Obama to seek authorisation from Congress before Syria air strikes

• Air strikes delayed as Obama seeks Congress approval
• Obama changes strategy amid increasing US isolation
• UN weapons inspectors cross into Lebanon
• Putin denounces US chemical attack evidence
• Follow latest developments
Conal Urquhart and Adam Gabbatt, Saturday 31 August 2013 15.03 EDT

8.03pm BST

Politico has some more detail on what happens next in DC:

Obama’s national security team is set to give an unclassified briefing for Republican senators Saturday afternoon. Democratic senators are to be briefed later in the afternoon by an administration team that includes Secretary of State John Kerry, National Security Adviser Susan Rice, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

House members who can make it to the Capitol are to receive a classified briefing Sunday afternoon.

Obama’s team will seek to convince members of Congress wary of Syrian action. Some 200 House members have already signed letters seeking a congressional vote ahead of any attack. The White House has been making calls to individual lawmakers to try to win support for possible military action, according to a senior Democratic aide on the Hill.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), the second-ranking GOP senator, on Saturday joined the chorus on the Hill calling for a congressional vote.

“Before any military action is taken in Syria, the president should call Congress back into session and ask for a vote on the authorization to use force,” Cornyn said just minutes before Obama was to speak.

7.36pm BST

Here is some text from Obama’s speech just now. The president said he had been advised against consulting Congress:

“I’m confident in the case our government has made without waiting for UN inspectors. I’m comfortable going forward without the approval of a United Nations Security Council that, so far, has been completely paralysed and unwilling to hold Assad accountable.

“As a consequence, many people have advised against taking this decision to Congress and undoubtedly they were impacted by what we saw happen in the United Kingdom this week when the Parliament of our closest ally failed to pass a resolution with a similar goal, even as the Prime Minister supported taking action.

“Yet, while I believe I have the authority to carry out this 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.”

7.33pm BST

John Boehner and other Republican leaders have issued a statement:

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.

7.14pm BST
US air strikes delayed

It appears that any US action in Syria will be delayed after Obama said he would wait for authorisation from Congress before launching air strikes.

The president said he would wait for a debate and a vote on action in Syria, but said he will not call Congress back from recess early.

That will seemingly postpone any action until 9 September at the earliest – the date Congress is due back in Washington.

This is a big change for Obama. Military strikes had been expected to take place over the weekend, but now there is no guarantee they will occur at all.

Updated at 7.20pm BST

7.00pm BST
Obama to seek authorisation from Congress on Syria air strikes

There will be a debate and a vote “as soon as Congress comes back into session”, Obama says.

He says he is “confident” that he has the authority to launch strikes without that authorisation, but says the decision will be stronger with it.

He says the US is primed to strike on Syria.

“The chairman of the joint chiefs has informed me that we are prepared to strike whenever we choose.”

Obama says the chairman has informed him that the military is ready for his order. He says strikes “will be effective tomorrow, next week or one month from now”.

6.53pm BST

As Obama emerges from the White House, the Associated Press reports that he is considering seeking congressional authorization for action against Syria.

6.41pm BST
Obama to speak on Syria

You might notice there is no audio on the White House’s live feed right now. Earlier protesters – there is a demonstration against military action taking place in DC – could be heard in the background.

Updated at 7.11pm BST

6.29pm BST

We are still waiting for Barack Obama to appear in the Rose Garden. On the White House’s live stream chanting can be heard in the distance. A protest against conducting military action is taking place in Washington today.

6.21pm BST

Obama is due to speak on Syria imminently. You can watch the live stream or follow live text updates on this page.

6.17pm BST

Protests have been taking place in Europe and in the US both for and against – but mainly against – military action in Syria.

In London, more than 1,000 protesters carrying Syrian flags and placards reading “Hands Off Syria,” marched to Downing Street and rallied in Trafalgar Square on Saturday, the Associated Press reports:

About 700 people turned out for an anti-war demonstration in Frankfurt, Germany, police said. Organizers of the protest said only a “sovereign, independent Syria free of foreign interference” would make it possible for the Syrian people to shape the country’s future.

