WASHINGTON — The U.S.-Russian deal to seize Syria’s chemical weapons is likely to keep Bashar Assad in office for at least many months to come in a major setback for Syrian opposition figures who now face the prospect of negotiating with what they fear will be an emboldened regime with its superior military intact.
The Obama administration hailed Saturday’s chemical weapons deal as a diplomatic breakthrough that it hopes will kick-start parallel talks on a political solution to the broader civil war that’s killed more than 100,000 people. For that to happen, however, U.S. officials would have to convince Syrian opposition members to buy into a process that would force them to trust Assad and Western interlocutors – at a time when the opposition feels burned by both.
“This is slow-motion genocide,” said Rafif Jouejati, a Washington-based Syrian dissident who’s currently in Istanbul to meet with other anti-Assad activists. “You have to sit with your executioner, or accept that the international community has given the green light for your executioner to keep killing.”
For more than two years, Assad’s opponents have hoped that constant allegations about the regime’s brutalities would persuade reluctant Western powers to intervene on behalf of the outgunned rebels. The opposition was gambling that outside strikes would either have a domino effect that would collapse the regime or at least weaken Assad’s military enough to force him into a negotiated transition from power.
But under the U.S.-Russian deal, the opposition gets neither, while Assad is able to avoid potentially crippling U.S. missile strikes. If the opposition fails to show for peace talks, it is they who will be branded as uncooperative.
“Did we just legitimize a regime we’ve spent the past two-and-a-half years delegitimizing?” said Mohammed Alaa Ghanem, a Washington-based opposition activist with the Syrian American Council. “The international community’s moral ambiguity of the past seems to have been replaced by a dangerous clarity – it’s only the chemical weapons now. This new framing is a problem, a huge problem, for us.”
So far, Istanbul-based opposition leaders have reacted bitterly to the deal, which was brokered in Geneva by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and lays out steps culminating in the full destruction of Assad’s chemical arsenal by mid-2014.
Opposition leaders say they support ridding Syria of chemical weapons but hold little faith that Assad will comply. Already, they’re arguing that he’s violated the conditions of the U.S.-Russia deal by transferring weapons out of the country – something the deal specifically calls a violation.
“We have told our friends that the regime has begun moving a part of its chemical weapons arsenal to Lebanon and Iraq. We told them not to be fooled,” Gen. Salim Idriss, of the rebel Supreme Military Council, said at a briefing on the sidelines of a Syrian opposition meeting in Istanbul. There has been no confirmation of Idriss’ assertion.
The opposition said it’s rejecting the U.S.-Russia plan because it omits any mention of punishment for Assad’s use of chemical weapons – especially the alleged mass-casualty attack on Aug. 21 – and didn’t spell out military action should he fail to comply with the disarmament process.
Idriss added that Kerry had telephoned him and told him that the option of military strikes was “still on the table.” But the agreement makes that a long shot at best, saying it could happen only if authorized by the U.N. Security Council, where Russia has a veto.
Idriss said the whole effort was undeserving of support.
“Russia is a partner with the regime in killing the Syrian people,” Idriss said. “A crime against humanity has been committed and there is not any mention of accountability.”
A spinoff problem of the chemical weapons deal, opposition activists said, is that the regime will have months to continue attacking rebellious areas with conventional arms now that the U.S. and others have made it clear they don’t want to be sucked into the Syrian civil war.
By some estimates, if the regime continues its current counteroffensive, it could retake huge swaths of territory, especially in contested Homs province, by the time the deal foresees the complete elimination of Syria’s chemical capabilities. By that time, opposition figures lament, U.S. strikes would be far less certain to give the rebels an upper hand militarily – if the U.S. showed any interest in launching them.
“The regime already has pushed its way through central Homs and, a couple months down the road, we could see the entire Homs province under regime control,” Ghanem, of the Syrian American Council, said.
It would seem then that the only way the opposition can stop the killing is to participate in negotiations based on the so-called Geneva communique, a document drafted in June 2012 by the Action Group for Syria, a collection of foreign ministers, the secretary-general of the United Nations and the Arab League.
Kerry and Lavrov said they’d meet later his month, probably around Sept. 28 when they’ll both be in New York for the U.N. General Assembly, with the goal of setting a date for a long-delayed peace summit that’s based on the Geneva document.
The communique called for an end to violence on both sides, with a U.N. team monitoring compliance. It also requires that hostilities be resolved through negotiations that would include members of the current government, opposition figures and other groups, all working to an eventual goal of free, multi-party elections.
The sticking point was what wasn’t explicitly laid out in the document: an opposition demand that Assad step aside before talks could begin. The demand was backed up by the Americans, including then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who said in June 2012 that Assad’s ouster didn’t have to be a precondition but should be “the outcome.” The Russians have always argued that the talks called for in the Geneva document didn’t hinge on Assad’s departure.
Daniel Layman, a spokesman for the Syrian Support Group, a Washington-based rebel fundraising group, said it was unclear whether the opposition would agree to attend talks under the Geneva framework.
“I can’t see Assad coming to the table under the preconditions the opposition has set, unless he’s backed into a corner militarily,” Layman said. “The Russians knew this, that they could make the opposition look like the bad guys if they could get Assad to make some concessions. It was calculated.”
Lavrov told reporters in Geneva on Saturday that Russia had supported the peace process from the beginning of the conflict, but that “it is very unfortunate that for a long period the Geneva communique was basically abandoned.”
Opposition figures on Saturday did address one other obstacle to their participation in eventual peace talks – their continued failure to name an interim government that would be expected to lead discussions from the opposition’s side.
The main opposition coalition – formally called the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces – on Saturday elected a dentist from eastern Syria as the prime minister of an interim government that is supposed to operate inside Syria. Dr. Ahmed Saleh Touma, 48, is from Deir el Zour, in the heart of Syria’s natural gas and oil producing region and has been active in anti-government activities from his mid-20s. He was one of the founding members of the 2005 Damascus Declaration, which called for a transition to democratic rule.
He was one of 12 Damascus Declaration leaders sent to jail for 2-1/2 years, and in July 2011, a few months after the start of anti-Assad protests, he was arrested again.
Touma won 75 votes of the 115 members of the Coalition’s inner council, with 10 voting against him and 30 either not voting or just marking themselves as “present” – a sign that the notoriously fractious coalition still lacks consensus. The group’s first prime minister, Ghassan Hitto, served just three months before he resigned in July.
The group’s current president, Ahmed Assi al Jarba, was elected in July. His predecessor, Moaz al Khatib, served just six months and was forced to resign after he said he favored negotiating with the government.
Gutman reported from Istanbul. Email: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @hannahallam, @roygutmanmcc