It was already looking likely 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 — the events of the past two weeks have made it virtually certain.
Syria has already complied with the two initial demands of last week’s Russian-American deal. It has signed the Chemical Weapons Convention, and given a list of all Syria’s poison gas facilities and storage depots to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. That means that the United States cannot attack it for at least a year.
President Barack Obama cannot now bomb Syria without endangering UN inspectors, who will be all over the regime-controlled parts of Syria by November to take control of the 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.
The civil war will probably continue for a good deal longer as Assad’s troops lack the numbers to regain control of the whole country right now but the tide is running in their direction.
There is no unified rebel army in Syria. There are around a thousand armed groups that can be roughly divided into jihadists (many of them foreign) who want to found an Islamic caliphate in Syria and more moderate groups who originally took up arms hoping to create a democratic Syria.
The less radical groups hoped the West would destroy Assad’s forces and put them in power instead (while keeping the jihadists out). They are angry at the United States for letting them down — 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 repressive political system. Such an offer may soon be forthcoming (whether Assad means it or not). It would not appeal to the jihadists but it might seduce enough of the other rebels to shift the military balance sharply in Assad’s favour.
He would still have to defeat the jihadists but at least the country would emerge intact. Or maybe the war will just go on and on, ending eventually in partition. In either case, we have been spared the spectacle of the United States and its sidekicks attacking yet another Muslim country, only to realize in the end (as in the case of Iraq’s alleged “weapons of mass destruction”) that their excuse for doing so was false.
The pretext this time was going to be Assad’s use of poison gas against his own people. The Russians are now saying the serial numbers of the rockets that delivered the nerve gas reveal they were made in Russia in 1967 and sold to Yemen, Egypt and Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi — who filled some of them with nerve gas.
A lot of Gaddafi’s arsenal went missing after he was overthrown two years ago, sold off by the rebel militias. Some of those rockets could easily have ended up in Syria, in rebel hands, and the temptation to use them to trigger Western military intervention would have been hard to resist.
If that is really the case, then President Obama should be grateful to Moscow for saving his bacon.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.