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Syria: Divisions on Military Strikes, Russian Initiative

By Salem Nassif

Some opposition activists in Syria regard Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov’s initiative to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis that followed the chemical weapon attack in Ghouta as an opportunity to arrive at a solution that will at least reduce the suffering and death of Syrians.

Others see the initiative as no more than another attempt to give the regime more time and allow it to continue along the same violent path it has followed since the start of the uprising – a path summed up by the slogan, “Assad, or else we burn the country.”

Rima Fleihan, a member of the opposition Syrian National Coalition, believes that by focusing only on the chemical weapons, the Russian initiative ignores the actual crime, and fails to envisage any punishment for those who ordered the massacre of civilians in Ghouta.

According to Fleihan, if this initiative were truly concerned with the wellbeing of the Syrian people, it should at least refer the case to the International Criminal Court (ICC). The initiative also ignores other instances of systematic killing by the regime since the first day of the uprising.

“Does the international community only care about the stockpiles of chemical weapons?” Fleihan asked.

Fleihan believes that the Russian initiative will not change the balance of power on the ground between the government and the opposition – at least not enough to pave the way for a political solution.

She says that a political solution will need to include more than just confiscating chemical weapons.

“We must refer all war crimes to the ICC, Bashar al-Assad must step down, and we must sit down in Geneva to negotiate the transitional period and agree on a framework for the transfer of power,” she said. “Before all this, all military operations must stop and prisoners shout be released, the displaced people must be allowed to return and we must begin reconstruction under the supervision of the United Nations.”

Anas Jouda is vice-president of the Movement for State-Building, an opposition group that operates with the approval of the Assad’s regime. He says Russia will try its best to guarantee that the initiative will be implemented. However, Jouda, like Fleihan does not trust the regime.

“It will resort to stalling and getting mired in details to gain time,” he said. “What is important now is the resumption of the Geneva [negotiations]. The American strike is behind us now.”

Some Syrians, including members of the opposition, are against relinquishing chemical weapons and consider it a violation of the sovereignty of the state. They would prefer to keep the weapons as a deterrent against Israeli aggression.

But Saleh al-Nabwani, a member of the opposition umbrella group National Coordination Board for Democratic Change, which also operates inside Syria with the authorisation of the Syrian government, suggests that many opposition figures who made such statements were only trying to embarrass the regime.

Nabwani says that any military strike will suit the aims of the armed opposition, and believes the road to a viable solution to the crisis is holding the Geneva-2 conference.

“If the Russian initiative is implemented through the Geneva-2 conference, it will be salvation,” he said, adding that he was stating his own opinion and not necessarily that of the National Coordination Board. “This is what everyone should agree on if we want what is best for Syria, and if we want to stop the bloodshed and the destruction.”

Nabwani says he cannot imagine that the initiative will succeed without an international consensus.

Saleh and Jouda do not believe that chemical weapons would be a major element in any battle with Israel. Jouda argues that Israel’s military is superior to the Syrian armed forces, especially in light of recent Israeli strikes on Syrian military positions, which he believes destroyed a significant amount of the regime’s strategic weaponry.

Rima Fleihan does not see a place for chemical weapons in a future Syria. She believes that all nations in the region, including Israel, should relinquish their chemical weapons and ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Syria became a signatory to the convention after the start of talks with Russia and the United States, in an effort to find a diplomatic solution to the impasse created by the chemical weapons attack on Ghouta.

The United Nations inspectors’ report confirmed that sarin gas was delivered by surface-to-surface missiles launched from regime-controlled areas. This claim implicitly indicates that the regime is responsible, a conclusion contested by the Russian foreign minister.

The United States, United Kingdom and France are trying to secure a Security Council resolution allowing the use of force against the Syrian government in the event that it does not relinquish its chemical weapons.

This story was produced by the Damascus Bureau, IWPR’s news platform for Syrian journalists.   


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