SYRIA: Giving peace a chance

An agreement by Syria to give up chemical weapons has many in Damascus hoping that the war will soon be over

  • By Martin Chulov
  • 09 Oct 2013
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The visas were processed in less than one week, and the inspectors were in place not long after. Not at any point in the Syrian civil war has an international body found getting to Damascus so easy.

The rapid-fire permissions and open access granted to the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons’ technicians in early October marked a turning point for a regime that had made folly of all earlier efforts by the UN and Arab League to chronicle events on the battlefield.

This time, with Bashar al-Assad on the verge of giving up the most important strategic weapon in his arsenal, cooperation was open – and apparently sincere. Site visits were quickly planned to areas that only weeks ago were the deepest of state secrets. Officials presented inventories of chemical stores and local experts to help get rid of them.

On Sunday, a member of the UN team on the ground said that items such as missile warheads, aerial bombs as well as mixing and filing units had been destroyed, prompting US secretary of state John Kerry to praise Syria’s government. “I think it's extremely significant that yesterday, Sunday, within a week of the (UN) resolution being passed, some chemical weapons were being destroyed,” Kerry said during a speech in Indonesia. “I think it's a credit to the Assad regime, frankly. It's a good beginning and we welcome a good beginning.”

The new-found transparency followed one of the more dramatic fortnights in recent world history, a period that took the Levant to the brink of war – and back – and underscored to each of Syria’s myriad stakeholders just how close the region came to an apocalyptic all-in brawl.

Now with the main players – the Syrian regime, the US, Russia, Iran, Turkey and Israel – and the smaller ones, including Lebanon and Jordan, all drawing breath, common ground – largely based on the need to avoid another such scare – has been found for the first time in more than two and a half years.

All agree that Assad’s acceptance of a Russian call (more like a demand) that he give up his chemicals marks a moment for de-escalation and, potentially, yields the first hope of a tangible result at a peace summit in Geneva, mooted for November.

The journey from the edge of oblivion to nascent hope has been far shorter than anyone envisaged. But while it clearly reduces the risk of a western attack, its effects on the internecine war that continues to ravage the country is nowhere near as positive. Bogged down in a savage war of attrition, regime and opposition forces – jihadists among them – have vastly different takes on what the jolt of global diplomacy means for them.

In loyalist communities in Damascus, many now sense a way forward. “Like him or not, Bashar now has something to take to the negotiating table, a major concession,” says a resident of the Mezze district in the capital, who refused to be named. “We were sitting here like ducks, waiting for missiles a few weeks ago. I didn’t like that feeling at all, and it was shameful to see we were defending the regime’s dignity by being its human shield.

“But he is still a better option than the opposition. With this deal, he gives up control of an important weapon to restore control of the country.”

Another resident of Mezze, who called himself Abu Sharif, says: “There is a large number of middle ground, middle class here who have absolutely no reason to abandon the regime. The opposition are a dysfunctional rabble. They are not an alternative. The regime offers security – of sorts. The opposition offers vague promises and a future that no one can guarantee.”

SIGNS OF HOPE

Around Damascus, the air of foreboding that preceded the talk of air strikes has palpably lifted. The Syrian pound, battered by siege, shortfalls and the shutdown of much of the economy, even rallied in late September, recovering by around 40% in a fortnight to 175 per dollar. The cross-rate was still much worse than before the war started, but it does mark a partial return of confidence – and trade. Shuttered and empty for much of the past six months, the old market place around the Ummayad Mosque was bustling late in the month, mostly with exiles who had fled war zones elsewhere in Syria.

The tourist trade here is still non-existent, as it has been since early 2012. The Syrian tourism minister claims the loss to the sector since the war began is around $1.5 billion. With hotel occupation rates near zero for much of that time, the reality is likely to be far higher.

Just to the east of the capital’s ancient core, the grinding reality of enduring war looks very different. In west and east Ghouta, rural districts that were attacked by chemical-filled rockets on August 21, little gets in or out. A relentless siege is broken only by a few supply lines to Jordan – the same lines that were used to smuggle survivors across the border in the days and hours that followed the attack.

“It took us three days to get people out,” says a member of the Deraa Military Council who helped organize the evacuation. “As we got close to the border, the Jordanian intelligence was calling us every five minutes asking us where we were. When we finally got there, there were Americans (in civilian clothes) taking blood tests straight away.

