BEIRUT — President Obama’s decision to seek congressional approval for a military strike in response to a chemical weapons attack in Syria drew a range of reactions from Syrians on Sunday, with rebel leaders expressing disappointment and government leaders questioning Obama’s leadership.
Syria’s government on Sunday mocked Obama’s decision, saying it was a sign of weakness. A state-run newspaper, Al Thawra, called it “the start of the historic American retreat,” and said Obama hesitated because of a “sense of implicit defeat and the disappearance of his allies,” along with fears that an intervention could become “an open war.”
Syria’s deputy foreign minister, Faisal Mekdad, told reporters in Damascus that “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.”
Many Syrian opposition leaders expressed disappointment about the move, and called on Congress to approve a military strike. The leaders said any intervention should be accompanied by more arms for the rebels.
“Dictatorships like Iran and North Korea are watching closely to see how the free world responds to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people,” the opposition coalition said in a statement issued in Istanbul.
Still, some rebel leaders were angry. A member of Syria’s opposition National Coalition, Samir Nachar, called Obama a “weak president who cannot make the right decision when it comes to such an urgent crisis.”
“We were expecting things to be quicker,” Nachar told reporters, “that a strike would be imminent.”
In the wider Arab world, still deeply divided over President Bashar Assad of Syria and the uprising against him, the concern over his government’s indiscriminate use of force coincided with antipathy about American intervention.
The Al-Azhar University in Cairo, considered Sunni Islam’s highest authority, said Sunday that it opposed a US strike on Syria, calling such intervention “an aggression against the Arab and Islamic nation” that would endanger peace and security in the region.
But the institution said it supported “the right of the Syrian people to decide their destiny and their government for themselves in all freedom and transparency,” and condemned “recourse to chemical weapons, whoever it was that used them.”
The Arab League was scheduled to meet and was expected to condemn Assad; Washington is hoping for at least one Arab ally to join a coalition to strike him and for a stronger statement of support from the body, which expelled Syria earlier in the uprising but has stopped short of backing US action or blaming Assad for any chemical weapons use. For others, Obama’s decision raised questions about whether the United States diminished its leadership role in foreign affairs, with commentators in Israel fearing a weakening of US resolve in confronting hostile powers.