Over the weekend, the administration’s damage control spin over Syria continued in full force. As Reuters reports, Obama, in an interview on ABC’s “This Week With George Stephanopolous,” defended his handling of the Syria crisis and dismissed criticism of his zig-zag approach to the issue as an argument about style. Obama also said he and new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani had exchanged letters about the situation in Syria and that the Iranians understand the U.S. concern about a potential nuclear-armed Iran “is a far larger issue” for the United States. Obama dismissed Putin’s charge that it was the Syrian rebels who launched the chemical weapons attack, instead of forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, as Washington believes. “Well, nobody around the world takes seriously the idea that the rebels were the perpetrators of this,” Obama said. Nobody perhaps, except for 9 out of 20 G-20 nations, including all of the BRIC and a major portion of America’s population who have seen this exact same movie in the past.
But while Obama and Kerry were both backpedalling furiously even as they were taking full credit for pulling Syria from the brink of war where they took it, it was Syria who was rejoicing: Syria’s Minister for National Reconciliation said on Sunday that the chemical weapons agreement between Russia and the United States was a “victory” for Damascus, won by its Russian allies, and had taken away the pretext for war. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called on Saturday in Geneva on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to account for his chemical weapons within a week. The deal may avert U.S. military strikes.
“This agreement, an achievement of Russian diplomats and the Russian leadership, is a victory for Syria won thanks to our Russian friends,” Ali Haidar told Russian news agency RIA.
“We welcome this agreement. From one point of view, it will help Syrians exit the crisis, from another, it has prevented a war against Syria, having taken away the pretext for one from those who wanted to unleash (it),” he said.
It was not clear if the comments by Ali Haidar, who is not in President Bashar al-Assad’s inner circle of decision-makers, reflects the president’s views.
Other international reactions to the deal depended where on the US vs Russia axis any given country fell:
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.
Assad’s key sponsor Iran hailed a U.S. retreat from “extremist behaviour” and welcomed its “rationality”. Israel, worried that U.S. leniency toward Assad may encourage Tehran to develop nuclear arms, said the deal would be judged on results.
China, which like Russia opposes U.S. 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.
Still, while Syria may be rejoicing, and D.C. may be happy to have put this latest foreign relations humiliation behind it, there is still a possibility that the tentative Syria agreement could still fall apart. Here is a quick summary from the WSJ of the four reasons why the hastily cobbled together chemical weapon disarmament deal could fall apart.
Here are some of the deadlines laid out in the framework agreement Saturday between Messrs. Kerry and Lavrov and what could go wrong with them:
The requirement: By next Friday, Syria is required to provide a declaration of its chemical weapons stockpile to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
The potential risk: Syria may not be able or willing to make a full and truthful disclosure on time. The Wall Street Journal reported recently that the regime has been moving its arsenal, and any sign that it is not acting in good faith could imperil the deal.
The requirement: Syria is required to provide “immediate and unfettered” access to OPCW inspectors.
The potential risk: Syria has shown little hospitality to international monitors, even in the very recent past. Snipers fired last month at United Nations inspectors trying to reach the site of the Aug. 21 chemical attack that precipitated the current crisis, and the regime in the past has held up the entry of U.N. workers trying to investigate evidence of chemical attacks.
The requirement: Initial inspections of Syria’s chemical weapons needs to be completed by November.
The potential risk: It’s an aggressive timetable for a country like Syria and for a war zone.
The requirement: U.S. and Russia want to dismantle all of Syria’s chemical-weapon program in the first half of 2014.
The potential risk: If the U.S. and Russia can’t get past the agreement’s first steps, they are much less likely to complete the dismantling.
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Still, for all talk of change, it appears there has been none:
Air strikes, shelling and infantry attacks on suburbs of Damascus through Sunday backed up statements from Assad’s supporters as well as opponents that he is back on the offensive after a lull in which his troops took up defensive positions, expecting U.S. strikes.
“It’s a clever proposal from Russia to prevent the attacks,” said an Assad supporter from the city of Tartous. “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.
Russia says it is not specifically supporting Assad – though it has provided much of his weaponry in the past. Its concern, it says, is to prevent Assad’s Western and Arab enemies from imposing their will on Syria. And Moscow, like Assad, highlights the role of al Qaeda-linked Islamists among the rebel forces.
There was heavy fighting overnight in Jobar, a rebel-held area just east of downtown Damascus, opposition activists from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Sunday. Residents counted three air strikes on neighbouring Barzeh and there were clashes in other parts of the metropolis, too.
In the government-held centre, however, schools reopened on Sunday after the summer break and traffic was heavy – further signs the authorities see the U.S. threat has passed for now. Many schools had been used earlier in the month to house troops evacuated from barracks that might have become U.S. targets.
For now, Assad’s victory is complete:
Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Doha Center wrote in the Atlantic magazine: “Assad is effectively being rewarded for the use of chemical weapons … Now, he can get away with nearly anything – as long as he sticks to using good old conventional weapons.”
At least until the next provocation.