During talks on Syria’s chemical weapons, fighting on the ground escalated

The head of Syria's main armed opposition group, Gen. Salim Idris, criticized the agreement between the U.S. and Russia for the Assad regime to give up its chemical weapons. Meanwhile, doubts persist on how realistic the operation can be in an active war zone.
September 15, 2013

As negotiations to avert a U.S. strike against Syria ramped up last week, so, too, did the action on the ground. Warplanes dropped bombs over far-flung Syrian towns that hadn’t seen airstrikes in weeks, government forces went on the attack in the hotly contested suburbs of Damascus, rebels launched an offensive in the south, and a historic Christian town changed hands at least four times.

At the close of a week hailed in Moscow and Washington as a triumph of diplomacy over war, more than 1,000 people died in the fighting in Syria, the latest casualties in a conflict that has killed more than 100,000 people and can be expected to claim many more.

Indeed, some analysts fear that the deal struck in Geneva between Russia and the United States over a mechanism to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal may actually prolong a war being fought over issues far more profound than the parameters of a specific weapons program.

The poison gas attack that killed hundreds of people in the suburbs of Damascus last month accounted for fewer than 1 percent of the deaths in the 21 / 2-year-old Syrian conflict. Meanwhile, both sides are stepping up conventional attacks in the absence of any sign of a broader settlement.

The Geneva agreement, under which Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government is expected to submit to U.N. inspections and ultimately surrender its chemical program, has thrust the issue of weapons of mass destruction to the forefront of a fight that evolved from a wildly different set of circumstances, rooted mostly — though not entirely — in the quest for greater freedoms known as the Arab Spring.

What chemical weapons does Syria have?

The deal requires Assad’s government to comply with the destruction of his chemical weapons program by the middle of 2014, which would appear to ease any pressure on him to stand down before elections earlier in the year. At the same time, the accord removes, at least for now, the threat of U.S. intervention, which may have held in check some of the more violent impulses of a well-armed government battling a broad-based rebellion.

Reflecting the relief felt by the regime in Damascus, a Syrian minister on Sunday hailed the accord struck in Geneva.

“It is a victory for Syria that was achieved thanks to our Russian friends,” Minister of State for National Reconciliation Ali Haidar was quoted as saying by the Russian news agency Ria Novosti.

The deal left unaddressed the many other complexities that have helped turn Syria’s war into one of the bloodiest and most intractable in decades. Questions such as whether Assad should stay in power, how to get him to the negotiating table and what to do about the fighters’ conventional weapons remain unresolved, said Amr Al Azm, a professor of history at Ohio’s Shawnee State University, who is Syrian and supports the opposition.

Regime ‘on the offensive’

In an interview aired Sunday, President Obama said he was hopeful that the agreement on chemical weapons would lead to further measures to stem the bloodshed in Syria.

“What we can do is make sure that the worst weapons, the indiscriminate weapons that don’t distinguish between a soldier and an infant, are not used. And if we get that accomplished, then we may also have a foundation to begin what has to be an international process — in which Assad’s sponsors, primarily Iran and Russia, recognize that this is terrible for the Syrian people, and they are willing to come, in a serious way, to arrive at some sort of political settlement that would deal with the underlying terrible conflict,” he told ABC’s “This week.”

But a sharp escalation in nationwide violence over the past week underscored the extent to which the deal has rerouted the narrative of the war — at least temporarily.

For several days after Obama indicated that he was prepared to use force to punish the Syrian government for its gas attack on Aug. 21, in which 350 to 1,429 people are reported to have died, the daily death toll plunged into the low dozens.

Over the past week, the numbers have soared again into the hundreds, according to figures compiled by the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and other groups that monitor casualties.

“Now that the threat is over, the regime has regrouped and is back on the offensive with a vengeance,” Azm said.

In al-Bab, a rural town in northern Aleppo province that ejected government forces over a year ago, an unexpected wave of airstrikes in the hours that coincided with the Geneva deal killed at least 30 people, 11 of them in the town’s hospital, activists said.

In Damascus’s eastern suburbs, where missiles packed with chemicals were fired on Aug. 21, the rate of shelling has doubled in 10 days, according to activists there. Warplanes have been back in action for the first time in months, said Mohammed al-Doumani, who monitors activity in the suburb of Douma.

Rebels intensify action

Rebels — some of them loosely grouped under the label of the Free Syrian Army and answerable to officers allied with Western powers, and others designated terrorists by the U.S. government — also have stepped up their activities.

In the remote town of Maaloula, renowned for its ancient Christian heritage, rebels and government forces continued fighting for control of the mountainous area northwest of the Syrian capital.

Rebel fighters also have been on the offensive in the south and in the central province of Hama. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that 12 civilian members of Assad’s minority Alawite sect were killed by fighters from the extremist ­Jabhat al-Nusra organization in a village in the province, in circumstances that were unclear. A report last week by Human Rights Watch spelled out the circumstances in which hundreds of Sunni Muslim civilians supportive of the revolt against Assad were killed by pro-government militias in northwestern Syria earlier in the year.

Now that the focus of the Syria debate has shifted to the dismantling of chemical weapons, there is no incentive for either side to refrain from other forms of violence, said Emile Hokayem, a Bahrain-based analyst with the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

The chemical weapons accord coincides with a rapid expansion in territory held by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, a group affiliated with al Qaeda. The agreement is likely to further increase support for the extremists, Hokayem said.

“The more-radical rebels, who feel vindicated and validated that the West is not to be relied on, will have no need to hold back,” he said. And, he added, “there is nothing in the deal to restrain the regime from further violence, and it may go further than it has before to exact vengeance.”

Liz Sly is the Post’s Beirut bureau chief. She has spent more than 15 years covering the Middle East, including the Iraq war. Other postings include Africa, China and Afghanistan.
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