President Barack Obama. (Associated Press)
Last Modified: Wednesday, September 11, 2013 5:37 PM
BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian opposition forces feel let down and more divided than ever because of President Barack Obama's decision to seek a diplomatic path to disarming Damascus of its chemical weapons.
Many rebels who had held out hopes that U.S.-led strikes on President Bashar Assad's government would help tip the scales as the two sides faced a deadly stalemate said America has indirectly given the embattled leader a second wind as a statesman negotiating with world powers.
"We're on our own," Mohammad Joud, an opposition fighter in the war-shattered northern city of Aleppo, said via Skype. "I always knew that, but thanks to Obama's shameful conduct, others are waking up to this reality as well."
Rebels who have been fighting for 2 ½ years to topple Assad say the U.S. has repeatedly reneged on promises to assist their rebellion, offering only rhetoric. In June, Obama announced he would provide lethal aid to the rebels, but so far none of that assistance has gotten to the opposition and the Syrian leader's forces have gained the advantage.
Violence continued Wednesday when government warplanes hit a field hospital in the town of al-Bab near Aleppo, killing 11 people and wounding dozens more, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The group, which relies on reports from activists on the ground, said a Yemeni doctor was among those killed in the airstrike.
After a feverish campaign to win over Congress and the American people to support military strikes against Syria, Obama said Tuesday he would give diplomacy more time to rid the country of its chemical weapons arsenal that Washington says was used to gas and kill more than 1,400 people on Aug. 21 in rebel-held parts of the Ghouta area outside Damascus. The death toll has not been confirmed, but even conservative estimates from international organizations put it as at least several hundred.
The president did not say how long he would wait.
Although Obama had said the attacks would be limited in time and scope with no intention of dislodging Assad, rebel commanders had planned to try to exploit them to shift the momentum in their favor after months of being on the defensive in what has become a war of attrition. Several rebels said they were opposed "in principle" to U.S. intervention but saw it as a necessity to change the situation on the ground.
However, Assad, who has denied his forces were responsible for the attack and instead blamed rebels, fended off the threat of military action, at least for now, by agreeing to relinquish his chemical weapon stocks under a plan initiated by Russia.
"Assad's regime is going to be stronger because while they've agreed to give up their chemical weapons, they get to keep everything else to fight the opposition that has lost territory in the past year and has now suffered a big blow," said Ayham Kamel, a Middle East analyst at the Eurasia Group in London. "The opposition will struggle with morale and sense of purpose."
Moreover, the opposition has been hobbled by increasing infighting between al-Qaida-affiliated militants and more moderate rebels as well as between militants and ethnic Kurds in the country's northeast. An influx of more sophisticated weapons from Saudi Arabia earlier this year does not appear to have made a significant mark on the ground, where Assad's forces are on the offensive.
Underscoring the government's resiliency, hundreds of people drove through streets in the capital, Damascus, honking their car horns to celebrate Assad's birthday on Wednesday. The Syrian leader, who turned 48, still retains popularity among some segments of Syrian society, particularly members of his Alawite sect and other minorities, including Christians.
"People were hoping for America to strike to bring about some kind of solution, but we also expected that nothing would happen because nobody has a solution for Syria," said Bissan, a resident of Damascus, who spoke to The Associated Press during her visit to Beirut Wednesday. She insisted her full name not be used for fear of reprisals.
"We are all tired of bombs and we don't care about Assad and the opposition army (rebels), if they go or stay, because they are all responsible for crimes," she added. "People just want some food, some peace and their relatives released from prisons."
Loay al-Mikdad, spokesman for the Free Syrian Army, a loose-knit alliance of rebel factions that is backed by the West, said the regime is just buying more time and trying to fool the international community.
"We don't believe that this delay for any kind of intervention will stop the regime from killing Syrian people or be for the Syrian people's benefit. It will give Assad more time, and every minute, every day, every hour that passes will cost us more blood and Bashar will continue killing and nothing will change," he said.
The disappointment was also felt by many of the refugees scattered across neighboring countries in Turkey, Jordan and in Lebanon.
"I think that Obama is the most cowardly American president," asked Rabie Mahameed, a Syrian refugee from the southern town of Daraa, now living at the sprawling refugee camp of Zaatari, in Jordan. "What is he waiting for, another two years of killing until all the Syrians get killed? There is no peaceful solution. If there is no military strike, the crisis will never be solved."
Abdul Hameed Abu Mohammad, another Syrian refugee, said he was disappointed.
"Postponing the strike is a game, because no one trusts the regime," he said.
The process of disarming Syria promises to be a lengthy, complicated process rife with challenges and, many are skeptical the regime would follow through on its commitments and fear it will continue its crackdown against the opposition with more traditional weapons.
"Warplanes have killed far more people than the chemical weapons," said Yasser, a fighter in Ghouta who would only give his first name for fear of reprisals.