Deal with Syria on chemical weapons strengthens Assad
- Article by: ANNE BARNARD New York Times
- September 15, 2013 - 9:41 PM
BEIRUT, Lebanon – Both sides in Syria’s civil war see the deal to dismantle President Bashar Assad’s chemical weapons stockpiles as a major turning point. It left rebels deflated and government supporters jubilant. And both sides say it means the United States knows Assad is not going anywhere anytime soon.
The agreement between the United States and Russia, Assad’s most powerful backer, ended weeks of tension over the possibility of an imminent U.S. military strike. Plans for such a strike have been put aside while the diplomatic process surrounding the agreement plays out, engaging Assad’s government and infusing it with new confidence that could have immediate effects.
Rebels who had hoped to capitalize on a military strike to regain momentum in the fighting are now bracing for the opposite, expecting Assad to press the battle more aggressively with conventional weapons, which they bitterly note have killed scores of times as many civilians as chemical weapons have.
Rebels and analysts critical of Assad’s government say he has a well-established pattern of agreeing to diplomatic initiatives to buy time, only to go on escalating the fighting on the ground. For example, when Assad accepted Arab League monitors in the country in late 2011 and early 2012, he also intensified his crackdown on opponents, and shortly afterward he began the large-scale bombardments of rebel-held areas.
Kamel Wazne, a Lebanese analyst who has close contacts with senior members of Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia that has sent fighters to aid Assad’s forces, said Sunday that the deal allowed the side of the Syrian government to exhale. “Whether the Americans like it or not,” he said, “when you negotiate the deal with the Russians as representatives of Bashar al-Assad, you acknowledged his existence and his continuation in power.”
Even though U.S. officials keep saying that their threat of military force remains, Wazne added, the Syrian government was now reassured that there would be no strikes anytime soon, and that “at least for today, life is normal in Damascus.”
In Washington, President Obama portrayed the agreement with Russia as a victory on an issue more important to American interests than the outcome of the war in Syria: curbing the use and proliferation of chemical weapons around the world.
The widespread perception in the region, however, is that every player had gained something in the past few weeks except the rebels — and, in large part, Syrian civilians, who human rights groups say have been systematically attacked by the government, and who have suffered abuses from both sides.
Wazne listed the winners: Obama avoided a potentially embarrassing defeat in Congress over the use of force in Syria; the Russian and Syrian governments bought time for Assad; Israel can look forward to the removal of a chemical arsenal on its border and Iran, which had threatened to retaliate for a military strike on its ally Syria, avoided escalating confrontation with the West.
Opponents of Assad expressed worry that the effort to eliminate the chemical weapons might stall or be evaded, and that even if the weapons are successfully eliminated, Assad would gain strength from the deal if it is not accompanied by significantly increased military aid to the rebels.
Samir Nashar, a member of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, the main opposition group in exile, said that the subtext of the agreement appeared to be that Assad would remain in power until at least through mid-2014, when the deal calls for the clearing of his chemical weapons stockpiles to be complete. Meanwhile, he said, the rebel fighters who are under the Western-backed coalition’s umbrella will continue to lose ground, not only to Assad’s forces but also to extremist rivals among the rebels.
“This chaos will be extended,” Nashar said in an interview in Istanbul.
More time for another goal
Assad appeared to have bought time for another goal as well: his current term as president ends in 2014, and his supporters have long said that he would hang on to complete his term and seek another, and that the West, fearing radical Islamists among the rebels, would acquiesce.
Rebels and their supporters reacted angrily Sunday to an assertion by Obama that the deal could ensure that “the worst weapons, the indiscriminate weapons that don’t distinguish between a soldier and an infant, are not used.”
The Syrian government’s air and artillery strikes on civilian neighborhoods also do not discriminate between combatants and noncombatants, they said, and the Assad forces have shown few qualms about inflicting suffering on civilians.
© 2013 Star Tribune