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posted: 9/14/2013 8:16 PM

Syrian rebels say agreement lets Assad off hook

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  • Portraits of two men are on display as people pray Saturday for three Christian men killed by gunmen in the predominately Christian village of Maaloula during a service at the al-Zaytoun Roman Catholic Church, Damascus, Syria.

      Portraits of two men are on display as people pray Saturday for three Christian men killed by gunmen in the predominately Christian village of Maaloula during a service at the al-Zaytoun Roman Catholic Church, Damascus, Syria.
    Associated Press

By Loveday Morris, The Washington Post

BEIRUT -- Syrian rebels said Saturday that the U.S.-Russian deal for Syria to relinquish its chemical weapons leaves the regime unpunished for allegedly carrying out a chemical attack last month, while Syrian President Bashar Assad exudes a new confidence in its aftermath.

Just moments after Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, announced the details of the agreement in Geneva, rebel commander Gen. Salim Idriss accused Syria and its ally Russia of "playing games" to bide time.

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"What about the murderer Bashar who gave the order? Should we forget him?" Idriss said, speaking at a televised news conference in Istanbul. "We feel let down by the international community. We don't have any hope."

The United States asserts that it is not ruling out military intervention in Syria, although U.S. officials have said they will not seek U.N. authorization to use force against Syria if does not comply with the plan to give up its chemical weapons. Analysts say the lack of any specific provision for military action in the draft U.N. resolution that backs the agreement is a victory for Assad and Russia.

On Saturday, Syrian state media touted the agreement as effectively ruling out military action on Syria. "Lavrov and Kerry agree on no military solution in Syria," read the headline on the Syrian state news agency SANA.

As the threat of military strikes receded over the past week, Assad gave several television interviews in which he appeared to gloat over the U.S. failure to convince the world of its view that the Syrian government was responsible for the Aug. 21 attack in the suburbs of Damascus. The Obama administration says 1,429 people were killed, including at least 426 children.

"The rhetoric used was unconvincing, which placed this American administration in a difficult position domestically," he said in an interview with Russian television. "This administration could not even persuade its own allies of its lies."

The rebels say the U.S. rollback from military strikes has emboldened Assad, who they say has stepped up his campaign of violence in the Damascus suburbs. On Saturday, Idriss accused Assad of using chemical weapons again in the capital last week, without giving further details.

Musab Abu Qatada, spokesman for the rebel military council in Damascus, said a poisonous gas attack Thursday injured 15 people in the Damascus suburb of Jobar. The allegation could not be verified.

"The regime gained a victory," Abu Qatada said. "It now believes that the whole international community can't punish it or stop it, so it will do it all."

Abu Qatada said the Syrian army's efforts to retake the rebel-held suburbs of Damascus where the Aug 21. attack took place have escalated in recent days.

The already grinding two-and-a-half year conflict will probably see an upsurge in violence, said Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center. Assad likely will take advantage of the window before the mid-2014 deadline for its stockpiles to be destroyed to attempt to stamp out rebel forces, he said, while Persian Gulf states also will step up their military assistance for the rebels.

"Assad will be a fairly confident guy today, and if he's sincere about the plan, there's potentially a lot of political gain for him," he said. "He's certainly likely to feel victorious, there is no credible threat of the use of force on the table anymore, which is the thing he fears the most."

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