As the eyes of the world and the media turn to Ukraine, Syrian President Bashar al Assad has quietly been making momentous gains in his three-year civil war with rebels that all but assure he will leave office on his own terms.
Yabroud, the last major town held by Sunni Muslim rebels and located near the Lebanese border, is under siege by Assad's army. On Tuesday, with support from Hezbollah fighters and local paramilitary groups, Assad’s forces bombarded the town until the rebels retreated.
Taking Yabroud is an important victory for Assad, who has been fighting for months to control the surrounding region.. He has now effectively cut off rebel supply lines from Lebanon.
The victory also comes as Syria continues to delay plans to destroy its chemical weapons. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons says Syria has now submitted one-third of its chemical weapons for destruction, far behind the schedule set in negotiations with the United States and its allies last fall. Under that agreement, Syria was supposed to have handed over all of its deadliest agents by Jan. 1, with the rest of the weapons gone by Feb. 6.
Syria blamed the delay on the ongoing civil war, an argument that western officials have dismissed.
“Every indication we have is that there is no legitimate reason why that (removal) is not happening now," Secretary of State John Kerry said when the delays were announced. "We want the Syrian regime to live up to its obligations and it is critical that very rapidly all those chemical weapons are moved from their 12 or so sites to the one site in the port (of Latakia) to be prepared for shipment out of Syria.”
Assad has now submitted a new plan, with all weapons set to be out of the country by the end of April.
“Given delays since the lapse of the two target dates for removal, it will be important to maintain this newly created momentum," Ahmed Uzumcu, OPCW's general director, said Thursday. "For its part, the Syrian government has reaffirmed its commitment to implement the removal operations in a timely manner."
Meanwhile, negotiations to end the war are close to collapsing. They ended in mid-February with little progress made. Kerry dismissed critics of the pace of the talks as ignorant of diplomatic history.
“These people who say that it has failed or it is a waste of time, where is their sense of history, where is any knowledge of past peace processes?” Kerry said. “How many years did the Vietnam talks take? How many years did Bosnia [take]? These things don’t happen in one month. It is just asinine, frankly, to be making an argument that after three weeks the talks failed. It’s a process.”
Taken together, Assad’s victory, his continued slaughter of those who oppose him, his repeated human rights violations, his failure to live up to the terms of the deal, and his undermining of the peace talks amount to a stunning defeat of American diplomacy. Nearly 50,000 people have died since the United States confirmed the use of chemical weapons last summer, bringing the total number of casualties to more than 140,000.
Taken together, this also represents a clear victory for Bashar al Assad. He has accomplished every goal he had when the United States and its partners ignored the so-called “red line” and allowed the war to continue without intervention.
He has defeated the rebels, splitting them into warring factions. He still has the majority of his chemical weapons. He is still in power, and with negotiations stalled, it’s unlikely he’ll be removed.
In short, he’s won.
Former U.S. ambassador to Syria Robert Ford said as much at a March 1 speech at Tufts University.
“You have one Al Qaeda faction fighting another Al Qaeda faction. That’s how fractured this is. One sharp sliver fighting another sharp sliver. I bring no good news to you tonight about Syria. The Syrian opposition itself has done a miserable job distinguishing itself from the Al Qaeda elements. There are some really bad people in Syria right now, on the opposition side. Can the opposition show that it is willing to reach out and figure out a way security-wise and politics-wise to reunify across that sectarian divide?"
Ford said that Assad is likely to leave office on his own terms in June, when Syrians elect a new president. If he doesn’t, the war would continue.
“I can’t in any way imagine circumstances where most of the rebels who are now fighting against the regime or the countries that are backing them… are going to stand down if Assad remains.”
Update: An earlier version of this story posted on March 5th said that Yabroud had fallen to Assad's forces. Although that may inevitably be the outcome, there are conflicting reports from Syria at this time regarding the status of Yabroud.
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