Washington and Moscow are taking applause for a possible diplomatic bargain to have Syria hand over its chemical arsenal.
U.S. President Barack Obama has put off a congressional vote on attacking Syria that he was likely to lose; Russia, having presented the idea, can now present itself as peacemaker after two years of Western criticism that it is shielding a tyrant.
Yet the ultimate victor could be President Bashar al-Assad. And, if past experience with international cooperation on Syria is repeated, the main losers may be other Syrians, of whom more than 100,000 have been killed and over 6 million made homeless since Assad cracked down on demands for democracy in 2011.
For all the talk of a deal that may ease a dilemma for Western leaders seeking a politically acceptable response to a poison gas attack on August 21, few Syrians see it as any solution to the greater crisis their nation faces.
Chemical weapons account for perhaps 2 percent of deaths in the civil war; in the three weeks since toxins killed some 1,400 people near Damascus, according to U.S. officials, conventional bombs and bullets have killed more than twice that number.
Assad, who calls his enemies terrorists and highlights the role of Islamist militants, grows in confidence as the threat of U.S. strikes fades and diplomacy affords him legitimacy.
“Syria and its allies are trying to buy time and avert Western action at all costs, while the Obama administration is also looking for time in the face of an uncertain congressional landscape,” said James Fallon of consultancy Control Risks.
“The proposal is of considerable short-term diplomatic utility but is unlikely to form the basis for long-term compromise.”
Those living in rebel-held areas say they now fear more years of attacks by weapons just as deadly and terrifying as nerve gas, but lacking the taboo, all while the world focuses on the minutiae of how to destroy Syria’s chemical arms.
“This is just a game by Russia and the regime to buy more time,” said an opposition activist in Damascus who uses the name Tariq al-Dimashqi. Since the Russian government raised the idea on Monday, government bombardments have been heavier, he said.
On Tuesday, Syrian warplanes resumed their air campaign against rebel-held suburbs of the capital for the first time since before August 21. Activists said the resumption of air strikes showed Assad no longer fears U.S. military action.
Ever since Obama said a year ago that chemical weapons would be a “red line”, the focus on these weapons by the United States has been a sore point for many Syrians, who say it disregards the tens of thousands – rebels, soldiers and civilians – already killed in every other way imaginable.
The death toll is regularly reaching 1,000 a week, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based group with a network of pro- and anti-Assad sources in Syria.
Aside from putting the threat from chemical weapons into perspective, that statistic underlines how hard it will be for international inspectors to enforce any deal in the midst of a chaotic civil war. Destroying stockpiles might take years.
Syria’s chemical arsenal is believed to include hundreds of tons of sarin and mustard gases, as well as VX nerve agent, spread over dozens of locations. Simply accounting for those stocks and being sure that any destruction is comprehensive will be difficult – as will shielding the inspectors from violence.
David Friedman, a former counter-proliferation official with Israel’s Defence Ministry and now at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, estimates that it could take fully one to two years to decommission Syria’s stockpiles.
And even then Assad might not be fully disarmed: “Guarantees are hard to come by,” Friedman said, noting that toxic munitions were found in Libya after Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown in 2011 – eight years after he was supposed to have given them all up.
In Iraq, years of cat-and-mouse maneuvering between U.N. weapons inspectors and Saddam Hussein, who in 1988 was the last leader to kill hundreds of civilians with poison gas, failed to reassure the United States that Baghdad had disarmed.
Syria has accepted deals with world powers before and then argued over details, delaying implementation while continuing its war effort by battering residential districts. It called for an immediate U.N. probe into an alleged chemical weapons attack in March that it blamed on the rebels. But it then took months before the government finally let inspectors visit in August.
When the latest poison gas release happened three days after their arrival, it then took them further days of negotiations before being able to leave their hotel and reach the scene.
Aaron Stein at London’s Royal United Services Institute, who said it could take a decade to destroy Assad’s chemical arsenal, saw similar obstacles being put in the way of new inspections.
“Why I call this absurd is that they would require extreme cooperation from both sides,” he said. “In 2003, Britain and the U.S. had Gaddafi’s personal phone number,” he said.
Assad, by contrast, is not on speaking terms with either London or Washington – though Moscow does seem to have his ear.
Others see a better chance of success and say the proposal could be step one towards an eventual settlement of the conflict; Fawaz Gerges at the London School of Economics put the chances of success for the Russian proposal at 50-50.
“It provides an opening to the international standoff over chemical weapons,” he said. “A window of opportunity, a confidence-building measure to begin discussing the greater challenge – brokering a political settlement that ends the carnage in Syria, eases Assad out of power and preserves state institutions.”
Obama has pledged to explore Moscow’s proposal, which Syria has accepted. But he is also skeptical it will work and urged Americans to support his threat to use military force if needed.
Infantry clashes, air strikes and artillery bombardments are reported daily from nearly every province of Syria. Nearly 10 percent of its 22 million population has fled abroad and twice as many have fled homes but remain inside the country.
Through two and a half years of conflict, Assad’s opponents have complained of indifference and muddled messages from the world powers. When troops gunned down demonstrators, Washington and its allies condemned the violence but did little to help.
Hopes of winning eventual foreign backing, however, helped persuade some Syrians to take up arms, rebels say.
As violence increased so too did Western condemnations of Assad – condemnations that were ignored. In June, after small instances of chemical weapons use, Washington said it would arm the rebels. But fighters say they still see little sign of it.
For Assad’s opponents in the capital, the U.S. threat of air strikes against government targets following the gas attack brought both hope of victory and fear of being hit themselves. Now, with that threat receding, many are even more confused.
“People don’t know whether to leave the country or stay,” said one woman, who opposes Assad but lives in a part of Damascus held by his forces. “The world’s hesitation has been shown – and its indifference to Syrian blood.”