Syria Strike Threat Delayed as UN Inspectors Weigh Chemical Weapons Evidence

Chemical weapons experts have left Syria and crossed into neighboring Lebanon.

August 31, 2013, 5:37 AM

JERUSALEM, Aug. 31, 2013 — -- The sword of Damocles will dangle over Damascus a while longer, after President Obama announced today that he would seek Congressional approval before launching a military strike on Syria. Hours before, U.N. inspectors left Syria but no timeline was given for when they might release results of their investigation into allegations that the Assad regime used chemical weapons on its own people.

The U.S. and its allies have been debating military action against Syria in response to the alleged use of chemical weapons that killed nearly 1,500 people, by the U.S.'s count, in a Damascus suburb last week.

"After careful deliberation, I've decided that the Unites States should take military action against Syrian regime targets," Obama said in the Rose Garden.

Syria Prepares for Possible Airstrikes: See the Photos

The president said he hopes Congress will debate and vote on a U.S. strike when they return from their summer recess on Sept. 9. He did not put a timetable on the possible attack, adding that military action will be "effective tomorrow or next week or one month from now."

"This would not be an open-ended intervention, we'd not put boots on the ground," he said. "Instead our action would be designed to be limited in duration and scope. But I'm confident we can hold the Assad regime accountable for their use of chemical weapons, deter this kind of behavior and degrade their capacity to carry it out."

A U.N. team of chemical weapons inspectors sent to investigate the sites of last week's attack left Syria this morning, which had fueled speculation that a possible U.S. strike on Syria could have come as early as Saturday night.

The Map of Alleged Chemical Attacks in Syria

But today, Obama made clear that he will wait for congressional approval before taking any action.

The U.N. team touched down in The Hague today and the U.N.'s top disarmament official, Angela Kane briefed U.N. Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon on the investigation.

In a briefing at the U.N.'s New York headquarters, a spokesman for the Secretary-General would not give a timeline for the results, but said Ban had requested the lab testing be expedited. The spokesman said the U.N. team will spend the weekend collating samples and other evidence before testing it in European laboratories.

At this time, the U.N. team plans to stick with its original mandate and will not determine accountability for the attacks, the spokesman added that such a mandate would need to be approved by the U.N. Security Council.

U.S. Ready to Act Alone

More than a week after the alleged chemical attack, the U.S. is clearly ready to move ahead without the approval of the UNSC and without broad international support.

On Friday, Secretary of State John Kerry made an impassioned case for punishing Syria, stating that a chemical attack by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad killed 1,429 people, including 426 children.

Read the Obama Administration's Unclassified Intelligence Report on Syria

"Instead of being tucked safely in their beds," there were "rows and rows" of dead children, Kerry said, speaking at press conference in Washington.

"If we choose to live in a world where a thug and a murderer like Bashar al-Assad can gas thousands of his own people with impunity, even after the United States and our allies said no, and then the world does nothing about it, there will be no end to the test of our resolve and the dangers that will flow from those others who believe that they can do as they will," Kerry said.

In yet another sign that military action may be imminent, Kerry made phone calls on Friday to his counterparts in Europe and the Persian Gulf, as well as the head of the Arab League.

Russian President Vladimir Putin today rejected the American evidence that Syrian forces used chemical weapons, calling the suggestion "utter nonsense."

"While the Syrian army is on the offensive, saying that it is the Syrian government that used chemical weapons is utter nonsense," Putin told journalists in Vladivostok, according to Russia's Interfax news agency.

He urged the United States to present its evidence to the U.N. Security Council and cautioned Obama about the consequences of getting involved.

"I would like to address Obama as a Nobel Peace Prize laureate: before using force in Syria, it would be good to think about future casualties," he said.

Syria and Its Neighbors Brace for Possible Strike

Obama's speech was broadcast live on Syrian state TV today, and Syrians are bracing for an imminent attack. In many parts of Damascus, normal life has largely continued amid the constant din of shelling in the suburbs, but the prospect of a U.S. military strike has ushered in a widespread sense of unease.

"We are not afraid of death any more, we are awaiting it," Amal, a Damascus resident told the BBC. "We just need an end to all of this."

Read: Everything You Need to Know About the Syrian Civil War

Journalists on the ground in the capital report the city is tense but not panicked; cafes and shops are still open and many Damascus residents are stocking up on staples.

Syrian Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi said today that "the Syrian army is fully ready, its finger on the trigger to face any challenge or scenario that they want to carry out."

Citing Syrian security sources, Al Mayadeen, the Lebanese TV station affiliated with the Shi'ite militant group Hezbollah and with close ties to the Assad regime, reported that the Syrian government was expecting an attack at any moment.

As the government awaits a U.S. strike, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and its affiliates are standing by for the regime to lash out following a strike.Members of the opposition who spoke with ABC News largely believe a U.S. strike would be wider-ranging than the Obama administration has described.

The nature of the U.S. strike will determine the Syrian government's reaction and the opposition's next move.

Read: 5 Possible Repercussions of a U.S. Military Strike on Syria

According to opposition sources, FSA commanders in northern Syria have told their fighters that the regime will immediately start attacking rebel-controlled positions.

The same commanders also advise the chaos will provide a good opportunity to cut off supply lines, target supply lines and capture supplies.

But regardless of the regime's response, both the FSA and the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) across the southern border expect Hezbollah to respond in some form.

The FSA is ready to defend against an onslaught of militants on the ground, and the IDF has reinforced its missile defenses in the north.

On Friday, the IDF deployed an Iron Dome battery in the Tel Aviv area facing north. Iron Dome batteries were also deployed in Haifa, Ashkelon, and Eilat and additional batteries are ready to be moved as needed, according to Israeli media. Last week, Israel ordered a limited call-up of reserve troops.

But even as the IDF takes precautionary steps and nervous Israelis wait in long lines for free gas masks, there is no widespread panic in Israel.

The newspaper Israel Hayom released a poll this week that found two-thirds of Israeli Jews are in favor of a military intervention in Syria, but most also expected a retaliation against Israel.

Seeking to reassure Israelis, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, "There is no reason to change daily routines."

"We are prepared for any scenario," he said.

ABC News' Dana Hughes reported from Washington, Alex Marquardt and Nasser Atta contributed reporting from Beirut, Ben Waldron reported from UN Headquarters and Kirit Radia reported from Moscow.

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