Secretary of State John F. Kerry on Thursday urged the U.N. Security Council to ignore Russia’s questions about the source of chemical weapons used in the Syrian civil war and to back quickly the plan to rid Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime of its stockpile.
Even as Obama administration officials appeared to back down from the U.S.-Russian deal’s initial mandate requiring Syria to account for all its chemical weapons by this weekend, Mr. Kerry called on the international body to avoid getting bogged down next week in a debate questioning American evidence about the regime’s role in last month’s chemical attack on a Damascus suburb.
“We really don’t have time today to pretend that anyone can have their own set of facts,” the secretary of state said in a shot at Russia, which, while working with the U.S. on the deal to secure Syria’s weapons, has continued to claim that it was Syrian rebels — not forces aligned with Mr. Assad — who carried out the chemical attack.
Away from the high-stakes diplomatic maneuvering, Syria’s war has taken alarming turns this week amid reports of growing internal fighting among rebel groups, with hard-line Islamists tied to al Qaeda appearing to have gained the upper hand.
Reports Thursday said extremist factions in the opposition notched a significant victory by defeating a brigade of the more secular and U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army in the northern town of Azaz, a key rebel supply route near the border with Turkey.
Analysts say that since early this year, some Sunni Muslim extremist groups in the opposition have been retreating from the front lines to the rebel-held northern and eastern parts of Syria, where they have turned their attention to governance.
But in doing so, they angered the local populations through a campaign of violence, including reported executions of children, attacks on Christians and rapes of boys.
As a result, fighting has broken out between more secular elements of the opposition and the hard-liners.
“The rift between these two groups has always been there, but early on in the conflict, the more extremist groups had very little power,” said Christopher Harmer, a senior naval analyst at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington.
The power of these extremist groups has grown, said Mr. Harmer, in part because of the absence of Western support for the Free Syrian Army, which is made up mostly of defectors from Mr. Assad’s armed forces.
“U.S. inaction has opened the door to allow al Qaeda to be a more effective recruiter of fighters that were previously allied to the Free Syrian Army,” he said. “In the absence of aid from the West, these people become susceptible to radicalization.”
The Free Syrian Army is believed to outnumber the al Qaeda-linked groups, but “has been losing support to al Qaeda because al Qaeda can promise these young fighters they have guns that work, ammunition, food, money, a coherent governing philosophy and the Free Syrian Army can’t match that right now,” Mr. Harmer said.
Return to the U.N.
In Washington, Mr. Kerry said the U.N. Security Council “must be prepared to act next week” toward approving the Sept. 14 deal reached in Geneva between the U.S. and Russia to compel Mr. Assad’s government to account for and destroy its chemical weapons stocks.
“Now the test comes,” Mr. Kerry told reporters at the State Department. “It is vital for the international community to stand up and speak out in the strongest possible terms about the importance of enforceable action to rid the world of Syria’s chemical weapons.”
His remarks underscored the need to add wider international legitimacy to the U.S.-Russian deal, particularly since both sides made significant strategic concessions in order to reach the agreement.
Russia came to the table admitting for the first time that Syria has chemical weapons and that it is in the world’s interest to secure and destroy them. The Obama administration backed down from its imminent threat to carry out a U.S. military strike as retaliation for last month’s chemical attack.
But it remains unclear how the deal reached in Geneva will be enforced without a full-scale backing by the United Nations, and the Obama administration has appeared increasingly willing this week to back down from an ambitious timeline originally touted under the deal.
According to a copy of the agreement circulated by the State Department last weekend, Syria is expected to “submit, within a week, a comprehensive listing, including names, types, and quantities of its chemical weapons agents, types of munitions, and location and form of storage, production, and research and development facilities.”
Washington backing down?
While Saturday would mark the one-week deadline, Obama administration officials spent Wednesday and Thursday telling reporters that the timeline was not technically a deadline.
“Hopefully we will see a declaration from the Syrian regime in the coming days,” Deputy State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Wednesday. “I don’t want to put a hard and fast deadline on it.”
Pressed Thursday on Ms. Harf’s remarks, White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters that “we expect the Syrian regime to abide by the timeline in the framework and for Russia to hold the Assad regime to account.”
But, Mr. Carney said, “We would need to stress that these are timelines and goals, and we are all aware that something as complicated as destroying a massive stockpile of chemical weapons takes time.”
He noted that Syria also is making a declaration to the Chemical Weapons Convention as part of the U.S.-Russia deal and that the process involves a “30-day time frame.”
“So, we’re looking at both, and we will evaluate Syria’s compliance as we see information from Syria,” Mr. Carney said.