In Syria, Relief and Anger as Obama Delays Strike

As Obama backs down from an immediate attack against Syria, the country's civilians grow suspicious that the U.S. isn't committed to stopping President Bashar Assad's regime

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Mohamed Abdullah / REUTERS

A Free Syrian Army fighter watches U.S. President Barack Obama's speech with his family in Ghouta, Damascus Aug. 31, 2013.

As U.S. President Barack Obama made his case for strikes on Syria in retaliation for the “certain” use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime against its own people last week, only to follow with the announcement that he would seek Congressional approval before launching a strike, Syrians simultaneously breathed a sigh of relief and gasped with incredulity. Civilians may have been spared the mayhem of yet another missile barrage in a country that has been at war for more than two years, but to see the U.S. suddenly standing back after much impassioned rhetoric about punishing the regime of President Bashar Assad dismayed opponents of the government.

As Obama concluded his address, around 9 p.m. local time, shelling on the rebel-controlled suburbs around Damascus surged according to activists reached by Skype and telephone. To many it was a signal of defiance by the regime, and proof that the sense of impunity that Obama in his speech warned would grow if the U.S. took no action against Assad was already a reality on the ground in Syria. “We don’t understand what more than the use of chemical weapons against innocent people the world needs to topple this dictator,” says Abu Hasan, a logistics coordinator for the rebel group the Free Syrian Army, speaking by Skype from Damascus after the speech. “History will remember how the whole world stood aside while a nation was being slaughtered.”

(MORE: Obama Asks Congress to Approve Military Strike)

For Captain Islam Alloush, spokesman for the Liwaa al-Islam Brigade, a powerful Islamist rebel group fighting in and around Damascus, the continued delay only proves suspicions that the United States is not really committed to stopping the regime. “If you want to intervene, you do it right away. You don’t give the regime time to move its troops and weapons out of their bases,” he tells TIME, speaking via Skype. Over the past two days, he says, he watched entire Syrian army brigades evacuate potential target areas. Intelligence and security agencies relocated to the Russian Cultural Center, he says, seeking the protection of civilian shields.  Soldiers, he says, “are hiding in Damascus University and its dorms and using the basements to secure their weapons.” Another Damascus resident who was active on Twitter, @NYkerinDamascus, referenced the Syrian regime’s alleged use of civilian cover in a tweet after the speech: “Does this mean #Syria soldiers will now move out of schools next to my house? They’ve been there awaiting the cruise missile.”

The speech, which was broadcast on state TV with translation, elicited a flurry of incredulous Twitter commentary from social media activists. “What’s a week after 2.5 years?” asked opposition activist Rafif Jouejati (@RafifJ) in a sarcastic tweet referencing an expected delay while Congress comes to its decision.  “It’s another 10,000 lives,” he answered.

The news broke just as the Sabbath ended in Israel, where it was taken with much greater equanimity. On Channel 2, the most popular private station, analysts discussed the Obama’s decision mostly from a Washington prism — “He’s buying time,” said one — then pivoted to the highlight of the evening: The season finale of HaMerotz LaMillion (“The Race to the Million”), the Israeli version of the American reality show The Amazing Race.

(MORE: Unwilling to Act Alone, Obama Pulls Back from the Brink of War)

Elsewhere in the region Obama’s reluctance to act without Congressional approval was yet another sign of how toxic the Syrian war has become. While the Arab League condemned the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons, they declined to back a U.S. strike. Everyone, it seems, thinks that Syria should be someone else’s problem. Israelis largely support an American strike, polls show, but are keen to avoid having their own forces drawn into the conflict. The Israeli media over the weekend carried warnings from officials in Iran and Syria that a U.S. strike would bring the war to Israel, and long lines formed to pick up gas masks. Israeli officials, however, have only called up 1,000 reservists to active duty, saying that the chances of a Syrian attack against Israel as retaliation for an American strike is remote.

