Syrian civil war: Is Bashar al-Assad ready to quit? Is the US planning to intervene? Or is it just more of the same?

Syrian Deputy Prime Minister Qadri Jamil spoke to the press in Moscow yesterday, where he said Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad might be willing to resign, but his departure could not be a “precondition” for peace talks.

As the civil war in Syria that has so far claimed at least 1700 lives rages on, remarks by a top Syrian official in Moscow and by President Barack Obama have raised the possibility that the crisis could take a sudden, game-changing turn. Or things might continue as they are with no change.

Syria’s Deputy Prime Minister Qadri Jamil spoke to the press yesterday and claimed that Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad might be willing to resign as part of a peace deal. However, Jamil was also quick to state that Assad’s resignation could not be a “precondition” to talks, as Syria’s rebels and many Western leaders have long demanded. “On the negotiating table,” Jamil said, “there are no obstacles to addressing any issue brought forward by any of the parties. Even this subject can be looked into. But Assad’s resignation before the start of intra-Syrian national dialogue is undemocratic.”

One BBC reporter interpreted this to mean that if Assad resigns, it will be with conditions attached. These remarks were swiftly criticized by the Syrian opposition, one of whose leaders, Burhan Ghalyoun, told the press: “What kind of negotiation? We have been expecting his departure for a long time. We are not going to negotiate. He must go, and that’s it.”

Bashar al-Assad has been clinging by his fingernails to power since March of last year, in spite of the popularity of the rebellion, the defections of some of his top supporters, and the assassination of his key military leaders. And although the chorus of voices calling for his ouster is very loud indeed, a reporter for The Independent risking his life to see inside Syria found that Assad still has support among some of the people there. Up to this point, it looked very much like Assad would attempt to fight until the very end. The fact that his resignation is even being suggested by his camp might indicate just how weak and alone Assad feels, and how quickly what power he has is slipping away from him.

What Assad does still have up his sleeve, should he choose to use it, is a stockpile of chemical weapons. So far, his regime has promised not to use these weapons, but as he grows more desperate it is unclear if the temptation to use them might grow.

Which is exactly what prompted a warning from President Obama yesterday, who said “We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is [if] we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus.”

Is the United States threatening to intervene in Syria if Assad uses his chemical weapons? It certainly sounds like it. And Chinese state media agency Xinhua certainly seems to think so, warning in an editorial that the remarks were “dangerous and irresponsible” and could make the situation in Syria worse. “Once again, Western powers are digging deep for excuses to intervene militarily,” Xinhua claimed.

Then again, some have criticized the president of not going far enough with his remarks. “I don’t like his formulation at all. It inadvertently tells the Syrians they can get away with anything but chemical weapons,” argued Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who worried that Assad may feel free to step up military repression and massacres of civilians so long as he doesn’t cross that “red line”.

Unlike in Libya, the United States has so far pursued a policy of not intervening militarily in the Syrian conflict, instead imposing sanctions on Assad’s regime, providing non-military aid to the rebels (such as communications equipment, medical aid, and the like), and backing a UN-proposed ceasefire plan that ultimately failed due to disagreements over terms between the Western powers and Russia and to the seeming unwillingness of either side in Syria to actually abide by any agreement.

Is the United States preparing to intervene in Syria? Is Assad preparing to step down? Possibly. However, it is also possible that all of this talk will turn out to be just that – talk. Just as talk about a ceasefire in Syria didn’t change the situation on the ground, so too the remarks by Jamil and President Obama have yet to effect any of the fighting in Syria. For now, the fighting will continue as if nothing had happened at all.

Information from BBC News and other sources.