Free Syrian Army fighters hold their weapons while
riding on a vehicle in Aleppo.
Assad forces on attack after arms deal
Damascus, September 15, 2013
Syrian warplanes and artillery bombarded rebel suburbs of the capital on Sunday after the US agreed to call off military action in a deal with Russia to remove President Bashar al-Assad's chemical weapons.
President Barack Obama said he may still launch US strikes if Damascus fails to follow a nine-month UN disarmament plan drawn up by Washington and Assad's ally Moscow. But a reluctance among US voters and Western allies to engage in a new Middle East war, and Russian opposition, has put any attacks on hold.
Syrian rebels, calling the international focus on poison gas a sideshow, dismissed talk the arms pact might herald peace talks and said Assad had stepped up an offensive with ordinary weaponry now that the threat of US air strikes had receded.
International responses to Saturday's accord were guarded. Western governments, wary of Assad and familiar with the years frustrated UN weapons inspectors spent in Saddam Hussein's Iraq, noted the huge technical difficulties in destroying one of the world's biggest chemical arsenals in the midst of civil war.
Assad's key sponsor Iran hailed a US retreat from "extremist behaviour" and welcomed its "rationality". Israel, worried that US leniency toward Assad may encourage Tehran to develop nuclear arms, said the deal would be judged on results.
China, which like Russia opposes US readiness to use force in other sovereign states, was glad of the renewed role for the United Nations Security Council, where Beijing too has a veto.
The Syrian government has formally told the UN it will adhere to a treaty banning chemical weapons but made no comment in the day since US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov patched over bitter differences between Washington and Moscow to set a framework for the United Nations to remove Assad's banned arsenal by mid-2014.
Air strikes, shelling and infantry attacks on suburbs of Damascus through Sunday morning offered evidence in support of opinions from both Assad's Syrian opponents and supporters that he is again taking the fight to rebels after a lull following the Aug. 21 gas attack that provoked the threat of US action.
"It's a clever proposal from Russia to prevent the attacks," one Assad supporter told Reuters from the port of Tartous, site of a Russian naval base. "Russia will give us new weapons that are better than chemical weapons," he added. "We are strong enough to save our power and fight the terrorists."
An opposition activist in Damascus echoed disappointment among rebel leaders: "Helping Syrians would mean stopping the bloodshed," he said. Poison gas is estimated to have killed only hundreds of the more than 100,000 dead in a war that has also forced a third of the population to flee their homes since 2011.
The deal, suggested by Russian President Vladimir Putin, resolved a dilemma for Obama, who found Congress unwilling to back the military response he prepared following the release of sarin gas in rebel suburbs of Damascus. Obama blames Assad for some 1,400 dead civilians; Assad and Putin accuse the rebels.
Assad has just a week to begin complying with the US-Russian deal by handing over a full account of his chemical arsenal. He must allow UN-backed inspectors from the Hague-based Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to complete their initial on-site checks by November.
Under the Geneva pact, the US and Russia will back a UN enforcement mechanism. But its terms are not yet set. Russia is unlikely to support the military option that Obama said he was still ready to use: "If diplomacy fails, the United States remains prepared to act," he said on Saturday.
The Pentagon said its forces were still poised to strike.
Assad told Russian state television last week that his cooperation was dependent on an end to such threats and US support for rebel fighters. It seems likely that Moscow can prevail on him to comply, at least initially, with a deal in which Putin has invested no little personal prestige.
While Lavrov stressed in Geneva that the pact did not include any automatic use of force in the event of Syria's failure to comply, Western leaders said only the credible prospect of being bombed had persuaded Assad to agree to give up weaponry which he had long denied ever having, let along using. - Reuters