BEIRUT — Syria on Sunday gloated over a “historic American retreat,” deriding President Obama for his decision to delay what had appeared to be imminent military strikes and dealing a further blow to U.S. credibility among the Syrian opposition and its allies, already frustrated at international inaction.
Obama’s announcement Saturday that he would seek congressional approval for any U.S. military intervention in Syria, effectively pushing back any potential strike for at least 10 days, was immediately seized upon by Syrian officials and state media, which presented it as a victory for the regime. The Syrian Opposition Coalition, meanwhile, attempted to build broader regional backing for military strikes and urged Congress to support them.
The decision to delay a U.S. military response to the Syrian government’s alleged use of chemical weapons in an attack that the United States says killed more than 1,400 people comes after what analysts have described as almost 21 / 2 years of flailing U.S. policy on Syria.
Speaking to reporters in Damascus on Sunday, Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faysal Mikdad said Obama’s “hesitation” and “confusion” were obvious in his Saturday announcement.
“Whether the Congress lights the red or green light for an aggression, and whether the prospects of war have been enhanced or faded, President Obama has announced yesterday, by prevaricating or hinting, the start of the historic American retreat,” said the state-run daily newspaper al-Thawra.
President Bashar al-Assad said U.S. threats would not discourage his government from its mission of “combating terrorism” at home, referring to the fight against rebels, according to comments carried on the official Syrian Arab News Agency. Rebels fear that Assad loyalists will use the U.S. delay to escalate attacks on opposition strongholds.
In a telephone interview with Syrian state television, Bashar al-Jaafari, Syria’s ambassador to the United Nations, said Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron — who last week ruled out military action after failing to get parliamentary approval — had “climbed to the top of the tree” but didn’t know how to get down and, so, had deferred the decision to lawmakers.
The Syrian Opposition Coalition said that if the international community fails to respond, it will set a dangerous precedent.
“Dictatorships like Iran and North Korea are watching closely to see how the free world responds to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people,” it said in a statement.
The United States has struggled to garner regional support for military strikes in Syria. At a meeting of the Arab League on Sunday in Cairo, called to discuss the crisis, the Syrian Opposition Coalition’s chief, Ahmad al-Jarba, tried to drum up support for U.S.-led intervention from the 22-member body, which last week held back from offering it.
Saudi Arabia, a staunch supporter of the Syrian opposition, came its closest yet to backing intervention but held back from explicitly endorsing U.S.-led action.
“We call upon the international community with all its powers to stop this aggression against the Syrian people,” Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal told reporters before the meeting in the Egyptian capital. He said Saudi Arabia would accept any action that was supported by the Syrian people. However, underscoring the division in the region, Egypt voiced strong objection to any military intervention in Syria.
In Damascus, bread lines that had stretched for hours as people stockpiled in anticipation of an imminent attack dissipated Sunday.
Tariq al-Dimashqi, a 30-year-old activist from the Eastern Ghouta area of suburban Damascus, hit hardest in the alleged Aug. 21 chemical attack, said he had little faith that there would be a military intervention.
“We are so deeply disappointed,” he said. “This is all just another political game. If they wanted to hit Assad, they would attack immediately, no delay, no warning.”
Meanwhile, Pope Francis on Sunday condemned the use of chemical weapons and announced that he would lead a worldwide day of fasting and prayer for peace in Syria on Sept. 7.