BEIRUT: Syria's government hailed as a "victory" a Russian-brokered deal that has averted U.S. strikes, while President Barack Obama defended a chemical weapons pact that the rebels fear has bolstered their enemy in the civil war.
As President Bashar al-Assad's warplanes and artillery hit rebel suburbs of the capital again on Sunday, minister Ali Haidar told Moscow's RIA news agency: "These agreements ... are a victory for Syria, achieved thanks to our Russian friends."
Though not close to Assad, Ali was the first Syrian official to react to Saturday's deal struck in Geneva by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Bridging an angry East-West rift over Syria, they agreed to back a nine-month U.N. programme to destroy Assad's chemical arsenal.
Kerry responded to widespread scepticism about the feasibility of the plan by saying in Israel that it had "the full ability" to remove all Syria's chemical weapons.
The agreement has effectively put off the threat of air strikes Obama made after poison gas killed hundreds of Syrian civilians on Aug. 21, although he stressed that force remains an option if Assad reneges - and U.S. forces remain in position.
Obama embraced the disarmament proposal put forward last week by Russian President Vladimir Putin after his plan for U.S. military action hit resistance in Congress. Lawmakers feared an open-ended new entanglement in the Middle East and were troubled by the presence of al Qaeda followers among Assad's opponents.
In an interview with ABC television, Obama said criticism of his quick-changing tactics on Syria was about style rather than substance. And while welcoming Putin's willingness to press his "client, the Assad regime" to disarm, he also chided the Kremlin leader for suggesting rebels carried out the gas attack.
Defending his changes of tack on Syria, Obama said: "Folks here in Washington like to grade on style ... Had we rolled out something that was very smooth and disciplined and linear, they would have graded it well - even if it was a disastrous policy."
National reconciliation minister Ali said Syria welcomed the terms of the U.S.-Russia deal: "They will help Syrians get out of the crisis," he said. "They have prevented a war against Syria by denying a pretext to those who wanted to unleash it."
He also echoed Kerry and Lavrov in saying it might help Syrians "sit round one table to settle their internal problems".
But rebels, calling the international focus on poison gas a sideshow, have dismissed talk the arms pact might herald peace talks and said Assad has stepped up an offensive with ordinary weaponry now that the threat of U.S. air strikes has receded.
International responses to the accord were also guarded. Western governments, wary of Assad and familiar with the years frustrated U.N. weapons inspectors spent in Saddam Hussein's Iraq, noted the huge technical difficulties in destroying one of the world's biggest chemical arsenals in the midst of civil war.
Assad's key sponsor Iran hailed a U.S. retreat from "extremist behaviour" and welcomed its "rationality". Israel, worried that U.S. leniency toward Assad may encourage Tehran to develop nuclear arms, said the deal would be judged on results.
China, which like Russia opposes U.S. readiness to use force in other sovereign states, was glad of the renewed role for the United Nations Security Council, where Beijing too has a veto.
The Syrian government has formally told the United Nations it will adhere to a treaty banning chemical weapons. The U.S.-Russian framework agreement calls for the U.N. to enforce the removal of existing stockpiles by the middle of next year.
Air strikes, shelling and infantry attacks on suburbs of Damascus through Sunday backed up statements from Assad's supporters as well as opponents that he is back on the offensive after a lull in which his troops took up defensive positions, expecting U.S. strikes.
"It's a clever proposal from Russia to prevent the attacks," said an Assad supporter from the city of Tartous. "We are strong enough to save our power and fight the terrorists."
An opposition activist in Damascus echoed disappointment among rebel leaders: "Helping Syrians would mean stopping the bloodshed," he said. Poison gas is estimated to have killed only hundreds of the more than 100,000 dead in a war that has also forced a third of the population to flee their homes since 2011.
Russia says it is not specifically supporting Assad - though it has provided much of his weaponry in the past. Its concern, it says, is to prevent Assad's Western and Arab enemies from imposing their will on Syria. And Moscow, like Assad, highlights the role of al Qaeda-linked Islamists among the rebel forces.
Their presence, and divisions among Assad's opponents in a war that has inflamed sectarian passions across the region, have tempered Western support. Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri urged followers on Sunday not to cooperate with other Syrian rebels.
The opposition Syrian National Coalition elected a moderate Islamist on Saturday as prime minister of an exile government - a move some members said was opposed by Western powers who want to see an international peace conference bring the warring sides together to produce a compromise transitional administration.
Previous attempts to revive peace efforts begun last year at Geneva have foundered on the bitter hostilities among Syrians.
Assad has just a week to begin complying with the U.S.-Russian deal by handing over a full account of his chemical arsenal. He must allow U.N.-backed inspectors from the Hague-based Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to complete their initial on-site checks by November.
Under the Geneva pact, the United States and Russia will back a U.N. enforcement mechanism. But its terms are not yet set. Russia is unlikely to support the military option that Obama said he was still ready to use: "If diplomacy fails, the United States remains prepared to act," he said on Saturday.
Assad told Russian state television last week that his cooperation was dependent on an end to such threats and U.S. support for rebel fighters. It seems likely that Moscow can prevail on him to comply, at least initially, with a deal in which Putin has invested considerable personal prestige.
While Lavrov stressed in Geneva that the pact did not include any automatic use of force in the event of Syria's failure to comply, Western leaders said only the credible prospect of being bombed had persuaded Assad to agree to give up weaponry which he had long denied ever having, let along using.
Kerry and Lavrov plan to meet the U.N. envoy on Syria at the end of the month to review progress toward peace talks. Lavrov spoke of an international peace conference as early as October.
Fighting on the ground in a country divided between rebel and government forces shows little sign of slowing its descent into atrocity, with 1,000 people dying in any typical week.
Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Doha Center wrote in the Atlantic magazine: "Assad is effectively being rewarded for the use of chemical weapons ... Now, he can get away with nearly anything - as long as he sticks to using good old conventional weapons."
There was heavy fighting overnight in Jobar, a rebel-held area just east of downtown Damascus, opposition activists from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Sunday. Residents counted three air strikes on neighbouring Barzeh and there were clashes in other parts of the metropolis, too.
In the government-held centre, however, schools reopened on Sunday after the summer break and traffic was heavy - further signs the authorities see the U.S. threat has passed for now. Many schools had been used earlier in the month to house troops evacuated from barracks that might have become U.S. targets.
Lavrov and Kerry, whose personal rapport played a part in breaking some of the Cold War-era ice that has chilled relations between the world's two biggest military powers, both welcomed their agreement as a victory for diplomacy.
The accord states that a U.N. Security Council resolution should allow for regular assessments of Syria's behaviour and "in the event of non-compliance ... the U.N. Security Council should impose measures under Chapter VII of the UN Charter".
Chapter VII can include force but can be limited to other kinds of sanction. Lavrov said: "There is nothing said about the use of force and not about any automatic sanctions."
Senior Kerry aides involved in the talks said the United States and Russia agreed that Syria has 1,000 tonnes of chemical agents, including nerve gas sarin and mustard gas - one of the world's largest stockpiles of such material.
But the officials said there was no agreement on how many sites must be inspected. Washington thinks it is at least 45.
The weapons are likely to be removed through a combination of destroying them in Syria and shipping some for destruction elsewhere, U.S. officials said. Russia is one possible site for destruction, but no final decisions have been made.
The OPCW's experts have never moved weapons across borders before, because of the risk, and have never worked in a war zone.