15 Sep 2013

Victory for Damascus: Syria hails arms deal

The Syrian government welcomes the agreement to disarm their chemical weapons but the US warns Syria that it will take action if it fails to live up to its promises.

As President Bashar al-Assad’s warplanes and artillery hit rebel suburbs of the capital again on Sunday, minister Ali Haidar is said to have told Moscow’s RIA news agency: “These agreements… are a victory for Syria, achieved thanks to our Russian friends.

“We welcome this agreement. From one point of view, it will help Syrians exit the crisis, from another, it has prevented a war against Syria, having taken away the pretext for one from those who wanted to unleash (it).”

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It was not clear if the comments by Mr Haidar, who is not in President Assad’s inner circle of decision-makers, reflects the president’s views.

However, the minister is the first Syrian official to react to Saturday’s deal struck in Geneva by US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to agree to back a nine-month UN programme to destroy President Assad’s chemical arsenal.

Russia has been President Assad’s staunchest international ally, protecting him from three consecutive UN Security Council resolutions aimed at pressuring him to end a two-and-a-half-year conflict that has killed more than 100,000 people.

‘Threat of force is real’

Despite the deal, the US have warned President Assad that the threat of force “is real” if it does not destroy its chemical weapons.

Speaking alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, Mr Kerry said: “We cannot have hollow words in the conduct of international affairs.”

Under the deal President Assad must account for his secret stockpile within a week and let international inspectors eliminate all the weapons by the middle of next year. Under the Geneva pact, the United States and Russia will back a UN enforcement mechanism.

On Saturday US President Barack Obama insisted on Sunday that the US “remains prepared to act” should diplomatic efforts fail.

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He said: “The international community expects the Assad regime to live up to its public commitments. While we have made important progress, much more work remains to be done.

“The United States will continue working with Russia, the United Kingdom, France, the United Nations and others to ensure that this process is verifiable, and that there are consequences should the Assad regime not comply with the framework agreed.

“And, if diplomacy fails, the United States remains prepared to act.

“The use of chemical weapons anywhere in the world is an affront to human dignity and a threat to the security of people everywhere. We have a duty to preserve a world free from the fear of chemical weapons for our children.”

In an interview with the ABC network on Sunday, Mr Obama dismissed President Putin’s charge that it was the Syrian rebels who launched the chemical weapons attack, instead of forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, as Washington believes.

“Well, nobody around the world takes seriously the idea that the rebels were the perpetrators of this,” Obama said.

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President Obama’s response to the crisis in Syria has received mixed reviews from the American people. A Reuters-Ipsos poll last week found only 35 percent of Americans were satisfied with how he was handling the situation.

He also has come under criticism from some lawmakers and many analysts for a bumpy approach to the crisis by first threatening a unilateral military strike, then suddenly asking Congress to authorize it, then asking Congress to postpone the vote to give diplomacy a chance.

Rouhani letter

President Obama also said he and new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani had exchanged letters about the situation in Syria.

Mr Obama did not reveal details of his exchange of letters with Iran’s President Rouhani but made clear that US concerns about Iran’s nuclear ambitions were paramount.

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The president said he doubted Mr Rouhani would “suddenly make it easy” to negotiate, and said the United States would keep up the pressure on Tehran to give up their nuclear program that America fears is aimed at building an atomic weapon.

“My view is that if you have both a credible threat of force, combined with a rigorous diplomatic effort, that, in fact you can strike a deal,” he said.

But for Assad’s opponents, who two weeks ago thought US missile strikes were imminent in response to a gas attack on rebel territory, the deal was a blow to hopes of swinging the war their way.

Syrian rebels reject deal

Syrian rebel leader General Selim Idris said rebel brigades regard the proposed US-Russian deal to eliminate Assad’s chemical arsenal as a blow to their two-and-a-half-year uprising to remove President Assad.

He said that the rebels would co-operate with the UN but that the initiative would not resolve the crisis or help ordinary Syrians. Only 2 per cent of the 100,000 deaths so far in Syria have been caused by chemical weapons.

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Another member of the Syrian opposition military council took a harder line: Qassim Saadeddine told Reuters – “Let the Kerry-Lavrov plan go to hell. We reject it and we will not protect the inspectors or let them enter Syria.”

The Syrian government has not formally commented on the proposal, but commenters suggest that the fact that the Kerry-Lavrov announcement was run on state TV suggests their approval of it.