria, but rather would update the public about his decisions on how to proceed.

Earlier Saturday, UN inspectors arrived in Amsterdam after spending several days in Syria collecting soil samples and interviewing victims of an attack last week in the Damascus suburbs. Officials said it could be more than a week before their final report is complete.

It seemed unlikely Obama would wait that long to order any strike, given the flotilla of US warships equipped with cruise missiles and massed in the Mediterranean; Friday’s release of a declassified US intelligence assessment saying Assad’s chemical weapons killed 1,429 civilians; and an intensifying round of briefings for lawmakers clamoring for information.

The president said Friday that he was considering “limited and narrow” steps to punish Assad for the attack, adding that U.S. national security interests were at stake. He pledged no US combat troops on the ground in Syria, where a civil war has claimed more than 100,000 civilian lives.

With Obama struggling to gain international backing for a strike, Russian President Vladimir Putin urged him to reconsider his plans, saying he was speaking to him not as a president but as the recipient of a Nobel Peace Prize.

“We have to remember what has happened in the last decades, how many times the United States has been the initiator of armed conflict in different regions of the world, said Putin, a strong ally of Assad. “Did this resolve even one problem?”

Assad said to be in a bunker

Earlier tonight, Israel’s Channel 2 reported that Assad is already in a bunker, awaiting the US strike, expecting to emerge relatively unscathed, and claim victory.

The TV report also said Assad has sent his family to safe places.

Syrian President Bashar Assad and his wife Asma (photo credit: AP Photo/Michel Spingler/File)

Syrian President Bashar Assad and his wife Asma (photo credit: AP Photo/Michel Spingler/File)

In the past few days, he has been overseeing the evacuations of military command centers, ordering the relocation of sensitive equipment, and doing his utmost to minimize the damage of the looming US attack. Some forces and equipment have been moved to school and university campuses, including the campus of Homs University, the report said.

The movement of personnel away from likely targets was actually good for the US, a former Israeli army intelligence chief said, since it would likely reduce the casualty toll, and it would also reduce Assad’s incentive to retaliate.

If the US attack is not too devastating, Assad will emerge from the bunker “and say ‘I’ve won,’” said Gen. (ret.) Aharon Zeevi Farkash. “He’ll say ‘I stood up to [the US]. Now I can continue fighting the rebels.’”

One target Assad cannot move, and that is very likely to be attacked, Farkash said, is the SSRC, the Scientific Studies and Research Center in Damascus, at the heart of Assad’s chemical weapons industry.

Key airports would likely be among the US targets, Farkash added.

Farkash predicted a US strike involving about 100 Tomahawk missiles.

Security briefing for Israeli cabinet tomorrow

The chief of the IDF General Staff, Benny Gantz, and other security chiefs are to brief the Israeli cabinet at its weekly meeting tomorrow on the Syria situation.

Israeli officials remain convinced that Assad would not strike at Israel in the wake of a US-led attack, despite lots of threats to Israel from both Syria and Iran.

Israel is said to have completed its deployment of Iron Dome, Patriot and other missile defense systems ahead of any attack. Crowds are anticipated at gas mask distribution centers tomorrow, but there are no plans to open more centers, despite the large numbers of Israelis converging on the centers in the past few days.

Israeli TV speculation: Attack between tonight and Tuesday

Israel’s Channel 2 news speculates that the US will indeed attack, and that the strike will come between tonight and Tuesday night. It notes that, after that, President Obama is set to head to Sweden. (Incidentally, he’s scheduled to visit a synagogue in Stockholm for Rosh Hashana.)

Reports from Washington say that Vice President Biden, Secretary of State Kerry, Defense Secretary Hagel, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey are at the White House.

Obama speaks of terrible images of the dead

He begins by restating the conviction that the Assad regime was behind the August 21 chemical weapons attack. “Well over 1,000 people were murdered.”

He calls attack an assault on human dignity, and a danger to national security.

“It endangers our friends… including Israel.”

“This menace must be confronted… The US should take military action against regime targets.”

Obama: I will seek authorization from Congress

We have the necessary assets in the region, says Obama, and can strike whenever we choose.

“But having made my decision… based on what I am convinced are our national security interests,” Obama says he has made “a second decision” — to seek authorization from Congress.

In other words, the strike is several days off, at least.

I don’t need UN approval

The president says he is “comfortable” proceeding without UN approval.

He says he believes he has the authority to act without Congress’s okay, but believes in the strength of winning Congressional approval.

“I respect the views of those who call for caution,” he says. But “we must acknowledge the costs of doing nothing… What message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children to death in plain sight, and pay no price.”

How will we stop others — governments that would build nuclear arms — he asks, if we do not follow through “on the values that define us.”

‘We must not turn a blind eye to what happened in Damascus’

I don’t expect every nation to agree with the decision we have made, Obama says.

He says to the American people that he knows they are weary of war after Iraq and Afghanistan. He adds that the US can’t resolve the Syrian civil war. That’s why US troops won’t go there.

“But we are the United States of America. We cannot and must not turn a blind eye to what happened in Damascus.”

So he asks all members of Congress “to take this vote for our national security.” So put aside partisan politics. “It’s about who we are as a country.”

“Now is the time to show the world” that we uphold our commitments… that right makes might, not the other way around… We cannot turn away” from this massacre.

“I am ready to act in the face of this outrage,” he says, and urges Congress to show it is ready to do the same.

Instant analysis: Obama has shown he doesn’t want to act

Israeli pundits’ immediate response is that Obama is taking a political chance, and could find himself defeated — David Cameron-style — in a Congressional vote.

