Syria’s chemical weapons saga has been one of the dominant storylines of the conflict. Alongside the threat of jihad, it is the main reason Syria still registers on Western security radars.
But the chemical weapons narrative itself is a microcosm of the complications and frustrations of Syria’s war. President Bashar al-Assad has been compliant enough in handing over his chemical weapons, doing his part in a U.S.-Russian-led deal to avert a U.S. military strike. The deal served as a face-saving maneuver for Assad; the U.S. intelligence chief said it strengthened his hand by eliminating the threat of a strike, and with it any prospect of accountability.
Yet even within the confines of that deal, there are concerns. Assad is still holding 7.5% of his chemical arsenal, inspectors told the BBC, and reports of new chemical attacks are under investigation. The most recent allegations accuse the Syrian regime of aerial attacks using chlorine gas, a substance that wasn’t included in the U.S.-Russian deal. The Syrian government denied it used chlorine gas; in contrast, state media pinned the attack on rebel forces.
“Deadlines are being met, but the regime still cannot be trusted,” wrote the Economist. According to Western intelligence analysts, cited by Reuters, Syria still has the capacity to produce chemical arms.
Amid the chemical ruckus, the regime can claim victory for delivering on its international obligations. The U.S. can claim victory, however flawed, in cutting a deal that stuck. On the flip side, rebels feel abandoned and outraged. Civilians who’ve fallen victim to chemical exposure feel like the world cares nothing for their plight. And ultimately, Assad will still hold the strategic advantage on the battlefield, wielding power through heinous instruments.
Barrel bombings alone make that clear. Those bombings have torn apart the city of Aleppo, as the Wall Street Journal reported this week, in what used to be the commercial heartland of Syria. Civilians are paying the highest price: in response to the regime’s aerial bombings of rebel-held areas, Islamist rebel groups have cut off electricity in pro-regime parts of town. Residents tell Syria Deeply that water is also in short supply.
Homs is emerging as a turning point in Syria’s future, as the long-divided city falls under gradually greater government sway. Daraa has seen 88 people killed over two days in a battle for control of the city. In Damascus, the regime is already being buoyed by a patchy peace, the result of local cease-fires worked out to its advantage. However, questions remain around how, and how long, that peace will last.
“I do not put much stock in the truce – I expect that it will be broken very soon,” said Abu Nidal, a construction worker-turned-paramedic in Zabadani. He told Syria Deeply about coping with barrel bombs that effectively pounded the town into submission.
Against that backdrop, Syria’s presidential campaign season has begun. The election date is set for June 3. A handful of candidates, including one woman, have signed up to challenge Assad. The government has said there won’t be polling places in areas under rebel control. That leaves pro-government areas alone, to ostensibly choose the country’s next leader. Even for them, it is not much of a choice; their president, and the country’s future, will be dictated by the regime’s choice of political and military maneuver.
That will remain the case as long as there are no consequences for the actions and actors on the ground. This week the U.N. called out the regime and rebels for failing to comply with U.N. Security Council Resolution 2139, demanding humanitarian aid access to civilians in need. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said the “the Security Council must take action to deal with these flagrant violations.” But he didn’t say specifically how. The coming week will likely show whether Ban has created a new opening for accountability, or just pointed out another grievance that will go unpunished, to the detriment of Syria’s people.