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U.S. inaction triggers uptick in fighting among rebel factions

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By Zeina Karam
Friday, Sept. 20, 2013, 6:00 p.m.
 

BEIRUT — For Syria's divided and beleaguered rebels, the creeping realization that there will not be a decisive Western military intervention on their behalf is a huge psychological blow.

President Bashar Assad's regime has gained strength, largely because the world community is concerned that if he is toppled, the result may be an Islamist Syria in the grip of al-Qaida.

The immediate result has been an uptick this week in fighting between moderate and jihadi rebels.

The long-term outcome is likely to be a prolonged war of attrition that continues the slow destruction of Syria as a coherent state and further fans the flames of sectarian hatred and extremism in a turbulent Middle East.

Only two weeks ago, the Obama administration appeared poised to initiate a military strike against the Syrian regime in response to a chemical attack it says was carried out by Assad's forces, killing hundreds of civilians.

President Obama reversed course as a result of an ambitious agreement between the United States and Russia calling for an inventory of Syria's chemical weapons.

The deal abruptly reshuffled the cards, baffling opposition forces who had held out hope that U.S.-led strikes would help tip the scales in the country's deadly stalemate.

Opposition forces say the agreement effectively legitimizes Assad's regime, at least until mid-2014 when chemical weapons stockpiles are supposed to have been destroyed.

“This deal puts the regime front and center in the international diplomatic process,” said Randa Slim, a scholar at the Washington-based Middle East Institute.

Opposition forces say that by agreeing to relinquish his chemical weapons stockpile, Assad successfully removed the threat of military action while giving up very little in exchange. Unlike the regime's warplanes, which have pushed back rebel advances and pummeled opposition-held territory, chemical weapons are not viewed as crucial to the regime's survival or military strategy.

The focus on diplomacy, which is likely to drag out the war, bolsters the jihadi narrative that the West is not interested in a rebel victory after all.

“Assad has been rewarded for using chemical weapons, rather than being punished,” said veteran Syrian opposition figure Kamal Labwani.

“It is a depraved decision that will reflect in more extremism on the ground,” he said, pointing to the rapid proliferation of al-Qaida militants.

Karam is chief of AP's Beirut bureau and has covered Syria since 1996.

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