Syrian official calls U.S.-Russia chemical weapons deal a victory for Assad

McClatchy Foreign StaffSeptember 15, 2013 

— A U.S.-Russian agreement for Syria to turn over its chemical weapons stockpiles and avoid American air strikes is a ‘victory’ for President Bashar Assad, the Syrian official in charge of reaching out to the government’s opponents declared Sunday.

Ali Haidar, the minister for national reconciliation, told the Russian news agency Ria Novosti that the accord, which calls for the destruction of Syria’s ability to produce and use its weapons by November and the elimination by the middle of next year of all materials that might be used to make chemical weapons, is a victory for the Syrian people over American hegemony.

"We welcome these agreements," Haidar said. "On one hand, it helps the Syrians emerge from the crisis and on the other it has allowed for averting war against Syria."

"It’s a victory for Syria that was achieved thanks to our Russian friends," Haidar said.

Haidar’s comments were the first by a Syrian official since U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov announced the deal in Geneva on Saturday. The deal calls for Syria to reveal what kinds of chemical weapons stores it has and where they are kept by the end of next week, with elimination of its ability to use the weapons coming by November.

The assumption is that, because the deal was reached with Russia, Syria would be likely to meet its terms; Russia is the source of most of the Syrian government’s weaponry as it fights a bitter civil war with rebels.

But the Syrian government has not explicitly said that it had agreed to the timetable and Assad has offered no comment. In interviews with Russian television last week, Assad said his country would reveal the details a month after it formally signed the Chemical Weapons Convention, which bans the toxic weapons. The United Nations said Syria’s accession to the convention will be official Oct. 14.

The agreement announced by Russia and the United States on Saturday said, however, that Syria had agreed to put the convention into effect even before its membership was official and that inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons should be allowed to begin their work in that country immediately.

With the subject of chemical weapons seemingly on the way to resolution, both Haidar and the anti-Assad rebels began campaigning to expand it to include other contentious issues in Syria’s civil war.

Haidar said he believed the agreement also should include a ban on military and logistical support for the rebels while spokesmen for the rebels said it should also prohibit Assad from using missiles and air power on urban areas.

The conventional war has claimed more than 100,000 lives from both sides of the conflict, far more than the hundreds killed in the Aug. 21 alleged chemical weapons attack in the suburbs east of Damascus that sparked the round of diplomacy that led to Saturday’s agreement.

The war is generally described as a stalemate, and most analysts believe the fighting will continue unabated. Rebels and their supporters have expressed bitter disappointment that the chemical weapons agreement appears to have stalled for now any possibility that the United States will launch an attack on Assad military sites.

An official statement from the Syrian National Coalition – the umbrella opposition organization that the United States recognizes as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people, called not only for banning the use of airplanes and ballistic missiles against rebellious urban areas but also demanded that regime officials face war crime charges for the Aug. 21 attack.

"The Syrian National Coalition insists that the prohibition of chemical weapons, the use of which has left more than 1,400 civilians dead, be extended to the use of ballistic missiles and aircraft against urban areas," the statement said. “Securing the regime’s chemical weapons must be accompanied by a search for justice with the perpetrators of the chemical weapons attacks brought before the International Criminal Court."

The statement did not criticize the agreement, but several officials from the Syrian Military Council, the U.S.-backed amalgam of rebel groups, have.

Meanwhile, the head of al Qaida, Ayman al Zawahiri, has urged rebels to refuse to work with the United States and its Gulf Arab allies and to focus on establishing an Islamic State in Syria. Two of the anti-Assad movement’s most effective organizations, the Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, are al Qaida affiliates.

"I warn my brothers and people in the Syria of unity and jihad against coming close to any of these groups," he said in an audio statement that was posted on the Internet last week. A translation by an al Qaida monitoring group was released Sunday.

Zawahiri also warned his followers not to attack civilians and warned that the group would act against those that do. Residents in areas controlled by Nusra and the Islamic State have complained that the groups have meted out brutal punishments on Syrians they deem insufficiently religious.

“All who shed the forbidden blood of a Muslim or non-Muslim, we are innocent of this act, and if they are from us then we will seek to hold them accountable," Zawahiri said.

Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent.

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