* Tests showed Syria used sarin gas, says Kerry
* Arab League calls for international action
* France says it cannot act alone
* U.S. lawmakers raise broad array of questions
By Yara Bayoumy and Rachelle Younglai
BEIRUT/WASHINGTON, Sept 1 Syria hailed a
"historic American retreat" on Sunday, mockingly accusing
President Barack Obama of hesitation and confusion after he
delayed a military response to last month's chemical weapons
attack near Damascus until after a congressional vote.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said tests had shown
sarin nerve gas was fired on rebel-held areas on Aug. 21, and
expressed confidence that U.S. lawmakers would do "what is
right" in response.
Washington says more than 1,400 people, many of them
children, were killed in the attack.
It was the deadliest incident of the Syrian civil war and
the world's worst use of chemical arms since Iraq's Saddam
Hussein gassed thousands of Kurds in 1988. But opinion polls
have shown strong opposition to a punitive strike among
Americans weary of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Obama's announcement on Saturday that he would seek
congressional authorisation for punitive military action against
Syria is likely to delay any strike for at least nine days.
His administration launched a political offensive on Sunday
to win over a sceptical Congress, but faced tough questions from
lawmakers in both parties.
The United Nations said Obama's announcement could be seen
as part of an effort to forge a global consensus on responding
to the use of chemical arms anywhere.
"The use of chemical weapons will not be accepted under any
circumstances," U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said. "There
should be no impunity and any perpetrators of such a horrific
crime against humanity must be held accountable."
The final resolution of a meeting of Arab League meeting
foreign ministers meeting in Cairo urged the United Nations and
international community to "take the deterrent and necessary
measures against the culprits of this crime that the Syrian
regime bears responsibility for".
The ministers also said those responsible for the attack
should face trial, as other "war criminals" have.
The Syrian government says the attack was staged by the
rebels. With Obama drawing back from the brink, President Bashar
al-Assad reacted defiantly to the threat of Western retaliation,
saying Syria was capable of confronting any external strike.
He left his most withering comments to his official media
and a junior minister.
"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.
Syrian 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.
Before Obama put on the brakes, the path had been cleared
for a U.S. assault. Warships were in place and awaiting orders
to launch missiles, and U.N. inspectors had left Syria after
gathering evidence on the use of chemical weapons.
U.S military officials are using the delay to reassess which
ships will be used for a strike, and which sites in Syria to
target. One change was a decision to send the USS Nimitz
aircraft carrier and its entire strike group toward the Red Sea
to help support a Syria strike, if needed. [
Kerry invoked the crimes of Adolf Hitler, Saddam and the
potential threat to Israel from Syria and Iran in urging U.S.
lawmakers to back a strike on Assad's forces.
"This is squarely now in the hands of Congress," he told
CNN, saying he had confidence "they will do what is right
because they understand the stakes."
It became apparent on Sunday that convincing Congress of
atrocities committed by Assad's forces was only one of the
challenges confronting Obama.
Lawmakers raised a broad array of concerns, including the
potential effectiveness of limited strikes, the possible
unintended consequence of sparking a wider Middle East conflict,
the wisdom of acting without broader international backing to
share the burden and the war weariness of the American public.
Many Democrats and Republicans are uneasy about intervening
in a distant civil war in which 100,000 people have been killed
over the past 2 1/2 years, and lawmakers have not cut short
their summer recess, which ends Sept. 9.
Members of Congress were briefed by Obama's national
security team on the case for military action. When they emerged
after nearly three hours, many members from both parties
questioned the broad nature of the measure Obama is seeking,
suggesting it needed to be narrowed.
"The president said this is going to be limited. Yet that's
an open-ended authorization to just about do anything he wants,"
said Senator Tom Harkin from Obama's Democratic Party.
The White House is due to talk with House Democrats by
telephone on Monday, and Obama will meet with the heads of
several key House and Senate committees in person on Tuesday.
Kerry said he had more evidence backing accusations against
"I can share with you today that blood and hair samples that
have come to us through an appropriate chain of custody, from
east Damascus, from first responders, it has tested positive for
signatures of sarin," he told CNN.
U.N. weapons inspectors collected their own samples and
diplomats say Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has told the five
permanent Security Council members - Britain, China, France,
Russia and the United States - that it would take up to two
weeks before the final report is ready.
In Damascus, ordinary Syrians reacted with a mixture of
relief, disappointment and scorn to Obama's decision. "I have to
admit this morning was the first time I felt I could sleep in,"
said Nawal, who works as a housekeeper in the Syrian capital.
Bread had returned to the bakeries and members of the state
security forces appeared relaxed, drinking tea and chatting at
their posts outside government buildings.
FRANCE CANNOT GO IT ALONE
The United States had originally been expected to lead a
strike relatively quickly, backed up by its NATO allies Britain
and France. But British lawmakers voted on Thursday against any
involvement and France said on Sunday it would await the U.S.
"France cannot go it alone," Interior Minister Manuel Valls
told Europe 1 radio. "We need a coalition."
French President Francois Hollande, whose country ruled
Syria for more than two decades until the 1940s, has come under
increasing pressure to put the intervention to parliament.
A BVA poll on Saturday showed most French people did not
approve of military action and most did not trust Hollande to
conduct such an operation.
Jean-Marc Ayrault, his prime minister, was to meet the heads
of both houses of parliament and the conservative opposition on
Monday before lawmakers debate Syria on Wednesday.
French first lady Valerie Trierweiler said on Sunday she was
still in shock over pictures of Syrian children killed in the
attack and told France's M6, "I do not know how one can bear it,
how one can accept it."
Syria and its main ally, Russia, say rebels carried out the
gas attack to draw in foreign military intervention. Moscow has
repeatedly used its Security Council veto to block action
against Syria, saying it would be illegal and only inflame the
Critics say further delay by Obama is simply buying Assad
The Istanbul-based Syrian opposition coalition said Assad
had moved military equipment and personnel to civilian areas and
put prisoners in military sites as human shields against any
Western air strikes.
It said rockets, Scud missiles and launchers as well as
soldiers had been moved to locations including schools,
university dormitories and government buildings inside cities.
Reuters could not independently verify the reports, and
attempts to reach Syrian officials for comment were
Obama's credibility has already been called into question
for not punishing Assad over earlier alleged gas attacks, and he
is under pressure to act now that he believes Damascus has
crossed what he once described as a "red line".
Failure to act, some say, could mean Iran would feel free to
press on with a nuclear programme the West believes is aimed at
developing an atomic bomb and that might encourage Israel to
take matters into its own hands.
"If Obama is hesitating on the matter of Syria, then clearly
on the question of attacking Iran - a move that is expected to
be far more complicated - Obama will hesitate much more, and
thus the chances Israel will have to act alone have increased,"
Israeli Army Radio quoted an unnamed government official as
Financial markets have been concerned about possible
intervention in Syria, and a delay caused by seeking
congressional approval would be "a positive," said
Michael Yoshikami, CEO of Destination Wealth Management in
Walnut Creek, California.
"A delay will let investors calm down and assess things.
There was a lot of concern that there would be unilateral
military action, because that could have had a major impact on
oil prices, which in turn would have impacted GDP and consumer
spending - not what we want to see with economic growth still so
slow, he said.
Pope Francis called for a negotiated solution to the
conflict in Syria and announced he would lead a worldwide day of
prayer for peace in the country on Saturday.