Other rallies also were planned in US cities, including Houston, which is expected to have one demonstration expressing support for an attack and another that opposes action. Protesters in Boston also planned to gather to oppose an attack.

The protesters in London hailed as a victory the UK parliament vote on Thursday against British participation in any US-led attack.

“Today is a victory of British public opinion over those who want war,” former Labour Party lawmaker Tony Benn told the protesters. “Chemical weapons are terrible weapons, but when you think of all the thousands of people that have been killed by British and American troops in Afghanistan and Iraq you realize that it isn’t true that another war would solve the problem.”

5.57pm BST

The idea that the departure of UN inspectors from Syria opens the way for the US to attack is “grotesque”, according to UN spokesman Martin Nesirky.

Nesirky said reports suggesting that UN inspectors leaving would pave the way for US action are an affront to many workers who remain in Syria in a briefing in New York.

He said the UN secreary-general will be briefed further by the head of the UN chemical weapons team on Sunday. There is no timeline on when that team will report its findings, Nesirky said.

Updated at 6.19pm BST

5.45pm BST

The UN is giving a media briefing on Syria. You can watch it live here.

5.36pm BST

Various reports are suggesting Obama will not declare military action in his remarks at 1.15pm.

#BREAKING President Obama will not announce imminent military action, a White House official tells AFP
— Agence France-Presse (@AFP) August 31, 2013

WH official says Obama 1:15 pm Rose Garden remarks will not announce imminent military operations. Instead an update on decision-making
— John Harwood (@JohnJHarwood) August 31, 2013

5.28pm BST
Obama to make statement on Syria

President Barack Obama is scheduled to make a statement on Syria at 1.15pm ET. There is no more information available at present. We’ll follow the statement live here.

4.57pm BST

I am now handing over the blog to Adam Gabbatt in New York. Thanks for all the comments. The main points this afternoon include:U.N. vehicles, carrying United Nations chemical weapons experts, arrive at Yousef al-Azma military hospital in Damascus

UN inspectors have arrived in Rotterdam
White House officials will brief senators on Syria
Reports from Damascus suggest a mood of defiant calm, price inflation and some movement of forces into safer areas
In Lebanon, an estimated 15,000 foreigners have left as governments warn against non-essential travel
Vladimir Putin has described the accusations against Assad as “complete nonsense”
Syrian officials have said they expect an attack at any minute

4.38pm BST

Peter Beaumont has been speaking to some former Syrian soldiers in Amman who say they have supplied target information to US and British intelligence, indicating the location of key military facilities, including bunkers on the regime controlled air bases like Mezze air base outside Damascus.

Peter writes:

One former colonel in the Syrian air force said yesterday that despite claims that limited US strikes would do little damage to the regime, in key areas, where regime forces have already been heavily degraded by two and a half years of war, even the strikes proposed could have a significant impact.

“The air force in particular is almost on its last legs. They have a limited number of crews available and are cannibalising aircraft to keep them flying. That is the one thing FSA does not have.”

He added that although the air force had once had a dispersal plan designed to protect its planes the geography of the conflict, with rebel forces controlling large areas of the countryside made this impossible.

“In addition there are no underground hangers. The ones above ground are reinforced but are no match for modern weapons.”

Describing the rationale behind why the regime had launched chemical weapons strikes leaving them vulnerable to US strikes, he said he had heard from several sources in the country claims that the attack on east Ghouta was the result of a falling out between President Bashar Assad and his influential brother Maher, who has been blamed in some quarters for launching the chemical weapons strike.

“I was told there was a meeting and an argument over the lack of progress in clearing the Damascus suburbs with both sides blaming each other. The story is that Maher stormed out and ordered the attack.”

4.22pm BST

Reuters report that a plane carrying UN weapon inspectors from Syria landed at Rotterdam airport in The Netherlands.
A spokesman for the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said inspectors would return to the body’s headquarters in The Hague. He said the samples the inspectors brought with them would be distributed between various laboratories for testing.
The inspectors left Beirut early on Saturday in an aeroplane provided by the German government.