Britain’s Sky news says “this wouldn’t have happened” were it not for Cameron’s defeat on a pro-strike vote in the House of Commons on Thursday. “He felt very isolated” and he’s been told by his military chiefs that so much could go wrong.

Certainly, now, there is no prospect of an attack in the next few days.

Arab affairs analyst Ehud Yaari says he’s basically asking Congress to help him down from the tree — that he’s shown he has no desire to strike.

Would Obama act if Congress said no?

CNN is debating whether, if Congress says no, Obama could still use force. Key question: Why would you have this vote if you were prepared to ignore it.

Consensus seems to be that he would not go ahead if Congress says no.

Word is that the Obama address was broadcast live on Syrian state TV — where his comments about the readiness to act being effective even “a month from now” might have been received with interest.

Top Republican senator tells Obama to ‘make his case’

The Times of Israel’s Rebecca Stoil writes from Washington: As soon as Obama finished talking, Senator Bob Corker (R-TN), the ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said that he was “very pleased that the president has listened to the suggestion we and many others have made to bring this authorization to Congress. At this point in our country’s history, this is absolutely the right decision, and I look forward to seeing what the Administration brings forward and to a vigorous debate on this important authorization.”

Corker added that “now that the president has decided to use force and seek authorization, it is imperative that he immediately begins using every ounce of his energy to make his case to the American people.”

Opposition to military involvement in Syria has been ramping up in recent days. As Obama prepared to make his address, a group of anti-war protesters gathered, and chanted slogans beyond the White House’s security fence.

Israeli analyst: Netanyahu won’t have liked that speech, because of his Iran fears

The IDF’s former Military Intelligence chief Amos Yadlin says he doesn’t think Assad should be celebrating the speech. He also says he doesn’t think the Israeli public is panicking.

The studio debate on Israel’s Channel 10 notes that official Israel is going to have to stay silent for a good few more days now.

Benjamin Netanyahu speaking to Barack Obama at the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem in March. (photo credit: Pete Souza/Official White House)

Benjamin Netanyahu speaking to Barack Obama at the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem in March. (photo credit: Pete Souza/Official White House)

This speech reinforces all of Netanyahu’s fears with regard to Iran, says a Channel 10 news analyst, Raviv Drucker. Watching Obama’s speech, says Drucker, the prime minister would be thinking, ‘how can I possibly convince Obama to take on Iran, a move that might well require US boots on the ground?’

David Cameron has just tweeted that he understands and supports Obama’s position.

While instant analysis in Israel is that the speech represented Obama trying to duck away from a strike, the CNN studio debate seems to believe Obama actually does want to win backing for a strike.

CNN’s Wolf Blitzer says the week of September, when Congress is scheduled to come back into session, will be highly interesting now, given that more particulars from the UN inspection in Damascus may be available.

Israeli analyst: Iran sees a ‘paper tiger’ in Washington

Iran realizes that “there is a paper tiger” in Washington, Channel 10’s Arab affairs analyst Zvi Yehezkeli asserts.

Tehran, watching that speech, sees that it’s threats “reached all the way to the White House.”

Iran has been threatening the US ceaselessly against striking at the Assad regime, and also threatened that Israel will be destroyed if the US attacks.

Iranian Chief of Staff General Hassan Firouzabadi warned earlier today that any military attack against Syria will set both Israel and the US ablaze. “Regional countries backing this cruel war will suffer serious losses,” Firouzabadi was quoted by Iran’s Fars news agency as saying, referring to the “massive problems” America’s Middle Eastern allies were to suffer as a result of Washington’s warmongering rhetoric and a possible attack.

Hagel, Dempsey to brief key members of Congress

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are to brief key members of Congress later Saturday. In his comments, the president emphasized that the administration was prepared to brief any members of Congress who were interested.

Hagel just got back from Asia last night, and spoke with Israeli officials on his way back.

McCain: Britain no longer a world power

Britain’s Daily Telegraph says the White House held a briefing for Republican and Democrat Senators Saturday morning, at which Kerry, Hagel and National Security Adviser Susan Rice argued the case for action.

Sen. John McCain of Arizona salutes before addressing the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., on Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2012 (photo credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

Sen. John McCain of Arizona salutes before addressing the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., on Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2012 (photo credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

It quotes John McCain telling American TV, in the wake of Britain’s “no” vote, “I feel badly about the British. They are our dear friends but they are no longer a world power, it’s just a fact of life.”

McCain also said: “My heart breaks for these people who are being massacred. We have stood up for people all over the world and shed our blood in defense of somebody else’s freedom. We’re an exceptional nation, and only we can lead. I know American’s are war weary – Iraq, Afghanistan – but I believe we can prevail without putting American lives in danger.”

The report notes that over 200 members of Congress, mostly Republicans, had signed letters rejecting military action without the explicit permission of Congress.

Israeli minister: In Iran, they’re opening the champagne

Uri Ariel, the hawkish minister of housing (Jewish Home), responds to Obama’s statements by declaring that “In Tehran, they’re opening the champagne, and switching into a higher gear en route to nuclear weapons.”

MK Uri Ariel from the Israeli National Union party (photo credit: Abir Sultan/Flash 90)

MK Uri Ariel from the Israeli National Union party (photo credit: Abir Sultan/Flash 90)

Ariel notes the 100,000 corpses in Syria, accuses the world of doing nothing, and concludes that, “facing real dangers, no one in the world will stand with us.”

Doubtless, reactions will flow in from across the political spectrum, in the US, Israel and worldwide, in the coming hours. Thanks for spending the past couple of hours with us on this live blog. Updates all the time, 24/7, on The Times of Israel.

And Shavua Tov, as they say in these parts.

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