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Syria: Obama hesitates

President Barack Obama has delayed an imminent military strike by deciding to consult Congress.

A handout image released by the Syrian opposition's Shaam News Network shows people inspecting bodies of children and adults laying on the ground as Syrian rebels claim they were killed in a toxic gas attack by pro-government forces in eastern Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus on August 21, 2013. Picture: AFP

BEIRUT - Syria hailed an "historic American retreat" on Sunday after President Barack Obama delayed an imminent military strike by deciding to consult Congress.

As Obama stepped back from the brink, France said it could not act alone in punishing President Bashar al-Assad over a chemical weapons attack, making it the last remaining top Western ally to hesitate about bombing Syria.

"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.

The US president said on Saturday he would seek congressional consent before taking military action against Damascus for the August 21 attack which he blames on Assad's forces - a decision likely to delay any strike for at least nine days.

Syria's deputy foreign minister Faisal Mekdad denounced any armed Western move against his government. "A decision to wage war on Syria is a criminal decision and an incorrect decision. We are confident that we will be victorious," he told reporters outside a hotel in Damascus.

However, Syria's opposition coalition called on Sunday on the US congress to grant approval for military action and said any intervention should be accompanied with more arms for the rebels.

Obama made his surprise announcement in a gamble that will test his ability to project American strength abroad and deploy his own power at home.

Before he put on the brakes, the path had been cleared for a US assault. Navy ships were in place and awaiting orders to launch missiles, and UN inspectors had left Syria after gathering evidence of a chemical weapons attack that US officials say killed 1,429 people in rebel-held areas.

The United States had been expected to lead the strike soon, backed up by its NATO allies Britain and France. However, the Westminster parliament voted last Thursday against any British involvement and France said on Sunday it would await the US Congress's decision.

"France cannot go it alone," Interior Minister Manuel Valls told Europe 1 radio. "We need a coalition."

France, which ruled Syria for more than two decades until the 1940s, has, like the United States and Britain, the military strength to blitz the country in response to the poison gas attack on areas around Damascus, which the Syrian government has accused the rebels of staging.

Valls said Obama's announcement had created "a new situation" which meant France would have to wait "for the end of this new phase".

President Francois Hollande reaffirmed to Obama on Saturday his will to punish Syria but has come under increasing pressure to put the intervention to parliament.

A BVA poll on Saturday showed most French people do not approve of military action against Syria and most do not trust Hollande to conduct such an operation.

His Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault is scheduled to meet the heads of the two houses of the French parliament and the conservative opposition on Monday before a parliamentary debate on Syria on Wednesday.

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