Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad's sudden willingness to put its chemical weapons under international -- i.e. Russian -- supervision might allow the regime to avoid a US attack while at the same time preserving its advantage in Syria's civil war. Despite tough rhetoric from the United States, if an agreement can be reached on the modalities of safeguarding the chemical weapons, the US can avoid becoming embroiled in the Syrian conflict while still, more or less, saving face.
President Barack Obama's delineation of the "red line" that would trigger intervention if crossed trapped the US into acting in Syria. Not to do so would have been a serious blow to the US’ pre-eminent standing in global affairs.
But to strike without UN Security Council approval would have drawn international opprobrium and likely have escalated involvement by Russia and Iran. The logic of intervention, too, would be to step up from "degrading" the Assad regime’s capacity to use chemical weapons and probably damaging its air power to damaging the regime’s wider capacity, allowing greater prospects for regime change.
At this stage, the US is not backing down on its internal discussions about attacking Assad's regime. But its rhetoric should now be read primarily as keeping up pressure on Russia to finally act to help moderate the conflict. Having Russia involved in Syria would help prevent the US from being drawn into a no-win situation. Should the US intervene, it will create four problems that do not currently exist.
The first problem is that any hope for detente with Russia would collapse, raise the spectre of opposition on a range of other global issues the US is trying to manage, including China’s strategic manoeuvring, a nuclear armed Iran, and a mad and bad North Korea. It would also damage the opportunity to work with Russia on the mutual concern with the spread of international jihadist Islamism.
The second problem is that any US intervention in Syria would turn a number of its Middle Eastern friends into critics, based not on their strategic alliances but on the "great unbeliever" again imposing its will on Islamic land. One should not underestimate the offence to Muslims caused by non-Islamic military involvement in Islamic countries.
The third problem is that if the Assad regime were to fall, Syria’s patchwork of over a dozen ethnic groups would descend into an ethnic cleansing bloodbath. The conflict would also almost certainly spill over into Lebanon and further destabilise Iraq and perhaps Jordan and would pose a greater threat to Israel.
The fourth problem is that while few like the Assad regime, everyone but Saudi Arabia and Qatar are much more concerned about the likely jihadist Islamist alternative. Should Assad be toppled, the Syrian Islamic Front -- a coalition of radical Salafi jihadist organisations linked to al-Qaeda -- would very likely defeat the alternative anti-Assad Free Syrian Army.
This would create a combative Islamist state in the heart of the Middle East. The US and Russia would be equally aghast at this eventually.
At least with Russia now offering to "safeguard" Syria’s chemical weapons -0 if with conditions - the possibility they will fall into the hands of a combative Islamist state would be removed. And the US may be able to avoid again setting itself up as Islam’s "great Satan".
Assuming it can obtain sufficient guarantees, the US will likely accept Russia’s offer. More than punish Assad, the US wants to preserve its credibility while extricating itself from a situation it has never wanted to be in and that, on balance, it knows will only get worse.
There was a moment of hope, a week ago, that there could yet be a negotiated resolution to the Syrian civil war. That hope now appears ended, with key Syrian government ally Russia backing away from what could have been international agreement on the need end the war.
Instead, the Syrian war is increasingly spilling across borders, with the Lebanese-based Hezbollah militia openly siding with the Syrian government by joining in the attack on the town of Qusair, Syria shelling the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and Jordan in particular buckling under the weight of more than 400,000 refugees.
The Syrian government’s attack on Qusair, near the border with northern Lebanon, is reported to be the heaviest artillery assault of the war. Anti-Assad regime forces still hold the town but are struggling, and its loss will put further pressure on the nearby hold-out city of Homs, also the scene of heavy fighting between Syria’s opposing forces.
Should Qusair fall, it will open a route for the Syrian regime between Damascus in the south and the sea ports at Al Hamidiyah and the Russian-based Tartus. The heavy fighting follows President Bashar al-Assad taking a hard line on the possibility of ending the civil war in an interview last weekend.
The fighting also follows the reporting drying up of weapons supplies to the anti-Assad forces. The reduced flow of weapons is a result of increasing concerns that they could fall into the hands of the al-Qaeda-affiliated Al Nusra Brigade and aligned factions, as well as as result of reports of atrocities on the part of both pro and anti-Assad forces.
Assad has said he will not negotiate with "terrorists", meaning forces arrayed against his regime, and says he plans to stand for "re-election" in 2014. Assad’s statement came a day after the US criticised Russia for supplying rockets to Syrian government forces.
Russia’s supply of the rockets was in apparent contradiction of the agreement between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry early in May, to push for a Syria peace conference in June. One reading of Russia’s position is that it will support peace talks in June, but only if it can strengthen the hand of the Assad regime ahead of such negotiations.
At this stage, however, Assad is not indicating that he will participate. Anti-Assad forces, meanwhile, see his resignation as a key condition for the talks to succeed. France has also said it will boycott the talks if Assad ally Iran is invited to participate in the talks process, which Russia is insisting upon.
With the anti-Assad forces now clearly divided between the Free Syrian Army and the al-Qaeda affiliates and Western support wavering, Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers are feeling increasingly confident of turning the tide in the war. It may be, however, that this is but another twist in an increasingly complicated, bitter and prolonged war.
US President Barack Obama has moved a step closer towards direct intervention in Syria with his statement that there is now evidence that chemical weapons have been used in Syria's civil war. Obama has previously said the use of chemical weapons would be a "red line" that, if crossed, would trigger US intervention.
However, Obama has said it is not yet absolutely clear who was responsible for the use of the chemical weapons, and that it is critical to clarify this point so as to ensure international support for US intervention. His caution reflects growing concern not just over Syria's mounting death toll but international opposition to intervention as well as the inexorable drawing in to the conflict of outside forces, in particular Lebanon’s heavily armed Shiite militia Hezbollah.
Both the Bashar al-Assad government and the Syrian opposition claim chemical weapons have been used in the conflict, as recently as last Sunday. This supports earlier Israeli claims chemical weapons were being used in the Syrian conflict. There has been a high level of reluctance to take such claims on face value, however, given the disrepute of similar claims that rationalised the start of the Iraq War. Even if it can be established who has used chemical weapons -- thought to be the nerve gas Sarin -- it is not yet clear what form intervention might take, much less the shape of international reactions to such an intervention.
With the US public weary over the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, it is unlikely that the US would commit ground troops to Syria. A belligerent response from Syrian ally Russia, and to a lesser extent Iran, are also factors against a ground intervention.
However, a bombing campaign and related air cover, as in Libya in 2011 and in Yugoslavia in 1999, have been shown to be effective in either changing the course of a ground war or compelling a government into submission. With the Assad regime only slowly losing ground in its now two-year-old civil war, such an intervention would be likely to tip the outcome against his government forces.
One factor complicating of any hastening of the fall of the Assad regime is that Syrian opposition forces are now deeply divided. The Free Syrian Army is supported by the US and its European allies, and the explicitly al-Qaeda-affiliated Al Nusra Front is supported by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Although it wants the Assad regime to go, the US and its allies are deeply opposed to an Al Nusra takeover of Syria. A civil war between Al Nusra and the FSA is also seen as increasingly likely following the fall of the Assad regime.
On-ground intervention by Hezbollah, which is supported by Iran, has led Al Nusra leaders to say that, following the fall of the Assad regime, Hezbollah's destruction will be the next priority. Contemplating a possible Al Nusra takeover in Syria and a widening of the war into Lebanon and possibly Iran, the US is focusing on how its increasingly likely intervention could shape Syria’s highly contentious future.