By Daniel Arkin and Kristen Welker, NBC News
President Barack Obama said Saturday he will seek authorization from Congress before launching any military action against the Syrian regime for allegedly using chemical weapons in a "crime against conscience" that killed 1,429 people.
"Over the last several days, we have heard from members of Congress who want their voices to be heard," Obama said. "I absolutely agree."
Obama, who described the alleged attack is "an assault on human dignity," said any military involvement would be of "limited duration and scope."
"This would not be an open-ended intervention," he said. "We would not put boots on the ground."
Before revealing he would seek approval from Congress, the President made clear that "we are prepared to strike whenever we choose."
The window for a potential U.S. attack on Syria opened as United Nations inspectors departed the anxious country ahead of schedule Saturday, less than a day after Secretary of State John Kerry delivered a forceful speech arguing America had a moral obligation to punish Assad's regime.
The possibility of U.S. strikes in the hours or days ahead cast a shadow over Damascus. As the army continued its shelling of rebel enclaves throughout the region, citizens fretted about the skyrocketing price — or sudden absence — of food, gasoline, and medical supplies.
Activists in the Syrian capital told NBC News that people in some Damascus neighborhoods waited seven hours on bread lines, and scooped up other essential items like rice, tea, and sugar in preparation for a strike. Some people who live in close proximity to possible targets like military installations and barracks have moved, the activists said.
Kerry on Friday made an impassioned case for U.S. military action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Kerry argued that America has a moral obligation to punish Syria for allegedly using chemical weapons.
"History would judge us extraordinarily if we turned a blind eye to a dictator's wanton use of weapons of mass destruction against all warnings, against all common understanding of decency," Kerry said, after referring to Assad as a "thug and a murderer."
Kerry later said: "The world's most heinous weapons must never again be used against the world's most vulnerable people."
The White House released an intelligence report as Kerry spoke on Friday (.pdf) claiming “high confidence” that the Syrian regime had deployed chemical weapons. The report cited a “large body of independent sources” but acknowledged that not all the evidence of the alleged attack could be declassified. The information released by the government said the attack, carried out last week in the suburbs of Damascus, killed some 1,429 Syrians, including at least 426 children.
"Instead of being tucked safely in their beds at home," Kerry said, "we saw rows of children lying side by side, sprawled on a hospital floor, all of them dead from Assad's gas and surrounded by parents and grandparents who had suffered the same fate."
The Obama administration faces fierce opposition from many members of the U.S. Senate and wide swaths of the American public reluctant to become entangled in a Middle Eastern conflict just a decade after the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Prior to Kerry's remarks, an NBC News poll showed that nearly 80 percent of Americans believed Obama should get a stamp of congressional approval before using force in Syria. Fifty percent of Americans believe the U.S. should not intervene altogether, according to the poll.
Diplomatic and political tensions heightened early Saturday as it became clearer that the U.S. may be prepared to bring the confrontation to a climax and strike Syria unilaterally, despite a chorus of opposition from global partners and domestic constituents.