x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Russia's reversal on arms to Syria opens a door

Intervention is off the table, but Vladimir Putin has created some hope that talks may provide a breakthrough in Syria.

Not a week goes by without events painting a grimmer picture of the situation in Syria. This week has been no exception. On Tuesday, the UN's Human Rights Council concluded that there are "reasonable grounds to believe that chemical agents have been used as weapons". It didn't say by whom.

Yesterday, rebels conceded that government and Hizbollah forces had retaken the town of Qusayr, a significant blow to opposition forces battling for the strategic stronghold.

But there was one bright spot from an unlikely place offering the faintest hope that a way out of Syria's two-war tragedy is still possible. Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, reversed course on a plan to send Syrian ally Bashar Al Assad "game-changing" air defence systems, the S-3000. Not a week earlier top Russian officials had said the weapons were on their way to Damascus; their arrival would have ended any talk of an immediate no-fly zone.

To be sure, western intervention is not on the table. Red lines have been ripped up, and as The National reported yesterday, while France claimed that laboratory tests indicate the use of sarin nerve gas near Damascus, the United States says it still needs to collect more evidence before making any serious decisions.

But the suggestion that Moscow is, ever so slightly, pulling the reins back on its unshakable ally suggests room remains for a negotiated truce. The United States and Russia met the UN envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, yesterday to resume planning an international conference in Geneva to end the Syrian crisis.

This conference - which only a few days ago seemed unlikely to take place - may be Syria's last chance to halt its slide into oblivion. It must therefore take place without delay, and with a wide list of participants. National Coalition members must attend, without preconditions. But so too must Iran, western powers, Russia - and, of course, Syria.

If Geneva II fails, the cycle of killing will continue, the red lines will be meaningless and the human cost immeasurable. More than 94,000 people have been killed, and many more injured since the war began in March 2011. The body count will only rise with the intervention of Hizbollah and the increasing number of weapons supplied to all sides.

Many doors are closing on the bid to end Syria's nightmare, but Russia has left one slightly ajar. It is the duty of all sides to consider Syria's fate if they fail to walk through it.