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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry listens while Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (R) speaks to the media before their meeting to discuss the ongoing crisis in Syria, in Geneva September 12, 2013. Syria applied on Thursday to sign up to the global ban on chemical weapons, a major first step in a Russian-backed plan that would see it abandon its arsenal of poison gas to avert U.S. military strikes. REUTERS/Larry Downing (SWITZERLAND - Tags: POLITICS CONFLICT MILITARY)
Secretary of State Kerry (l) and Foreign Minister Lavrov are working together, despite different agendasImage: Reuters

Different priorities

Kersten Knipp / cmk
September 14, 2013

The US and Russia have reached an agreement on a framework to destroy Syria's chemical weapon stockpiles. Further discussion on how to resolve the country's civil war could also be initiated, but critics are skeptical.


The situation is clear: US President Barack Obama has decided to postpone a military strike against Syria for the time being in favor of negotiations over dealing with the Syrian government's chemical weapons arsenal.

Assuming Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, allows international control of his weapons, he won't need to fear an intervention by the Americans for the time being. But if he appears not to take the offer seriously and fails to comply, he must be prepared for a military strike. Washington and Moscow have said they would cooperate at the United Nations level to impose penalties, which have yet to be determined. Obama has retained the right to attack, with or without the support of the UN.

These were the assumptions under which the US and Russia negotiated the further handling of Syria's chemical weapons in Geneva on Saturday (14.09.2013). Their negotiations, some observers hope, could also pave the way for further diplomatic efforts to bring an end to the violence in Syria.

Margarete Klein, a Russia expert at the Berlin-based German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), said it's too early to speak of a breakthrough. "But for the first time in a long while, this is the first chance to find a political solution to this conflict," she said.

The Syrian opposition, however, does not share this cautious optimism. It has expressed deep skepticism towards Assad's willingness to put his arsenal under international control. The gesture is too late to save civilians from the murderous intent of the regime, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces said in a press release on Friday (13.09.2013).

Free Syrian Army fighters walk along a damaged street in the refugee camp of Yarmouk, near Damascus September 11, 2013. Picture taken September 11, 2013. REUTERS/Ward Al-Keswani (SYRIA - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST)
War is part of daily life for fighters of the Free Syrian ArmyImage: Reuters

The coalition sees the gesture as an attempt to "evade international action as well as accountability in front of the Syrian people. […] The regime cannot be allowed to use diplomatic activity to indefinitely stall international action while it continues its policy of widespread violence against civilians," said the press release.

Different priorities

The statement from the Syrian National Coalition is clear on one thing: international and national participants are pursuing differing priorities. For Russia and the US, the main priority is to secure Assad's chemical weapons and prevent them from falling in the hands of Islamist extremists. But the Syrian opposition is hoping for international support in the fight against Assad himself.

"We find ourselves in a revolution," said Abdulrahman al-Haj, head of the National Coalition's media office, speaking with DW. "Our people - especially the military groups - live under constant attack. For that reason we hope to get weapons from the international community with which to defend ourselves."

The military situation in Syria is currently difficult, he said, but the fact that, in all probability, no more chemical weapons would be used has eased the opposition's position somewhat. "But the battle will go on."

A supporter of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad holds pictures of him (L) and his father, the late president Hafez al-Assad, during a protest against possible U.S. strikes, at Youssef al-Azma square in Damascus September 9, 2013. REUTERS/Khaled al-Hariri (SYRIA - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST)
Assad still has many supportersImage: Reuters

Hopes now rest on new diplomatic initiatives that could possibly begin on the basis of the negotiations in Geneva. However, these have been limited to dealing with Syria's chemical weapons and won't contribute directly to a solution to the civil war, explained SWP's Klein.

It has now become all the more obvious how urgent the planned "Geneva 2" negotiations are with all warring parties. There, both sides will need to offer a certain willingness to compromise. The regime must refrain from keeping Assad as part of the solution, and the opposition must sit down at the table with representatives of the regime, said Klein.

"In principle, the National Coalition does not want to close itself off from these talks, but it remains skeptical. The international community is making a serious effort for a political solution," said Haj. "I believe that this will eventually be possible. However, I do not believe that it can be achieved at the moment."

Regional influences

David Butter, a Middle East analyst at the London think tank Chatham House, sees another obstacle to diplomacy: the interests of regional players. The Assad regime can count on the support of Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

"If the Assad regime were to fall, it would be a setback from [them]," said Butter. But should Assad remain in power, it would also strengthen their position in the region. Accordingly, they are determined to continue fighting on Assad's side.

Syrian refugees with their luggage check in for a flight to Germany for temporary relocation, at Rafik Hariri International Airport in Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2013. A group of 107 refugees are the first to be relocated under a German program to give up to 5,000 highly vulnerable Syrian refugees temporary new homes. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)
As the fighting drags on, Syrian refugees continue to leave the countryImage: picture-alliance/AP

On the other side are the foreign extremists fighting on the side of the rebels, said Butter. Their presence has increasingly split the ranks of the armed opposition. "We have seen in the last few months increased tensions between the non-extremist groups of the opposition and the jihadists, especially the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. They have increased tensions within the opposition," he said.

'We will be victorious'

In Syria, the different interests are clashing and can hardly be reduced to a common denominator. Should the diplomats come together soon for "Geneva 2" talks, they will have to employ everything they know about the art of negotiation. "This is a chance to end the violence," said Butter. "But the positions of the parties involved seem very far apart."

For now, the violence in Syria will go on. "We will fight," said Haj. "The fight will be long and we will increasingly suffer. But in the end we will be successful and win this war."

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