Syrian deaths rise amid talks

Geneva accord fails to address issues on the ground

The Washington Post

As negotiations to avert a U.S. strike against Syria ramped up last week, so, too, did the action on the ground. Warplanes dropped bombs over far-flung Syrian towns that hadn’t seen airstrikes in weeks, government forces went on the attack in the hotly contested suburbs of Damascus, rebels launched an offensive in the south and a historic Christian town changed hands at least four times.

At the close of a week hailed in Moscow and Washington as a triumph of diplomacy over war, more than 1,000 people died in the fighting in Syria, the latest casualties in a conflict that has killed more than 100,000 people and can be expected to claim many more.

Indeed, some analysts fear that the deal struck in Geneva between Russia and the U.S. over a mechanism to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal may actually prolong a war being fought over issues far more profound than the parameters of a specific weapons program.

The poison gas attack that killed hundreds of people in the suburbs of Damascus last month accounted for fewer than 1 percent of the overall deaths in the 2½-year-old Syrian conflict. Meanwhile, both sides are stepping up conventional attacks in the absence of any sign of a broader settlement.

The Geneva agreement, under which Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government is expected to submit to U.N. inspections and ultimately surrender its chemical program, has thrust the issue of weapons of mass destruction to the forefront of a fight that evolved from a wildly different set of circumstances, rooted mostly — although not entirely — in the quest for greater freedoms known as the Arab Spring.

The deal requires Assad’s government to comply with the destruction of his chemical weapons program by the middle of 2014, which would appear to ease any pressure on him to stand down before elections earlier in the year.

At the same time, the accord removes — at least for now — the threat of American intervention, which may have held in check some of the more violent impulses of a well-armed government battling a broad-based rebellion.

The deal left unaddressed the many other complexities that have helped turn Syria’s war into one of the bloodiest and most intractable in decades. Questions such as whether Assad should stay in power, how to get him to the negotiating table and what to do about the fighters’ conventional weapons remain unresolved, said Amr Al Azm, a professor of history at Ohio’s Shawnee State University, who is Syrian and supports the opposition.

In an interview aired Sunday, President Barack Obama said he was hopeful that the agreement on chemical weapons would lead to further measures to stem the bloodshed in Syria.

However, a sharp escalation in nationwide violence over the past week underscored the extent to which the deal has rerouted the narrative of the war — at least temporarily.

For several days after Obama indicated that he was prepared to use force to punish the Syrian government for its gas attack on Aug. 21, in which 350 to 1,429 people are reported to have died, the daily death toll plunged into the low dozens.

Over the past week, the numbers have soared again into the hundreds, according to figures compiled by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and other groups that monitor casualties.

In al-Bab, a rural town in Aleppo province that ejected government forces over a year ago, an unexpected wave of airstrikes in the hours that coincided with the Geneva deal killed at least 30 people, 11 of them in the town’s hospital, activists said.

In the eastern suburbs of Damascus, where missiles packed with chemicals were fired on Aug. 21, the rate of shelling has doubled in 10 days, according to activists there. Warplanes have been back in action for the first time in months, said Mohammed al-Doumani, who monitors activity in the suburb of Douma.

Rebels — some of them loosely grouped under the label of the Free Syrian Army and answerable to officers allied with Western powers, and others designated terrorists by the U.S. government — have also stepped up their activities.

Now that the focus of the Syria debate has shifted to the dismantling of chemical weapons, there is no incentive for either side to refrain from other forms of violence, said Emile Hokayem, a Bahrain-based analyst with the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

The chemical weapons accord coincides with a rapid expansion in territory held by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, a group affiliated with al-Qaida.

The agreement is likely to further increase support for the extremists, Hokayem said.