Rebel fighters cover a car in mud for camouflage at an undisclosed location in Syria's northwestern province of Idlib on October 8, 2013
Rebel fighters cover a car in mud for camouflage at an undisclosed location in Syria's northwestern province of Idlib on October 8, 2013 © Mohamad Jadaan - AFP
Rebel fighters cover a car in mud for camouflage at an undisclosed location in Syria's northwestern province of Idlib on October 8, 2013
Last updated: October 8, 2013

Destroying Syria's chemical arms is the easy bit

Destroying the chemical horrors may prove the easy part of ending Syria's war as the United Nations struggles to bring the government and opposition to the negotiating table.

The UN has set out a high-risk plan to eliminate President Bashar al-Assad's sarin and mustard gas but says so far he is cooperating.

UN leader Ban Ki-moon has in parallel set an ambitious target of holding a peace conference in Geneva in mid-November. His Syria peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, caught in clouds of diplomatic poison, has said it could be late November, and perhaps not even then.

The 30-month old war, which the UN says has left well over 100,000 dead, rages on. Assad's forces and rebel fighters are grabbing towns from each other and foreign arms are pouring into the conflict.

"Right now both sides still think they can win -- and the cynical view is that there won't be talks until both sides are on their knees," said one UN diplomat. "They are not there yet."

Publicly, both sides are saying that they are ready to go to talks.

At a Geneva conference in June 2012 the major powers agreed to a declaration calling for a Syrian transitional government. The new conference would be to decide how to implement the declaration.

The role of Assad, who has been accused by Ban of committing "crimes against humanity", the fissured opposition and whether the likes of Iran and Saudi Arabia take part are all major stumbling blocks.

Brahimi said at the weekend "there is no certainty" Geneva II will take place and he has "almost an impossible mission" dealing with the two sides.

The Syrian government says it has sent a delegation list to Brahimi, but Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said there can be no discussion of Assad's future. The UN and western powers are not sure the delegation will have decision-making power.

Syrian National Coalition leader Ahmad Jarba said Monday that his side would go but there can be no talks with "a criminal regime" nor with Iran, a key backer of Assad.

The coalition has in turn been disowned by other radical groups, leading Russia to suggest that maybe two opposition delegations will be necessary. The UN says there must be only one opposition group at the table.

"This has been going on for an extremely long time. There are very bitter rivalries and divisions between the opposition and the authorities in Syria," said UN spokesman Martin Nesirky.

"The secretary general continues to believe that this can take place in mid-November and it's his firm determination to seek to make that happen. Everybody knows that it is not easy, that it is going to be difficult to bring the sides to the table."

"The real challenge will be for Brahimi to find one delegation considered representative of the opposition and one delegation on the government side with the power to make things happen," said a UN diplomat.

The worsening war where no one is sure which side has the upper hand makes peace talks more difficult, experts said.

The crisis that erupted after a chemical weapons attack in Damascus in August brought unprecedented unity among the major powers over Syria but did not help their relations with the protagonists.

"The main obstacle to successful talks in Geneva may now be the fact that extremist rebel groups are angry with the United States over its failure to strike Assad, making it harder for Washington to orchestrate peace negotiations," said Richard Gowan, a director of the Center for International Cooperation at New York University.

William Keylor, an international relations professor at Boston University, said "Assad must be concerned about the rate at which the Russians are cooperating with the United States and its allies.

"Russia has been a longtime ally of Syria and now they are talking to countries that are calling for the overthrow of the Assad regime."

For the moment though, neither the loss of his chemical arms nor a peace conference seems to disturb the Syrian leader.

"Even if he will have to make some concessions on the chemical weapons, fundamentally, it's going to take a change in the military situation for Assad to be seriously worried," said David Bosco of the school of international service at American University in Washington.

"He feels the regime is on the front foot and the opposition is on the back foot."

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