Free Syrian Army fighters drive a tank towards the front
line in Aleppo's Sheikh Saeed neighbourhood in Syria.
Syria's government has hailed as a "victory" a
Russian-brokered deal that has averted US strikes, while
President Barack Obama has defended a chemical weapons pact
that the rebels fear has bolstered their enemy in the civil
President Bashar al-Assad's jets and artillery hit rebel
suburbs of the capital again on Sunday (local time) in an
offensive that residents said began last week when Obama
delayed air strikes in the face of opposition from Moscow and
his own electorate.
Speaking of the US-Russian deal, Syrian 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 accord in Geneva by US 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 UN programme to destroy Assad's chemical
The deal has put off the threat of air strikes Obama made
after poison gas killed hundreds of Syrians on Aug. 21,
although he has stressed that force remains an option if
Assad reneges. US forces remain in position. Russia still
opposes military action but now backs possible UN sanctions
French President Francois Hollande called for a UN resolution
on Syria backed by the threat of punitive action to be voted
by the end of this week. Hollande also said the option of
military strikes must remain on the table.
Kerry, visiting Israel, responded to widespread doubts about
the feasibility of the "the most far-reaching chemical
weapons removal ever" by insisting the plan could work. And
he and Obama sought to reassure Israelis the decision to hold
fire on Syria does not mean Iran can pursue nuclear weapons
Obama embraced the Syria disarmament proposal floated last
week by Russian President Vladimir Putin after his plan for
US 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
Obama dismissed critics of his quick-changing tactics on
Syria for focusing on "style" not substance. And while
thanking Putin for pressing his "client the Assad regime" to
disarm, he chided Russia for questioning Assad's guilt over
the gas attack.
Responding to concerns, notably in Israel, that a display of
American weakness toward Assad could encourage his Iranian
backers to develop nuclear weapons, Obama said Tehran's
nuclear programme was a "far larger issue" for him than
"They shouldn't draw a lesson, that we haven't struck, to
think we won't strike Iran," he told ABC television,
disclosing he had exchanged letters with Iran's new
president. "On the other hand, what they should draw from
this lesson is that there is the potential of resolving these
Obama had no lack of critics, however, at home and abroad.
US Republican Representative Mike Rogers was sceptical the
deal will work. "If the president believes, like I do, that a
credible military force helps you get a diplomatic solution,
they gave that away in this deal. I'm really concerned about
that," Rogers said.
Even Obama's Democratic supporters are wary. If Assad scorns
his commitments, said Senator Robert Menendez, "We're back to
where we started - except Assad has bought more time on the
battlefield and has continued to ravage innocent civilians."
REBELS DISMISS TALKS
Syrian National Reconciliation Minister Ali said Syria
welcomed the deal: "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
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 US air strikes has
A spokesman for the opposition Syrian National Coalition
repeated that it wanted world powers to prevent Assad from
using his air force, tanks and artillery on civilian areas.
"Assad is effectively being rewarded for the use of chemical
weapons," Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Doha Center wrote in
the Atlantic magazine. "Now, he can get away with nearly
anything - as long as he sticks to using good old
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.
Iran hailed a US retreat from "extremist behaviour" and
welcomed its "rationality". Israel said the deal would be
judged on results. China, which like Russia opposes US
readiness to use force against sovereign states, was glad of
the renewed role for the U.N. 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
US-Russian framework agreement calls for the United Nations
to enforce the removal of existing stockpiles by the middle
of next year.
Air strikes, shelling and ground attacks on Damascus suburbs
on Sunday backed up statements from Assad's supporters and
opponents that he is back on the offensive after a lull in
which his troops took up defensive positions, expecting US
"It's a clever proposal from Russia to prevent the attacks,"
said an Assad supporter from the port city of Tartous.
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
Russia says it is not specifically supporting Assad - though
it has provided much of his weaponry. Its concern, it says,
is to prevent Assad's Western and Arab enemies from imposing
their will on a sovereign state. And Moscow, like Assad,
highlights the role of al Qaeda-linked Islamists among the
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
Previous attempts to revive peace efforts begun last year at
Geneva have foundered on the bitter hostilities among
Newly elected coalition leader Ahmad Tumeh, a moderate
Islamist, told Reuters he wanted to form a government that
could bring order to rebel-held areas and to challenge al
Assad has just a week to begin complying with the US-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 US
support for rebel fighters. But 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 alone 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