WASHINGTON - Delaying what had appeared to be an imminent strike, President Barack Obama abruptly announced Saturday he will seek congressional approval before launching any military action meant to punish Syria for its alleged use of chemical weapons in an attack that killed hundreds.
With Navy ships in the Mediterranean Sea ready to strike, Obama said he had decided the United States should take military action, but also determined "our country will be better off" if Congress renders its own opinion.
At the same time, he challenged lawmakers to consider "what message will we send to a dictator" if he is allowed to killed hundreds of children with chemical weapons without suffering any retaliation.
Lawmakers will return to session on Sept. 9.
Operational control of any strikes on Syria ordered by President Obama rests with a veteran carrier pilot and an Army general who was awarded a Silver Star for his actions during the invasion of Iraq.
Adm. Bruce W. Clingan, commander of U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa, is overseeing the five Navy destroyers with the U.S. Sixth Fleet off the coast of Syria carrying hundreds of Tomahawk cruise missiles that are expected to be the weapon of choice for a U.S. strike.
From his headquarters in Naples, Italy, Clingan is also choreographing the combat air patrols over the ships to protect against the possibility of a Syrian counter-strike, and coordinating with his counterparts in France. France is the only other nation that has committed to joining in action against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for its alleged use of chemical weapons.
Two French warships left the port of Toulon on Friday, but the French contribution was expected to be limited to standoff SCALP cruise missiles launched from Rafale or Mirage 2000 fighters.
The 58-year-old Clingan, of Lafayette, Ind., started his Navy career flying the A-6 Intruder then flew the F-14 Tomcat with numerous fighter squadrons and commanded naval assets in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.
Syria comes under the area of responsibility for the U.S Central Command, led by Army Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, who took over Centcom from Marine Gen. James Mattis last March. Austin, a West Point graduate, led the forward headquarters of the 3rd Infantry Division in the drive to Baghdad in 2003, and commanded the 10th Mountain Division in Afghanistan.
Most generals carry sidearms but the 60-year-old Austin, of Thomasville, Ga., was known for showing up on the front lines with an M4 carbine and lots of ammunition. He was awarded the Silver Star for gallantry in Iraq in 2003 and later took over from Gen. Ray Odierno as overall commander in Iraq to oversee the withdrawal of U.S. troops.
One of the major concerns for Clingan and Austin in planning an attack was eased Saturday when United Nations inspectors, who had been gathering evidence on the use of chemical weapons, drove out of Syria to Beirut and then took a plane to the Netherlands.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has appealed to the U.S. to wait for the report of the technical teams but the U.S. has foresworn seeking a mandate on the use of force in the UN Security Council, where authorization would face a near-certain veto from Russia and China.
On Friday, Congressional leaders were briefed at the White House on unclassified portions of the "high confidence" assessment from intelligence agencies that Assad's forces had used chemical weapons, including the nerve agent Sarin. The Congressional leaders were to view classified portions of the intelligence at the White House on Sunday.
The assessment cited exact figures on the number killed -- a total of 1,429, including 426 children -- to shore up the credibility of the intelligence on rocket attacks on the eastern suburbs of Damascus in the early morning hours of Aug. 21.
White House officials on background said that Obama was not legally required to get Congressional approval. They cited numerous examples of presidents of both parties ordering military action without notifying Congress, most recently in 2011 in allied strikes on Libya.
However, Obama while campaigning in 2007 argued that military action should be approved by Congress, and that may have been a factor in his deciding to delay along with the U.K. Parliament's voting down that country's participation in spite of Prime Minister David Cameron's willingness to join the U.S. should such a strike occur.
Senators from both sides of the aisle have questioned whether the limited strikes being considered would stop Assad from using chemical weapons again or further the stated U.S. aim of ending the civil war through peace talks in Geneva.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has long called for the U.S. to impose a no-fly zone over Syria to aid rebel forces, and Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the strikes should be coordinated with efforts to arm the rebels.
In a statement Friday, Levin said that "the impact of such a strike would be weakened if it does not have the participation and support of a large number of nations, including Arab nations."
"I also urged the administration to send a powerful message to the Assad regime by immediately getting lethal aid to vetted elements of the Syrian opposition," Levin said. "Doing so can change the balance militarily and also contribute to a political solution in Syria."
In May, the White House pledged to send small arms and ammunition to the opposition forces of the Free Syrian Army, but the rebels have complained repeatedly that no lethal aid from the U.S. has arrived.
Military.com's Richard Sisk contributed to this article.