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