Rebel Syria army claims benefit from US strike delay

Obama congressional approval move delays any military action ’til September 9th at least

President Barack Obama  has promised to take punitive action against Syria over last month’s poison gas attack in Damascus but wants Congress to vote on the issue first. Photograph: New York Times

President Barack Obama has promised to take punitive action against Syria over last month’s poison gas attack in Damascus but wants Congress to vote on the issue first. Photograph: New York Times

Mon, Sep 2, 2013, 13:39

The rebel Free Syrian Army has claimed it is benefiting from a delay in an expected US-led strike on Syria, and has guaranteed President Bashar al-Assad’s forces that they and their families will be unharmed if they defect.

“We are now taking advantage of this delay to make better plans and have also issued a statement calling on officers of the Syrian regular army to defect and join our ranks,” Mohammed Almustafa, media co-ordinator for the FSA’s General Salim Idriss, said by telephone today.

“We have given them guarantees that we will protect them and their families from getting killed or being harmed in any way,” he said. “Those who carried out massacres will be subjected to a fair trial.”

More than 400 people defected lately, most recently yesterday in the eastern city of Deir Ezzour, he said by telephone from an undisclosed location on the Syrian-Turkish border.

US President Barack Obama, in a surprise move, yesterday decided to seek congressional approval to strike Syria for what the administration says was an August 21st sarin gas attack by the Assad government that killed more than 1,400 people.

Congress return

The request puts off any decision on a strike until at least September 9th, when Congress returns from its summer recess.

Some US lawmakers are sceptical about the justifications for the attack.

Dr Assad’s government denies carrying out a chemical assault, and has urged the United Nations Security Council to block the “absurd use of force”, according to state-run news agency ANA.

The delay has given rebels time to arm themselves better, Mr Almustafa said. Weapons and other military support for the rebels have markedly improved over the past two weeks, he said, declining to say which countries were actually providing the arms.

The Turks and “some Arab countries” have been especially supportive, he said, without providing details.

Mr Obama’s deferral also gives time for the international community to forge a “common position” against Syria, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert said today.

Prospects threatened

Military strikes against Syria would threaten prospects of any international peace talks, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov also said today.

The rebel army is confident the US and its allies will decide to strike Syria, based on its meetings and conversations with US and European counterparts, Mr Almustafa said. “We don‘t know exactly when it will happen,” he said.

The United Nations estimates more than 100,000 people have been killed in Syria since the push to drive Dr Assad from power began peacefully two and a half years ago, then deteriorated into civil war.

Earlier, US secretary of state John Kerry said the US could go ahead with military strikes against Syria even without the backing of Congress based on its evidence the Assad regime regime used sarin in chemical attacks outside Damascus last month.

A day after US president Barack Obama vowed to put any intervention in Syria to a vote of both the Senate and House of Representatives, Mr Kerry said the administration was confident of winning a motion of the kind that British prime minister David Cameron unexpectedly lost last week.

“We don’t contemplate that the Congress is going to vote no,” Mr Kerry said, but he stressed the president had the right to take action “no matter what Congress does”.

Mr Obama has promised to take punitive action, but wants Congress to vote on the issue first.

In a surprise decision, Mr Obama delayed “limited” military intervention against Syria’s government over the gassing of 1,429 people in last month’s attack on a rebel-held suburb of Damascus, saying the US should strike against Syria, but he would seek the approval of Congress.

Damascus responded today by saying US military action against Syria would amount to “support for al-Qaeda and its affiliates”. Syrian deputy foreign minister Faisal Mekdad told the BBC armed groups backed by the US had used chemical weapons - not Syrian troops.

Military action

In a round of appearances on political talk shows yesterday, Mr Kerry stressed the Obama administration could still choose to take military action even without congressional approval, but said the backing of US lawmakers would give any military action greater credibility.

“We don’t contemplate that the Congress is going to vote no,” Mr Kerry said.

Congress had a duty to act to uphold international norms against chemical weapons, he added.

Mr Kerry made new claims that Dr Assad’s forces used deadly sarin gas in the August 21st attacks, saying blood and hair samples taken from emergency workers tested positive for the nerve agent.

Referring to the new evidence obtained in the previous 24 hours as a further reason to approve military action, Mr Kerry said the case against Dr Assad was “building” and growing stronger “by the day”.

Mr Obama’s move to seek congressional approval is seen as a gamble because of the strong opposition to him on Capitol Hill. The move delays any US action until Monday week at the earliest, when Congress returns from its summer break.

The timing may be even further complicated, as UN chemical experts will take up to three weeks to analyse evidence collected at the scene of the chemical attack.

Yesterday, Britain definitively ruled out any involvement in military strikes against Syria even if further chemical attacks take place.

British foreign secretary William Hague said Britain would offer only diplomatic support to its allies.

“Parliament has spoken. I don’t think it is realistic to think that we can go back to parliament every week with the same question, having received no for an answer.”

His remarks were echoed by the chancellor, George Osborne, who said he did not think more evidence or more UN reports would have convinced the MPs who voted against intervention. He also ruled out a rerun of the vote.

Syrian opposition figures have reacted angrily to what they perceive as America’s delay in striking against Dr Assad.

While the Obama administration insists that military intervention would be a punishment for the chemical weapons attack and a deterrent against future incidents rather than an attempt at regime change, many in the fractured opposition hope it will tip the military balance in their favour after a two and a half year civil war that has killed about 100,000 people.

Samir Nishar, of the opposition Syrian National Coalition, called Mr Obama a “weak president”, according to CNN.

Reporting: Agencies/Guardian

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