Syrian warplanes and artillery bombarded rebel suburbs of the capital on Sunday after the United States agreed to call off military action in a deal with Russia to remove President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons.
President Barack Obama said he may still launch U.S. strikes if Damascus fails to follow a nine-month U.N. disarmament plan drawn up by Washington and Assad’s ally Moscow. But a reluctance among U.S. voters and Western allies to engage in a new Middle East war, and Russian opposition, has put any attacks on hold.
Syrian rebels, calling the international focus on poison gas a sideshow, dismissed talk the arms pact might herald peace talks and said Assad had stepped up an offensive with ordinary weaponry now that the threat of U.S. air strikes had receded.
The Syrian government has formally told the United Nations it will adhere to a treaty banning chemical weapons but made no comment in the day since U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov patched over bitter differences between Washington and Moscow to set a framework for the United Nations to remove Assad’s banned arsenal by mid-2014.
Air strikes, shelling and infantry attacks on suburbs of Damascus through Sunday morning offered evidence in support of opinions from both Assad’s Syrian opponents and supporters that he is again taking the fight to rebels after a lull following the August 21 gas attack that provoked the threat of U.S. action.
“It’s a clever proposal from Russia to prevent the attacks,” one Assad supporter told Reuters from the port of Tartous, site of a Russian naval base. “Russia will give us new weapons that are better than chemical weapons,” he added. “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.
The deal, suggested by Russian President Vladimir Putin, resolved a dilemma for Obama, who found Congress unwilling to back the military response he prepared following the release of sarin gas in rebel suburbs of Damascus. Obama blames Assad for some 1,400 dead civilians; Assad and Putin accuse the 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.