One step forward… two steps back

The dwindling prospect of air strikes amidst a new a deal to dismantle Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons, will merely succeed with further entrenching Bashar al-Assad’s position and intensifying the conflict.

The announcement on September 21 that a deal had been reached between the US and Russia for decommissioning Syria’s chemical weapons served only to exacerbate an already merry-go-round conflict.

After two years of in fighting, it is estimated that over 200,00 lives have been lost and yet the subject of so much speculation over the past month has involved what some have referred to as only a “glimpse” of a much larger campaign of atrocities by both sides.

According to the local Coordination Committees activist network, new massacres have been reported since August 21, new advances by Assad’s troops have been recorded and takeovers of villages by rebel factions have been claimed. It seems whilst the world has been holding its breathe in anticipation of some action from global powers, the conflict in Syria continues to rage on.

Ali Haidar, a Syrian Minister, was quoted as saying “It’s a victory for Syria that was achieved thanks to our Russian friends.” Indeed, behind the shield of Russian diplomacy and political impotency from both the UN and the US, Syria’s leader and his army is advancing its campaign to win back lost control, knowing that failure to comply with Geneva’s inspection protocols will bring only anemic “measures” and insincere sanctions, such as disrupting Syria’s communications, or imposing economic restictions.

Sources have indicated to TRENDS that, at this juncture, without another instance of Assad using chemical weapons, air strikes are highly unlikely to occur, even if Syria doesn’t honor the accord. Assad is unlikely to exercise a complete breach that demands a punitive response; instead a broken deal will most likely manifest itself in a series of delays and disagreements.

The Geneva agreement requires Syria to provide a detailed memo of its chemical stockpile within one week, yet there have been unconfirmed reports that the army has been shifting such weapons across the border into Lebanon for safekeeping, obviously in a ploy to minimize official numbers.

Ian Bremmer, President of global political risk research and consulting firm, Eurasia Group, spoke to TRENDS about the likely outcome following the new diplomatic agreement. “The recent protocols will create an uphill struggle for an already fractious array of rebels. The real question will be the extent to which supporters in the region increase their shipments of arms to the rebels.

“But the chemical weapons of the regime are not a game changer, nor would taking them off the table alter the balance of power – they are not of significant tactical value in Assad’s fight against the rebel forces,” he says.

In America’s absence, Assad’s allies are likely to intensify their support for his cause; whether or not Hezbollah can re-invigorate what has been a conservative contribution until now, remains unclear, but Iran, whilst publicly hinting at a possible resumption of nuclear talks, will most likely simultaneously maintain, if not increase, shipments to Syria.

The future trends for the rebels are much more difficult to anticipate. French Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, insisted in September that support for the Syrian opposition would increase. “In order to negotiate a political solution, we need a stronger position. We therefore intend to strengthen our support to Syrian national coalition rebels. If you want to change the Assad regime without falling into the hands of terrorists, you have to support the moderate opposition,” he said.

The problem with this statement is that the rebel or opposition factions within Syria are fragmented. Indeed, a week previous to the French foreign minister’s remarks, the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL), an armed group operating in Syria, announced it would “go to war” against two other rebel groups in the town of al-Bab, in Aleppo governorate.

Syrian protest
Syrians protesting against President Bashar Al Assad

As if the Free Syrian Army (FSA) wasn’t frustrated enough by months of in-house squabbling, weeks of discussion regarding possible air strikes has resulted in increasing animosity in Syria between jihadist groups and Western-backed fighters. The FSA has publicly announced that it is frustrated by the agreed accord and will in no way support the initiative and so any hope that this might be a stepping stone to a cease-fire and peace talks is highly unlikely.

“Certainly there will be efforts to bring both sides to the table diplomatically… but it is very unlikely they will amount to much of anything. It will serve only to further strain relations between the two. But the FSA’s biggest, most immediate problem is not Assad, but instead dealing with other factions among rebels. It’s hard to see coherence developing there,” Bremmer told TRENDS.

For the rebel’s Gulf supporters, speeding the flow of money and arms to the rebels is a likelier option than using force themselves. “An Arab military strike has never been considered,” says Mustafa Alani, an analyst at the Geneva-based Gulf Research Center. “They may step up support for the rebels, yes, but military operations, no.”

“The Gulf feels misled,” said Mustafa Alani, referring to the U.S. shift. “Certainly, there’s a fear that this means Iran will be much stronger. Strategically speaking, the Iranian position is going to be enhanced in the region.”

The GCC wants “to stop the bloodshed, to support any international action, to protect the people of Syria, to hold the regime accountable for the massacre and the killings,” Abdel Latif al-Zayyani, secretary-general of the GCC, said at a conference in Dubai September 11.

What is now likely to happen is further influxes of both arms and resources from the Gulf States in an effort to counter-act any efforts by the Assad regime to push ahead with their counter-offensives; what specific groups under the rebel banner will receive these resources from the Gulf States is hard to predict.

It is unlikely that this flow will be carefully monitored, so long as the receiving party stands proxy against the Syrian regime, but the recent latest developments from Geneva will almost certainly facilitate further sectarian horrors by factions of the opposition, as well as the regime.

Analysts are commenting that, even if the US was still to go ahead with their strikes, there would be no significant impact on the ground – limited strikes would not be a game-changer. This is in light of recent comments from Colonel Qassem Saadeddine, a member of the FSA’s high command, and his colleagues, who claimed they were making plans to push into government-held areas as soon as the US strike began.

The future for the Syrian conflict does not bode well for either side and the intensity of fighting is almost guaranteed to escalate. What is apparent is that the zigzag parameters outlining government and rebel-controlled areas will continue to change as both sides persevere with their offensives over the coming months.

Even if economic sanctions are forced on the Assad regime under punitive measures by the UN, these will not halt, at least in the short-term, the daily death toll, nor the epidemic Syrian refugee crisis engulfing many of its neighbors.