Everything was in place for the most promising dialogue so far for ending the two-year old Syrian war. Representatives of the Assad regime and the Syrian opposition were scheduled to meet in Moscow Tuesday, March 5 under the Russian aegis, with the Obama administration looking on benignly.
Nevertheless, the talks were delayed, for reasons listed here by DEBKA-Net-Weekly:
1. The moment for introducing chemical and biological weapons into the war is close at hand. Both sides now possess these deadly systems (as the lead-article in this issue revealed) and both have chosen to await the outcome of a round of unconventional warfare between them before sitting down for talks.
Syrian ruler Bashar Assad, whose army retains the bulk of the weapons and has trained units in their use, is confident he will have the upper hand and be able to push rebel forces out of their captured territory.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources disclose that Assad may be in for an unpleasant surprise. At least 1,500 rebel fighters have received training in chemical warfare from US, French, Czech and Polish instructors.
2. Potential military intervention in Syria’s chemical war by outsiders, the US, Israel, Jordan and Turkey, may tilt the outcome of the Syrian conflict one way or the other. Both sides prefer to wait and see which side benefits.
The rebels get new arms paid for by US and Russia alike
3. Washington has strongly advised Syrian opposition representatives not to rush to the Moscow talks but rather take their time. US Secretary of State John Kerry was careful when he met with rebel and Syrian opposition representatives this week not to tell them to cut their appointment in Moscow, only to delay their arrival by a few days and so improve their bargaining position against Moscow and Assad and obtain more concessions.
To this end, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources report Kerry applied two means of persuasion: publicly-announced financial, technical and medical aid for the rebels and secret funding to buy arms in Serbia and Kosovo and have them shipped to the Syrian rebels.
To speed delivery, Jordanian Air Force transports delivered the arms from the Balkans, passing over Israeli air space.
4. But this Western-Arab air lift is a double-edged sword. John Kerry said in Riyadh Tuesday, March 5: "The United States will continue to work with its friends to empower the Syrian opposition." Asked about reports of arms being sent to Syria's rebels from countries such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the Secretary of State replied: "The moderate opposition has the ability to make sure that the weapons are getting to them and not to the wrong hands."
However, as the Americans ease the financing of weapons for the Syria rebels, DEBKA-Net-Weekly reveals that the Russians are also furnishing wherewithal for buying arms to the rebel groups which they favor.
There may be some coordination between Washington and Moscow on this, although lines in the Syrian conflict tend to be blurred. At any rate, the Syrian rebel movement has no difficulty these days in replenishing or even upgrading its weaponry, paid for either by the US or Russia.
Assad hardens his terms for talks
5. In keeping with fluctuations on the battlefield, Assad too constantly changes his terms for opening talks with the opposition.
When this issued closed Thursday night, March 7, the Syrian ruler had withdrawn his acquiescence to the Russian core demand (first reported in DEBKA-Net-Weekly 577 of Feb. 22) for the demarcation of ceasefire lines between the rival forces.
"We're not going to split Syria between law-abiders and lawbreakers who are backed by outside foreign elements," Assad told the Russians. He now refuses outright – not just to discuss stepping down – a refusal seconded by Moscow – but also rejects the Russian demand to dismantle the ruling Syrian Ba'ath party.
In a word, the Syrian ruler has hardened his position in the last couple of weeks.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources report that in mid-February, he was wiling to look at the Russian proposal to disband his army's command structure and replace it with "a neutral command system" manned by professional, apolitical officers. Today, he refuses to hear of any such plan. The Syrian ruler is not only dead against US positions for the negotiation with the opposition, he has taken against those of his sponsor, Moscow, into the bargain.
No room for Alawites in partitioned post-war Syria
It is in this regard that he is trying to get rid of one of the Assad clan’s most loyal generals, Maj. Gen. Ali Mamlouk, head of the Syrian National Security Bureau, our intelligence sources exclusively report. This general might qualify as a consensual US-Russian candidate for heading the restructured Syrian army command, which would take over the management of the war and its outcome and remove it from Assad’s hands. The ruler is therefore bent on removing Gen. Mamlouk from their sight, despite his incalculable value to the war effort as top gun of the inner body termed in Damascus “the crisis management cell.”
The general stepped into the breach when most of Assad’s inner war cabinet was wiped out by a bombing attack on July 18, 2012.
6. Assad is determined at all costs to put a spoke in the US-Russian cooperative effort to partition Syria into three sectarian entities for Sunni Muslims, Kurds and Druzes – but no separate enclave for his own Alawite sect.
This too is holding up the diplomatic process due to go forward in Moscow, more about which in the next article.