This has been a week of intense diplomatic and military activity over Syria. At the end of it, anyone analysing the situation has much new detail to reflect on. The Assad regime is making considerable advances on the ground. The EU arms embargo on Syria has been amended, allowing Britain and France to supply weapons to parts of the Syrian opposition at some future date if they wish. Russia seems to be pressing ahead with the provision of the S-300 surface-to-air missile systems to the Syrian regime, alarming the Israelis. Meanwhile diplomacy over a planned peace conference to try and bring an end to the civil war presses ahead – albeit with deep scepticism from many diplomats about the chance of success.
What should we make of all these events? After conversations with several western diplomats analysing the situation, one can pick out various strands that help organise one’s assessment of where things stand.
- The military gains made by the Assad regime on the ground are by far the most significant development of recent weeks. Throughout this two-year civil war, the pendulum of conflict has swung back and forth, as regime and rebels make gains and counter-gains. Military analysts say that this time, something more substantial is happening. By closing in on a number of key towns and cities, most notably Qusair, the rebels’ last stronghold in central Syria, the regime is squeezing rebel supply routes to the Damascus suburbs.
“Thanks to support from Iranian militias and from Hizbollah, the regime have ground forces willing to close with the enemy and take ground back permanently,” says one military analyst. “It’s hard to get away from the feeling that the regime, Iran and Hizbollah have made good use of a key period when opposition forces and the outside world were dithering over responses.”
- The Assad regime’s strengthening position on the ground means that the peace conference being pursued by the US and Russia – the so-called Geneva II – is unlikely to get very far. The conference will probably take place, says one diplomat. “Given that the US and Russia are putting so much emphasis on holding the meeting, it is in nobody’s interests not to turn up,” says a western diplomat. “But the Assad regime’s improved position on the ground means it will be in no mood to make compromises.” Another western diplomat says: “The national coalition and the regime are not remotely in the same place ahead of this conference and the idea that some deal can be done is fanciful.”
- Britain, France and the US now have to do a lot of thinking about what will happen if the Geneva process collapses. The lifting of the EU arms embargo means the British may well look to supply low-calibre weapons in bulk to moderate rebels this summer. Some diplomats say that, behind the scenes, the US is now doing a lot more to organise weapons supplies to the rebels from other actors, playing what one diplomat calls “a team captain role.”Still, any western effort to boost the moderate rebels faces difficulties ahead. In Britain, the opposition Labour party looks highly critical about government plans to arm the rebels, fearing the move will merely inflame the conflict. Others may well wonder whether supplies will make much difference given the improving regime position. The parliamentary debate in the UK ahead of any final decision to supply the rebels looks set to be tough.
- Russia is clearly throwing its weight behind the Assad regime yet again. But western officials seem less perturbed than one might expect by this week’s news story that Russia is pressing ahead with transfer of the S-300 surface to air missile system to Syria. As one diplomat puts it: “Syria already has one of the best air defences in the world. If the US and its allies were contemplating mounting a no-fly zone, this would complicate matters a bit more and add a bit more Syrian capability that needed taking out. But the US is not contemplating such a move.”The deployment poses more risks for Israel, which may want to mount more surgical attacks to stop the arming of Hezbollah. But as Ehud Barak, former Israeli defence minister, said today: “We still have several months before the S-300s in Syria could turn operational. And however modern and effective the system is, it is not invincible or indestructible.”