Syrian rebels and opposition leaders expressed outrage on Sunday at President Barack Obama's last-minute decision to hold off from military intervention and suggested other "pariah states" could be encouraged if the West failed to take any action.
The opposition in exile, the Syrian National Coalition, urged Congress to "make the right choice" and vote for a strike on Bashar al-Assad's regime. "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," it said.
"If the free world fails to respond to such an outrageous breach of international norms, dictators around the world will be encouraged in their efforts to follow the example set by Assad." Activists and rebel fighters went further, with some saying the decision showed Obama was in a "secret conspiracy" with the Syrian president. For once, Assad and his opponents had some views in common. Faisal al-Mokdad, the Syrian deputy foreign minister, said Obama's decision showed his "sense of hesitation and confusion".
Assad himself said: "Syria is capable of facing up to any external aggression just as it faces up to internal aggression every day, in the form of terrorist groups and those that support them." The threat of imminent military action had caused chaos across the country, and its sudden suspension left a sense of uncertainty about what was really likely to happen.
Activists claimed that thousands of political prisoners and civilians had been rounded up and placed as "human shields" in potential targets, while soldiers and other human targets took refuge in the civilian population, by hiding in mosques and schools.
But a spokesperson for the rebels in Rastan, a town in Homs province that has held out against the regime for more than a year, said they had still wanted outside help. He said rebels felt "let down by the international world". Opposition leaders said they believed Congress would support action.