United Nations inspectors confirmed Monday that a large-scale chemical attack killed hundreds of people in Syria last month. But a deal between the U.S. and Russia to dismantle Syria's chemical stocks will likely leave the man responsible for that attack in charge, analysts and rebels say.
Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said President Obama's policy laid down more than two years ago that Syrian dictator Bashar Assad "must go" may itself be gone as a result of the deal.
"The problem now is Assad is part of this process which means he's not going to go," said Tabler, author of In the Lion's Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington's Battle with Syria.
"I just don't see how this diplomatic deal solves the Syrian crisis," he said.
The U.N. report says that there is "clear and convincing evidence" that chemical weapons were used in the Aug. 21 attack in two villages outside Damascus. But it did not affix blame for the attack on the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad as has the United States.
The United States says 1,400 people died, mostly women and children, in villages where Syrian military forces have been trying to dislodge rebels opposed to Assad.
"The conclusion is that chemical weapons have been used in the ongoing conflict between the parties in the Syrian Arab Republic … against civilians including children on a relatively large scale," the inspectors reported to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon.
Meanwhile, a U.N. war crimes panel is investigating 14 other suspected chemical attacks in Syria, as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with European allies to build support for a deal proposed by Russia to get Syria to dismantle its chemical weapons under international supervision.
Russian President Vladimir Putin made the offer last week to stave off a threat by President Obama to strike Syria militarily over its use of chemical weapons.
Paulo Sergio Pinheiro said the Geneva-based U.N. panel he heads has not pinpointed the chemical used in the attacks and is awaiting evidence from the U.N. inspectors report. In Paris on Monday, Kerry met with his counterparts from France, Britain, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, who had pressed for strikes against Assad.
Kerry said the allies and Russia agreed that any deal with Assad must include "consequences" for the Syrians if they fail to adhere to the plan to dispose of chemical weapons. U.S. and Russian officials agreed Saturday that Syria must provide an inventory of its chemical weapons within a week, with the weapons eliminated by mid-2014.
"If Assad fails in time to abide by the terms of this framework, make no mistake, we are all agreed — and that includes Russia — that there will be consequences," Kerry said.
The deal calls on Assad to declare the locations of his chemical weapons and allow U.N. inspectors to inspect, tally and transport them out of the country for destruction. It requires Assad's continued presence in Syria to enact the deal. And the U.S.' partner in forging the deal, Russia, wants Assad to remain, Tabler said.
Together with U.S. pledges to support and arm Syrian rebels, "the policy does not make any sense, unless the policy is you want Assad to hold on and to contain the rebels," he said.
Meanwhile, the civil war is raging on, radical Islamists among the rebels are a growing threat to U.S. allies in the region and violence pouring over Syria's borders with its neighbors in Iraq and Lebanon continues increase.
An anti-Assad Lebanon newspaper reported Sunday that the Syrian regime has begun transferring its chemical weapons to neighboring countries to deceive U.N. inspectors.
The Lebanese daily al-Mustaqbal said about 200 Syrian trucks were loaded with chemical-warfare-related equipment and sent to Iraq. The paper reported that the trucks arrived in Iraq on Thursday and Friday and were not inspected by border guards as they entered.
Kerry met in Paris a day after visiting Israel, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed the U.S.-Russia deal and stressed his belief that it would have deep repercussions on Iran, Syria's close ally, according to Israel Hayom newspaper.
"The world needs to ensure that radical regimes don't have weapons of mass destruction because as we have learned in Syria, if rogue regimes have weapons of mass destruction they will use them," Netanyahu said.
"The determination the international community shows regarding Syria will have a direct impact on the Syrian regime's patron Iran. Iran must understand the consequences of its continued defiance of the international community by its pursuit toward nuclear weapons," he added.
He said the deal proved that "if diplomacy has any chance to work, it must be coupled with a credible military threat."
Strategic Affairs, Intelligence and International Relations Minister Yuval Steinitz told Army Radio that the deal on chemical weapons will be judged on its results.
"We hope it will succeed," Steinitz told Army Radio. "On the one hand, it lacks the necessary speed (in removing chemical arms from Syria). On the other hand, it is much more comprehensive, as it includes a Syrian commitment to dismantle the manufacturing facilities and to never again produce (chemical weapons)."
Free Syrian Army Commander Brig. Gen. Salim Idris said the Russian-American deal was a "blow to the uprising in Syria" because it will allow Assad to continue to use his arsenal of tanks, bombers and artillery to kill civilians and repress a rebellion of Syrians who no longer wish to live under a brutal dictatorship.
"Assad is fooling the world. The Syrian regime has begun transferring chemical weapons to Lebanon and Iraq. The deal will allow Assad to continue slaughtering innocent people," Idris said, according to Israel Hayom.
Robert Danin, a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of State for Near East affairs who was part of a U.S. delegation to Syria during the Iraq War, says the U.S. "wants Assad to go but has not really been working very hard to make it happen."
While "it appears nearly impossible to conduct a complex disarmament operation amidst a raging civil war," the chemical weapons deal calls on Russia, Syria's only ally other than Iran, "to bring its influence to bear on Assad" to make that happen, Danin said.
The process could lead to some kind of political resolution, he said.
It's still unclear how "wedded the Russians are" to the Syrian dictator as an individual, Danin said, and U.S. officials should test whether the Russians are willing to help engineer Assad's departure as part of a process that protects Russian interests in Syria.
"Washington has a chemical weapons policy, and that is what it is pursuing," he said. "It does not have a clear Syria policy at all, other than to want to manage and contain the conflict, seeing its resolution as too hard and too risky."