Updated at 4.32pm BST

4.21pm BST

Sun sets at 19:03 in Damascus, or in 48 minutes.
— The 47th (@THE_47th) August 31, 2013

4.15pm BST

Peter Beaumont has written this for The Observer in which he reflects on the distorting effect of history on so many of the analyses of the Syrian crisis. Why do some cite only Afghanistan and Irag as the precedents for action in Syria rather than Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierre Leone and Rwanda?

The shadow cast by failure or the glow caused by success, distorts public opinion and leads it to react to the previous crisis rather than the current one.

The terrible cost of the first world war saw a rise in interest in pacifism, which by the 1930s saw a significant faction in the Labour party around George Lansbury, who opposed rearmament, and who led the party until being replaced by Clement Atlee in 1935. It was a mood music that fed into Neville Chamberlain’s desire for appeasement. To avoid war. To negotiate a settlement.

Britain’s role in the second world war, and the heroic narrative that took shape around that victory, permitted the UK to ignore its declining international role and to behave with the swagger of an imperial power.

If there is a flip side to this kind of imperial hubris, it is over the long shadow cast by conflicts that either are wrong or come at too high a price in the modern era. Events such as Suez, the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu, the US experience in Vietnam and, later, Somalia, all cast the same long shadow.

4.03pm BST

Paddy Ashdown has written this piece, After the Syria vote, Britain must not sleepwalk into isolationism for The Observer in which he says he is proud of the House of Commons and ashamed of the decision it took.

We have made it more difficult for Barack Obama to act. Maybe even now, he won’t. Then Great Britain, which led in international law and engagement, will lead a retreat from these ideals towards a new mood of growing isolationism.

The bottom line is this. Parliament was asked to join an international coalition led by a US Democrat president, whose aim, a firm response to a flagrant breach of international law, was supported by most European nations and many Middle Eastern ones. And parliament said no.

He fears a new Britain is emerging where the Tory isolationist right and Labour’s pacifist left link up and the result is an isolationist Britain.

Ashdown also lambasts military and political pundits who seemed fearful of the slightest risk.

Inside, the ranks of superannuated generals and admirals followed each other in orderly procession to warn us that action couldn’t mean taking risks. Churchill said if you bring a bunch of generals together, all you get is the sum of their fears. Quite so.

3.24pm BST

#Syria opposition claims of huge car bomb @ Intelligence building in #Damascus known as Palestine not true. Just driven past it. All normal
— Bill Neely (@billneelyitv) August 31, 2013

3.00pm BST

I have seen several reports of a car bomb in Damascus. Not much detail yet.

2.53pm BST

The state owned bakeries in #Damascus are doing a roaring trade as people stock up on bread-many carrying out deep piles of bread.
— Bill Neely (@billneelyitv) August 31, 2013

Another observation from Damascus.

2.51pm BST

Reuters report that Secretary of State John Kerry, Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel, and other senior American national security officials will hold conference calls about Syria on Saturday afternoon with the Senate Democratic Caucus and Senate Republican Conference.
The calls, which will be unclassified, are part of “the Administration’s consultations regarding the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons in Syria on August 21,” an official said.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and President Barack Obama’s National Security Adviser Susan Rice as well as Admiral James Winnefeld, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will also participate.

2.39pm BST

City is quite,minimal traffic,mainly at stores buying last min essentials & some cafe goers here & there.Every1 else at home #Damascus
— \d (@d_sights) August 31, 2013

Latest tweet from Damascus.

2.35pm BST

I would have posted material from Sana, the Syrian news agency, but I can’t access any of their material. Is this the revenge of the New York Times?

2.27pm BST

There is widespread support for a US attack in Israel according to Israel Hayom. Its poll found that 67 per cent of Israeli Jews favour an American attack on Syria and a similar percentage believe Israel will be dragged into the conflict. More than 70 per cent of respondents have a gas mask.

2.17pm BST

In Lebanon, the army have announced that they have arrested two men for supplying rockets that were fired at Israel earlier this month. Four rockets were fired and Israel attacked a Palestinian base in retaliation.

Rocket attacks on Israel happen a few times a year and it is hard to imagine some rockets not being fired at Israel from Lebanon if the US strikes Syria. Reports from Israel suggest they do not expect a major attack but this month’s attack and retaliation demonstrate how easy escalation can be.

