Syria hailed an "historic American retreat" after President Barack Obama delayed an imminent military strike by deciding to consult Congress.
As Obama stepped back from the brink, France said it could not act alone in punishing President Bashar al-Assad over a chemical weapons attack, making it the last remaining top Western ally to hesitate about bombing Syria.
"Obama announced yesterday, directly or through implication, the beginning of the historic American retreat," Syria's official al-Thawra newspaper said in a front-page editorial.
The US president said on Saturday he would seek congressional consent before taking military action against Damascus for the August 21 attack which he blames on Assad's forces - a decision likely to delay any strike for at least nine days.
Syria's deputy foreign minister Faisal Mekdad denounced any armed Western move against his government. "A decision to wage war on Syria is a criminal decision and an incorrect decision. We are confident that we will be victorious," he told reporters outside a hotel in Damascus.
However, Syria's opposition coalition called on Sunday on the US congress to grant approval for military action and said any intervention should be accompanied with more arms for the rebels.
Obama made his surprise announcement in a gamble that will test his ability to project American strength abroad and deploy his own power at home.
Before he put on the brakes, the path had been cleared for a US assault. Navy ships were in place and awaiting orders to launch missiles, and UN inspectors had left Syria after gathering evidence of a chemical weapons attack that US officials say killed 1429 people in rebel-held areas.
The United States had been expected to lead the strike soon, backed up by its NATO allies Britain and France. However, the Westminster parliament voted last Thursday against any British involvement and France said on Sunday it would await the US Congress's decision.
"France cannot go it alone," Interior Minister Manuel Valls told Europe 1 radio. "We need a coalition."
France, which ruled Syria for more than two decades until the 1940s, has, like the United States and Britain, the military strength to blitz the country in response to the poison gas attack on areas around Damascus, which the Syrian government has accused the rebels of staging.
Valls said Obama's announcement had created "a new situation" which meant France would have to wait "for the end of this new phase".
President Francois Hollande reaffirmed to Obama on Saturday his will to punish Syria but has come under increasing pressure to put the intervention to parliament.
A BVA poll on Saturday showed most French people do not approve of military action against Syria and most do not trust Hollande to conduct such an operation.
His prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault is scheduled to meet the heads of the two houses of the French parliament and the conservative opposition on Monday before a parliamentary debate on Syria on Wednesday.
Last month's attack was the deadliest incident of the Syrian civil war and the world's worst use of chemical arms since Iraq's Saddam Hussein gassed thousands of Kurds in 1988.
However, polls also show strong opposition to a strike on Assad's forces among Americans weary of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Congressional approval will more than a week, if it comes at all.
A senior Syrian rebel expressed concern about the delay, saying it gave Assad and his government the chance to keep killing and prepare from a missile or bomb attack.
"As days go by, more people get killed by the hands of this regime. Further delay for action gives them a chance to change the position of their weapons," said Mohammad Aboud, the Deputy Commander of eastern joint command of the Free Syrian Army.
"According to the intelligence that we have, we know that he exploits this delay to prepare for this strike," Aboud, a lieutenant who defected from Assad's forces, he said.
Foreign Ministers from the Arab League, which blamed Syria for the chemical attack but has so far stopped short of explicitly endorsing Western military strikes, are due to meet in Cairo on Sunday (local time).
Some analysts believe Syria could strike back at its neighbours in retaliation for any Western attack. On Sunday (local time) Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not mention Syria by name, but said: "Israel is serene and self-confident."
"Israel's citizens know well that we are prepared for any possible scenario. And Israel's citizens should also know that our enemies have very good reasons not to test our power and not to test our might," he said in public remarks to his cabinet before its weekly meeting.
Obama's credibility had already been called into question for not punishing Assad over earlier alleged gas attacks, and he is under pressure to act now that he believes Damascus has crossed what he once described as a "red line".
Some analysts say that if Assad goes unpunished, Iran will feel entirely free to press on with its nuclear programme. Tehran says this is peaceful but the West believes it wants to develop nuclear weapons. Any US failure to act might encourage Israel to take matters into its own hands, say analysts.
