U.S. Delay On Strikes Prolongs Tension For Syrians

President Obama announced over the weekend that he will seek authorization from Congress for strikes against Syria over its reported use of chemical weapons. For an update on the situation in Syria, Steve Inskeep talks to Sam Dagher, the Middle East correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, in Damascus.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

On Labor Day, it's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

We opened a phone line to Syria today and immediately got a sense of a city at war. Sam Dagher of The Wall Street Journal was just starting to talk with us when he felt the blast.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

INSKEEP: Dagher was OK and we'll hear more about that explosion in a moment. We called him in Damascus to hear what Syrians are thinking. On Saturday, President Obama said he has decided to respond to a chemical attack that killed more than 1,400 people. But the widely expected U.S. strikes were delayed when President Obama decided to seek authorization from Congress. Dagher was able to watch that speech live on Syrian TV.

What was it like to have President Obama suddenly on Syrian TV screens?

SAM DAGHER: Well, I have to tell you, everybody was watching. I went around the city and everybody was glued to the TV sets at restaurants and cafes. It was carried live with the simultaneous translation. Obviously the reactions varied. There was a lot of fear still, a lot of confusion among people that I spoke to. They said: So what does this mean? I mean is he going to ultimately attack us or are we off the hook?

And obviously from the very diehard supporters of the regime, it was defiance and mockery. And that was reflected also in some of the official statements that came out afterward.

INSKEEP: Mockery. What was the mockery exactly?

DAGHER: Well, people saying, oh, look at America, this, you know, president of a country that presents itself as a major power is now hesitating, he's afraid; he realized that we were going to respond, that Syria was going to attack Israel, or even worse, attack oil interests in the Persian Gulf, and this is why they retreated and backed off.

INSKEEP: At the same time, I wonder if this prolongs the tension for Syrians, Mr. Dagher. Because we had the situation, as you know very well, where the Syrian military had to disperse some of its people - or so we were told. People were very tense and they can't be sure that the strike is the coming at some point.

DAGHER: Absolutely, Steve, and that is a valid point. And even after Obama spoke, I got confirmation from some residents yesterday that the Syrian army was telling them to move away from military and security installations. I spoke to one guy who lives in a town north of Damascus. And he said the army came over to his house and told him to evacuate, because he lives next to a base that's likely to be among the targets. And then people are still worried even here inside Damascus.

As you know, you've been here before, that a lot of people in Damascus are displaced from other locations - whether from the suburbs or other parts of the country. So they don't have the means, the economic means, to be displaced yet again. So they have to make these decisions. People are wondering whether their bunkers are safe in their buildings.

I spoke to this lady that she said an army officer lives in her building, and he was assuring them that the bunker in their building is safe. But then they - a little bit later they saw him evacuate his own family, so people are just wondering now what's going to happen. And you've had soldiers being moved into schools and other sort of public buildings to spare them in any potential strike on bases and other installations.

INSKEEP: Mr. Dagher, I just want to mention, before we started talking here, when the line was open, we could hear a tremendous explosion near you. What happened and how intense has the fighting been around Damascus the last several days?

DAGHER: It seems to be, what we heard a little bit ago, a mortar crashing on one of the neighborhoods here in Damascus, not far from where President Assad and his family live. It's called the Malki neighborhood. And this is frequent. It has happened before. I mean since the beginning of the year we had rebels targeting areas believed to be inhabited by officials, or areas perceived as loyal to the regime, with these types of mortars, and unfortunately people sometimes die.

We had people - last week - a couple of people killed in some of these mortar attacks on neighborhoods all over Damascus. So this is kind of unfortunately part of the daily routine here now.

But to answer your question, I mean things have tapered off a little bit in the last couple of days. We still hear the sound of artillery shelling some of the suburbs where the rebels are, but not as intense as it was, say, last week.

INSKEEP: Sam Dagher of The Wall Street Journal is in Damascus, Syria. Thanks very much for the time.

DAGHER: My pleasure.

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