1.56pm BST

Judging from the comments below the line, I’m sure all our readers are very well informed about the Syrian crisis but if you are feeling a bit rusty and need a recap, the Washington Post has written this for you.

1.37pm BST

#UN inspection team just departed the region for Europe, plane chartered by @GermanForeignOffice. Samples retrieved in #Syria are on board
— GermanForeignOffice (@GermanyDiplo) August 31, 2013

Just had this from Berlin..

1.07pm BST

UN inspectors have left Syria
There are reports of a sixth US naval vessel arriving in the eastern Mediterranean
Reports from Damascus suggest a mood of defiant calm, price inflation and some movement of forces into safer areas
In Lebanon, an estimated 15,000 foreigners have left as governments warn against non-essential travel
Vladimir Putin has described the accusations against Assad as “complete nonsense”
Syrian officials have said they expect an attack at any minute

12.53pm BST

Meanwhile, AP report that a spokesman for al-Qaida’s Iraqi branch called on Egyptians to fight their army and derided the Muslim Brotherhood as “evil” for seeking power through democracy.

The audio message by Abu Mohammed al-Adnani highlights the movement’s attempt to use Egypt’s July 3 coup, which toppled the country’s first freely elected president, to bolster its claims that armed struggle rather than participation in a politics is the way to establish a hard-line version of Islamic rule.

In the 32-minute audio, al-Adnani derided the Brotherhood, from which ousted President Mohammed Morsi hails, as “a secular party with an Islamic cloak, worshipping power and parliaments, and their jihad is for democracy and not for God’s sake.”

It is “more evil and malevolent than the secularists, and if seizing power necessitates bowing to the Devil, they will bow without hesitation,” he said.

Al-Adnani is official spokesman of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which is battling Baghdad’s Shiite-led government. The audio could not be independently verified but appeared on a website commonly used by militants.

Al-Adnani called on Egyptians, Syrians and Iraqis to “renounce peaceful calls and to carry weapons and join jihad for the sake of God … We advise those in the Egyptian army to repent and to defect.”

He described the militaries of Arab states as “armies of the oppressors,” ”renegades” and “infidels,” especially the Egyptian army “which tries to prevent God’s rule and establish secular rules.”

12.45pm BST

BREAKING: intense clashes have just broken out again in the Yarmouk camp in #Damascus and FSA forces now claiming gains on the ground #Syria
— Alexander Page (@AlexanderPageSY) August 31, 2013

This Syrian tweeter suggests there is heavy fighting near the Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus.

Activists making stress calls to spread news of Assad’s intention to perform strikes on civilian areas in parallel to intervention #Syria
— Alexander Page (@AlexanderPageSY) August 31, 2013

He is also warning that US strikes could be used as a cover for attacks on civilian areas by Assad’s forces.

12.40pm BST

I also liked this decisive intervention on Syria from Howard Jacobson in the Indie. This was brought to my attention by a tweet from Gary Lineker who has been broadening his subject base lately.

12.33pm BST

Forget Kosovo. Main idea behind Syria intervention is to force Assad to Geneva-talks just as 3weeks bombing Serbs in Bosnia’95 let to Dayton
— Harald Doornbos (@HaraldDoornbos) August 30, 2013

This is an interesting theory from Harald Doornbos, a Dutch journalist-based in the Middle East, who thinks we may be about to witness something like a three week bombing campaign to force Assad to negotiate. This is a very different scenario from ‘a slap on the wrist’ and would require far greater mobilisation of US air forces than I think we have witnessed.

12.16pm BST

I have just been advised by Drew that Canada has also warned against non-essential travel to Lebanon.

12.14pm BST

According to AFP, Syria expects a military attack “at any moment”. A Syrian security official said,

“We are expecting an attack at any moment. We are ready to retaliate at any moment.”

As far as I recall, air attacks like these tend to happen late at night.

11.59am BST

In the absence of any obvious activity, there is a lot of speculation as to what form US attacks will take and what does limited mean. Here’s Steven Erlanger of the New York Times.

