The US and Russia have announced they have a "common understanding" on how Syria should dispose of its chemical weapons amid talk of a new peace conference. But Bashar al-Assad's bombs are still falling.
Reading current news reports on Syria, one could easily conclude that the crisis is all but over. On Tuesday (08.10.2013) US Secretary of State John Kerry announced that he and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov had "a common understanding" on how President Bashar al-Assad should destroy his chemical weapons arsenal.
International experts began the process of destroying Assad's chemical weapons last week, while Russia, Syria's long-time ally and arms supplier, has offered to assist the process. President Vladimir Putin said he believed the experts would be able to accomplish their goal of ridding Syria of its chemical arms within a year, and lauded the Assad regime for cooperating so fully with the program.
While these statements have made headlines, few have reported the continued bombing of rebel-held parts of Syria, or the retaliatory strikes by opposition forces. Even as the backslapping continued at the APEC summit in Bali on Monday, there was renewed fighting in the northwestern province of Idlib, with rebels launching an operation called "The Earthquake" against government bases.
Peace talks in war
The fighting underlined comments from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who warned that the weapons inspectors face unprecedented danger. In the meantime, both the US and Russia are backing proposals for new peace talks in Geneva in mid-November - often referred to as "Geneva 2" following a similar attempt at a peace conference last year.
Sinan Ülgen, visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe, said the superpowers' agreement over chemical weapons does little to help Syrians. "The chemical weapons deal will certainly help to delay the Syrian crisis," he told DW. "That means it's not going to help the situation on the ground. And it's not going to help the two parties - especially the opposition - to get together and agree on the political future in Syria."
In fact, the analyst argues that the present show of accord will only serve to extend the bloody stalemate and provide legitimacy for Assad's brutal regime. "It has strengthened the regime's hand, and if there's going to be a Geneva 2, the regime will go there in a diplomatically strengthened position," said Ülgen. "From the opposition's perspective, the chemical weapons deal has now become a handicap, because it has allowed the regime to gain the upper hand diplomatically. It has allowed the regime to become a legitimate actor."
Helping Assad's hand
The agreement between the US and Russia also makes it much more likely that Assad will stay in power and renew his efforts against the opposition forces. "One of the main incentives for Assad - the threat of the use of force against him - has now been removed from the equation," said Ülgen.
The fact that the US and Russia have come together over Syria is largely down to one factor - President Barack Obama has moved toward Putin's position. "Obama found out that there was very little support among the US population, but also in Congress, for a US-led strike against Syria - so the deal came to his help," said Ülgen.
"I don't think it will bring the conflict to an end," added Ülgen. "The likely scenario is that the internal conflict will continue without the use of chemical weapons. That's the tragedy - knowing that 100,000 people have been killed with conventional weapons, and that many more will likely lose their lives."
Something to build on
Daniel Levy, director of the Middle East program at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), has a more optimistic take. "The emphasis on trying to find political and diplomatic solutions, and the intention to do Geneva 2, counts for something," he told DW. "At least you have a Russian and American intention to work together to some degree."
"I think we are in a much better place than we were a few weeks ago," Levy added, referring to the frosty moment at the G8 summit when Obama and Putin threatened to avoid meeting because of the spat over Edward Snowden. "People were thinking, 'come on, is this really more important than Syria?'" said Levy.
On top of this, Levy argued, the current situation at least shows that after two or more years of calling for Assad's removal, the West is accepting reality. "The reality is that simply rhetorically announcing the end of Assad doesn't bring it any closer," he said.
Nevertheless, it is hard to deny that the chemical weapons deal does tacitly guarantee that Assad will remain in power for another year at least, since that is the deadline for the destruction of his chemical weapons arsenal. This is likely to hang over Geneva 2, if it happens, but Levy believes that does not preclude an agreement.
"I think it would be naïve to expect things to change immediately just by virtue of convening a conference," said Levy. "But the language of Geneva is to negotiate an agreed transition that includes the transfer of full executive authority. It's not a pre-condition - it has to be agreed - but if you do put together some kind of conference, then first of all Assad has to come up with a negotiating position. And on the opposition side, they have to get their act together enough to show up."