BEIRUT -- At the end of a nerve-racking day in the cross hairs of American gunships, Syrians gathered around their televisions Saturday to watch President Barack Obama announce the start of an expected U.S. missile strike.
When instead, he declared 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 a group of 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, they are trying to hide it but they are afraid," added Mohammed, who gave only his first name for safety reasons.
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. "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 President Bashar Assad for deadly chemical attacks last week that U.S. 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 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 U.S. 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.