#Syria. It will be limited, and targeted. But it won’t be small. The US military doesn’t do “small.”
— Steven Erlanger (@StevenErlanger) August 31, 2013

11.50am BST

Reuters have just filed a report on Syrian opposition plans to take advantage any American intervention.

Qassim Saadeddine, a former Syrian army colonel and spokesman for the rebels’ Supreme Military Council spoke to Reuters by Skype.

“The hope is to take advantage when some areas are weakened by any strikes. We ordered some groups to prepare in each province, to ready their fighters for when the strike happens.

“They were sent a military plan that includes preparations to attack some of the targets we expect to be hit in foreign strikes, and some others that we hope to attack at the same time.”

“The United States considers us to be one of the two parties engaged in a civil war, they haven’t spoken to the rebel leadership at large, though they have communicated to the political leaders in the Coalition. There may have been consultations with the head of our council, Salim Idriss, but I cannot confirm this.”

11.46am BST

I have just seen this report from Russia Today about Russian analysis of chemical weapon debris from early July. I’m sure many have seen this already but it does offer a different view of chemical attacks in northern Syria which preceded the Damascus attack although it is far from convincing.

11.38am BST

Here’s the BBC story on Putin’s speech in Vladivostok in which he calls the accusations against Syria nonsense and calls on the US to present its evidence the UN Security Council.

11.19am BST

Russia Today is quoting Vladimir Putin as describing the accusations against Syria as “utter nonsense”. I can see from posts and tweets that he also describes his surprise at Britain’s response but I can’t find the text yet.

11.13am BST

On Newsnight last night, Ed Milliband was invited to spend some time in a Syrian area under government bombardment by a British Syrian doctor.

Dr Rola treated some of the victims of incendiary bombs in Aleppo in the north of Syria.

Dr Rola said: “I’d like him to spend a day in one of the civilian areas under constant shelling, watching the warplanes above us throw all sorts of weapons on to civilians, and fear for the safety of his family.

“Spend just one day and one night in a tent in one of the camps where the homeless now live and drink sewage water, and try his luck with typhoid fever and no medication.”

More here

11.06am BST

The Syrian state media have criticised the evidence of chemical weapons use offered by US Secretary of State John Kerry on Friday night.

An official source at the Foreign and Expatriates Ministry said that after days of media exaggeration about what the US administration described as decisive evidence, US Secretary of State John Kerry only produced material based on old stories which were published by terrorists over a week ago and are full of fabrication and lies.

10.53am BST

A plume of black smoke from a #Damascus suburb,the call to prayer from the muezzin, traffic flowing tho less than usual. A capital awaits.
— Bill Neely (@billneelyitv) August 31, 2013

10.53am BST

Two loud explosions in #Damascus, but it’s the usual shelling from army positions into rebel held areas. Not the expected American barrage.
— Bill Neely (@billneelyitv) August 31, 2013

Bill Neely eloquently sums up the situation in Damasus as if he was introducing a package on the News at Ten.

10.51am BST

Cyprus in a delicate position over #Syria. UK says it won’t attack, U.S. U2 spy planes still using #RAF base here.
— Andrew Potter (@AndrewPotterNZ) August 30, 2013

The position of Cyprus and RAF Akrotiri has become more complicated following the House of Commons vote. Two U2 US reconaissance planes arrived there this week, probably to help survey targets and damage after an attack. Does the House of Commons vote change Britain’s ability to offer every other assistance to the US short of dropping bombs and firing missiles?

If RAF Akrotiri is offering these services to the US Airforce, does it remain a possible target for Syrian retaliation in the event of a US attack.

10.41am BST

Beirut tense at moment, but in that ‘we expect something is going to happen, but until it does, why waste a beach day’ kinda way #syria
— Rania Abouzeid (@Raniaab) August 31, 2013

10.38am BST

Robin Niblett, the director of the Chatham House think tank, describes the House of Common’s actions this week as a serious blow to the special relationship.

When David Cameron argued in September 2006 that the UK should henceforth be ‘a solid but not slavish’ ally to the US, last night’s vote in parliament was not what he had in mind. It was the British Prime Minister who had pressed President Barack Obama to join the military operation in Libya and who forcefully advocated a more muscular approach to Syria than the US President has (initially) appeared to favour. The question was whether the US would follow the UK lead, not vice versa.

