x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Obama seeks congressional vote for strike on Syria

The US president says a limited strike is the correct response to a chemical weapons attack, but he is prepared to delay it until politicians had debate the issue.

Syrian refugees pass through the Turkish Cilvegozu gate border on Saturday. Gregorio Borgia / AP Photo
Syrian refugees pass through the Turkish Cilvegozu gate border on Saturday. Gregorio Borgia / AP Photo

WASHINGTON // Barack Obama last night promised a vote by the US Congress before ordering a missile strike against the Assad regime.

The US president said he had decided a limited strike was the correct response to a chemical weapons attack last week in the Damascus suburbs, but he was prepared to delay it until politicians had debated the issue. Congress is not due to meet until September 9.

"Over the past several days we have heard from members of Congress who want their voices to be heard and I absolutely agree," Mr Obama said. "Our military has positioned assets in the region. We are prepared to strike whenever we choose."

But the president said military chiefs had advised him that any strike would be equally effective "tomorrow, next week, or next month".

His speech eased tension in Damascus, where Syrians who had not already fled had been waiting with trepidation. UN weapons inspectors left the city, removing an obstacle to military action.

"We all know what is going to happen, now there is nothing for us to do except sit and wait," said one resident who lives near regime military installations on the southern rim of the city.

Regime forces appear to have been moving out of their normal bases and into civilian facilities.

"Soldiers and concrete blast barriers have been put around the Bahjat Al Betar school in Midan, and people there are saying state security have taken over the building," said a resident of southern Damascus.

The school is a few hundred metres from the state security department's offices.

A defiant Syrian prime minister Wael Al Halqi said the regime was ready to defend itself against an attack. "The Syrian army is fully ready, its finger on the trigger to face any challenge or scenario that they want to carry out," he said.

Vladimir Putin, the Russian prime minister, dismissed US intelligence claims of chemical weapons use by the regime as "utter nonsense" and demanded the US provide any proof it has to the UN Security council.

"If there is evidence, it must be presented. If they don't show it, that means there is none," Mr Putin said.

Syria's state run news agency, Sana, said the communications between senior regime officials referring to chemical weapons, which the US claims to have intercepted, never took place.

In a report published on Friday, US intelligence concluded forces loyal to Bashar Al Assad had used chemical weapons to kill 1,429 people, including 426 children, in eastern and southwestern suburbs of Damascus.

A Turkish government assessment said the attacks on August 21 involved 15 to 20 rockets loaded with chemical warheads, fired by the 155th Missile Brigade in Qutayfa and the 4th Armoured Division in Qassioun mountain.The Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said any military action by the US should be aimed at toppling Mr Al Assad, not merely punishing him for using chemical munitions.

tkhan@thenational.ae

psands@thenational.ae * Phil Sands reported from Istanbul. Additional reporting by the Associated Press