The early pace in the process of destroying Syria's chemical weapons is surprising and welcome. Withing two days of reports that the United States and its partners were planning to undertake the work as quickly as possible to avoid any backsliding by Bashar al-Assad's regime, a United Nations team said that the process was already underway - even that some equipment was actually being destroyed. Indeed, the potential for rapid progress is such that the Hague-based Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is sending a second team of experts to Syria.
Behind the relative optimism over this issue, it's important to recall that chemical weapons have been responsible for only a tiny proportion of the 100,000 people killed in Syria over the two and a half years of war. Moreover, the OPCW itself points out that what is being attempted in Syria - locating and dismantling chemical weapons in the very middle of a civil war - is unprecedented. The destruction of the admittedly much larger chemical-weapons' stocks held by the United States and Russia at the end of the cold war are, by contrast, being destroyed at a sedate rate over decades and in conditions of peace.
The major technical problems ahead could nonetheless be helped by two factors:
* much of Syria's arsenal is not weaponised but exists in bulk storage and thus is easier to deal with
* there appears to be fewer sites than expected, probably because the regime had consolidated its stores to reduce the risk of any of them being overrun and seized by rebels.
The wider landscape of war remains unpredictable, with the potential for deepening violence ever present. The state of diplomacy too is fluid, with remarkable statements on both sides requiring an explanation: US secretary of state John Kerry's positive endorsement of the Assad regime's attitude, and Syrian deputy prime minister Qadri Jamil's equally striking admission of its past mistakes.
John Kerry, speaking in Jakarta on 7 October 2013 alongside Russia's foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, welcomed the progress on disarmament in these terms: “I think it's a credit to the Assad regime, frankly. It's a good beginning and we welcome a good beginning” (see "John Kerry praises Bashar al-Assad's role in destruction of Syria's chemical weapons", Telegraph, 7 October 2013). This echoed an acknowledgment by Qadri Jamil that the regime had to share some of the blame for policy failings during the war (see "Syrian Officials Sound a Conciliatory Note Toward the Opposition", New York Times, 6 October 2013).
Together, the two contributions suggests a near transformation of attitudes; it is only a month ago, after all, that punitive air-strikes in response to the large chemical-weapons attack on 21 August close to Damascus seemed almost certain. The tone of these remarks raise the possibility that other forms of engagement are going on behind the scenes, all pointing towards negotiations. If this is the case, then three of the four proxy players - Russia, Iran and the United States (as well as the Assad regime itself) - appear to be getting ready for such a process. The Saudis, meanwhile, are far more cautious.
Russia's motives are straightforward. The state has proved that it can operate effectively on the world stage, yet wishes to avoid being seen as too rigid in its backing of a regime now in combat against mainly Islamist rebels. Moscow thus seeks a form of closure before the Islamist forces in Syria can have too much of spillover effect in its own territory (especially in the north Caucasus). This adjustment of Moscow's position may be bad news for Assad, though not for his Alawi community's influence in Syria. For its part, Iran - including its new president, Hassan Rowhani - also wants elements of the regime to survive, is strongly opposed to the Islamist rebels, and seeks a better relationship with Washington (which it hopes will lead to a lifting of sanctions and compromise on the separate nuclear issue).
Saudi Arabia, and to an extent Qatar, still want the regime to fall. The Saudis would have little of a problem with a strong Islamist element in a post-Assad Syria. That attitude is problematic for the US, as is that of its other main ally in the region, Israel. Binyamin Netanyahu's government - and its neo-conservative supporters in the US - are very concerned at the prospect of a compromise with Iran in which the Iran-Syria bond is preserved as are US neoconservatives (see Jim Lobe, “Neocons despair over Iran diplomacy”, Asia Times, 9 October 2013)
The next stage
In this light, the overall shift in outlook by the US and Russia stems largely from a trend in the war explored by many columns in this series: the steady increase in the influence of jihadist paramilitary groups. It is being fuelled by the steady influx of young men from both elsewhere in the middle east and western Europe to support Islamist forces in the rebellion.
The trend makes it possible that Islamists will by spring 2014 both wholly dominate the rebellion and be able to establish firm control over considerable swathes of northern Syria. This would be a nightmare for Washington and unwelcome to Moscow, a prospect that is drawing them closer together.
If this analysis is correct, pressure will be put on the non-Islamist rebels to negotiate a post-Assad Syria in which the Alawi elements in the regime survive and some kind of power-sharing begins, possibly at a local and then a regional level. The Islamist rebels will reject any such negotiations and will then be sidelined by all except hardline Saudi benefactors. A new composite regime will be messily formed and given all the resources it needs to crush the Islamists.
The process will be costly, ugly and protracted. It will also be welcomed by the Americans and accepted by the Russians. The civil war will enter a new phase; many more people will be killed and injured; and Syria may become an even greater focus for jihadist struggle than it is now.