BEIRUT/WASHINGTON: Damascus hailed Sunday a “historic American retreat,” mockingly accusing President Barack Obama of hesitation and confusion after he delayed a military strike to consult Congress, while Arab League ministers urged quick action against the regime.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry began laying out the case ahead of the biggest American foreign policy vote since the Iraq war by arguing in a series of TV interviews that new evidence shows the Syrian government used sarin gas in a deadly August attack.
Obama’s decision Saturday to seek congressional authorization for punitive military action against Syria is likely to delay any strike until at least next week.
However, the Arab League at a meeting of its foreign ministers urged the international community to take “deterrent” action against the Syrian regime over the alleged chemical attack.
“The United Nations and the international community are called upon to assume their responsibilities in line with the U.N. Charter and international law by taking the necessary deterrent measures” following the Aug. 21 suspected chemical attack, they said in a statement.
The ministers, meeting in Cairo, said the Syrian regime was responsible for the attack that the United States says killed more than 1,400 people.
During the debate, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal told the meeting that opposing international action on the grounds that it was “foreign intervention” was no longer acceptable.
“Any opposition to any international action would only encourage Damascus to move forward with committing its crimes and using all weapons of mass destruction,” Faisal said.
Echoing Faisal, the head of Syria’s opposition National Coalition urged Arab countries to back U.S.-led strikes.
“I am here before you today to appeal to your brotherly and humanitarian sentiments and ask you to back the international operation against the destructive war machine” of the Syrian regime, Ahmad al-Jarba said.
With Obama drawing back from the brink, President Bashar Assad’s government reacted defiantly to the threat of Western retaliation for the Aug. 21 chemical attack, which it says was staged by the rebels.
Assad said Syria was capable of confronting any external strike, but left the most withering comments to his official media and a junior minister.
“Obama announced yesterday, directly or through implication, the beginning of the historic American retreat,” Syria’s official Al-Thawra newspaper said on its front page.
Syria’s Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad accused Obama of indecision: “It is clear there was a sense of hesitation and disappointment in what was said by President Barack Obama yesterday. And it is also clear there was a sense of confusion as well.”
Before Obama put on the brakes, the path had been cleared for a U.S. assault. Navy ships were in place and awaiting orders, and U.N. inspectors had left Syria after gathering evidence on the use of chemical weapons. Kerry urged U.S. lawmakers to back a strike on Assad’s forces.
“This is squarely now in the hands of Congress,” he told CNN, saying he had confidence “they will do what is right because they understand the stakes.”
However, opinion polls show strong opposition to a punitive strike among Americans weary of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
U.S. lawmakers for the most part welcomed Obama’s decision but have not cut short their summer recess, which ends Sept. 9. Many Democrats and Republicans are uneasy about intervening in a distant civil war in which 110,000 people have been killed, according to activists.
Iran’s Foreign Minister said Congress was not authorized to green-light American military strikes against Syria as any such action would be in violation of international law.
“Mr. Obama cannot interpret and construe international law for his own [benefit],” Mohammad Javad Zarif said Sunday.
“Congress cannot authorize strikes [against Syria] and that attack would be in violation of international law,” he said, explaining that “only the U.N. Security Council – under special conditions – can issue authorization” for the use of force to restore international peace.
Kerry said he had more evidence implicating the Syrian government.
“I can share with you today that blood and hair samples that have come to us through an appropriate chain of custody, from east Damascus, from first responders, it has tested positive for signatures of sarin,” Kerry told CNN’s “State of the Union.”
The U.N. weapons inspectors collected their own samples and diplomats say Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has told the five permanent Security Council members that it would take up to two weeks before the final report is ready.
Ban views Obama’s decision “as one aspect of an effort to achieve a broad-based international consensus on measures in response to any use of chemical weapons,” U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said.
In Damascus, Syrians reacted with a mixture of relief, disappointment and scorn to Obama’s decision.
Bread had returned to the bakeries and members of the state security forces appeared relaxed, drinking tea at their posts outside government buildings.
“We always knew there wouldn’t be a strike. It’s not going to happen. Anyway, we were never nervous about it. We were just worried for the civilians. But we’re confident it’s not going to happen,” one of them said.
The United States had originally been expected to lead a strike relatively quickly, backed up by its NATO allies Britain and France. However, British lawmakers voted Thursday against any involvement and France said Sunday it would await the U.S. Congress’s decision.
“France cannot go it alone,” Interior Minister Manuel Valls told Europe 1 radio. “We need a coalition.”
French President Francois Hollande, whose country ruled Syria for more than two decades until the 1940s, has come under increasing pressure to put the intervention to parliament.
A BVA poll Saturday showed most French people do not approve of military action against Syria and most do not trust Hollande to conduct such an operation.
The threat of hostilities has caused widespread jitters in the region, particularly in Israel where some fear a Western strike may spark retaliatory attacks against the Jewish state.
Israel’s prime minister Sunday tried to soothe concerns, saying that Israel is “calm and self-assured” and ready for “any possible scenario.”
“Israeli citizens must also know that our enemies have very good reasons not to test our strength. They know why.”