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Regional Leaders Confused By U.S. Delay On Syria Strike

Arab League Secretary General Nabil Al Arabi (L) and Egypt Foreign Affairs minister Nabil Fahmi (C) head a meeting of the Arab League at the body's Cairo headquarters on Sunday.
Gianluigi Guercia
AFP/Getty Images
Arab League Secretary General Nabil Al Arabi (L) and Egypt Foreign Affairs minister Nabil Fahmi (C) head a meeting of the Arab League at the body's Cairo headquarters on Sunday.

Syria's state-run media depict President Obama as weak and indecisive after his decision to wait for a congressional vote on the use of force. Officials in Damascus remain defiant, even as the Arab League blamed the Syrian government for the use of chemical weapons.

Syria's pro-government Al-Thawra newspaper called it a "historic American retreat," and supporters of President Bashar Assad said they were teaching the world a lesson in strong leadership.

Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Makdad told the BBC that President Obama's speech may reflect a more thoughtful approach, but doesn't fundamentally change anything. He said whether America strikes Syria immediately or after a pause, the results would be equally disastrous.

"More hatred for the Americans, more weakening of international institutions," Makdad said. "Terrorism will flourish everywhere — this will undermine the security of Americans, inside and outside their country. Al-Qaida is there — any attack against Syria is support of al-Qaida and its affiliates.

Makdad also reiterated Syria's denial that it was government forces that used chemical weapons in an attack in the Ghouta suburb of the capital where Washington says more than 1,400 people were killed — more than 400 of them children.

"No, absolutely not," he says. "Chemical weapons and agents were used by the armed groups who are supported by the United States, by Turkey, by Saudi Arabia, among others. "

If Syria seemed pleased, the reaction from others in the region ranged from confusion to dismay.

A deflated-sounding Syrian national coalition, the main opposition group, issued a statement from Istanbul calling on Congress to "make the right choice" and support the president's efforts. The group added that the international community's inaction during the past two and a half years "allowed the regime to escalate the conflict to the point where it thought it could use chemical weapons with impunity."

Turkey's prime minister, who thinks President Obama's limited strike wouldn't go far enough, says Turkey will be part of any international coalition. Russia, preparing to host the G-20 summit this week, remains strongly opposed to military action. France says it won't act without a coalition and Britain has refused to join one.

Arab League foreign ministers met in Cairo to discuss Syria, with strong divisions over how to respond. Syria's membership was suspended in 2011.

Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, made perhaps the strongest call for more action against Syria: "Along with the Syrian people, we demand the international community to take all necessary measures to help them, and stop the hooliganism of the murderers. We support them, and we will not be satisfied by just condemning the situation. We demand the full support of the international community to stop the attacks on the Syrian people, before they perish."

Middle East analyst Emile Hokayem, of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, says the limited nature of the proposed U.S. strike and the divisiveness among the Western allies have Arab governments jittery. Wondering, if this is how the West confronts Syria's use of horrific weapons, how will it respond to Iran's nuclear ambitions?

Hokayem says regional disenchantment with U.S. foreign policy has been building for some time, and this latest step back from action will only exacerbate that.

"The U.S. has botched every approach: the decision to arm the rebels, now the strikes, and but also diplomacy. And there is a suspicion today among many Syrians, and many Arabs for that matter, that the U.S. is content with the current stalemate.

Analysts say a diplomatic solution still represents the least bloody answer to the conflict, but is more unlikely than ever in the current climate. Not least because America's top diplomat Secretary of State John Kerry is now seen as one of the leading hawks in favor of replacing the man he called a "thug and a murderer," Bashar Assad.

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Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.