Assad survives

2013-09-25 00:00

IT was already looking likely that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime would survive — it has had the upper hand militarily in the Syrian civil war for at least six months now — but the events of the past two weeks have made it virtually certain.

Syria has already complied with the two initial demands of the Russian-American deal concluded over Assad’s head last week. It has signed the Chemical Weapons Convention, and it has given a list of all Syria’s poison-gas facilities and storage depots to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. This means that the United States cannot attack it for at least a year.

U.S. President Barack Obama’s ability to order such an attack was already in doubt because of the opposition in Congress. Now he cannot bomb without endangering UN inspectors, who will be all over the regime-controlled parts of Syria by November, to take control of the estimated 1 000 tons of chemical weapons. Syria has a year to destroy them all, and until and unless it fails to meet that deadline, bombing is out of the question.

Even if there are delays, the United States will be ill-placed to use them as the pretext for an attack, as it is far behind schedule itself. In 1997, the U.S. agreed to destroy the 31 000 tons of lethal gases that it owned, within 10 years. That’s 30 times as much as Syria has, but 10 years should have been enough. It wasn’t. In 2007, Washington asked for five more years to get rid of its poison gas, the maximum extension allowed under the Chemical Weapons Convention. It didn’t meet that deadline either, so last year it announced a new deadline: 2021. Given its own record, the U.S. will find it difficult to use Syrian delays as an excuse for resurrecting its bombing threats.

The civil war will probably continue during the coming year, and possibly for a good deal longer. Assad’s troops have been winning back territory in the centre of the country, but they have yet to make much progress in the north, the south or the east. They lack the numbers to finish the job now, but the tide is running in their direction.

Close to 1 000 separate rebel units are operating in Syria, but there is no unified rebel army. The armed groups can be roughly divided into jihadists (many of them foreign) who want to create an Islamic caliphate in Syria, and more moderate groups who originally took up arms hoping to create a democratic Syria free from the Baath Party’s tyranny.

Most of the less radical groups want an Islamic republic too, but they are repelled by the extremism of the jihadists. They hoped that the West would destroy Assad’s forces and put them in power instead (while keeping the jihadists out), and they are now very angry at the United States for letting them down. But they are also deeply disappointed, for the realists among them can see no other way to win this fight.

Many of these fighters would now be open to a regime offer of a ceasefire, an amnesty, and a gradual transition to a less corrupt and repressive political system, and the Baathist regime is likely to make such an offer soon (whether it means it or not). It would not neutralise the jihadists and restore peace to the country, but it might seduce enough of the other rebels to shift the military balance sharply in Assad’s favour.

Much cruel fighting would remain to defeat the jihadists, but at least the country would emerge intact. Or the war may just go on and on, ending eventually in partition. But at least we have been spared the spectacle of the United States and its sidekicks attacking yet another Muslim country, only to realise in the end (as in the case of the imaginary “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq) that its excuse for doing so was false.

The pretext this time was going to be Assad’s use of poison gas against his own people. But the timing was weird. (UN inspectors had just arrived in Damascus when nerve gas was fired at the rebel-held eastern suburbs). The target was pointless. (Why civilians, not rebel fighters?) And why would Assad use a weapon that might trigger Western bombing when he was already winning the war without it?

Now the Russians are saying (off the record, so far) that the serial numbers of the rockets that delivered the nerve gas reveal that they did not belong to the Syrian army. They were made in Russia in 1967 and sold to Yemen, Egypt and Libya’s Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, who filled some of them with nerve gas. He had about a thousand tons of the stuff.

A lot of Gaddafi’s arsenal went missing after he was overthrown two years ago, sold off by the victorious rebel militias. Some of the rockets filled with nerve gas could have ended up in Syria, in rebel hands, and the temptation to use them in order to trigger Western military intervention would have been hard to resist. If that is the case, Obama should be even more grateful to Moscow for saving his bacon.

• Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

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