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In Mideast, view of U.S. as hesitant superpower sharpens

U.S. President Barack Obama meets with bipartisan Congressional leaders in the Cabinet Room at the White House in Washington to discuss a mi
U.S. President Barack Obama meets with bipartisan Congressional leaders in the Cabinet Room at the White House in Washington to discuss a mi

By William Maclean

BEIRUT (Reuters) - The world's most powerful man decides to threaten Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

"We will strike with all our might," says U.S. President Barack Obama, depicted in a cartoon in Saudi newspaper Alsharq.

But when?

Wearing a dreamy smile, Obama replies: "In a day, a week, a month, a year, 10 years - or however many years you can count."

The implicit mockery reflects a suspicion among both friends and foes of Washington in the Middle East that Obama's move to refer military action to Congress is a sure sign of weakness - and one that places unprecedented strains on the credibility of his administration in its standoff with Syria and Iran.

Obama's abrupt decision on Saturday to halt plans to punish Assad for using poison gas and instead wait for congressional approval momentarily united a fractious region in astonishment.

Reflecting a widespread view voiced in interviews by Reuters across the region, Algeria's El Watan newspaper said Assad's foes seemed riven with doubt in their confrontation with the embattled Syrian leader, fearing intervention would be a "flop".

At the same time, sentiment across the Middle East often differentiates between Obama's deliberative - some critics say hesitant - leadership style, and an abiding perception of the United States as a superpower bent on policing the region on behalf of its friend Israel and of oil-rich Gulf Arab allies.

OBAMA'S "RETREAT"

Used to the uncompromising approach of his predecessor, George W. Bush, who proclaimed "You are either with us or you are with the terrorists" in the wake of the 9/11 attacks of 2001 and went on to invade Iraq in 2003, many Arabs tend to see Obama's apparent distaste for war as unusual, even exceptional.

Wathiq al-Hashimi of the Iraqi Group for Strategic Studies, said Arabs associated wars in the region with Republicans rather than Obama's Democrats; the end of the Cold War gave Washington scope to attack former proteges of Moscow, notably in Iraq, in conflicts launched by Bush and by his father a decade earlier.

At the same time, Hashimi said, Obama's move was confusing for many in the region and represented "a retreat".

Mohammed Yassin, a 45-year-old Palestinian in Gaza said Obama did not look like the "tough guy Bush was". Employing an Arab nickname for Obama, derived from his Kenyan father's name, Yassin said, smiling: "Abu Hussein has no balls."

Assad deserved punishment, but not from foreigners, he said.

"There's a saying in Syria: a barking dog never bites," said Adnan Diab, a Syrian teacher living in Lebanon. "That's what we expect ... God willing, nothing will happen."

In Istanbul, Mustafa Toprak, a 37-year-old salesman, sucking on a water pipe at a café on the shores of the Bosphorus, said the hold-up made Obama look both weak and insincere.

In downtown Cairo, Mohsin Ahmad El-Tayeb, 38, selling bags on the street, described Obama as "wavering" and holding two or three opinions at once: "He definitely won't strike Syria now."

That is precisely the outcome Assad's enemies fear.

A number of Syrian opposition figures contacted by Reuters said they remained confident Obama would eventually carry out a strike on Assad's forces, possibly a substantial one.

Speaking from Berlin, veteran Syrian opposition campaigner Fawaz Tello said it would be bizarre if Obama had assembled all his military might just to give Assad "a slap on the wrist".

Ayman Abdel Nour, a former university friend and adviser to Assad who left Syria in 2007, said that if there was a strike that went beyond the cosmetic, some top officers would defect.

Yet among allies of the opposition, doubts persist.

SAUDI DISAPPOINTMENT

In Saudi Arabia, a foe of Assad which has continued to urge international intervention since Obama's decision to delay a strike, there was no response from two officials contacted for comment. But analysts say that in private there was concern.

Abdulaziz al Sager, chairman of the Gulf Research Centre, said Obama's decision "reflects a lack of resolve", something he said had been evident since the beginning of the Syrian crisis:

"There is a deep sense of disappointment in the Gulf region with the president's decision to seek the Congress's approval."

For their part, senior Obama administration officials are arguing that Obama's move to consult Congress should be seen as one that would buttress his decision and America's credibility abroad - assuming Congress backs the president.

They warn it would undermine the credibility of the United States in the Middle East and around the world if Congress does not approve his deployment of military force in Syria.

Anthony Cordesman of Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies wrote that Obama had to show real leadership, "not overreaction, sudden reversal and uncertainty".

A No vote in Congress would be a "near disaster", the military scholar wrote. U.S. influence in the Middle East would be seriously undermined and the United States would still have no meaningful strategy for the Syrian war, he added.

Echoing Cordesman's concern, Yezigh Sayigh of the Carnegie Middle East think tank in Beirut said that the absence of a Syria policy was why Obama appeared to be "dithering", and this arguably reflected Washington's wider struggle to engage with the region since the Arab uprisings of early 2011.

IRANIAN "GLEE"

Assad's ally, Iran, involved in its own standoff with major powers over its nuclear program, has been circumspect.

But lawmaker Alaeddin Boroujerdi, chairman of the Tehran parliament's foreign affairs committee, was quoted as saying he hoped Congress would vote against an attack - in line with what he said were the wishes of the U.S. people.

Similarly, more diplomacy is what Tehran hopes Washington will continue to practice toward Iran, which denies Western accusations it is trying to develop nuclear weapons.

A diplomat based in Tehran said the Iranian government had seen Obama's decision as U.S. weakness. The first reaction from Iranian officials was one of "glee", the diplomat said.

Israelis see in the Syria showdown a test of the Americans' ability to make good on a pledge to deny Iran the means to make a nuclear bomb through military force if diplomacy fails.

In Israel, which sees Iran's program as a direct threat, authorities have been polite in public about the hold-up in U.S. Syria preparations. But privately there may be reservations.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to whom Obama last year promised that he would "always have Israel's back", ordered his ministers not to discuss Syria openly. But this was ignored by ultra-nationalist economy minister Naftali Bennett.

"More than 1,000 civilians, many of them babies and children, were murdered by a dark regime using poison gas. And the world hesitates," Bennett wrote on Facebook.

"At the moment of truth, we will depend only on ourselves."

Jerusalem resident Jay Shapiro, his white hair covered by a red baseball cap, recalled a century-old adage about it being U.S. foreign policy to speak softly and carry a big stick:

"President Obama has the opposite policy. He speaks loudly and carries no stick," Shapiro said. "He doesn't have our back. He doesn't even have America's back."

(Reporting by Mahmoud Habboush, Marcus George and Yeganeh Torbati in Dubai, Erika Solomon, Yara Bayoumy, Oliver Holmes and Stephen Kalin in Beirut, Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza, Crispian Balmer and Dan Williams in Jerusalem, Hamid Ould Ahmed in Algiers, Shadia Nasrallah and Maggie Fick in Cairo, Ece Toksabay in Istanbul, Susan Cornwell in Washington and Raheem Salman in Baghdad; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)

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