Russia has managed to sell its solution to the nerve gas problem and is brokering a deal whereby Syria agrees to surrender its chemical weapons to the UN in return for a promise of no foreign intervention. Russia is having trouble selling the “no foreign intervention” part of the package because most diplomats involved know what is really going on here. Russia believes that UN chemical weapons monitors and efforts to destroy the chemical weapons in place will make NATO or American air strikes against Assad forces politically impossible, even if the Assad forces are carrying out a much more brutal campaign against pro-rebel civilians and just using everything but chemical weapons. Iran likes this approach because Iran has been willing to help the Assad forces up its game in the brutality department. This is the ancient “if you can’t be loved, at least be feared” approach to dealing with rebellious subjects. The ancient Romans were big fans of this and described it as “creating a desert and calling it peace.” The Sunni majority will either be driven out of the country or terrorized into submission. This won’t work as long as the Assad forces have to worry about the possibility of Western intervention from the air. The surrender of chemical weapons to UN observers and starting destruction of the chemical weapons (using foreign contractors, guarded by foreign troops who are not there as peacekeepers) gives Western governments an incentive to keep the Assad government in power until the chemical weapons can be safely destroyed. This can take a long time and the Russians know that as long as the negotiations are seen as active by the West the Assads are safe from Western air power.
Even after a deal is struck the Assads have to be wary about how this chemical disarmament drill actually plays out. For example, Libya voluntarily surrendered its chemical weapons in 2003 and implemented a destruction plan that was expected to need over a decade to complete. That effort was still underway when the 2011 uprising occurred and the Kaddafi government was overthrown. NATO air power intervened despite the presence of Libyan chemical weapons and foreigners helping with the destruction of those weapons. Russian diplomats don’t dwell on that and just concentrate on keeping Western airpower away from the demoralized Assad forces and the growing force of mercenaries Iran has been sending in from Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, and many other nations with Shia populations and young men willing to die for their beliefs.
The Assad government still has to convince the UN that it has revealed all the storage sites and then arrange independent security to ensure the weapons are not used. Leaving the weapons where they are risks Assad troops taking the stuff back by bullying their way past UN peacekeepers sent to guard them. Getting the chemical weapons safely out of Syria is probably impossible because many of these weapons are elderly, poorly constructed, or both, and dangerous to handle by anyone. The favored solution (even in Russia and the U.S.) is building destruction (via incineration or water neutralization within sealed environments) facilities near where the chemical weapons storage sites are. That approach is the safest but takes years to get started and even longer to complete safely.
Meanwhile the Assad forces still appear to believe an air attack might still be on the way and have been moving major weapons (like armor and artillery) to residential neighborhoods, where they cannot be bombed without the risk of killing civilians. In the West, the threat of an attack is seen as dead. For the rebels this lack of air support remains a major shortcoming. The rebels are acutely aware of how badly Libyan rebels, and their civilian supporters, suffered two years ago before NATO air support came. The rebels have no choice to fight on and the Assads are determined to keep killing rebels and driving civilian supporters out of the country until the rebel effort collapses. That could take another year or two of fighting, but the Assads feel they have no choice. The UN may not want to intervene but the threat of UN sponsored war crimes trials keeps the Assads focused and winning. Defeat is not an option.
The Russian diplomatic effort to trade Syrian chemical weapons for some protection from foreign intervention is openly seen by the Assads and the Russians as a great victory. Western leaders had loudly warned the Assad government that use of chemical weapons would bring retaliation and did not anticipate the Russian “chemical weapons for immunity” gambit. But the Western voters went for the Russian deal because many in the West have had it with Arab duplicity and bad behavior in general, and the Assads and their allies are exploiting that by pointing out that Syria could end up like Iraq. That is now a country rife with corruption and supportive of Sunni Islamic terrorists. The comparison falls apart after that because Iraq is run by a Shia majority which is not particularly religious. The Iraqi government is friendly with Shia Iran but not dependent and subservient like Assad run Syria has been. While only about ten percent of the Syrian rebels are openly Islamic radicals, many more, perhaps half, are Islamic conservatives. There’s no guarantee that these Islamic conservatives would support religious rule in Syria. After all they have noted how poorly that worked out in Iran and how attempts to implement that in Egypt and Tunisia failed. Russia warns that without the Assads there would be more civil war and more time for Islamic terror groups to put down roots in Syria. The Assads play down the fact that they have hosted Islamic terrorists for decades and play up the fact that they did have some control over its terrorist guests and limited the amount of mayhem these groups carried out on other nations from their Syrian sanctuary. This is little comfort to Iraq or Israel. For Iraq Syria was the main base for pro-Saddam terrorists from 2004-8. For Israel the Assads have always supported Arab terrorists devoted to killing Israelis.
