WASHINGTON — The U.S.-Russian deal to seize Syria's chemical weapons is likely to keep Syrian President Bashar Assad in office for at least many months to come in a major setback for Syrian opposition figures who now face the prospect of negotiating with what they fear will be an emboldened regime with its superior military intact.
The Obama administration hailed Saturday's chemical weapons deal as a diplomatic breakthrough that it hopes will kick-start parallel talks on a political solution to the broader civil war that's killed more than 100,000 people. For that to happen, however, U.S. officials would have to convince Syrian opposition members to buy into a process that would force them to trust Assad and Western interlocutors — at a time when the opposition feels burned by both.
"This is slow-motion genocide," said Rafif Jouejati, a Washington-based Syrian dissident who's currently in Istanbul to meet with other anti-Assad activists. "You have to sit with your executioner, or accept that the international community has given the green light for your executioner to keep killing."
For more than two years, Assad's opponents have hoped that constant allegations about the regime's brutalities would persuade reluctant Western powers to intervene on behalf of the outgunned rebels. The opposition was gambling that outside strikes would either have a domino effect that would collapse the regime or at least weaken Assad's military enough to force him into a negotiated transition from power.
But under the U.S.-Russian deal, the opposition gets neither, while Assad is able to avoid potentially crippling U.S. missile strikes. If the opposition fails to show for peace talks, it is they who will be branded as uncooperative.
"Did we just legitimize a regime we've spent the past two-and-a-half years delegitimizing?" said Mohammed Alaa Ghanem, a Washington-based opposition activist with the Syrian American Council. "The international community's moral ambiguity of the past seems to have been replaced by a dangerous clarity — it's only the chemical weapons now. This new framing is a problem, a huge problem, for us."
A spinoff problem of the chemical weapons deal, opposition activists said, is that the regime will have months to continue attacking rebellious areas with conventional arms now that the United States and others have made it clear they don't want to be sucked into the Syrian civil war.
By some estimates, if the regime continues its current counteroffensive, it could retake huge swaths of territory by the time the deal foresees the complete elimination of Syria's chemical capabilities. By that time, opposition figures lament, U.S. strikes would be far less certain to give the rebels an upper hand militarily — if the United States showed any interest in launching them.
It would seem then that the only way the opposition can stop the killing is to participate in negotiations based on the so-called Geneva communique, a document drafted in June 2012 by the Action Group for Syria, a collection of foreign ministers, the secretary-general of the United Nations and the Arab League.
The communique called for an end to violence on both sides, with a U.N. team monitoring compliance. It also requires that hostilities be resolved through negotiations that would include members of the current government, opposition figures and other groups, all working to an eventual goal of free, multiparty elections.
The sticking point was what wasn't explicitly laid out in the document: an opposition demand that Assad step aside before talks could begin. The demand was backed up by the Americans, including then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who said in June 2012 that Assad's ouster didn't have to be a precondition but should be "the outcome." The Russians have always argued that the talks called for in the Geneva document didn't hinge on Assad's departure.