BEIRUT – As negotiations to avert a U.S. strike against Syria escalated last week, so, too, did the action on the ground.
Warplanes dropped bombs over far-flung Syrian towns that hadn’t seen airstrikes in weeks, government forces went on the attack in the hotly contested suburbs of Damascus, rebels launched an offensive in the south, and a historic Christian town changed hands at least four times.
At the close of a week hailed in Moscow and Washington as a triumph of diplomacy over war, more than 1,000 people died in the fighting in Syria, the latest casualties in a conflict that has killed more than 100,000 people and can be expected to claim many more.
Indeed, some analysts fear that the deal struck in Geneva between Russia and the United States over a mechanism to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal might prolong a war being fought over issues far more profound than the parameters of a specific weapons program.
The poison gas attack that killed hundreds of people in the suburbs of Damascus last month accounted for fewer than 1 percent of the deaths in the 2 1/2 -year-old Syrian conflict. Meanwhile, both sides are stepping up conventional attacks in the absence of any sign of a broader settlement.
The Geneva agreement, under which Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government is expected to submit to U.N. inspections and ultimately surrender its chemical program, removes for now the threat of U.S. intervention, which may have held in check some of the more violent impulses of a well-armed government battling a broad-based rebellion.
Reflecting the relief felt by the regime in Damascus, a Syrian minister on Sunday hailed the accord. It is a victory for Syria that was achieved thanks to our Russian friends, Minister of State for National Reconciliation Ali Haidar was quoted as saying by the Russian news agency Ria Novosti.
President Barack Obama said Sunday he was hopeful that the agreement would lead to further measures to stem the bloodshed in Syria.
What we can do is make sure that the worst weapons, the indiscriminate weapons that don’t distinguish between a soldier and an infant, are not used. And if we get that accomplished, then we may also have a foundation to begin what has to be an international process – in which Assad’s sponsors, primarily Iran and Russia, recognize that this is terrible for the Syrian people, and they are willing to come, in a serious way, to arrive at some sort of political settlement that would deal with the underlying terrible conflict, he told ABC’s This week.
For several days after Obama indicated he was prepared to use force to punish the Syrian government for its gas attack on Aug. 21, the daily death toll plunged into the low dozens. Over the past week, the numbers have soared again into the hundreds, according to figures compiled by the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Now that the threat is over, the regime has regrouped and is back on the offensive with a vengeance, said Amr Al Azm, a history professor at Ohio’s Shawnee State University, who is Syrian and backs the opposition.
There is no incentive for either side to refrain from other forms of violence, said Emile Hokayem, an analyst with the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
The more-radical rebels, who feel vindicated and validated that the West is not to be relied on, will have no need to hold back, he said, adding, There is nothing in the deal to restrain the regime from further violence, and it may go further than it has before to exact vengeance.