Syrian rebels say delay in any strike will cost lives, undercut US credibility

Engel: For Syrians, 'this is absolutely a time-sensitive issue' 3:30

Rebel forces fighting to topple Syrian President Bashir al-Assad’s government expressed frustration with President Barack Obama’s decision to seek authorization from Congress before launching any military strike, saying the decision will cost Syrian lives, undercut U.S. credibility and encourage extremism. 

Louay Safi, a spokesman for the Syrian National Council, said he was surprised by the Obama decision to pass the decision on to Congress.

"The death will continue in Syria because of the (failure of the) leadership of the United States to act decisively at this point," he said, adding that "Obama had the moral responsibility to act and not waiver." 

Abu Sham, a spokesman for the Revolutionary Command Council operating in the rebel-held suburbs of Damascus, predicted that the delay in any possible retaliatory strike against the Syrian government will prompt Assad to increase attacks against opposition forces. 

“Assad will retaliate against the people, with more force than now,” he told NBC News on Saturday, shortly after Obama’s announcement. 

One rebel spokesman, who spoke on condition of anonymity, also predicted that the delay before any possibility of a U.S.-led retaliatory strike will encourage opposition groups to instead turn toward radical Islamic factions in the patchwork force fighting to topple Assad. 

“Syrians were starting to put their faith in American help, but it hasn't come,” he said. “That encourages Syrians to believe that radicals like al-Qaeda are the only ones seriously willing to make sacrifices help them.” 

The spokesman, and other rebel leaders also accused Obama of backpedaling on his promises.

"President Obama is sending contradictory messages,” he said. "He promised to help, and now promises delays. He first said the using chemicals weapons was a red line … now the red line was crossed, and crossed again. President Obama says he wants to act, but ... he can only act with the will of his people. If Congress votes against a military action, it will mean the American people don't want to help the Syrian people." 

Gen. Abdul Basit Taweel, north front commander of the Free Syrian Army, the umbrella group representing the rebel forces, said the decision to await authorization from Congress continues the foot-dragging that has characterized the Obama administration's response to the ongoing Syria crisis. 

“If the Americans really wanted to topple the regime, they would have given the Arab countries the green light to arm the Free Syrian Army and we would have saved many lives and toppled the regime without American intervention,” he said. 

Obama’s announcement that he would consult Congress before launching any military strike against the Syrian government means that any attack would be more than a week away -- at least -- with U.S. lawmakers not scheduled to reconvene in Washington until Sept. 9. 

Members of the Syrian rebel forces weren’t the only ones disappointed by Obama’s decision.

Amer Mahdi Doko, a former political prisoner in Syria who is now a student in the United States, said that all the Syrian opposition sympathizers he spoke with Saturday no longer believe that the U.S. will punish the Assad regime for the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attacks that Washington accuses it of carrying out. 

“Everyone knows how divided this Congress is. Everyone is pessimistic,” he told NBC News. 

Whatever the longer-term consequences of Obama’s decision, it appeared to immediately embolden the Syrian army, which resumed shelling rebel positions outside the locked-down capital of Damascus within minutes of the announcements, following a five-hour break earlier in the day, according to a witness in Damascus.

The Syrian capital was checkered by roadblocks Saturday, with traffic slowed to a crawl. In advance of Obama’s announcement, Western reporters witnessed residents hoarding supplies like bread, water, batteries, dried goods and canned foods, fearing shortages if a U.S. strike hit the city. 

NBC News Chief Foreign Correspondent Richard Engel and NBC News' Madeleine Haeringer, Lawahez Ja'abari, Ayman Mohyeldin, Simon Moya-Smith, Ammar Cheikh Omar also contributed to this report.