"If Obama is hesitating on the matter of Syria, then clearly on the question of attacking Iran - a move that is expected to be far more complicated - Obama will hesitate much more, and thus the chances Israel will have to act alone have increased," Israeli Army Radio quoted an unnamed government official as saying.
Iranian Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani said world opinion stood against any attack on its ally Syria, pointing to the British parliament's rejection of military action.
In the Vatican City, Pope Francis called for a negotiated solution to the conflict in Syria and announced he would lead a worldwide day of prayer for peace in the country on Sept. 7.
Obama's approach has left in doubt whether the United States will carry through with the military steps that the president has already approved. Backing from congress is by no means assured, with many Democrats and Republicans uneasy about intervening in a distant civil war in which 100,000 people have been killed over the past 2-1/2 years.
Lawmakers for the most part welcomed Obama's decision but looked in no hurry to come back to Washington early from their summer recess, which lasts until September 9.
The team of UN experts arrived in the Netherlands on Saturday (local time) carrying evidence and samples relating to the attack. They had flown from Beirut after crossing the border into Lebanon by road earlier in the day.
Syria and its main ally, Russia, say rebels carried out the gas attack as a ploy to draw in foreign military intervention. Moscow has repeatedly used its UN Security Council veto to block action against Syria and says any attack would be illegal and only inflame the civil war there.
"I am convinced that (the chemical attack) is nothing more than a provocation by those who want to drag other countries into the Syrian conflict," Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Saturday.
A group of rebel fighters and activists visited by a reporter in Aleppo city felt there would now be no US strike. "This is the same old hesitancy that the United States have tortured us with since the beginning of the revolution," one said
OBAMA SEEKS CONGRESS OK
Short on support at home and allies abroad, President Barack Obama unexpectedly stepped back from a missile attack against Syria on Saturday (early Sunday morning, NZT) and instead asked Congress to support a strike punishing Bashar Assad's regime for the alleged use of chemical weapons.
With Navy ships on standby in the Mediterranean Sea ready to launch their cruise missiles, Obama said he had decided the United States should take military action and that he believes that as commander in chief, he has "the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorisation."
At the same time, he said, "I know that the country will be stronger if we take this course and our actions will be even more effective." His remarks were televised live in the United States as well as on Syrian state television with translation.
Congress is scheduled to return from a summer vacation on September 9, and in anticipation of the coming debate, Obama challenged lawmakers to consider "what message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children to death in plain sight and pay no price."
The president didn't say so, but his strategy carries enormous risks to his and the nation's credibility, which the administration has argued forcefully is on the line in Syria. Obama long ago said the use of chemical weapons was a "red line" that Assad would not be allowed to cross with impunity.
Nor would the White House say what options would still be open to the president if he fails to win the backing of the House and Senate for the military measures he has threatened.
Only this week, British Prime Minister David Cameron suffered a humiliating defeat when the House of Commons refused to support his call for military action against Syria.
Halfway around the world, Syrians awoke Saturday to state television broadcasts of tanks, planes and other weapons of war, and troops training, all to a soundtrack of martial music. Assad's government blames rebels in the August 21 attack, and has threatened retaliation if it is attacked.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying he was appealing to a Nobel Peace laureate rather than to a president, urged Obama to reconsider. A group that monitors casualties in the long Syrian civil war challenged the US to substantiate its claim that 1429 died in a chemical weapons attack, including more than 400 children.
By accident or design, the new timetable gives time for UN inspectors to receive lab results from the samples they took during four days in Damascus, and to compile a final report. After leaving Syria overnight, the inspection team arrived in Rotterdam a few hours before Obama spoke.
The group's leader was expected to brief Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Sunday.
Administration officials said Obama appeared set on ordering a strike until Friday evening. After a long walk in near 90-degree temperatures around the White House grounds with Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, the president told his aide he had changed his mind.