Now, the US must question the size and permanence of the gap that appears to have emerged over UK security policy between the British government, its public and, judging by the debate in parliament and media coverage, a large section of the political class and commentariat.

His full article is here

10.30am BST

However the French public don’t share President Hollande’s enthusiasm for war. A poll published by Le Parisien showed 64 percent of respondents opposed military action, 58 percent did not trust Hollande to conduct it, and 35 percent feared it could set the Middle East ablaze.

10.27am BST

In France, the newspapers are not taking pride in the US’s rediscovery of the Franco-American alliance but they are enjoying Britain’s perception of being jilted. This article is in French but the tweets and headlines detailing Britain’s humiliation are in English.

10.17am BST

I see Brown Moses has posted below the line detailing some of the work has been doing in analysing photographs and footage from Damascus. His work is far more detailed than the information offered by Cameron, Kerry and Obama so far.

10.12am BST

Several countries have advised their citizens against traveling to Lebanon, reports Reuters, over concerns that the impact of an attack on Syria will be felt there as well.

Those issuing the advice include Bahrain, Kuwait, Britain and France, while Austria told its citizens to contact its embassy in Lebanon before travelling there.
Bahrain and Kuwait also urged its nationals in the country to leave immediately, their state news agencies reported.
A senior security source in Lebanon said 14,000 people had left the country on Thursday alone, mostly Europeans.

Eight days ago, 42 people were killed when two bombs went off outside a mosque in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli.

10.07am BST

Jeez, Malki now is full of shabeeha bimbos & pumped up scumbags wt ugly attitude #Damascus
— \d (@d_sights) August 31, 2013

This tweeter describes the scene in the Malki area of Damscus where defiant youths are driving round, playing pro-Assad music.

10.03am BST

Sudden price spikes. pack of cigs at 230 yesterday just bought it at 285!!! Small Water bottle at 75 now!! #Damascus
— \d (@d_sights) August 31, 2013

There are around 175 Syrian pounds to the pound sterling.

9.59am BST

Assad Army has made Al-Akram mosque in Mezzeh, Damascus a makeshift barrack. #Syria
— The 47th (@THE_47th) August 31, 2013

9.54am BST

Good morning from #Damascus. Weapons inspectors left before dawn. Syrians (and team BBC) wondering what the weekend will bring.
— Jeremy Bowen (@BowenBBC) August 31, 2013

9.53am BST

There are various tweets from Syria which suggest that there is an expectant calm in Damascus.

9.49am BST

There are also new reports of a sixth US naval ship arriving in the eastern Mediterranean. The USS San Antonio, an amphibious assault vessel, passed through the Suez Canal on Thursday and it joins five missile destroyers in the area. Officials said that the San Antonio, which is carrying several hundred marines, was not meant to take part in an attack on Syria but would remain in the area as a precaution.

9.41am BST

Reuters then reported the UN convoy arriving at 7.14 BST at Beirut airport.

9.39am BST

An Associated Press crew saw UN personnel enter Lebanon from Syria through the Masnaa border crossing and then drive in a 13-car convoy to the Beirut airport in the early hours of the morning.

After four days of on-site inspections, the team wrapped up its investigation Friday into the suspected chemical attack on rebel-held suburbs of Damascus on Aug. 21.
The experts take with them blood and urine samples from victims as well as soil samples from the affected areas for examination in laboratories in Europe. The United Nations has said it will try to expedite its final report, and U.N. disarmament chief Angela Kane is to brief Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon later Saturday on the investigation.

9.36am BST

The UN weapons inspectors traveled through the early morning to get to Lebanon and then to Beirut airport, removing one obstacle to American airstrikes on Syria.
Speculation continues as to what form the airstrikes will take as Syrians prepare for what they see as inevitable bombing attacks.

In Britain, there is continuing fallout over the House of Common’s decision not to back David Cameron or Ed Milliband while France’s role in any attack remains unclear.

The evidence for Assad’s use of chemical weapons in Damascus is still the subject of investigation and speculation.

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