Barack Obama gambled his waning presidential authority on Sunday night after announcing he would delay planned military action against Syria and seek Congressional authorisation for limited strikes against the Assad regime.
Obama said that he had made the decision to strike military targets in Syria in response to the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons on August 21, but that he would stay his hand until Congress had voted to support him.
The decision, announced in a statement delivered in the Rose Garden, came after days of behind-the-scenes negotiations with senior members of Congress designed to prove both the intelligence against Assad and the moral and security rationale for action. Mr Obama said that he believed that his administration had made a "powerful case" for action and had authorised strikes, which he said could come "tomorrow, next week, in one month from now" and that he was "prepared to give that order".
"While I believe I have the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorisation, I know that the country will be stronger if we take this course and our actions will be even more effective. We should have this debate, because the issues are too big for business as usual," he added.
Before Obama spoke in the Rose Garden, chants of "Obama don't attack Syria!" could be heard drifting across the north lawn where a group of 100 or so anti-war demonstrators had gathered in front of the White House. The decision to consult Congress has clear echoes of that of David Cameron to consult the House of Commons, a decision that backfired spectacularly on Thursday.
Obama's decision to follow suit comes after nearly 200 members of Congress had written demanding that Congress be given a vote on military action, which opinion polls show does not yet have majority support among the American people. Mr Obama said that he believed that, as president he was authorised to use force without the blessing of the UN Security Council which is deadlocked by Russia, but was taking the step of going to Congress mindful that America was the "world's oldest constitutional democracy".
Congress is currently in summer recess and is not due to return for another 10 days. A spokesman for the speaker, John Boehner, said the House of Representatives would consider a measure on military action in Syria during the week commencing September 9, after Congress returns from its summer holiday. Mr Obama, who said he was "looking forward" to the debate, is due to depart for Sweden on Tuesday night before heading to Russia for the G20 Summit. Acknowledging America's war-weariness, Obama said that those who were against action needed to ask themselves "what message will we be sending if a dictator can gas hundreds of children to death in plain sight" and not pay a price? Obama's decision was widely hailed by both Democrats and Republicans who have been locked in briefings and consultations over the last days as the administration moved closer to war. Senator Bob Corker, the lead Republican on the senate's foreign relations committee, said: "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 authorisation."
Obama's stunning change of tack came after John Kerry's thunderous speech on Friday publicly setting out the intelligence that proved Assad was responsible for chemical weapons use and the diplomatic rationale for taking action. The departure of United Nations weapons inspectors from Damascus early on Saturday had apparently cleared the last obstacle on the ground to strikes, with five US missile-destroyer armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles now awaiting strike orders in the eastern Mediterranean.
However, with his key ally, Britain, now out of the picture Mr Obama had cut an increasingly isolated figure who was facing forging ahead without UN backing or a vote in Congress. "A lot of people think something should be done but nobody wants to do it," Mr Obama had said on Friday, arguing that the US had an unavoidable responsibility and a national interest in enforcing international norms that outlawed the use of chemical weapons.
Earlier the White House had announced that a classified version of the intelligence dossier on Assad's chemical weapons use would be made available to members today. However, as the deliberations, or what appeared to be final preparations, continued for strikes, there were calls from both home and abroad for the US not to rush into action. Vladimir Putin, the Russian president who has backed Assad and blocked any UN resolution on action against Syria, said it would be a "foolish nonsense" to launch strikes before UN inspectors had reported.
"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," he said, "Did this resolve even one problem?"
At the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, who has repeatedly urged a political solution to the Syria conflict, was briefed on the return of the chemical weapons inspectors and was told that they had been able to complete a "wide range of fact-finding activities" in Syria, a UN spokesman said. Samples from the mission were being collated in the Netherlands yesterday before being sent to laboratories across Europe for analysis. The results would be given to the Security Council "as soon as possible", the spokesman added, but declined to provide a timeline. He said suggestions that the inspectors' departure from Syria provided a window of opportunity for a US air attack were "grotesque" and an "affront to the more than 1,000 UN staff who are on the ground in Syria to deliver humanitarian aid". However, the Obama has said he will not wait for the UN, given the restricted mandate that means inspectors cannot apportion blame for the strikes but may only confirm that chemical weapons were used, a fact the US says the world already knows to be true.
"By the definition of their own mandate, the UN can't tell us anything that we haven't shared with you this afternoon or that we don't already know," said Mr Kerry, laying out the case for bypassing the United Nations. "And because of the guaranteed Russian obstructionism of any action through the UN Security Council, the UN cannot galvanise the world to act, as it should."
The White House held several briefing for Republican and Democrat Senators yesterday morning at which Mr Kerry, the secretary of state, accompanied by Susan Rice, the national security adviser and Chuck Hagel, the defence secretary, reiterated the case for action.