In Damascus, many of those caught in the middle shrugged off the news of the American delay. “[It] will not make a big difference for us, we are already in a state of war,” said Mazen al Khatib, a doctor, speaking by phone. “Half of the city is blocked, checkpoints are already there, the sound of explosions are part of our daily life. Things will not go worst than that.”

With reporting by Karl Vick / Tel Aviv and Rami Aysha / Beirut
MORE: Walter Russell Mead: On Syria, Be Clear, Then Hit Hard

114 comments
mcfnord
mcfnord

@phemale61 Stalemate war goes on killing. "History will remember how the whole world stood aside while a nation was being slaughtered."

KennethWilson
KennethWilson

Time magazine says NOTHING about why Obama issued his "red Lines" in the first place. It was during the fall of 2012 and Mitt Romney was gaining in the polls. Thjis was entirely CAMPAIGN RHETORIC what Obama had no intention on actually having to make good on it...

And now, Obama is "Alone" (as Time puts it), out of his OWN CHOOSING.

Newt Gingrich said on "Face the Nation" that Obama could have started his attack FIRST, and THEN asked for  Congress approval...And again Newt said that Obama's plan of a "limited response" accomoplishes NOTHING. Obama should be looking to depose Assad. And even better, he should be lookin to stop IRAN.

eetom
eetom

In any bar, the sucker who is generous and has a deep pocket is greatly welcome.  Many hope that America will not fail to play such a role in the Syrian crisis.

princesstoshi
princesstoshi

@TIME Once again to the US rides to the rescue...admirable as always. Wish we were as quick and decisive about fixing our own problems.

dbarler
dbarler

I have read a lot of the posts here and mostly what I see is fear, Obama bashing, and non-sense.  I get that the Bush Administration has shaken the faith people have in the US but that was Bush.  It's time to take a breath and stop asking what the US thinks, what the British think, what Israel thinks.. What about what the Syrian people think?  They are asking for help.  Their representative in the UN is all but being ignored.  They have medically treated these victims for chemical exposure.  Their first responders are dying.  WHO released a document to support the UN and WHO staff on the ground in Syria.  That document tells them how to recognize, treat, and deal with chemical attacks.  The people on the ground in Syria have no question as to what happened or what they are dealing with but idiots like Ron Paul are filling peoples heads with nonsense.  STOP use your brains listen and look for information coming from those on the ground in Syria.  The rest is political nonsense designed to make you question the Obama administration, or Congress, or whoever.  YOU CANNOT TRUST THE MEDIA.  Listen to the people of Syria and the first responders.  The US has to make a decision based on right and wrong or are we so far gone that we no longer know what that is?

vrome
vrome

Let's see. By attacking and weakening Assad, we are helping the Al Qaeda terrorists that oppose him.  If we support the government of Assad, we are inadvertently assisting Hezbollah.  Al Qaeda has actually attacked the US on US soil.  Hezbollah is focused on the destruction of Israel.  So, which country benefits by the US attacking Syria?

basim_paul
basim_paul

@TIME In fact it is not#syrians ,they are opponents (most terrorists groups favored the strike)!!!.

ArmChairPundit1
ArmChairPundit1

@TIME R American Dream became a nightmare by meddling in other nation's affairs: A $17 Trillion debt & Lost Our Privacy & Economy

SherinSays
SherinSays

@TIME why on earth does US intrfere in everyone else's business...its like my nosey neighbor who keep poking their noses in my business x(

Reds20ManUtd
Reds20ManUtd

@TIME Abu Hasan "History will remember how the whole world stood aside while a nation was being slaughtered." he's right, and it's tragic

PeterApplTaylor
PeterApplTaylor

@TIME Obama is more concerned with how he will be judged by history rather than acting decisively in the face of Syrian genocide.

polfilmblog
polfilmblog

The news TIME won't cover:


UN Human Rights Inspector, Carla del Ponte: opposition rebels are using Sarin nerve gas
http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=CpYmUZTTtXM

12 Al Nusra / Saudi backed terrorists arrested in Turkey with Sarin nerve gas
http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=f89cchJrCeM

