BEIRUT — After President Obama shocked Syrians by delaying expected U.S. missile strikes, the country was put off balance, with the military continuing to brace for an attack, the rebels 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 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 lingered.
The fighting, which was in a noticeable lull Saturday, appeared to be gearing back up.
Antigovernment activists and state news media reported clashes across the country Monday, while António Guterres, the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, said in Geneva that another rush of Syrians across the borders meant roughly a third of the country’s population had now been displaced.
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He estimated the number of Syrians seeking refuge in neighboring countries was approaching 2 million.
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.
The military resumed heavy aerial bombardment of East Ghouta, the sprawling hinterland of Damascus that bore the brunt of the chemical attacks 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.
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 3½-year-old conflict.
With the help of allies Iran and Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite extremist group, Assad’s forces have adapted, shifting emphasis from a conventional army trained to repel an invasion to a counterinsurgency force of smaller mobile units made up of security forces and local militias, analysts said.
In the long run, the “militia-ization” of the security forces “contains the seeds of the regime’s disintegration,” said Emile Hokayem, a Middle East-based analyst at the International Institute of Strategic Studies, creating multiple power centers and armed groups with local interests that might eventually diverge from the government’s.
Kamel Wazne, a political analyst who runs the Center for American Strategic Studies in Beirut, said he expected that in coming days, the government would step up attacks on rebel-held areas around Damascus, seeking to shore up shaky areas where rebels might muster an attack should the U.S. strike.
In an interview Monday in the French newspaper Le Figaro, Assad warned of regional conflagration if the United States attacked, and said France would face “repercussions” if it joined in.
“Everyone will lose control of the situation once the powder keg explodes,” he said. “Chaos and extremism will spread. There is a risk of regional war.”
The government declared itself ready to retaliate against any strike while at the same time portraying Obama’s turn to Congress as a way of backing out of the attack.
But the lingering uncertainty remained another source of pressure for the government.
Obama “wants to keep brandishing the sword of aggression on Syria without fully giving up the idea of an attack and even without setting a definite date for the aggression,” the country’s minister for reconciliation, Ali Haidar, told The Associated Press.
The Local Coordinating Committees, a coalition of antigovernment groups, issued a statement calling for a more comprehensive strike, backed by increased support to rebel fighters, that would end Assad’s bombardment of civilians by grounding airplanes and taking out artillery.
The group said that a limited strike would merely increase the violence and help give Assad “complete confidence that no one would prevent him from killing,” with no guarantee that it would prevent future use of chemical weapons.
“We don’t want just a limited strike, trimming the regime’s nails,” said Munzer Makhos, a member of Syria’s exile opposition coalition, said in Paris, describing the message he said he had conveyed to France’s president, François Hollande.
But he said he believed that the United States would strike and that Obama had hardened his position in his speech Saturday, even as he postponed the attack.
Makhos said he thought the issue facing the United States was determining the scope of the strike and preparing for reactions by the Assad government and its allies Hezbollah and Iran.
In Damascus, bread lines eased Monday and the Syrian pound strengthened against the dollar. Soldiers could be seen looking relaxed, drinking tea outside their new headquarters in schools and other civilian buildings.
But people were still anxious and keeping reserves of food, said a small-business man in Damascus who asked not to be identified for his safety.
“Many believe that the strike will be carried out sooner or later,” he said.
But a political analyst and member of Assad’s Baath party declared, “Obama is buying time looking for an 11th-hour deal with Russia and Syria, but he will get nothing — just a bad weak image for his country.”