The Syrian regime hailed an "historic American retreat" Sunday, mockingly accusing President Barack Obama of hesitation and confusion after he delayed a military strike to consult Congress.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said tests showed Damascus had used deadly sarin gas in a chemical weapons attack near Damascus on Aug. 21, and expressed confidence that Congress would do "what is right" in deciding on a response.
"In the last 24 hours, we have learned through samples that were provided to the United States that have now been tested from first responders in east Damascus and hair samples and blood samples have tested positive for signatures of sarin," Kerry said on NBC's Meet The Press. "So this case is building and this case will build." (See video here.)
"Bashar Assad now joins the list of Adolf Hitler and Saddam Hussein [who] have used these weapons in time of war," he said.
With Obama drawing back from the brink on Saturday, France said it could not act alone in punishing Assad for the Aug. 21 attack, making it the last remaining top Western ally to hesitate about bombing Syria.
"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 reported by Reuters.
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.
Meanwhile, another Cabinet minister called Sunday for a pre-emptive response against the U.S. after Obama asked Congress to approve an attack on Syria.
Obama’s statement Saturday amounts to a declaration of war and Syrians have the right to respond preemptively against U.S. interests with all means available, Ali Haidar, whose title is minister for national reconciliation, said in a phone interview with Bloomberg News.
Obama asked Congress to authorize a military strike for what the U.S. says is the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons in an attack that killed more than 1,400 people. Syria denies the allegations and says rebels linked to al Qaeda and abetted by the country’s enemies carried out the attack.
“It’s unacceptable that a Syrian is afraid to leave his home for fear of the U.S. 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 U.S. interests are proceeding normally.”
There is in fact no longer an American ambassador in Damascus and U.S. has no known “interests” in the country. The Assad government expelled U.S. and other Western diplomats in June 2012.
Haidar said Obama’s decision to seek congressional approval before embarking on a military strike was not a “retreat.”
“He’s kept the sword in his hand, he just hasn’t chosen to limit himself to a date,” he said.
“When Syria is targeted, every Syrian has the right to respond with all possible means available and against any U.S. or Western interest or any country linked to the aggression,” he added.
Prime Minister Wael al-Halaqi said Syria is strong enough to ward off any aggression and isn’t intimidated by threats, the state-run SANA news agency said.
The saber-rattling came from Cabinet members who are not among the core national security advisers who map out military strategy for Assad.
Before Obama’s surprise announcement, the path had been cleared for a U.S. assault. Navy ships were in place and awaiting orders to launch missiles, and U.N. inspectors had left Syria after gathering evidence of a chemical weapons attack that U.S. officials say killed 1,429 people in rebel-held areas.
The United States had been expected to lead the strike soon, backed up by its NATO allies Britain and France. But the House of Commons voted Thursday against any British involvement and France said Sunday it would await the U.S. Congress's decision.
"France cannot go it alone," Interior Minister Manuel Valls told Europe 1 radio. "We need a coalition."
France, which ruled Syria between the world wars, has, like the United States and Britain, the military strength to blitz the country in response to the poison gas attack on areas around Damascus, which the Syrian government has accused the rebels of staging.
President Francois Hollande reaffirmed to Obama on Saturday his will to punish Syria but has come under increasing pressure to put the intervention to parliament.
A senior Syrian rebel expressed concern about the delay, saying it gave Assad and his government the chance to keep killing and prepare from a missile or bomb attack.
"As days go by, more people get killed by the hands of this regime. Further delay for action gives them a chance to change the position of their weapons," said Mohammad Aboud, deputy commander of the eastern joint command of the Free Syrian Army.
"According to the intelligence that we have, we know that he exploits this delay to prepare for this strike," Aboud, a lieutenant who defected from Assad's forces, told Reuters.
Kerry, until recently a senator from Massachusetts, said he believes Congress will pass a measure to authorize the use of force in Syria.
"I don't believe that my former colleagues in the United States Senate and the House will turn their backs on all of our interests, on the credibility of our country, on the norm with respect to the enforcement of the prohibition against the use of chemical weapons, which has been in place since 1925," he said.
But Kerry would not say whether the president would act even if Congress votes against intervention.
"I said that the president has the authority to act, but the Congress is going to do what's right here," he answered when pressed.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., also appearing on “Meet the Press,” was unmoved by Kerry’s appeals. He cited Kerry’s famous question as an antiwar Vietnam veteran, “How can you ask a man to be the last one to die for a mistake?” “How can you ask someone to be the first to die for a mistake?” Paul asked.
He said Assad is no friend of America, but the “Islamic rebels,” including al Qaeda, could be even worse. “We’ll have another Islamic state where Christians are persecuted,” he predicted.
Paul saw a “50-50 chance” the House will reject intervention but predicted the Senate would "rubber-stamp" Obama’s wishes.