BEIRUT – As negotiations to avert a U.S. strike against Syria ramped up last week, so, too, did the action on the ground. Warplanes dropped bombs over far-flung Syrian towns that hadn’t seen airstrikes in weeks, government forces went on the attack in the hotly contested suburbs of Damascus, rebels launched an offensive in the south, and a historic Christian town changed hands at least four times.
At the close of a week hailed in Moscow and Washington as a triumph of diplomacy over war, more than 1,000 people died in the fighting in Syria, the latest casualties in a conflict that has killed more than 100,000 people.
Indeed, some analysts fear that the deal struck in Geneva between Russia and the United States over a mechanism to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal may actually prolong a war being fought over issues far more profound than the parameters of a specific weapons program.
The poison gas attack that killed hundreds of people in the suburbs of Damascus last month accounted for fewer than 1 percent of the deaths in the 2½-year-old Syrian conflict. Meanwhile, both sides are stepping up conventional attacks in the absence of any sign of a broader settlement.
The Geneva agreement, under which Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government is expected to submit to U.N. inspections and ultimately surrender its chemical program, has thrust the issue of weapons of mass destruction to the forefront of a fight that evolved from a wildly different set of circumstances, rooted mostly in the quest for greater freedoms known as the Arab Spring.
The deal requires Assad’s government to comply with the destruction of his chemical weapons program by the middle of 2014, which would appear to ease any pressure on him to stand down before elections earlier in the year. At the same time, the accord removes, at least for now, the threat of U.S. intervention, which may have held in check some of the more violent impulses of a well-armed government battling a broad-based rebellion.
Reflecting the relief felt by the regime in Damascus, a Syrian minister on Sunday hailed the accord struck in Geneva.
“It is a victory for Syria that was achieved thanks to our Russian friends,” Minister of State for National Reconciliation Ali Haidar was quoted as saying by the Russian news agency Ria Novosti.
The deal left unaddressed the many other complexities that have helped turn Syria’s war into one of the bloodiest and most intractable in decades. Questions such as whether Assad should stay in power, how to get him to the negotiating table and what to do about the fighters’ conventional weapons remain unresolved, said Amr Al Azm, a professor of history at Ohio’s Shawnee State University who supports the opposition.
In an interview aired Sunday, President Obama said he was hopeful that the agreement on chemical weapons would lead to further measures to stem the bloodshed in Syria.
“What we can do is make sure that the worst weapons, the indiscriminate weapons that don’t distinguish between a soldier and an infant, are not used. And if we get that accomplished, then we may also have a foundation to begin what has to be an international process — in which Assad’s sponsors, primarily Iran and Russia, recognize that this is terrible for the Syrian people, and they are willing to come, in a serious way, to arrive at some sort of political settlement that would deal with the underlying terrible conflict,” he told ABC’s “This week.”
But a sharp escalation in nationwide violence over the past week underscored the extent to which the deal has rerouted the narrative of the war.
Meanwhile, the U.N. said its chief chemical weapons inspector has turned over his team’s report on the alleged poison gas attack to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said the report was transmitted Sunday and Ban will brief a closed session of the U.N. Security Council on its contents Monday morning. He will brief the 193-member General Assembly later in the day.
The team was mandated to report on whether chemical weapons were used in the Aug. 21 attack and, if so, which chemical agents were used — not on who was responsible.