x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Syria begins handover of chemical weapons details

Assad regime meets first deadline in US-Russia deal as rebels factions declare a truce. Phil Sands reports

Opposition fighters return from the battlefield in the Idlib province countryside on Thursday. AP Photo
Opposition fighters return from the battlefield in the Idlib province countryside on Thursday. AP Photo

Phil Sands

Foreign Correspondent

ISTANBUL // Syria submitted details of its chemical weapons arsenal to a global arms watchdog on Friday as part of a US-Russia deal to disarm the weaponary.

The UN-backed Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons will oversee the removal of President Bashar Al Assad’s stockpile of chemical weapons and confirmed that the regime had handed over some information.

“We have received part of the verification and we expect more,” the organisation said.

The Assad regime agreed to the deal to avert the threat of US strikes in response to gas attacks on rebel-held territory in Damascus suburbs that the US says killed more than 1,400 people.

The announcement came after Syria’s opposition condemned attacks by Al Qaeda factions on units of the Free Syrian Army, warning that Islamist extremists were strengthening their positions in rebel-held territory.

A ceasefire agreed late on Thursday between Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which pledges allegiance to Al Qaeda, and the western-backed rebels of the FSA, appeared to be holding yesterday after two days of fierce fighting near a strategic border crossing between Syria and Turkey.

Although both groups are fighting against the Assad regime, ideological differences have underpinned regular outbreaks of violence between them in a struggle over dominance of rebel-held zones.

Nonetheless, the opposition Syrian National Coalition and FSA units have been reticent in criticising Al Qaeda fighters because the militants have proven a highly effective fighting force.

But yesterday, the SNC condemned the radical militants for aggression and indifference to the lives of Syria people, saying they had begun to cement their positions in rebel areas instead of taking the fight to regime forces.

“ISIS no longer fights the Assad regime. Rather, it is strengthening its positions in liberated areas, at the expense of the safety of civilians.”

The SNC stressed it was fighting to build a sate where “freedom, justice, rule of law, democracy and equality scan thrive”.

Radical Islamic groups also espouse justice and rule of law, in accordance with Islamic teachings which, they say, preclude democracy.

While the fighting has stopped in Azaz, the fact the FSA and Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant have struck an agreement on equal terms underlines how powerful the group affiliated with Al Qaeda has become.

It also highlights divisions between the rebel groups trying to overthrow the regime, which strengthens Mr Al Assad’s hand, an opposition member living in a rebel-held area of Damascus said.

“Al Qaeda has grown strong enough and confident enough to openly fight the FSA, that is a major worry, it serves the Assad regime and will help him to win this war,” he said.

Under the truce, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and the FSA’s North Storm Brigade agreed to return prisoners and property taken during the recent clashes in Azaz, and established an Islamic council to mediate future disputes.

The relationship between Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which contains fighters from across the Islamic world, and the more nationalist, home-grown rebels of units flying the FSA flag, has long been uneasy but has now turned into one of outright hostility.

The fighting appeared to break out over the presence of a German medical doctor, working in a field hospital under FSA protection. Reports suggest Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant believed the physician to be spying on them and launched an attack to capture him.

This month Charles Lister, an analyst with IHS Janes’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre in London, published a report estimating that Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and Jabhat Al Nusra, the two major groups affiliated to Al Qaeda – the most “extreme” portion of the insurgency – have between 7,000 to 10,000 fighters, spread over 11 of Syria’s 14 provinces.

But, underlining the complexity of the situation, he said other rebel elements, some of them aligned with the SNC, both cooperate with Al Qaeda factions and explicitly reject the democratic state the SNC says it wants to build in Syria.

Of 100,000 rebel fighters, potentially 32,000 to 42,000 can be considered hardline Islamists, Mr Lister said, with nationalist-secular “moderates” probably accounting for no more than 25 per cent of the insurgency.

The SNC yesterday sought to reaffirm the rebel’s moderate credentials, saying Syrians were “moderate, respect religious diversity and political differences” while rejecting “extremist ideology and exclusionary behaviour, including any and all criminal acts”.

The Assad regime has blamed the rebels for the gas attacks in Damascus but the US claims government forces were responsible.

The OPCW’s Executive Council is due to meet early next week to review Syria’s inventory and to agree on implementing the US-Russian deal to eliminate the entire arsenal of chemical weapons in nine months.

The timetable was set down by US secretary of state John Kerry and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov a week ago in Geneva.

Their plan set Saturday as a rough deadline for Syria to give a full account of the weapons it possesses. Security experts say it has about 1,000 tonnes of mustard gas, VX and sarin - the nerve agent UN inspectors found after hundreds were killed by poison following missile strikes on rebel-held areas on August 21.

Also yesterday, Qadri Jamil, a deputy prime minister in Mr Al Assad’s government, was quoted in The Guardian newspaper saying the conflict between regime and rebels had reached a stalemate, with neither side able to win militarily.

The Guardian’s report cited Mr Jamil as saying the regime would push for a ceasefire, mediated by international peacekeepers, when long-delayed peace talks resumed.

Those comments sparked speculation about whether Mr Jamil, not considered influential in regime circles but who enjoys a close relationship with Russia – a key backer and arms supplier to the Syrian regime – was floating a new diplomatic push by Mr Al Assad or Moscow.

By yesterday afternoon a spokesman for Mr Jamil’s political party had dismissed the story, saying it was “neither precise nor professional”.

Syrian regime officials publicly insist their military forces are gaining the upper hand against rebels, and Mr Al Assad has said there can be no negotiations with “terrorists”, his term for those fighting to end his family’s four-decade, autocratic rule of Syria.