The plan to disarm Syria of its chemical weapons is off to a bumpy but acceptable start, but hopes for a general peace settlement of the country's two-and-a-half-year-old civil war remain stymied by US inability to bring the anti-regime rebels to the bargaining table, Russian officials and Kremlin-linked experts say.
The Russians say they're pleased that after two weeks of infighting, the UN Security Council passed a resolution late last week authorizing expert teams from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to begin the process of locating and destroying the estimated 1,000 tons of chemical munitions stockpiled by the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
In a wide-ranging interview with the Moscow daily Kommersant Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he was pleased that the disarmament project was unanimously adopted by the Security Council after the US and France abandoned last-ditch efforts to have a "use of force" option embedded in the resolution, in case of unspecified violations by Mr. Assad.
"It's no secret that our partners in the US kept trying to reverse the situation and return to Chapter 7 of the Charter of the United Nations [which authorizes the use of force]. So we had to spend a little more time negotiating. In the end I was satisfied with the fact that we have remained true to the crucial Geneva agreements," Mr. Lavrov said.
But the idea of using the diplomatic momentum from the chemical weapons deal to drive wider peace negotiations does not look promising. Western and Arab countries who are sponsoring the fractious Syrian rebel coalition appear helpless to get any kind of consensus among their proxies, much less herd them into negotiations with the regime by mid-November, as Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry had agreed to do.
"Until recently we have been relying on our Western partners, who pledged to push the opposition to the negotiations table, and we hoped they would manage it quickly. But so far they have not succeeded. And I am not sure they will by mid-November," Lavrov told a news conference in Moscow Tuesday.
Russian experts say that if Western powers are serious about promoting a negotiated peace, they must first abandon the illusion that the growing body of jihadist-linked Syrian rebels can ever unify behind a democratic and secular program for the country.
Sergei Markov, a political analyst who's been a frequent adviser to President Vladimir Putin in the past, says there are groups of moderate rebels who could be induced to negotiate a peace settlement and political transition for Syria. But, he says, the US must first make a firm decision to exclude the jihadists as the common enemy of all, and work for a settlement between regime and moderate rebels.
That's a big leap for Washington, which still sees Assad as the main enemy and believes that the jihadist problem can be dealt with after the regime's overthrow, Mr. Markov says.
"The US and others are still backing militant Syrian oppositionists with arms and diplomatic support, even though Western public opinion more and more recognizes that these rebels are not democrats, but violent radicals aligned with Al Qaeda," he says.
"Because of this the preparations for a Geneva-2 peace conference are still not going well."
One continuing bone of contention, which drives the fundamentally opposing views of Russia and the West about the Syrian war, is the dispute over who used chemical weapons against Syrian civilians in a Damascus suburb on Aug. 21, and on at least three earlier occasions. The West appears certain the Assad regime is to blame, while Russia argues that the rebels – seeking to trigger US intervention on their side – may be responsible.
Russia claims it has filed a 100-page report with the UN detailing the use of deadly sarin gas by rebel forces in Aleppo last March, but the US has been blocking investigation into the case.
"We have information that the tragic incident on Aug. 21, where chemical weapons were used according to confirmed reports, involved sarin of the same origin as the chemical toxin fired on March 19 [in Aleppo], although it was far stronger. We have submitted these findings to our US partners and to the UN Secretariat," Lavrov told Russian news agencies last week.
Speaking to Kommersant, Lavrov said Russia will continue to investigate the matter on its own and submit its findings to the UN, because it fears that such "rebel provocations" aimed at derailing the peace process are likely to continue.
"The US is still blocking investigation of the March chemical attack in Aleppo, and Washington continues to deny that the opposition has access to chemical weapons and has used them," says Markov.
"For Russia it's clear that this needs more scrutiny. The world needs to understand the true nature of the opposition before we can get united on a way forward in Syria. You can't just look at one portion of facts, and refuse to look at another portion," he adds.