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Originally published September 2, 2013 at 9:32 PM | Page modified September 3, 2013 at 7:15 AM

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After Obama’s pullback, Syrians scramble to figure out what’s coming next

Antigovernment activists and state news media reported clashes across the country Monday, while the United Nations high commissioner for refugees said another rush of Syrians across the borders meant a third of the country’s population had now been displaced.

The New York Times

Related developments

McCain support: The White House appeared to have won the tentative support of Republican Sen. John McCain, of Arizona, who said Monday he supported a “limited” strike if the president did more to arm the Syrian opposition after an hourlong meeting at the White House, which also included Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. Officials said Obama indicated a covert effort by the United States to train the Syrian rebels was beginning to yield results: The first 50-man cell of fighters, which have been trained by the CIA, was beginning to sneak into Syria. There appeared to be broad agreement with the president, McCain and Graham said, that any attack on Syria should be to “degrade” the Syrian government’s delivery systems — which could include aircraft, artillery and the kind of rockets the White House says were used to carry out an Aug. 21 sarin attack in the Damascus suburbs

No British revote: British officials have ruled out a second parliamentary vote on participation in a military strike against the Syrian government. President Obama’s decision to seek a vote in Congress on military action against Syria prompted senior British politicians to call for another vote after Parliament’s surprising rejection Thursday of plans to respond with armed intervention to nerve-gas attacks in Damascus’ suburbs. But Prime Minister David Cameron’s office said Monday there were “absolutely no plans” to go back to Parliament for a second vote.

Turkey not worried: Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s chief adviser brushed aside fears that a U.S. strike against Syria could provoke it to attack Turkey. Yalcin Akdogan told the Turkish newspaper Aksam that an attack on Turkey “would be madness and suicide” because it is a member of NATO. The alliance is committed to defending member states.

China warns U.S. : Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said his country urged the United States not to take unilateral action against Syria. He said China was briefed about the matter and that it is concerned about chemical-weapons use but that the country opposes the U.S. acting alone. Hong didn’t address the possibility of the U.S. acting together with France, which supports a strike.

Seattle Times news services

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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.

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.”

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