Middle East

Syria's civil war far from over despite US-Russia deal

Syrian protesters in Damascus (16 September 2013)

The BBC's Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen has spent the past three weeks in Damascus. Here, he gives his impressions of watching Syria go from facing US military action to agreeing with the international community to hand over its chemical weapons.

A lot has changed in Damascus in the last three weeks. A lot has not.

What has changed is that Syria has admitted, for the first time, that it has an arsenal of chemical weapons. It has agreed to a Russian plan to dismantle it.

What has not changed is that the war using conventional weapons continues. If anything, its tempo has increased.

Three weeks ago, United Nations chemical weapons inspectors were here gathering the samples they needed to work out exactly what killed so many people on the outskirts of the capital on 21 August.

The United States seemed to be on the brink of launching a missile attack on the Syrian army and President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

Many people saw the departure of the inspectors as a green light for the US attack.

Of course it never came. President Barack Obama went to the US Congress for approval. The Russians came up with their plan. Now the focus is on implementing it.

Moscow pressure is key

Here in Damascus, life has its own rhythm, which is not dictated by international meetings of the world's most powerful countries.

The rhythm is set by the war, and salvoes of artillery fire from the Syrian army's batteries beat time into the suburbs held by the rebels.

I have heard some grumbling about the chemical weapons deal. Regime officials have said some are unhappy to give up what they viewed as potentially their most powerful weapon, and a deterrent of which Israel especially had to be wary.

But the key to whether President Assad will want to implement the agreement lies in his relationship with Moscow.

Assuming that Russia wants the Syrians to give up their chemical arsenal - and since it is giving up its own there is no reason to doubt that - then President Assad will not want to alienate his most important friend.

The Russians sell Syria weapons and ammunition. Even more importantly, Russia has been watching Syria's back at the UN Security Council. That adds up to a lot of leverage.

Russia's position is crucial. If it pushes President Assad to honour the agreement, it is hard to see how he could refuse.

For President Assad, giving up the chemical arsenal is an investment in the future of his regime.

One regime source here said there was no choice. It will deepen his relationship with Moscow and the alternative was a potentially devastating American strike.

As President Obama said, the US military does not do pin-prick attacks.

Three weeks ago the possibility of US intervention meant that the conventional ground war seemed to be approaching a turning point. But since the Americans put their military plans on hold, the war has resumed its usual shape.

Image caption The rebel Free Syrian Army rejected, angrily, the disarmament deal made in Geneva

The Syrian air force is again flying sorties over the Damascus suburbs. At night from the balcony of the BBC office, we can see big, fiery explosions coming from rebel positions.

President Assad has always denied that his men carried out the 21 August attack, and blames the rebels for the deaths.

President Obama said from the onset that he wanted an attack that would punish the regime for what he said was its use of the banned weapons, and deter it from doing the same thing again. At no time did he say he wanted regime change.

But the Western-leaning rebels of the Free Syrian Army, who have been pushing for tangible military help for more than two years, saw correctly that it did not matter why the Americans were going to attack.

What mattered was that they were about, in Pentagon-ese, to "degrade" the Syrian army's capacity to fight.

That might have had a profound impact on the course of the war. The regime itself could have been threatened. The FSA rejected, angrily, the deal made in Geneva.

Obstacles to peace

Much can still change. Delays in chemical weapons disarmament will produce more American threats.

But the US would have to be sure that the Russian plan was well and truly dead, and certified as such by all parties, before it took the military action that seemed imminent only three weeks ago.

It is good news that Syria is giving up its chemical arsenal, assuming it happens. It means the world is one step closer to the total abolition of a particularly nasty class of weapon.

The Geneva deal also showed that the US and Russia, as well as the other permanent members of the UN Security Council, were finding ways to work together again on Syria.

But there are many obstacles in the way of a genuine, effective negotiation to end the civil war.

It is not a deal that can be done at long range by the permanent members of the Security Council. It would also have to include all the parties to the war, and their backers.

The Syrian regime, and the rebels, both have sets of preconditions. Civil wars are hard enough to settle.

This one has another layer of complexity - it has become a regional war, fought by proxies. And it has a strong sectarian flavour, which engages and enrages Shia and Sunni Muslims in Lebanon, Iraq and the Gulf.

So do not expect quick progress towards peace. Or perhaps any progress at all.