US-Russia deal plays into hands of Assad prior to Geneva II

22 September 2013 /SİNEM CENGİZ, ANKARA – Zaman – The deal that Washington and Moscow made in Geneva in mid-September on Syria’s chemical weapons will strengthen the Syrian regime’s hand ahead of the planned US-Russia-led peace conference, which is expected to bring together the Syrian regime and opposition to agree on a transitional process for the country, analysts agree.

“The deal that the US and Russia have arrived at plays into hands of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The recent developments are in Assad’s favor as the international community does not have the will to change the regime in Syria and the opposition that fights against Assad does not have the power to topple the regime. Now, Assad’s hand is stronger on the ground,” İstanbul Bilgi University Professor İlter Turan commented to Sunday’s Zaman.

After three days of talks in Geneva last weekend, Russia and the US — two countries that have opposing views on the war in Syria — put aside their differences and US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, announced that they had reached an agreement under which Assad will account for Syria’s secret chemical weapons stockpile and permit international inspectors to destroy it by mid-2014. Although Russia has repeatedly suggested that the Syrian opposition was behind the attack which killed more than 1,000 people, the US has maintained that Assad’s regime was responsible.

The agreement came as the clocks were ticking on a possible military intervention in Syria after international pressure against the Assad regime mounted due to the alleged chemical attack in Syria; however, the US-Russia deal signaled that the big powers decided to push instead for a diplomatic solution rather than a military intervention — a situation that would give Assad more time in power. According to analysts, the deal gives the kiss of life to Assad at a time when an intervention, which would be a doomsday scenario for the regime, was at the door and it is also an opportunity for the regime to remain in a strong position prior to the conference for Syria, dubbed Geneva II in reference to a similar meeting held last year. Geneva II was expected to take place in early July but it was postponed several times owing to the developments on ground in the war-torn country.

“With the support of Russia, Assad will gain ground in Syria to push for a deal at the Geneva meeting that would be in the regime’s favor. The international community actually gave time to Assad,” says Turan, adding, “And now if the developments in Syria remain in Assad’s favor, he may even push for a transitional era which would include his participation.”

Remaining in power until 2014 not a dream for Assad anymore

The Washington-Moscow deal is a sign that the international community, particularly the West, has acknowledged the balances of power on the ground in Syria — which at the moment are in Assad’s favor, maintains Bora Bayraktar, an academic who specializes in Turkish foreign policy and the Middle East at Kültür University. “Assad was already stating that he would stay in power until the 2014 presidential elections. For more than two years, Assad has been striving to keep his position until the elections. Moreover, in recent months, the regime strengthened its position on the battlefield against the Syrian opposition and showed that it would stay in power until 2014 with the support of Iran and Russia,” said Bayraktar in remarks to Sunday’s Zaman.

The Syrian government has adopted a strict stance, maintaining that Assad will remain country’s president at least until elections in 2014 and that he might run for another term, conditions to which the opposition does not agree but which are supported by Syria’s allies, particularly Iran.

“Thanks to the chemical weapons issue, the West finally understood the situation on the ground in Syria. The US does not want a change of regime in Syria as it fears a chaotic situation in the event of Assad’s fall. Russia indeed supports the survival of the regime. Therefore, the American reaction to the chemical attack pushed Assad to act rationally and agree to the terms of US-Russia deal,” said Bayraktar.

While the deal was considered a victory by Syria and its key allies, Russia and Iran, as it prevented military action in the war-torn country, the Syrian opposition says Assad has been rewarded for the use of chemical weapons with the deal.

According to opposition figures, Assad and his supporters managed to remove the threat of US military action while giving very little up in return.

Although Turkey welcomes the diplomatic breakthrough on securing and destroying Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile, in a sign of skepticism about its implementation, Ankara called for sanctions if Syria does not follow through on its promises under the Geneva agreement.

Ankara maintains that the deal must not be exploited by the Syrian regime or become a process by which the regime can gain time to carry out new massacres against its people. According to Ankara, the announced timeframe is too lengthy and susceptible to exploitation by the regime. “Assad may come out stronger following this lengthy timeframe. So strong that he may even run for the 2014 elections or may push the opposition to agree on a transitional era with him in power,” said Bayraktar.

Ankara has also reiterated several times that the US should not view the situation in Syria solely as one involving chemical weapons but should also recognize the broader situation in the Syrian civil war, where over 100,000 people have been killed so far. While some agree that the deal would strengthen Assad’s hand, others consider the deal a bargain between the US and Russia without including Assad. Beril Dedeoğlu, an academic at Galatasaray University, believes that Assad’s hand will not be strengthened with the deal as it was not agreed to save Assad’s interests but the interests of the US and Russia. “In the meantime, the developments would not be in Assad’s favor because many actors will be involved in the Syrian crisis. The developments will not give an advantageous position to either the regime or the opposition and the conflict in Syria will on go without major change,” Dedeoğlu told Sunday’s Zaman.