THE distracting international furore over chemical weapons use in Syria, and this week’s shamefacedly cautious UN report, appear to mark the moment it finally became clear that Bashar al-Assad will survive the current crisis, that the US and western powers lack the political authority to control or direct events, and that the war, however long it lasts, is not one the rebels can win. The attack in Ghouta on Aug 21 was a turning point — but a turning point, perversely, that favoured the regime, not the opposition.

Although the US and Britain have portrayed Syria’s untested agreement to give up its chemical weapons stockpile as a great advance, the affair has proved to be largely a sideshow in a conflict in which conventional weapons have killed and maimed vastly more people, and continue to do so. In one sense, Assad has gained the tacit go-ahead to prosecute the war, so long as he eschews nerve gas. In the wake of this dubious deal, the high tide of pressure for direct western action peaked, then subsided. The “killer moment” passed.

The Syrian leader now knows with a degree of certainty that was lacking before Ghouta that he may do almost anything he wants, while ostensibly observing the new US-Russian framework, free from fear of US military retribution.

Assad also knows that the leverage and influence, and therefore the protection afforded him by his main ally, Russia, has been greatly enhanced by the chemical weapons deal. Obama’s confusion over his illusory “red lines” gave Moscow an opening it seized with both hands. Russia can dictate, for example, whether and when a Geneva II peace conference takes place, and what it discusses.

At the same time, Vladimir Putin’s spokesmen give nothing away. They still dispute that the regime was responsible for the Ghouta atrocity. They are still blocking any draft UN security council resolution that would automatically allow the use of force, should Assad not fully comply. They continue to delegitimise the rebels, tarring them all with the jihadist brush. And Russia continues to arm the regime.

Obliged to return to the diplomatic path, Obama does so with a much weakened hand. “The US will be saddled with the burden of getting a fractious Syrian opposition to coalesce around a common negotiating position. In a way, Washington has succeeded in unifying the opposition; unfortunately, in fury over the US refusal to follow through on threats to bomb its enemy. At best, opposition leaders see the chemical weapons deal as a sideshow ... At worst, they believe it is a ruse that strengthens Assad’s prospects,” said Edward Joseph in Foreign Affairs.

Assad has not yet won the war. But the events of the past month, when Washington’s bluff was called, Obama was humiliated (and Britain’s parliament bailed out) imply that he cannot lose. Logic, or crude pragmatism, therefore suggests the western powers should stop aiding the rebels, forget their dreams of regime change, and help to force this appalling conflict to an unavoidably unsatisfactory, negotiated close.

By arrangement with the Guardian

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