EXCLUSIVE: Syrians In Ghouta Claim Saudi-Supplied Rebels Behind Chemical Attack
http://www.mintpressnews.com/witnesses-of-gas-attack-say-saudis-supplied-rebels-with-chemical-weapons/168135/

United States / NATO support for these genocidal Jihadi terrorists is the number one cause of the Syrian bloodbath. Obama and Kerry are the main war criminals giving political cover to the despotic tyranny of Saudi Arabia as they supply these Wahabbi maniacs with weapons and money to destroy Syria. If you REALLY want to stop it, impeach them. 

small_axe
small_axe

The damage done to the free world by the Bush regime rolls on. The treason committed by lying our way into an illegal war has poisoned public confidence here and in the UK.

Now, in the face of horrific gas attacks, we stand hesitant due to our populations' lack of faith.
If the USA ever had an obligation to use it's force for good, this is it.
This will only be the start of a historic retreat if the people and the congress turn moral tail and run.
It shouldn't be difficult to see the distinction. Bush=Traitor and murderer; Obama=Democratic leader.
Bush lied us into a war we had no business fighting at great loss of national blood, treasure, prestige and standing in the world.
Obama is doing quite the opposite. Giving the people the facts, giving the people their rightful say.
It is up to us to not be moral cowards, to draw the distinction between the traitor we had for a president before, and the leader we have for president now.
To put the two side by side and fail to see the difference is to be willfully indifferent, or irretrievably ignorant.

phemale61
phemale61

@mcfnord and what about all the other wars going on in the world. Should we help everyone? Did you comment on Egypt/Libya yet? I didn't see.

vrome
vrome

@Reds20ManUtd @TIME If Egypt is any indication of what's to come, one brutal dictator will be replaced by another brutal dictator, who will be replaced by another brutal dictator.  So why get involved?  

harry.kahns
harry.kahns

@PeterApplTaylor @TIME Obama should also decisively act against the genocide in Palestine which is going on for decades.

mcfnord
mcfnord

@phemale61 Why do you bring them up? Yes I have been active since Egypt, though all of Libya, since the murder of Mo Nabbous.

mcfnord
mcfnord

@phemale61 @MusicWorm451 Who positioned u? You want to give pause. Pause has consequences. Own them. What does "follow both sides" mean?

mcfnord
mcfnord

@phemale61 Asma will be in a partitioned Syria or dead. Christians will also be slaughtered by ISIS. Because the west did nothing.

phemale61
phemale61

@mcfnord @MusicWorm451 I give Kerry/Hagle more credit than you! Armchair generals a dime a dozen! People need help worldwide - help all?

phemale61
phemale61

@MusicWorm451 @mcfnord I am NOT a defender of Assad. I do not like your positioning me in a EITHER/OR situation. I follow both sides.

phemale61
phemale61

@mcfnord His wife Asma prepared to wear burka? I don't think so. Assad just not tolerate opposition. Christians lived in peace until now.

mcfnord
mcfnord

@phemale61 But 2 ur point: Inaction by the west is paving the way for a bleak theocracy in Syria. Assad kills moderates. Not time to pause.

mcfnord
mcfnord

@phemale61 Despots fall hard, but as long as they reign, so does viciousness and violence, as much as necessary to hold power.

mcfnord
mcfnord

@phemale61 You thought it would be clear in less than two year's time? How long did the United States take from liberation to stability?

phemale61
phemale61

@mcfnord We thought Libya/Egypt would be run by moderates like Turkey; not end up theocracies hostile to us. Don't you think? Giving pause.

phemale61
phemale61

@mcfnord We thought Libya/Egypt would be run by moderates like Turkey; not end up governed by theocracies hostile to us. Don't you think?

phemale61
phemale61

@mcfnord I think we thought Libya/Egypt would be run by moderates like Turkey; not end up governed by theocracies hostile to us; gives pause

phemale61
phemale61

@mcfnord only mention because many who supported those interventions regret it now. Chaos/so many more killed - unsure which is worse.