- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Syrians at the receiving end of President Bashar Assad’s deadly crackdown are vexed by the pace of deliberations in Washington and other Western capitals on how to respond to the regime’s suspected use of chemical weapons last month.

“With no doubt, yes, we are [frustrated],” said Abu Omar, a Damascus-based spokesman for the Damascus Media Office, an opposition group of activists and journalists. “It’s a humanity issue. It’s not politics.”

“We already know that all the world leaders left us for two years to face Assad’s killing machine alone,” said Abu Omar, who used a nom de guerre out of concern for his family’s safety. “We expected this slow and cold reaction.”

President Obama last week sent warships to the eastern Mediterranean, but he announced Saturday that he would not launch an attack before seeking authorization from Congress, which reconvenes Monday.

Rifaie Tammas, a Syrian activist from the border town of Al Qusayr whose father, brother and uncle have been killed in the war, said a U.S. military response would be a “game changer.”

“Although it would be a declaration of war against my own country, there is nothing worse than seeing your people exterminated by the regime,” Mr. Tammas said.

Secretary of State John F. Kerry has said that 1,429 people, including at least 426 children, were killed in the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack on a Damascus suburb. More than 100,000 Syrians have been killed since their country’s civil conflict began in March 2011.

Elizabeth O'Bagy, a senior research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War who frequently travels to Syria, worries Syrians’ anger and cynicism are turning into something more dangerous.

“Civilians are very disappointed that the Syrian government has been allowed to use chemical weapons and that there has been no international response,” Ms. O'Bagy said at the Atlantic Council on Wednesday. “You are beginning to see some radicalization because of this feeling of abandonment.”

Last week, Britain’s Parliament rejected Prime Minister David Cameron’s call for involvement in military action in Syria.

On Tuesday, Mr. Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, began making the case for such action in testimony before congressional committees.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved a resolution Wednesday that would allow military force against Syria but would prevent the deployment of U.S. troops on the ground. A Senate vote is expected next week.

In Syria, each passing day pushes the death toll higher.

Barry Pavel, director of the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security, estimates that more than 4,000 people are being killed in Syria every month.

“When you think about the 2 1/2-week delay when we thought the operation was going to strike and the earliest time Congress can vote next week, that’s really a shame,” Mr. Pavel said at the Atlantic Council. “We are talking 2,500 people killed while we go through this process” of seeking congressional approval.

There are some genuine concerns among analysts and Syrian activists that U.S. military action, if merely punitive as the Obama administration has suggested, could result in an escalation in the civil war.

“You could, in fact, see an empowered Assad who could come out and say, ‘The Americans attacked us and we survived,’ and in a sense spin the narrative to a position of power and it could have a potentially debilitating psychological impact on the opposition and the civilian population,” Ms. O'Bagy said.

Syrians are worried that the Assad regime will lash out by shelling civilians during any U.S.-led operation, blame the deaths on the U.S. and seek to score points in a propaganda war.

Opposition activists say a U.S. military operation must significantly degrade Mr. Assad’s military capabilities.

“We have been waiting since 2011 for [the international community] to stop Assad’s thugs,” said Sami Ibrahim, a Damascus-based spokesman for the Syrian Network for Human Rights. “They have to keep punching Assad until they destroy all his power. The sooner they can stop Assad’s killing machine, the better.”