The earlier Arab Spring rebellions that succeeded ended up with governments dominated or threatened by Islamic radicals. Western leaders have been slow to accept this unpleasant news but the voters, who pay for these attacks in money and blood, have a veto power and they are exercising it. The Internet has spread the personal experience of Western troops who have served in Moslem countries far and wide and the mindset of Arabs in conflict areas is now widely known in the West. The continued popularity of Islamic terrorism among so many Moslems, including many living in the West, adds to this sense of disgust and distrust. For many in the West, a secular democracy in Syria might be better than the Assads when it came to terrorist support and would be unlikely to be worse. But Westerners are tired of the unpredictability and irrational behavior of Arabs and don’t want to get involved.
Despite that, American weapons are reaching the rebels and NATO nations are increasing their military training efforts. Oil-rich Arab nations are increasing their support, but what the rebels really want is air support. The rebels see the Russian chemical weapons deal as a betrayal. The rebels note that the Libyan rebels were also divided and many of them were Islamic terrorists. The rebels admit that despite their unity on paper, the rebel organizations like the FSA (Free Syria Army), which is the military wing of the SOC (Syrian Opposition Coalition), have influence but not much control over the hundreds of separate rebel groups fighting inside Syria. FSA and SOC are based outside Syria and use their control over shipments of foreign weapons and military equipment, as well as selecting who shall be trained by Western experts to be more effective fighters to gain some degree of control over the rebel fighters. This influence has not been able to prevent the growing number of deadly spats between rebel groups. The Islamic terror groups are the most volatile and will fight each other over real or perceived disagreements. What the SOC and FSA have the most difficulty with is the growing Western popular distrust of Arabs, especially Arab Moslems. This attitude has existed for a long time, reinforced by things like centuries of Arab rulers providing bases for Moslem pirates who preyed on Christian nations they shared the Mediterranean with. While the Arabs complain about Western crusades, these pale in comparison to the centuries of Islamic violence against non-Moslem (“infidel”, “kafur”) neighbors. The Arabs may well have their grievances with the West but when it comes to supporting Syrian rebels, the West wants some assurances that good deeds won’t be punished by Arab perfidy and paranoia. Those assurances don’t seem to be forthcoming, just more bile and spite. To many in the West, getting the Assad chemical weapons stockpile safely out of the way is more important than helping one group of Western-hating Arab fanatics replace another.
While the Russians negotiate the killing continues. The Assads have still not turned the tide of battle but are driving more Sunni Arabs out of their homes, and especially getting them to leave the country, and all this makes the rebels weaker. The rebels are shifting more effort towards taking Aleppo. Capturing all of Aleppo would be a major victory for the rebels who have been fought to a standstill there in the last three months by the arrival of Lebanese Hezbollah reinforcements and Shia mercenaries recruited from Iraq and other countries by Iran. That has saved the Assad forces from collapse because the army and other security forces are suffering from morale problems after more than two years of rebel attacks. Most of the Assad forces are tied down guarding Damascus and surrounding areas in central Syria, as well as the coastal area in the northwest. The rebels are dominant in the north (with the Kurds holding the northeast), the west, and the southern border areas. As recent attacks along the coast demonstrated, the rebels can get into “government controlled” areas and launch attacks. This is especially true of the Islamic radical groups, who are into suicide attacks and doing whatever it takes to win.
Russia, China, and the Assads are quick to publicize atrocities against their supporters, but most of the civilian deaths continue to be at the hands of Assad forces. Russia continues to blame rebels for the August 21st chemical weapons attack on pro-rebel civilians. The Russians no longer try to deny that the attack took place, although they quibble about whether as many as 1,400 died. About that many are dying each week, mainly from Assad artillery and aerial bombing.
In Lebanon Hezbollah is under more pressure, and public criticism, from the Christian and Sunni majority because of Hezbollah actively entering the Syrian civil war on the side of the dictatorship. Syria is hated by most Lebanese because Syria considers Lebanon a “lost province” and has never been shy about letting that be known. A new Syrian government will likely be friendlier towards Lebanon (if only because most Lebanese favor the rebels) and Hezbollah is seen as acting like a traitor to Lebanese independence by supporting the Syrian government. Christian leaders have usually been discreet in their public criticism of Hezbollah because that pro-Iranian organization has assassinated several outspoken Christian leaders. But now the public criticism is being heard again and Hezbollah leaders are the ones that are feeling fear.
September 17, 2013: In Damascus rebels fired mortar shells into several pro-government neighborhoods, killing 5 people and wounding over 30.