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Clashes rage on in Syria despite chemical arms deal

Opposition leaders and human rights advocates try to shift the focus back to the ongoing bloodshed caused by bullets, artillery shells, bombs and rockets.

September 15, 2013|By Patrick J. McDonnell
  • An opposition fighter runs past an area known for sniper fire in Dair Alzour last week.
An opposition fighter runs past an area known for sniper fire in Dair Alzour… (Abo Shuja / AFP/Getty Images )

BEIRUT — Clashes flared across Syria on Sunday, and mortar shells fell on Damascus, highlighting a violent and intractable reality: The nation's bloody civil war is no closer to resolution, despite a landmark U.S.-Russia deal designed to rid Syria of chemical armaments.

Various officials, including U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry, acknowledged that the chemical weapons accord, while significant, will probably do little in the short term to stop the killing, overwhelmingly the result of conventional weapons — bullets and artillery shells, bombs and rockets. The fighting on the ground in Syria and the much-heralded chemical weapons accord appear to be advancing on different tracks.

Opposition leaders, human rights advocates and others have tried to shift the focus back to the war and the ongoing carnage. Meantime, U.S. and other officials moved to allay concerns that the bigger picture was being lost in the hoopla surrounding the agreement.

"I say to the Syrian opposition and all those in Syria who recognize that just removing the chemical weapons doesn't do the job: We understand that," Kerry said during a visit to Jerusalem designed in part to build support for the U.S.-Russian initiative. "That is not all we are going to seek to do. But it is one step forward."

A high-ranking Syrian official told a Russian interviewer that Saturday's chemical weapons accord was a "victory" for Damascus.

The agreement, analysts said, could be a plus for Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose dramatic concession on chemical weapons may have averted a punishing U.S. strike, as well as for the White House. U.S. officials see the possibility of eliminating Syria's chemical stockpiles without having to resort to planned military strikes that were not designed to destroy Syria's toxic arsenal.

The armed Syrian opposition voiced bitter discontent with a deal that seemed to rule out long-anticipated U.S. airstrikes, which could provide a military boost for fragmented and outgunned rebel forces. The Obama administration's chemical weapons "red line" — always viewed in Damascus and Moscow as a potential pretext for a Western-led attack — could become irrelevant if the government of Assad no longer possesses chemical weapons capability.

The U.S.-backed Syrian National Coalition, an opposition umbrella group, called Sunday for bans on government use of air power and ballistic missiles. The proposals would appear to have little chance of becoming reality as the delicate chemical arms pact is under global scrutiny and makes its way to the United Nations.

Still, Western officials were framing the chemical weapons discussion as part of a broader effort to bring peace to Syria.

"We are faced with a very paradoxical situation," French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told reporters. "On the one hand, we have to move to destroy these chemical weapons. But on the other hand, the death toll continues to rise daily in Syria. And so we need to focus on that as well, and find a political solution to the Syrian crisis."

At the moment, there is no plausible talk of a cease-fire in Syria. Both sides in the conflict, and their outside patrons, including the United States, appear determined to fight on to some indeterminate end, despite broad backing for a "political solution."

Some predict an uptick in arms supplies to both the rebels and the government as the chemical disarmament plan advances and foreign powers seek to mollify their Syrian proxies. Whether either side in the civil war will change tactics remains unclear.

On Sunday, the government and opposition spokesmen reported clashes in hot spots throughout Syria, including Damascus suburbs, the central province of Homs, the northern city of Aleppo and the southern province of Dara. The official news service reported that two people were wounded by mortar shells fired into Damascus by "terrorists," the government's standard term for armed rebels.

The news agency also reported that the army had cleared "terrorists" from the mostly Christian town of Maaloula, north of Damascus. Last week, rebels overran the town, renowned as one of the few places where Aramaic, the presumed language of Jesus, is still spoken.

The Syrian military has made advances in recent months against loosely aligned opposition forces, especially in the strategic province of Homs, a battleground since the outset of the civil war 2 1/2 years ago. But rebels retain nominal control of wide swaths of the country, including several suburbs of Damascus, the capital.

In the view of many experts, continuation of the bloody impasse seems the most likely immediate outcome.

"I think what we'll be looking at now, until the end of the year, will be a fairly stable kind of stalemate," said Shashank Joshi, a research fellow with the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based think tank. "In a broad sense we'll see a continuation of the status quo."

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