DAMASCUS, SYRIA — A Syrian state-run newspaper on Sunday called President Obama’s decision to seek congressional approval before taking military action against Bashar Assad’s regime “the start of the historic American retreat.”
The gloating tone in the front-page article in the Al-Thawra daily followed Obama’s unexpected announcement on Saturday that he would ask Congress to support a strike punishing the Assad regime for allegedly unleashing chemical weapons on rebel-held suburbs of Damascus last week. The decision marked a stark turnabout for the White House, which had appeared on the verge of ordering U.S. forces to launch a missile attack against Syria.
“Whether the Congress gives 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,” Al-Thawra said.
The paper, which as a government outlet reflects regime thinking, also claimed that Obama’s reluctance to take military action stems from his “sense of implicit defeat and the disappearance of his allies.” The daily said the American leader worries about limited intervention turning into “an open war has pushed him to seek Congress’ consent.”
Syria’s minister for reconciliation issues, Ali Haidar, echoed that line.
“Obama has given himself a chance to take a step backward by talking about Congress’ approval and to search for other parties to participate in the attack,” Haidar told The Associated Press by telephone. “In other words, he wants to keep brandishing the sword of aggression on Syria without fully giving up the idea of an attack and even without setting a definite date for the aggression.”
Over the past week, the U.S. Navy moved warships into the eastern Mediterranean as the Obama administration considered its options. But with everything in place, Obama opted to take get the backing of Congress before launching military strikes, saying he believes taking that path will make the U.S. “stronger.”
Congress is scheduled to return from a summer break on Sept. 9, and in anticipation of the coming debate, Obama challenged lawmakers to consider “what message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children to death in plain sight and pay no price.”
The White House has sent Congress a draft of a resolution seeking approval for a military response to “deter, disrupt, prevent and degrade” the Assad regime’s ability to use chemical weapons going forward. The Senate will hold hearings next week so a vote can take place after Congress gets back to work.
The president’s strategy carries enormous risks to his and the nation’s credibility, which the administration has argued forcefully is on the line in Syria. Obama long ago said the use of chemical weapons was a “red line” that Assad would not be allowed to cross with impunity.
British Prime Minister David Cameron charted a similar course last week by asking the House of Commons to support military action against Syria, only to suffer a stinging defeat.
Across the Atlantic, Obama’s speech sparked calls for French President Francois Hollande, who supports an armed response against Syria, to seek parliamentary approval before taking military action. Hollande is not constitutionally required to do so. France’s parliament is scheduled to debate the issue Wednesday, but no vote is scheduled.
For some in Syria’s opposition who had put great hope in U.S. strikes, Obama’s decision to postpone proved a source of despair and prolonged the torment of when — and if — Washington will act.
“Obama’s speech yesterday made us feel worthless,” said 29-year-old Damascus resident Nasib, who gave only his first name for fear of reprisals.
“The government here doesn’t care, they’re genuinely not scared, they’re not gloating. So it’s only provocative to us people who sit here scared, not knowing when to expect the strike,” he said. “I had to tape my windows so they wouldn’t break. I know people who prepared sleeping pills to give to their kids the night of the attack so they can sleep and not be scared.”
For others, Obama’s choice was seen as simply business as usual from a country that they say has done nothing to halt the massive trauma and bloodshed gripping Syria.
“We weren’t putting too much hope in the U.S strike,” said Mohammed al-Tayeb, an opposition activist in Eastern Ghouta. “America was never a friend of ours, they’re still an enemy.”
In the buildup to the potential strikes, the opposition and Damascus residents say the Assad regime moved it troops and military equipment out of bases to civilian areas.
The main Western-backed opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, said in a statement Sunday that the army repositioned rocket launchers, artillery and other heavy weapons inside residential neighborhoods in cities nationwide.
Two Damascus residents the AP spoke with confirmed the regime troop movements. One woman said soldiers had moved into a school next to her house and she was terrified.
With U.S. strikes no longer looming, the U.N. probe into the attack has at least a week and a half to analyze samples it took during on-site investigations before the specter of military action comes yet again to the fore.
The head of the U.N. team, Swedish professor Ake Sellstrom, is to brief U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon later Sunday. The group of experts collected biological and environmental samples during their visits to the rebel-held Damascus suburbs that were hit in the Aug. 21 attack.
The inspectors left Syria on Saturday and arrived in The Hague, Netherlands. The samples they collected in Syria are to be repackaged and sent to laboratories around Europe to check them for traces of poison gas. The U.N. says there is no specific timeline for when their analysis will be completed.
There are widely varying death tolls from the suspected toxic gas attack. The aid group Doctors Without Borders says at least 355 people were killed, while the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring groups says it has identified 502 victims by name. A U.S. intelligence assessment says the attack killed 1,429 civilians, including more than 400 children.
In Cairo, Arab League foreign ministers were to hold an emergency session Sunday evening to discuss Syria. Last week, the 22-nation bloc condemned the Aug. 21 attack outside Damascus but said it does not support military action without U.N. consent.
Lucas reported from Beirut. Associated Press writer Yasmine Saker in Beirut contributed to this report.