Syrian opposition stands to lose in new U.S. deal

MCCLATCHY WASHINGTON BUREAUSeptember 15, 2013 

Mideast Syria

Protesters who support the rebels’ cause in Syria gather Friday evening in Damascus to rally against the regime.

AP

WASHINGTON — The U.S.-Russian arrangement to seize Syria’s chemical weapons is likely to keep Bashar Assad in office for at least many months to come, a major setback for 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. “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.

Syrian rebels said Saturday that the deal leaves the regime unpunished for carrying out a chemical attack last month, while Assad exudes a new confidence in its aftermath.

Just moments after Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, announced the details of the agreement in Geneva, rebel commander Gen. Salim Idriss accused Syria and its ally Russia of “playing games” to bide time.

“What about the murderer Bashar who gave the order? Should we forget him?” Idriss said, speaking at a televised news conference in Istanbul. “We feel let down by the international community. We don’t have any hope.”

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.

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 — if the U.S. showed any interest in launching them.

Meanwhile, clashes between rebel groups, particularly pitting al-Qaida-linked extremist factions against more moderate units, have grown increasingly common in recent months. On Saturday, al-Qaida-affiliated rebels battled Syrian opposition fighters in a town along the Iraqi border, leaving at least five people dead.

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