BEIRUT, (Reuters) – Syria’s government hailed as a “victory” a Russian-brokered deal that has averted U.S. strikes, while President Barack Obama defended a chemical weapons pact that the rebels fear has bolstered their enemy in the civil war.
President Bashar al-Assad’s jets and artillery hit rebel suburbs of the capital again yesterday in an offensive that residents said began last week when Obama delayed air strikes in the face of opposition from Moscow and his own electorate.
Speaking of the U.S.-Russian deal, Syrian minister Ali Haidar told Moscow’s RIA news agency: “These agreements … are a victory for Syria, achieved thanks to our Russian friends.”
Though not close to Assad, Ali was the first Syrian official to react to Saturday’s accord in Geneva by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Bridging an angry East-West rift over Syria, they agreed to back a nine-month U.N. programme to destroy Assad’s chemical arsenal.
The deal has put off the threat of air strikes Obama made after poison gas killed hundreds of Syrians on Aug. 21, although he has stressed that force remains an option if Assad reneges. U.S. forces remain in position. Russia still opposes military action but now backs possible U.N. sanctions for non-compliance.
French President Francois Hollande called for a U.N. resolution on Syria backed by the threat of punitive action to be voted by the end of this week. Hollande also said the option of military strikes must remain on the table.
Kerry, visiting Israel, responded to widespread doubts about the feasibility of the “the most far-reaching chemical weapons removal ever” by insisting the plan could work. And he and Obama sought to reassure Israelis the decision to hold fire on Syria does not mean Iran can pursue nuclear weapons with impunity.
Obama embraced the Syria disarmament proposal floated last week by Russian President Vladimir Putin after his plan for U.S. military action hit resistance in Congress. Lawmakers feared an open-ended new entanglement in the Middle East and were troubled by the presence of al Qaeda followers among Assad’s opponents.
Obama dismissed critics of his quick-changing tactics on Syria for focusing on “style” not substance. And while thanking Putin for pressing his “client the Assad regime” to disarm, he chided Russia for questioning Assad’s guilt over the gas attack.
Responding to concerns, notably in Israel, that a display of American weakness toward Assad could encourage his Iranian backers to develop nuclear weapons, Obama said Tehran’s nuclear programme was a “far larger issue” for him than Assad’s toxins.
“They shouldn’t draw a lesson, that we haven’t struck, to think we won’t strike Iran,” he told ABC television, disclosing he had exchanged letters with Iran’s new president. “On the other hand, what they should draw from this lesson is that there is the potential of resolving these issues diplomatically.”
Obama had no lack of critics, however, at home and abroad.
U.S. Republican Representative Mike Rogers was sceptical the deal will work. “If the president believes, like I do, that a credible military force helps you get a diplomatic solution, they gave that away in this deal. I’m really concerned about that,” Rogers said.
Even Obama’s Democratic supporters are wary. If Assad scorns his commitments, said Senator Robert Menendez, “We’re back to where we started – except Assad has bought more time on the battlefield and has continued to ravage innocent civilians.”
REBELS DISMISS TALKS
Syrian National Reconciliation Minister Ali said Syria welcomed the deal: “They have prevented a war against Syria by denying a pretext to those who wanted to unleash it.”
He also echoed Kerry and Lavrov in saying it might help Syrians “sit round one table to settle their internal problems”.
But rebels, calling the international focus on poison gas a sideshow, have dismissed talk the arms pact might herald peace talks and said Assad has stepped up an offensive with ordinary weaponry now that the threat of U.S. air strikes has receded.
A spokesman for the opposition Syrian National Coalition repeated that it wanted world powers to prevent Assad from using his air force, tanks and artillery on civilian areas.
“Assad is effectively being rewarded for the use of chemical weapons,” Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Doha Center wrote in the Atlantic magazine. “Now, he can get away with nearly anything – as long as he sticks to using good old conventional weapons.”
International responses to the accord were also guarded. Western governments, wary of Assad and familiar with the years frustrated U.N. 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.