x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Assad supporters caught out by offer of chemical-weapons concession

If a bout of fast-paced, apparently accidental diplomacy on Syria caught the Americans, Europeans and Russians by surprise, it also seems to have blindsided Syrians on both sides of the divide. Phil Sands reports

Lebanese supporters of Syrian president Bashar Al Assad protest against threats of western military strikes on Syria in front of UN house in Beirut. Nabil Mounzer / EPA
Lebanese supporters of Syrian president Bashar Al Assad protest against threats of western military strikes on Syria in front of UN house in Beirut. Nabil Mounzer / EPA
DAMASCUS // Supporters of President Bashar Al Assad were yesterday struggling to make sense of their leader's sudden offer to put a secret chemical weapons programme under international supervision.
If a bout of fast-paced, apparently accidental diplomacy on Syria caught the Americans, Europeans and Russians by surprise on Monday, it also seems to have blindsided Syrians on both sides of the divide.
While regime supporters have publicly praised the move as a masterful way of averting US military strikes, in private there are doubts.
Although Mr Al Assad has yet to publicly comment on the plan, let alone commit to it, and details are sparse, some regime loyalists - people who rarely question the wisdom of his decision-making - fear the Syrian president played a trump card badly.
Others have spoken of feeling let down because, despite the regime's defiant rhetoric to fight to the last man should the US attack, Mr Al Assad gave way under the first significant piece of US pressure.
"The Syrian regime built itself on the army. I was wearing a military uniform since I was six years old, I used to march in parades. We have spent our whole lives learning how strongly we will respond to any outside military aggression and now they are just giving up," said a resident of the wealthy Mezzeh district of the capital, an area largely backing Mr Al Assad.
Syrian pro-regime media and commentators have largely presented the chemical weapons initiative in a positive light.
Al Watan, a privately owned but staunchly pro-Assad daily newspaper, boasted on yesterday's front page that Moscow and Damascus had "pulled the rug out under the feet of Obama".
Pro-regime commentators on state television also praised the move but, in what may signal second thoughts about the deal, they suggested it should not be a unilateral climb down and, instead, linked to arch enemy Israel giving up its nuclear arsenal - something the sketched outlines of the plan do not actually involve.
Unease over a chemical-weapons agreement was also hinted at in Al Safir, a Lebanese daily, which yesterday carried a report by Ziad Haider, a Syrian journalist with a reputation for having close contacts with regime insiders.
It cited an unnamed source as saying the regime had welcomed the plan but had not "accepted" it.
Reaction from Syria's opposition has ranged from scepticism to outright dismissal of the plan, based on the regime's track record of drawing out and then rejecting nuclear inspections and, more recently, stalling a chemical-weapons inquiry that took six months to get approved.
There is also nothing in this latest diplomatic initiative to bring about a ceasefire or usher in a political transition, meaning there is little of immediate benefit to Mr Al Assad's domestic opponents.
Nonetheless, they do support the idea of getting chemical munitions out of the regime's hands.
"We were all shocked when this deal came up, and both sides, the rebels and the regime are shocked by what is going on over the chemical weapons," said an independent political analyst in Damascus.
"The regime supporters are conflicted, they are happy to have escaped the US military but they are also talking quietly that this may be the beginning of the end for Assad - he has given up to the first US demand that was gong to be backed up by force," he said.
"Now they [regime supporters] are wondering what next? Will the Americans say, 'actually we need your scuds too, and your tanks' and then Assad will be left with nothing to protect his regime - in trying to save his regime from US military strikes they are afraid he is giving his regime away by negotiating."
psands@thenational.ae