Syrian foreign minister: 'There is no civil war'

His comments come as UN inspectors wrap up a visit laying the groundwork for destroying Syria's chemical weapons.

Jason DeCrow/AP
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem gives an interview during the 68th session of the United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters, Saturday, Sept. 28, 2013.

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International inspectors have wrapped up their second visit to Syria to investigate more reported instances of chemical weapons use following a rare show of international consensus at the United Nations Security Council to require Syria to give up its chemical arsenal.

Meanwhile, Syria’s foreign minister took the stage at the United Nations, reiterating the government's argument that the violence in Syria is actually part of a larger war against terrorism, not a civil war.

The inspection that was finished Monday was an incremental step toward the effort to destroy Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s deadly cache. The actual destruction is scheduled to begin Nov. 1 with decidedly low-tech methods such as sledgehammering manufacturing equipment or running machines without oil until they seize up. The entire program is slated to be eliminated by the middle of 2014, a deadline that many weapons experts agree is ambitious, if not unrealistic.

Inspectors said that Syrian government officials have been candid and cooperative in the effort to document the size and location of the arsenal. The UN Security Council’s resolution, passed Friday, is considered to be the most important diplomatic move on the Syrian conflict to date, and possibly a landmark agreement in international security.

“The use of chemical weapons anywhere constitutes a threat to international peace and security,” the resolution stated.

The resolution calls on Syria to give up its chemical weapons and authorizes the Security Council to take action against Damascus – such as sanctions – if it fails to comply. However, any action would require unanimous approval from the Council, which includes staunch Syria ally Russia. 

The progress on the weapons program also comes amid guarded optimism about the role that Iran, Syria’s most important ally, plays in the Gordian knot of Middle Eastern politics. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and President Obama shared a historic phone call last week – a small but remarkable move in the 34-year hostile relationship between the two nations.

Tehran has long been Syria’s stalwart ally, particularly as the current civil war gathered steam and brutality. It has provided weaponry, supplies, and direct military aid and guidance to Mr. Assad’s embattled regime.

The fact that the Assad government is giving up its chemical weapons is a modest victory for international cooperation. But it doesn’t obscure the fact that a brutal sectarian war grinds on, now in its third year, with 100,000 casualties and counting. And there is virtually no consensus about how to bring the fighting to an end, except to just let the fighting go on, some experts argue.

According to The Wall Street Journal, diplomats say Syria’s interest in being cooperative could deflect international attention from Syria’s overall conduct in the civil war, which has been the subject of harsh condemnation.

“The chemical weapons matter is important, but just a small part of the big problem we face in Syria,” wrote Peter Brookes, a senior fellow at the conservative Washington-based think tank Heritage Foundation and a former deputy assistant secretary of Defense. “What’s our plan for the rest of it?” 

Speaking at the UN General Assembly Monday, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem repeated his government’s longstanding argument that the country’s internal violence is a fight against terrorism, not a civil war.

"There is no civil war in Syria," Mr. Moallem said Monday. "But it is a war against terror that recognizes no values, nor justice, nor equality, and disregards any rights or laws."

While often dismissed in the West as exaggerated, that position has gained shreds of credibility in recent weeks from warnings from experts about the growing number and clout of rebel fighters espousing extremist ideologies and even claiming membership to Al Qaeda.

“The Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria is widely acknowledged as the most effective fighting force in the war against Bashar al-Assad’s regime,” the Washington-based Bipartisan Policy Center said in a report released earlier this month.

Last week’s announcement that a dozen rebel groups had rejected the Western-backed Syrian National Council dealt a blow to efforts to generate a unified position for any sort of peace negotiations with the Syrian government.

The divide between moderate groups and radical factions among Syria’s rebels, and increasing internecine warfare, is likely to spin the war into new, unpredictable directions. That could bolster the hand of Syrian government forces, lessen support for the rebels, and, as the Bipartisan Policy Center observed, worse:

“The war (in Syria) has even more of the characteristics of a perfect jihadi storm than Afghanistan possessed three decades ago: a conflict in the heart of the Arab world with widespread support among Sunni Muslims, the provision of financial assistance from wealthy Gulf supporters, a popular cause that readily attracts foreign volunteers, and a contiguous border with a number of Muslim states that facilitates the movements of fighters into and out of the battle space.”

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