BEIRUT, Lebanon -- At the end of a nerve-racking day in the cross hairs of American gunships, Syrians gathered around televisions to watch President Obama announce the start of an expected American missile strike.
When he instead declared that he would seek Congressional approval for the strikes -- telling them, essentially, never mind, for now -- Syrians were shocked. Also relieved, bewildered, confused, triumphant and angry.
Mohammed, 24, who opposes the government, watched the speech with friends who support it -- not an uncommon situation in Damascus, where, especially among the wealthy and educated, people on both sides still interact, and argue, freely.
"They all suddenly turned into political analysts," he said. "Some of them said he looked very scared in his speech, and some said he decided to backtrack because the decision was hasty, and others thought it's just a game he's playing and he's going to strike tonight."
"I think there is a lot of fear among people," added Mohammed, who gave only his first name for safety reasons. "They are trying to hide it, but they are afraid."
Umm Hana, 58, watched Mr. Obama's speech with her husband and children in the central city of Homs, where government opponents have faced some of the country's fiercest army shelling. She said she regretted wasting time on him.
"It is just so clear -- they are playing us like puppets, but they all want him to stay," she said, referring to President Bashar al-Assad of Syria. "Obama is full of talk. He's so weak and useless."
For another Homs resident, Abu Bassam, 31, the only possible response was black humor.
"Man, I wish Bush was the president," he said. "He would have reacted right away. He may have invaded Cyprus or Jordan instead of Syria by mistake, but you know he would have done something at least."
But even some government opponents were relieved. Abeer Basal, a Damascus resident, had waited with clenched anxiety since word of an American strike began to circulate, along with reports that the government was moving political prisoners to military bases or leaving them in security offices that could be targets. Her brother was arrested eight months ago, and her family feared he could be killed, one of the many potential unintended consequences of a strike.
"While Obama was speaking," she said, "my mother didn't stop crying and praying that they decide against the military involvement in Syria."
Many Syrians feel deeply ambivalent about a strike, hoping it curbs the government's indiscriminate use of force -- by punishing Mr. Assad for deadly chemical attacks on Aug. 21 that American officials blame on his government -- but also fearing it could unleash new chaos.
Khalid al-Shami, a humanitarian aid worker in Damascus, summed up the quandary.
"I am against the military intervention in Syria if it will turn the country into the new Iraq," he said. "I stand for it if it will in any way help to save souls."
He said Mr. Obama appeared to be trying to keep the promise on which he was elected, to avoid repeating the mistakes of the American invasion of Iraq by limiting the scope of the strike and seeking consensus. It made sense, he said, that Mr. Obama would conceal the "zero hour" of the strike, and that he would take care to ensure it did not "contradict his electoral program about keeping the U.S. away from further wars."
But government supporters said Mr. Obama had backed down, either out of uncertainty over the evidence linking the government to the attacks, or out of fear.
Amin, 29, a Damascus resident, called the president "a rational and intelligent man" who, he said, "won't get involved in a war when he's not certain the regime is behind the chemical attacks."
He said Mr. Obama wanted to avoid the possibility of a deeper entanglement leading to regional spillover or American casualties, adding, "I won't mention their concern for civilians, because it is the least of their concerns."
Most of all, Syrians realized that their emotional roller coaster ride would continue. The postponement seemed bound to lengthen the period of suspense that has lingered for days.
Before the speech, Syrians spent the day discussing, debating and preparing for the attacks. They scoured corner shops for canned food, flashlights and candles; official news channels blasted patriotic music; and soldiers decamped to mosques and schools as the government tried to disperse its forces and arms into civilian buildings.
In central Damascus, where families still gather on weekends in parks with neatly planted flowers and splashing fountains, some people were sure the attacks would bring new dangers -- of what kind, they could not be sure -- while others said that whatever came next could not be worse than what they were used to.
One woman, a 29-year-old marketing executive, joked that the only difference would be the sounds: trading the thumps of both sides' mortars and the screech of the government's Russian-made MIG fighter jets for the thunder of Tomahawk missiles.
Syria's state broadcast channels synchronized their programming, continuing the solemn wartime programming that had played all day. They had canceled movies and dramas, mixing triumphal montages of cheering crowds and military exercises with more sedate fare. A report about the government's plans to offer free feed to herders suffering from the war's economic effects lingered over images of fat sheep grazing in dusty fields.
Across the country, rebels, government troops and civilians alike scurried to prepare. Fighters in the Free Syrian Army rebel coalition, who have long begged the United States to aid them more forcefully, honed plans to storm government bases, while their sometime allies in extremist Islamist groups -- convinced they were as much a target as the government -- scrambled for cover, taking down banners outside Shariah courthouses and headquarters and moving to new locations.
"We're very stressed here," said Abu Yoarob, a fighter with the Ansar al-Islam brigade in the northern province of Aleppo. "It's affecting our nerves."
Anne Barnard reported from Beirut, and Hala Droubi from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Hwaida Saad contributed reporting from Beirut; employees of The New York Times from Beirut and Damascus, Syria; and Karam Shomali from Antakya, Turkey.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.