With sneering arrogance, Syrian President Bashar Assad told a Lebanese TV Al Mayadeen interviewer on Oct. 22 that “factors are not yet in place if we want (the US-Russian backed Geneva II) peace conference to succeed.”
“Which forces are taking part?” he asked rhetorically. “What relation do these forces have with the Syrian people? Do these forces represent the Syrian people, or do they represent the states that invented them? You can all agree as much as you want to hold a second Geneva conference on November 23-24,” he went on to say, “but since I won’t be there, no decision taken there will be binding upon me.”
While Assad is not invited, the Syrian opposition is.
The trouble is that various Syrian opposition groups – in the face of Western efforts to produce a unified opposition delegation – are refusing to put in an appearance unless Assad announces a date for stepping down as president,
In his interview with Al Mayadeen, Assad was very clear that this was very much not on.
Amid the chaos swirling around Syria, there is a kernel of truth in what Assad says.
US Secretary of State John Kerry worked very hard this week to bring Washington, Moscow, Tehran, Riyadh and Damascus together for persuading Assad to offer the Russians and Iranians a commitment not to seek reelection in mid-2014.
This commitment was to have been forwarded to the Americans, Saudis and Syrian opposition groups.
By knocking it on the head, the Syrian ruler left in his wake a vanishing political solution to the Syrian crisis and war the only constant in the equation.
Geneva II prospects outweighed by hurdles
The state of nuclear diplomacy with Tehran (see separate article) is another hurdle.
DEBKA Weekly’s sources report that Iran’s price for persuading Assad to remove himself as an obstacle to a political settlement is enough progress in nuclear negotiations with the West for the lifting of sanctions.
The Russians are just as evasive, now that they are in mid-drive for influence in Tehran and see a chance to cultivate Iran as a big market for Russian munitions.
With diplomacy heavily encumbered, the situation on the Syrian battlefield takes center stage – not least for Assad.
DEBKA Weekly’s military experts offer a snapshot of the military situation in the Syrian war:
1. The Syrian ruler and his military advisers have decided to shelve their planned offensive for dislodging rebels from parts of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city. Instead, they are turning to the recapture in stages of all parts of the capital, Damascus, and its environs, and restore government control over the Israeli and Jordanian border regions in the south.
Rebel-held sections of Damascus have been put to siege; in the south, large Syrian units are chasing rebels from pillar to post. The siege is blocking food supplies to the civilians of the capital, cut off power and water and giving the rebels a choice between surrendering or starving to death.
World’s largest al Qaeda concentration overruns Syria
2. Fighting has petered out on most other fronts – except for the places where Al Qaeda affiliates, like the Nusra Front and the Iraqi ISIS, are still putting up resistance. Rebel units are disintegrating day by day into ever smaller groups. Our military experts believe that the foreign intelligence agencies monitoring the Syrian war – and even Assad – have by now lost count of the total number and whereabouts of all the militias and sub-groups fighting the regime.
Intelligence sources familiar with the scene tell DEBKA Weekly that, in some places, one armed rebel group may control a single street, whereas a rival militia answering to a different command rules the one next door.
More and more of these small knots of rebels, left high and dry, are seeking ad hoc truce arrangements with the enemy, the Syrian military commander facing them.
These local ceasefires have brought hostilities grinding to a halt on many of the warfronts.
3. The influx of Al Qaeda fighters into Syria is constant. Most come in through Iraq and Turkey. Syria is being overrun by world’s largest concentration of Al Qaeda fighters, between 8,000-10,000.
Assad only figure capable of stemming the al Qaeda invasion
Western intelligence and counterterrorism agencies are forced to go along with Bashar Assad’s claim that the Syrian conflict is no longer a war between his armed forces and opposition rebels, but a war to save Syria from Al Qaeda.
This puts the US in a cleft stick. President Obama remains convinced that Assad must go for Syria to have any hope of a peaceful transition of power. At the same time, his exit would remove the only figure capable of leading a systematical campaign to terminate the jihadist invasion of Syria.
Russian and Iranian lobbyists are using this argument to persuade the US president to drop his insistence on Assad’s ouster.
4. Reports of progress fail to conceal the scant progress made by the OPCW chemical monitors in dismantling and destroying Assad’s chemical stocks, aside from a few token successes. In essence, the loudly acclaimed US-Russian understanding for eliminating the Syrian ruler’s chemical weapons has ended up leaving him in nearly full possession of his entire poison gas arsenal.