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Shadows of Syrians are reflected on a giant poster showing President Bashar Assad, during a supporting rally in Damascus on Dec. 16, 2011.(AP Photo/Muzaffar Salman)
On the same day that President Obama appeared on six television networks to make his case for carrying out targeted air strikes in Syria, what he called a possible “significant breakthrough” in the standoff presented itself.
From Moscow, Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem announced on Monday that Syria “welcomed” a Russian proposal that the country turn over control of its chemical weapons to international monitors in order to avert possible U.S. strikes. On Tuesday, the White House and a bipartisan group of Senators joined the call, working to write a congressional resolution that would give the United Nations oversight of the Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal.
Some see the proposal, which originated from a seemingly off-the-cuff remark Monday by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, as a compromise that could bring a much-sought end to the international showdown over Syria when it seemed that all diplomatic options had been exhausted.
“Whether it's a delay tactic or not, it represents a potential important political breakthrough because it could bring momentum for a political process many have wanted,” said Leila Hilal, director of the Middle East task force at the New America Foundation.
But others, Syrian rebels in particular, warn that this is an all-too-familiar game that President Bashar al-Assad has expertly played since the rebellion began in March 2011.
They cite a slew of broken promises of reform and internationally brokered agreements which they say bought the regime time whenever pressure for action mounted.
Below is a timeline of some of them.
March 29, 2011
Less than two weeks after Syrian protesters first took to the streets, Assad promised to give in to one of their key demands and lift a decades-old emergency law that gave the regime the authority to arrest people without charge. A month later, a newly-formed cabinet lifted the law and abolished a special court that prosecuted Syrians who challenged the government, and Assad announced a decree "regulating the right to peaceful protest, as one of the basic human rights guaranteed by the Syrian Constitution."
Syria's President, Bashar Assad delivers a speech, in Damascus, Syria, Monday, June 20, 2011, saying "saboteurs" are trying to exploit legitimate demands for reform in the country. "There can be no development without stability, and no reform through vandalism. ... We have to isolate the saboteurs."(AP Photo/SANA)
It was not until February 2012 that he ordered a national referendum on the Constitution, but the promise came as the Syrian military’s assault on the opposition areas had taken on a new level of brutality. The U.S. called the referendum amidst the military onslaught “laughable.”
Nov. 2, 2011
When the Arab League stepped in to halt the violence, Assad accepted a lofty league proposal, pledging to withdraw tanks and armored vehicles from the streets, end violence against protesters, release political prisoners, allow journalists and international monitors into the country and begin talks with opposition.
After the Arab League pushed for action to the U.N., Syria agreed to a ceasefire proposal brokered by U.N. special envoy Kofi Annan. Under the agreement, Syria pledged to halt troop movements and the use of heavy weapons in population centers, begin drawing down military presence in those areas, implement a daily two-hour pause in fighting, release those who were detained arbitrarily, respect the right to demonstrate peacefully and implement “nondiscriminatory” visa policies for journalists. At the time, the plan, which had the support of Russia and China, was seen as the last chance for a diplomatic end to the violence.
So what makes this time any different? The threat of military intervention, argues Hilal.
“Assad’s history certainly makes you understand why Syrians would be skeptical of any stated commitment by the Assad regime,” she said. “But there's something uniquely different here because you have the threat of military force looming in the background, and Russia, China and Iran all see this as a good way out. The proxies are all lining up, and that's an important development.
"We would probably see business as usual," she admits. "The Syrian regime would continue carrying out bombings, and rebels would keep keep fighting, but it could be a moment to build the ground work for a much needed diplomatic solution."
But Joshua Landis, scholar and author of the Syria blog SyriaComment, warns that the move “legitimizes” Assad in the world community.
“This opens the door to Assad having a lot more negotiating power, both with the Russians and Americans," Landis said. "This puts Assad in the same negotiating room as Obama, and it gives him a lot of bargaining chips moving forward.”
Landis added that it's also a win for Russia. “I'm sure the people in Moscow are doing shots of vodka right now. They warded off unilateral U.S. action and put Moscow at center of things. And I’m sure there is lots of arm pumping going on in Damascus. Assad has averted a direct American blow.”
The possible deal could also help the Obama administration extricate itself from a congressional vote that it currently does not have the numbers to win. But that only helps Obama for so long, Landis said.
"This deal would suck Obama into the Syrian civil war," he said. "If he thought he wanted to stay out, send a few targeted strikes, he's now locked into negotiations for a long time."