Damascus showed few signs of letting up its anti-Western rhetoric Sunday, responding to news that the Barack Obama would seek Congressional approval for military action by calling the president “confused” and saying Syria could confront the US.
Syrian President Bashar Assad, in a first comment since Obama’s announcement Saturday night, said his country would not shy from its principles and that it can deal with attacks from beyond its borders.
“The American threats of launching an attack against Syria will not discourage Syria away from its principles… or its fight against terrorism supported by some regional and Western countries, first and foremost the United States of America,” state television quoted Assad as saying, Reuters reported on Sunday. “Syria… is capable of confronting any external aggression.”
Assad made the statements during a meeting with Iranian officials. Earlier, Deputy Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad said Obama seemed “confused” in pushing off action on Syria.
“President Obama was clearly hesitant, disappointed and confused when he spoke yesterday,” he said, according to an AFP report.
“A decision to wage war on Syria is a criminal decision and an incorrect decision,” Mekdad told reporters in Damascus. “We are confident that we will be victorious.”
Syrian Minister for National Reconciliation Ali Haidar told Bloomberg news the US drive toward a strike should be seen as a declaration of war and Damascus should carry out preemptive action.
“It’s unacceptable that a Syrian is afraid to leave his home for fear of the US threat, while an American ambassador can wander about as he pleases,” Haidar said. “It’s unacceptable that our leaders have to go into hiding to protect themselves while US interests are proceeding normally.”
Earlier in the day, a Syrian state-run newspaper called US President Barack Obama’s decision to seek congressional approval before taking military action against Syria “the start of the historic American retreat.”
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’s worries about limited intervention turning into “an open war has pushed him to seek Congress’s consent.”
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 September 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 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.
‘The government here doesn’t care, they’re genuinely not scared, they’re not gloating’
Opposition figured reacted negatively to the news that Obama would wait for a Congressional okay, which proved a source of despair and prolonged the torment of when — and if — Washington will act.
“Obama’s speech yesterday made us feel worthless,” said 29-year-old Damascus resident Nasib, who gave only his first name for fear of reprisals.
“The government here doesn’t care, they’re genuinely not scared, they’re not gloating. So it’s only provocative to us people who sit here scared, not knowing when to expect the strike,” he said. “I had to tape my windows so they wouldn’t break. I know people who prepared sleeping pills to give to their kids the night of the attack so they can sleep and not be scared.”
For others, Obama’s choice 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 US 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 confirmed the regime troop movements in interviews with The Associated Press. One woman said soldiers had moved into a school next to her house and she was terrified.
With US and French strikes no longer looming, the UN probe into the attack has more time to analyze samples it took during on-site investigations before the specter of military action returns.
The head of the UN chemical experts’ team, Swedish professor Ake Sellstrom, is to brief Ban later Sunday.
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 August 21 attack outside Damascus but said it does not support military action without UN consent.