These officials said Obama initially drew pushback in a two-hour session attended by Vice President Joe Biden, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Director of National Intelligence James Klapper, CIA Director John Brennan, national security adviser Susan Rice and homeland security adviser Lisa Monaco. They declined to say which of the participants had argued against Obama's proposal.
Whatever Congress ultimately decides, the developments marked a stunning turn.
France is Obama's only major foreign ally to date for a strike, public polling shows support is lukewarm in the United States, and dozens of lawmakers in both parties have signed a letter urging Obama not to act without their backing. Outside the gates of the White House, the chants of protesters could be heard as the president stepped to a podium set up in the Rose Garden.
Had he gone ahead with a military strike, Obama would have become the first US leader in three decades to attack a foreign nation without mustering broad international support or acting in direct defense of Americans. Not since 1983, when President Ronald Reagan ordered an invasion of the Caribbean island of Grenada, has the US been so alone in pursuing major lethal military action beyond a few attacks responding to strikes or threats against its citizens.
Republicans generally expressed satisfaction at Obama's decision to seek congressional support, and challenged him to make his case to the public and lawmakers alike that American power should be used to punish Assad.
"We are glad the president is seeking authorisation for any military action in Syria in response to serious, substantive questions being raised," House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and other House Republican leaders said in a joint statement.
"In consultation with the president, we expect the House to consider a measure the week of September 9. This provides the president time to make his case to Congress and the American people."
New York Republican Rep. Peter King was among the dissenters, strongly so. "President Obama is abdicating his responsibility as commander in chief and undermining the authority of future presidents," he said. "The president doesn't need 535 members of Congress to enforce his own red line."
For now, it appeared that the administration's effort at persuasion was already well underway.
The administration plunged into a series of weekend briefings for lawmakers, both classified and unclassified, and Obama challenged lawmakers to consider "what message will we send to a dictator" if he is allowed to kill hundreds of children with chemical weapons without suffering any retaliation.
At the same time, a senior State Department official said Secretary of State John Kerry spoke with Syrian Opposition Coalition President Ahmed Assi al-Jarba to underscore Obama's commitment to holding the Assad government accountable for the August 21 attack.
Obama said Friday he was considering "limited and narrow" steps to punish Assad, adding that US national security interests were at stake. He pledged no US combat troops on the ground in Syria, where a civil war has claimed more than 100,000 civilian lives.
In Syria, some rebels expressed unhappiness with the president, one rebel commander said he did not consider Obama's decision to be a retreat. "On the contrary, he will get the approval for congress and then the military action will have additional credibility," said Qassem Saadeddine.
"Just because the strike was delayed by few days doesn't mean it's not going to happen," he said.
With Obama struggling to gain international backing for a strike, Putin urged him to reconsider his plans. "We have to remember what has happened in the last decades, how many times the United States has been the initiator of armed conflict in different regions of the world, said Putin, a strong Assad ally. "Did this resolve even one problem?"
Even the administration's casualty estimate was grist for controversy.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an organisation that monitors casualties in the country, said it has confirmed 502 deaths, nearly 1000 fewer than the American intelligence assessment claimed.
Rami Abdel-Rahman, the head of the organisation, said he was not contacted by US officials about his efforts to collect information about the death toll in the August 21 attacks.
"America works only with one part of the opposition that is deep in propaganda," he said, and urged the Obama administration to release the information its estimate is based on.
WHITE HOUSE SENDS CONGRESS DRAFT SYRIA RESOLUTION
The White House has sent Congress a draft of a resolution authorising President Barack Obama to use military force against Syria.
The draft follows through on Obama's decision, announced Saturday, to seek congressional approval for a strike against Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime.
The resolution lays out the administration's claim that Assad's regime killed more than 1000 last week in a chemical weapons attack. It says the objective of a US military response would be to "deter, disrupt, prevent and degrade" the regime's ability to use chemical weapons going forward.
The resolution authorises Obama to use the military as he determines "necessary and appropriate" to serve that goal.
The draft doesn't lay out a timeline for action. But it does say only a political settlement can resolve the Syrian crisis.