President Barack Obama, flanked by Vice President Joe Biden, talks about the crisis in Syria to media gathered in the Rose Garden of the White House Saturday, Aug. 31, 2013, in Washington (Photo: AP)
A Syrian state-run newspaper on Sunday called President Barack Obama's decision to seek congressional approval before taking military action against Syria "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 President Bashar Assad's regime for the alleged use of chemical weapons. The decision marked a stark turnabout for the White House, which had appeared on the verge of ordering US forces to launch a missile attack against Syria.
"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," 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."
The US Navy moved warships over the past week into the eastern Mediterranean as the Obama administration considered its options. With everything in place, Obama said Saturday that he had decided the US should take military action and that he believes that he has the authority as commander-in-chief to "carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization."
But he added that he believes the US "will be stronger" if he takes his case to Congress for its nod of approval before taking action.
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.
Britain's 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 choice has sparked calls for French President Francois Hollande, who has backed calls for 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 US strikes, Obama's decision was a source of despair. For others, it 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 US strikes no longer looming, the UN 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 UN team, Swedish professor Ake Sellstrom, is to brief UN 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 UN 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 US 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 UN consent.