BEIRUT: A U.S.-Russian deal aimed at eliminating Syria’s chemical weapons may be a breakthrough, but it does not pave the way to solving the brutal conflict, analysts and the opposition say.
“The agreement is a first step but not the solution to the Syrian crisis,” said Khattar Abou Diab, Paris-Sud professor of international relations.
“We stand to see the tragedy continue in one form or another, as attention is focused on the chemical issue,” he said.
Saturday’s accord, announced in Geneva after three days of talks between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov, sees Syria’s chemical arsenal being handed over to the international community and destroyed by mid-2014.
The deal, which Abou Diab dubbed “fragile,” lays a framework for Damascus to hand over its chemical stockpile but doesn’t specify how the warring parties can overcome their differences.
The agreement between Washington and Moscow, which support opposing sides in the conflict, averted a possible U.S.-led strike against President Bashar Assad’s regime after it was accused of using chemical weapons to kill hundreds of people near Damascus on Aug. 21.
A total of over 110,000 people have been killed in Syria’s 30 months of civil war, according to a monitoring group.
More than a year ago, the U.S. and Russia had agreed to prepare a conference dubbed Geneva II that would bring rebels and regime representatives to the negotiating table.
But that initiative has all but stalled amid fundamental disagreements, particularly over who should represent the warring parties at the talks.
The main opposition National Coalition insists that Assad’s regime must not be represented at Geneva II, while Damascus says Assad will remain in power until elections scheduled for 2014.
“Without agreement from the coalition and its regional and international backers, there can be no political solution in Syria,” Abou Diab said.
The Paris-based analyst also said he doubted Damascus would fully comply with its international pledges.
“The regime will start to maneuver when inspectors start arriving, and to manipulate the locations” of the weapons, Abou Diab said.
The deal gives Assad a week to hand over details of his regime’s arsenal in order to avert unspecified sanctions and the threat of U.S.-led military strikes.
It also specifies there must be immediate access for arms-control experts, and that inspections of what the U.S. says is some 45 sites linked to the Syrian chemical weapons program must be completed by November.
Olivier Lepick of the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris said it was “complete fantasy” for Syrian stockpiles to be destroyed by mid-2014.
“Given the civil war, I don’t think it can happen. ... In peacetime it would take years to dismantle Syria’s chemical arsenal,” he said.
Even if Damascus’ chemical stockpile is handed over on time, the deal does nothing to bridge the irreconcilable visions of the regime, the opposition and their backers on the framework of Geneva II.
Coalition member Samir Nashar said that although the weapons deal may in principle help pave the way towards peace, questions remained about Assad’s role in an eventual settlement.
The coalition is “very sceptical and even rejects taking part in Geneva II if the people who have committed the killings are not put on trial,” Nashar told AFP.
The veteran dissident also said the U.S.-Russian deal gave Assad’s regime “more breathing space.”
Bassam Abu Abdullah, director of the Damascus Center for Strategic Studies, saw in the deal a chance for the Syrian regime to play a leading role in a future solution.
The agreement “reinstates [Damascus’s] legitimacy ... and we will see how these adjustments will play out in Geneva II,” he told AFP.
“The chemical file was the key to all doors,” Abu Abdullah said.
But a high-ranking Syrian official said the deal would only put Damascus back on the road to peace if it was coupled with an accord to cut off the supply of weapons to foreign-backed rebels.
The rebels have rejected the deal, warning it would not halt the conflict.
“Are we Syrians supposed to wait until mid-2014, to continue being killed every day and to accept [the deal] just because the chemical arms will be destroyed in 2014?” asked rebel Free Syrian Army chief Gen. Salim Idriss.