“The people we got out went straight to France. I don’t know what happened to the (biological) samples, or the corpses.”

The heady aftermath of the chemical attack is still resonating, even as moves get underway to rid Syria of the lethal neurotoxins that were used to mount them. Western Europe’s main intelligence agencies, as well as the CIA, Israeli military intelligence and Jordan are convinced that the large-scale attack was ordered by senior members of the regime.

Israeli technical radar tracked the launching points of the chemical-laden rockets to within several square metres. The rockets – a 220mm variety that carried a chemical canister of around 56 litres, and a Soviet-vintage 140mm rocket that carried a much smaller quantity – were fired from north-west of the attack areas. The tracking data places many of the launch points inside a Republican Guard base, which is controlled by Bashar al-Assad’s older brother, Maher al-Assad.

Bashar al-Assad denied accusations that his government was behind the attacks in an interview with Russian media. In the rebel-held north of the country, the aftermath of the chemical attack has been followed closely, as each of the opposition groups tries to figure out what it means for them and the now-stalled cause of ousting the Assad regime. News of the deal to force the Syrian leader to give up his chemicals has been poorly received, as has a new-found dialogue between the US and Iran which, among other things, is widely thought to be a mutual stride towards the once moribund Geneva II.

“They want to deal this away, to make it disappear,” says Abu Hamza, a leader of a new rebel breakaway alliance announced in late-September. “They have made noises – and nothing more – for a year about helping us, and now they’re leaving us stranded.”

OPPOSITION SPLIT

Shortly after Barack Obama stood down US missile ships, 13 rebel groups announced they had split from the opposition’s peak civilian body, the Syrian National Council, and were distancing themselves from its western and Saudi-backed military wing.

The new grouping incorporates the al-Qa’ida-aligned Jabhat al-Nusra, but not the more dominant Islamic State of Iraq in Sham (ISIS) organization that subsumed al-Nusra in the north in May and has ever since attempted to instil an even more hard-line Islamic doctrine in parts of the country that it controls. ISIS’s posture is an increasing threat to the more mainstream opposition, who cite its fratricidal belligerence as a main reason for forming the new bloc.

“They are out on their own now,” says a fighter from the main opposition unit in Aleppo, Liwa al-Tawheed. “We expect the fight with them to start any day now.” Both the split among the jihadis and the ever-widening schism between the on-ground units and the exiled civilian and military leadership of the opposition drag the anti-Assad groupings further away from a realistic chance of toppling him.

“It’s not ideal, and this is what he wants in parts,” says Abdullah Kilani, a militia man speaking from Antakya in Turkey, of the Syrian leader, in mid-September. “But we have to be sure that we have the people with us that we need. There have been too many Trojan horses.”

While Assad, with the help of Hezbollah, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and Shia fighters from around the Arab world, remains in control of Damascus and much of the west of the country, his grip on power is perhaps illusory.

“He has surrendered his most important strategic weapon without firing a shot,” says a senior figure of the anti-Hezbollah alliance in Lebanon. “He cannot credibly sell that as a victory.”

Saudi Arabia too has sensed weakness in Damascus – as it has in Washington. Officials in Riyadh remain unconvinced that Barack Obama understands the region and how to negotiate its many pitfalls. “He’s a pussycat,” says one senior official. “You can’t negotiate after imposing sanctions.”

Obama’s remaining backers, however, say the chemical deal was a good outcome for the US. “It made clear to Assad that we were coming after him and that impunity has limits,” says a regional diplomat. “He needs to know that the threat of force remains.”

In Damascus, however, the wrath of a super power is perceived to have been a passing threat. In loyalist parts of the capital, some refuse to accept that the events of August 21 even took place, while many others blame the attack on rebel groups.

Here there is little appetite for another grinding year of war and much optimism that the current round of diplomacy is a way out. Bashar al-Assad remains a leader to the loyalists, for now, and an ally – albeit a diminished one – to Iran, Russia and Hezbollah. But with a war-weary public and an election due at home next year, he will be under more pressure than anybody to deliver a way out of the mire.

  • By Martin Chulov
  • 09 Oct 2013

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