In the moments leading to Barack Obama’s speech on Saturday, many Syrians thought the U.S. president was about to announce the beginning of his military attack on Bashar Assad’s regime. So when Obama instead said he planned to seek congressional approval before launching an attack, Syrians were left somewhat relieved, but confused. Many unleashed a barrage of gallows humor, while state media exulted that the emperor has no clothes.
Some Syrians even returned home after having fled what they thought would be a swift aerial strike.
“Well, it looks like it’s going to be a while before this strike happens,” said Ziad, a middle-age merchant who last week drove his family of five from their home in Damascus to a hotel in the mountains of Lebanon, where he thought they would wait out the imminent strike. “Obama said it was going to be a 48 hours strike, and we thought it was coming last week, or Saturday at the latest, so we fled. But now we’re home again and nothing happened! I’m grateful, but now we don’t know when it’s going to happen.”
Not everyone came to a similar conclusion. In fact, some people no longer believe Obama will carry out the strike against Syria at all.
This stands in stark contrast to the panic that was slowly building until the final moments before Obama delivered his speech, which aired live shortly after 9 p.m. Damascus time (2 p.m. EDT) on all Arabic news channels, including Syrian state-run television. People were hoarding bread, water and batteries, leaving stores completely empty of certain nonperishable items and pushing prices in some cases as high as threefold. Late Saturday, the price of a can of tuna shot up to 600 Syrian pounds ($3) from 200 Syrian pounds ($1).
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But by Sunday morning, the start of the workweek in Syria, grocery stores went back to stocking normal amounts of bread, and the temporary panic appeared to have subsided. During a casual stroll through the city before sunset, many people were seen out and about, chitchatting with friends and family in cafes and public parks.
Yet many perplexed Syrians are now wondering why after days of harsh words against the Syrian government and promises of an imminent attack, the U.S. seems interested only in more talk.
“I think it’s all a joke. I’ve never heard of someone declaring a military strike and then going off to talk about it. It’s been days that they’re just talking and talking. I think it will fizzle away,” said Mostafa, a 23-year-old salesman in an electronics store. “After all, if they were going to attack, they would have done what Israel did. Come in the middle of the night and strike. It’s called the element of surprise,” he added, referring to Israel’s aerial strike last May.
But some people in Damascus felt only a fleeting sense of relief.
Maya, who freelances as a housekeeper, was displaced last year along with her husband and their five children. They now live in Damascus, but they left their home in the suburb of Moadamiyeh, where a suspected chemical-weapons attack occurred on Aug. 21. She said Sunday was the first time she got to sleep-in after several days of tension, when she and her family were expecting a U.S. strike “any minute.” She also said, “I feel relieved that the strike is not coming right at this moment, but I’m now worried about more chemical attacks.”
Since the chemical-weapons attacks on several Damascus suburbs, state-run media has been on the defensive, primarily focused on refuting evidence that the Syrian government was behind them. But Obama’s announcement on Saturday that he was seeking congressional approval of military action gave Syrian media plenty of reason to gloat.
The state-run daily paper Al Thawra, which translates as “The Revolution,” ran editorials exultant over Obama’s speech. “It’s the beginning of America’s historic retreat,” announced one front-page article. “It’s the final moments before the fig leaf falls,” promised another. “A season of political nudity awaits him, even as he tries to seek cover in Congress.”
A Barrage Of Jokes
Famous for their gallows humor, Syrians were quick to lampoon the turn of events.
“Don’t be an Obama,” one woman told a friend who was being noncommittal about an appointment. They both broke into laughter.
Then came the slew of jokes on social media, which spread like spam on people’s accounts.
“Assad postpones a chemical attack pending approval of Parliament,” one joke went, circulating on the phone app Wassup, which most Syrians have on their cellphones.
There were numerous satirical photos of Obama, as well.
One such image showed the U.S. president carrying a picture of the Syrian president and chanting: “God, Syria, Bashar and that’s all,” a play on a slogan often used by Assad loyalists.
Another one showed Obama along with a dozen other American personalities, including former President George W. Bush and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, apparently cracking up with laughter at the Syrian people. Obama held up a sign that read: “Don’t worry. We were kidding. You’re on Candid Camera!”