Middle East

Syria crisis: Obama delay could 'embolden' Assad

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Media captionMr Obama said the US could not turn a blind eye to the use of chemical weapons

US President Barack Obama's decision to delay possible military action in Syria while it is debated by Congress could "embolden" the forces of President Assad, an opposition group says.

Syrian National Coalition spokesman Louay Safi called the decision a "failure of leadership" by the US.

Government forces resumed shelling of opposition-held parts of Damascus as Mr Obama finished speaking on Saturday.

Syria denies US charges that its army used chemical weapons in August.

The US says 1,429 people were killed in chemical attacks by the Syrian army on 21 August.

The US president had said that such attacks would be a "red line", prompting US intervention in Syria.

On Saturday, Mr Obama said any action would be limited, ruling out a ground invasion, but he has sent the US Congress draft legislation seeking approval for the use of force as he "determines to be necessary and appropriate" to prevent the Syrian government from carrying out chemical weapons attacks.

Congress is due to reconvene on 9 September, meaning any military operation would not happen until then.

On Sunday, deputy Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad told the BBC that Mr Obama's decision would not change anything for Syria and called it a play on words intended to buy time.

And the chairman of the Syrian parliament's national security committee Ibrahim Mahmoud told the BBC that "our allies have offered their full assistance but we need no one to fight our battles".

The BBC's Jeremy Bowen in the Syrian capital, Damascus, says there is some relief in the city among those who feared that US attacks could start this weekend.

He says the delay could give the government time to move some sensitive military equipment.

The shelling of opposition-held areas of the city late on Saturday was a possible act of defiance by the army, our correspondent adds.

Mr Safi, spokesman for the main opposition grouping, said he was disappointed with Mr Obama's announcement.

"Our fear now is that the lack of action could embolden the regime and they repeat his attacks in a more serious way," he told CNN.

There has been no official statement since Mr Obama's announcement but CBS quotes Deputy Prime Minister Qadri Jamil as saying: "If the US has postponed its decision, or retreated... this invites ridicule from all sides."

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Media captionThe BBC's Jeremy Bowen, in Damascus: A week from now Syrians will be back to wondering whether the US is very close to striking

In other developments:

  • Foreign ministers from the Arab League are to discuss Syria at a meeting in Cairo, amid deep splits on the issue
  • France says it will not launch any strike of its own before the vote in the US Congress
  • UN inspectors who have been investigating the attacks have arrived in the Netherlands with samples from site visits. They say the testing could take up to three weeks

'Critical debate'

In a statement at the White House on Saturday, President Obama said he felt it was important to have a debate about intervention in Syria.

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Media captionThe UN wants swift laboratory analysis of samples obtained in Damascus

"I've long believed that our power is rooted not just in our military might, but in our example as a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

"And that's why... I will seek authorisation for the use of force from the American people's representatives in Congress," he said.

Later on Saturday, Mr Obama sent a "draft legislation" to the two Congress leaders - the speaker of the House of Representatives and the president of the Senate.

The legislation says the objective of a US military response would be to "deter, disrupt, prevent and degrade'' the Syrian government's ability to use chemical weapons.

Senior White House officials told the BBC that Mr Obama's decision to seek congressional approval was made by the president on Friday afternoon. It had not been planned until then.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, said the vote on the proposal would take place no later than the week of 9 September.

The BBC's Katy Watson in Washington says it is unclear is what action he would take if Congress votes against involvement.

'Utter nonsense'

The president's decision to turn to Congress was seen as a direct reaction to the UK government's defeat in Parliament on supporting any military action in Syria if it were backed by evidence from UN inspectors.

After the White House announcement, UK Prime Minister David Cameron tweeted: "I understand and support Barack Obama's position".

Mr Obama did not speak to Mr Cameron before his statement but did call President Hollande, the White House said.

France has also backed military action, and its parliament is due to reconvene on Wednesday for a debate.

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Media caption BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner examines what is known about the 21 August attack

Opposition members have urged President Francois Hollande to seek a formal vote before joining Washington in any military operation, but correspondents say this is unlikely.

Also on Saturday, Russian President Vladimir Putin challenged the US to present to the UN evidence that Syria had attacked rebels with chemical weapons.

Russia - a key ally of Syria - has previously warned that "unilateral military action bypassing the UN Security Council" would be a "direct violation of international law".

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has said his country will defend itself against any Western "aggression".

Forces which could be used against Syria:

Four US destroyers - USS Gravely, USS Ramage, USS Barry and USS Mahan - are in the eastern Mediterranean, equipped with cruise missiles. The missiles can also be fired from submarines, but the US Navy does not reveal their locations

Airbases at Incirlik and Izmir in Turkey, and in Jordan, could be used to carry out strikes

Two aircraft carriers - USS Nimitz and USS Harry S Truman are in the wider region

French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle is currently in Toulon in the western Mediterranean

French Rafale and Mirage aircraft can also operate from Al-Dhahra airbase in the UAE