World and Nation

Syrians thrown off balance by hesitation in Washington

BEIRUT — Two days after President Barack Obama shocked Syrians by delaying expected American missile strikes, the country remains off balance, with the military still bracing, the rebels still hoping to capitalize on the confusion, civilians increasingly fleeing across the borders and everyone uncertain whether the attack has been called off for good.

Businesses were open and shops busy in government-held areas around the country on Monday, residents say, but not all government troops had moved out of the schools and other civilian areas they had moved into ahead of the attacks that were expected Saturday. Anxiety and anticipation from that day lingered.

The fighting, which was in a noticeable lull on Saturday, appeared to be gearing back up. Antigovernment activists and state news media reported clashes across the country on Monday, while António Guterres, the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, said in an interview in Geneva on Monday that another rush of Syrians across the borders meant that roughly a third of the country’s population had now been displaced; he estimated that the number of Syrians seeking refuge in neighboring countries was approaching 2 million, with some 4.5 million being driven from their homes in Syria.

Both the government and the armed opposition have moved to capitalize on Obama’s decision to wait for congressional approval for a strike. The government has portrayed President Bashar Assad as a hero for facing down the Americans, and his supporters have circulated jokes on social media mocking Obama; one campaign features high-quality videos of Syrians old and young using a vulgar phrase to tell him, essentially, to get lost. The military resumed heavy aerial bombardment of East Ghouta, the sprawling hinterland of Damascus that bore the brunt of the chemical attacks that American officials have blamed on Assad’s government, which denies responsibility.

For their part, rebels claim to have taken new ground in the Qalamoun area north of Damascus and declare they will push forward while some of the government’s personnel and weapons remain dispersed to avoid being targeted.

The state news agency, SANA, said the military had killed foreign fighters as they tried to infiltrate areas closer to the capital. Opposition figures have seized the moment to argue for a more comprehensive strike, backed by increased aid to their forces, to try to shift the balance in the conflict, which began three and a half years ago with peaceful protests but have devolved into civil war after bloody government crackdowns.

It is unclear how much the government’s precautionary troop movements change the tactical picture, said Kamel Wazne, a political analyst who runs the Center for American Strategic Studies in Beirut, for the same reason that Obama’s proposal for missile strikes without involving American ground troops may make little difference to the dynamic on the battlefield.