Damascus, September, 2013
Destruction in Damascus, September 12, 2013. Photo by AFP
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Syria's government hailed as a "victory" a Russian-brokered deal that has averted U.S. strikes. President Barack Obama, meanwhile, defended a chemical weapons pact that the rebels fear has bolstered their enemy in the civil war.

President Bashar Assad's jets and artillery hit rebel suburbs of the capital again on Sunday in an offensive that residents said began last week when Obama delayed air strikes in the face of opposition from Moscow and his own electorate.

Speaking of the U.S.-Russian deal, Syrian minister Ali Haidar told Moscow's RIA news agency: "These agreements ... are a victory for Syria, achieved thanks to our Russian friends."

Though not close to Assad, Ali was the first Syrian official to react to Saturday's accord in Geneva by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Bridging an angry East-West rift over Syria, they agreed to back a nine-month UN program to destroy Assad's chemical arsenal.

The deal has put off the threat of air strikes Obama made after poison gas killed hundreds of Syrians on Aug. 21, although he has stressed that force remains an option if Assad reneges.

Kerry, visiting Israel, responded to widespread doubts about the feasibility of the "the most far-reaching chemical weapons removal ever" by insisting the plan could work. And he and Obama sought to reassure Israelis the decision to hold fire on Syria does not mean Iran can pursue nuclear weapons with impunity.

Obama embraced the Syria disarmament proposal floated last week by Russian President Vladimir Putin after his plan for U.S. military action hit resistance in Congress. Lawmakers feared an open-ended new entanglement in the Middle East and were troubled by the presence of al Qaeda followers among Assad's opponents.

Obama dismissed critics of his quick-changing tactics on Syria for focusing on "style" not substance. And while thanking Putin for pressing his "client the Assad regime" to disarm, he chided Russia for questioning Assad's guilt over the gas attack.

Responding to concerns, notably in Israel, that a display of American weakness toward Assad could encourage his Iranian backers to develop nuclear weapons, Obama said Tehran's nuclear program was a "far larger issue" for him than Assad's toxins.

Obama had no lack of critics, however, at home and abroad. John McCain, an opposition Republican senator and supporter of intervention in Syria, said the deal handed Putin the kind of global leverage Moscow had not enjoyed since the Cold War: "It gave Russia a position in the Middle East which they haven't had since the 1970s," he told NBC. "We are now depending on the goodwill of the Russian people ... It's a very big gamble."

Even Obama's Democratic supporters are wary. If Assad scorns his commitments, said Senator Robert Menendez, "We're back to where we started - except Assad has bought more time on the battlefield and has continued to ravage innocent civilians."
                
Syrian national reconciliation minister Ali said Syria welcomed the deal: "They have prevented a war against Syria by denying a pretext to those who wanted to unleash it."

He also echoed Kerry and Lavrov in saying it might help Syrians "sit round one table to settle their internal problems."

But rebels, calling the international focus on poison gas a sideshow, have dismissed talk the arms pact might herald peace talks and said Assad has stepped up an offensive with ordinary weaponry now that the threat of U.S. air strikes has receded.

A spokesman for the opposition Syrian National Coalition repeated that it wanted world powers to prevent Assad's force from using its air force, tanks and artillery on civilian areas.

"Assad is effectively being rewarded for the use of chemical weapons," Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Doha Center wrote in the Atlantic magazine. "Now, he can get away with nearly anything - as long as he sticks to using good old conventional weapons."

International responses to the accord were also guarded. Western governments, wary of Assad and familiar with the years frustrated UN weapons inspectors spent in Saddam Hussein's Iraq, noted the huge technical difficulties in destroying one of the world's biggest chemical arsenals in the midst of civil war.

Iran hailed a U.S. retreat from "extremist behavior" and welcomed its "rationality". Israel said the deal would be judged on results. China, which like Russia opposes U.S. readiness to use force against sovereign states, was glad of the renewed role for the UN Security Council, where Beijing too has a veto.

The Syrian government has formally told the United Nations it will adhere to a treaty banning chemical weapons. The U.S.-Russian framework agreement calls for the UN to enforce the removal of existing stockpiles by the middle of next year.

Air strikes, shelling and ground attacks on Damascus suburbs on Sunday backed up statements from Assad's supporters and opponents that he is back on the offensive after a lull in which his troops took up defensive positions, expecting U.S. strikes.

"It's a clever proposal from Russia to prevent the attacks," said an Assad supporter from the port city of Tartous.

An opposition activist in Damascus echoed disappointment among rebel leaders: "Helping Syrians would mean stopping the bloodshed," he said. Poison gas is estimated to have killed only hundreds of the more than 100,000 dead in a war that has also forced a third of the population to flee their homes since 2011.

Russia says it is not specifically supporting Assad - though it has provided much of his weaponry. Its concern, it says, is to prevent Assad's Western and Arab enemies from imposing their will on a sovereign state. And Moscow, like Assad, highlights the role of Al-Qaida-linked Islamists among the rebel forces.

Their presence, and divisions among Assad's opponents in a war that has inflamed sectarian passions across the region, have tempered Western support. Al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri urged followers on Sunday not to cooperate with other Syrian rebels.

The opposition Syrian National Coalition elected a moderate Islamist on Saturday as prime minister of an exile government - a move some members said was opposed by Western powers who want to see an international peace conference bring the warring sides together to produce a compromise transitional administration.

Previous attempts to revive peace efforts begun last year at Geneva have foundered on the bitter hostilities among Syrians.

Newly elected Coalition leader Ahmad Tumeh, a moderate Islamist, told Reuters he wanted to form a government that could bring order to rebel-held areas and to challenge Al-Qaida there.