BEIRUT/WASHINGTON, (Reuters) – Syria hailed a “historic American retreat” yesterday, mockingly accusing President Barack Obama of hesitation and confusion after he delayed a military response to last month’s chemical weapons attack near Damascus until after a congressional vote.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said tests had shown sarin nerve gas was fired on rebel-held areas on Aug. 21, and expressed confidence that U.S. lawmakers would do “what is right” in response.
Washington says more than 1,400 people, many of them children, were killed in the attack.
It was the deadliest incident of the Syrian civil war and the world’s worst use of chemical arms since Iraq’s Saddam Hussein gassed thousands of Kurds in 1988. But opinion polls have shown strong opposition to a punitive strike among Americans weary of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Obama’s announcement on Saturday that he would seek congressional authorisation for punitive military action against Syria is likely to delay any strike for at least nine days.
His administration launched a political offensive on Sunday to win over a sceptical Congress, but faced tough questions from lawmakers in both parties.
The United Nations said Obama’s announcement could be seen as part of an effort to forge a global consensus on responding to the use of chemical arms anywhere.
“The use of chemical weapons will not be accepted under any circumstances,” U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said. “There should be no impunity and any perpetrators of such a horrific crime against humanity must be held accountable.”
The final resolution of a meeting of Arab League meeting foreign ministers meeting in Cairo urged the United Nations and international community to “take the deterrent and necessary measures against the culprits of this crime that the Syrian regime bears responsibility for”.
The ministers also said those responsible for the attack should face trial, as other “war criminals” have.
The Syrian government says the attack was staged by the rebels. With Obama drawing back from the brink, President Bashar al-Assad reacted defiantly to the threat of Western retaliation, saying Syria was capable of confronting any external strike.
He left his 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 in a front-page editorial.
Syrian 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,” he told reporters in Damascus.
Before Obama put on the brakes, the path had been cleared for a U.S. assault. Warships were in place and awaiting orders to launch missiles, and U.N. inspectors had left Syria after gathering evidence on the use of chemical weapons.
U.S military officials are using the delay to reassess which ships will be used for a strike, and which sites in Syria to target. One change was a decision to send the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier and its entire strike group toward the Red Sea to help support a Syria strike, if needed.
Kerry invoked the crimes of Adolf Hitler, Saddam and the potential threat to Israel from Syria and Iran in urging 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.”
It became apparent on Sunday that convincing Congress of atrocities committed by Assad’s forces was only one of the challenges confronting Obama.
Lawmakers raised a broad array of concerns, including the potential effectiveness of limited strikes, the possible unintended consequence of sparking a wider Middle East conflict, the wisdom of acting without broader international backing to share the burden and the war weariness of the American public.
Many Democrats and Republicans are uneasy about intervening in a distant civil war in which 100,000 people have been killed over the past 2 1/2 years, and lawmakers have not cut short their summer recess, which ends Sept. 9.
Members of Congress were briefed by Obama’s national security team on the case for military action. When they emerged after nearly three hours, many members from both parties questioned the broad nature of the measure Obama is seeking, suggesting it needed to be narrowed.
“The president said this is going to be limited. Yet that’s an open-ended authorization to just about do anything he wants,” said Senator Tom Harkin from Obama’s Democratic Party.
The White House is due to talk with House Democrats by telephone on Monday, and Obama will meet with the heads of several key House and Senate committees in person on Tuesday.
Kerry said he had more evidence backing accusations against Damascus.
“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,” he told CNN.