US President Barack Obama has postponed threatened missile strikes against Syria in a risky gamble that he can win more support for his plan to punish Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
To general surprise, the US leader broke with decades of precedent to announce that he would seek approval from Congress for action against Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons.
This effectively pushed military action back until at least September 9, when US legislators return from their summer recess.
Obama insisted that he reserves the right to strike regardless of Congress’ decision, and a White House official said the pause would also allow him time to build international support.
The Arab League meets in Cairo on Sunday and is expected to condemn Assad, and Obama travels to Russia next week for a G20 Summit which will now be overshadowed by the crisis.
But the toughest battle, and perhaps the most dangerous for Obama’s credibility, may yet be with his own former colleagues in Congress, where support for strikes is far from assured.
Indeed, observers warned that he faces the same fate as Prime Minister David Cameron, who on Friday lost his own vote on authorising military action in the British parliament.
“The chairman of the joint chiefs has informed me that we are prepared to strike whenever we choose,” Obama warned, in an address given in the White House Rose Garden.
“Moreover, the chairman has indicated to me that our capacity to execute this mission is not time sensitive. It will be effective tomorrow or next week or one month from now.”
At least five US warships armed with scores of Tomahawk cruise missiles have converged on the eastern Mediterranean ready to launch precision strikes on Syrian regime targets.
And France says it is ready to deploy its own forces in the operation.
In Damascus, the mood had been heavy with fear, and security forces were making preparations for possible air strikes, pulling soldiers back from potential targets.
Residents were seen stocking up with fuel for generators in case utilities are knocked out by a strike.
The United States, faced with an impasse at the UN Security Council and the British parliament’s shock vote, has been forced to look elsewhere for international partners.
Officials said Obama would lobby world powers on the sidelines of next week’s St Petersburg G20 summit, while at home the White House was reaching out to lawmakers.
Obama’s Democrats control the Senate but the House of Representatives is in the hands of his Republican foes and both sides are divided on the issue, making the outcome uncertain.
Late Saturday the White House formally asked Congress for authorisation to conduct military strikes in Syria in a draft resolution framing a narrow set of operations, in a bid to ease fears of another open-ended war.
The document says support from Congress would “send a clear signal of American resolve”.
“The objective of the United States use of military force in connection with this authorisation should be to deter, disrupt, prevent and degrade the potential for future uses of chemical weapons or other weapons of mass destruction,” the draft resolution reads.
Republican Senator Bob Corker, who supports a limited “surgical” strike against Syria, said that Obama should use “every ounce of political capital that he has to sell this”.
“I think it is problematic and it could be problematic in both bodies,” Corker warned.
In a further complication, hawkish senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, said they could not support Obama’s plan for limited strikes that would not topple Assad.
More than 100,000 people have died since the Syrian conflict erupted in March 2011, and two million have become refugees, half of them children, according to the United Nations.