By Samia Nakhoul
BEIRUT (Reuters) - Bashar al-Assad, who only a month ago faced the likelihood of U.S. missile strikes that could have tipped the balance of Syria's war against him, has won a reprieve.
His supporters, political sources in Damascus say, are jubilant, convinced the threat of regime change has lifted and that the Assads can face down opponents they consider weak - U.S. President Barack Obama and France's President Francois Hollande among them - just as they saw off their predecessors.
"I think they feel that they can live this out and wait for leaders like Hollande and Obama to leave office, just as they did with Jacques Chirac and George W. Bush," said one well-placed source in Damascus, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"I think Assad feels that the chemical weapons actually saved his regime, rather than brought it down."
The mood shift is a consequence of the world's confused response to a sarin gas attack on rebel suburbs of Damascus last month, the sources say. Russian President Vladimir Putin, Assad's ally in the 30 months-old conflict, conjured up a diplomatic process to confront the atrocity.
Assad says he will comply with a deal Moscow struck with Washington for him to surrender his chemical arsenal. Washington and its allies blame Assad loyalists for the Aug 21 attack which they say killed 1,400 people, while the Syrian government pointed the finger at the rebels.
In almost daily interviews with Russian, Chinese, European and even American media, Assad emphasizes Syria's contribution to fighting jihadi extremism while explaining how lengthy and costly the disarmament process will be. A composed Assad gives every sign of becoming a devout convert to diplomacy.
He has also agreed in principle for Syrian government officials to attend talks with the opposition in Geneva aimed at agreeing a peaceful political transition, though authorities have also made clear they will not simply concede power.
Russia's diplomatic coup, on the face of it, provides Assad with a shield behind which he can step up his bombardment of rebel positions - so long as he does not use chemical weapons.
Syria's civil war looms large as world leaders gather this week for the annual U.N. General Assembly. Envoys from the five big U.N. powers - the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China - have been meeting to negotiate a resolution to back the U.S.-Russian deal to remove Syria's chemical weapons by mid-2014.
"The deal avoids a regional tremor and may open the path for Geneva 2 (peace talks) but it won't stop the fighting or resolve the conflict because Assad is part of the conflict and not part of the solution," said Sarkis Naoum, a columnist on Beirut's an-Nahar newspaper.
ENEMIES HAVE NO APPETITE FOR WAR
Naoum says that Assad has been singularly fortunate in his enemies: a fragmented Syrian opposition, divided Arab countries, and a Turkish government whose reach exceeds its grasp.
"He is fortunate because he has Iran, which is willing to go all the way to support him, while there isn't a single Arab country that has this kind of determination to enter the battlefield on the side of the opposition", Naoum said.
"He is also fortunate because there is an American president who has no appetite for war and because Russia wants to settle its scores with America (via Syria)".
Yet Naoum, like many students of the Syrian conflict, judges that luck will not enable the Assad government to "regain control of all of Syria or to reimpose the existing regime".
"Assad recognizes that he cannot control the whole country but he will never say it publicly. It is a chess game. Bashar is looking at the next three steps ahead," says one European ambassador in the region.
Ultimately, the conflict has evolved beyond Assad. It has become a fight between non-Arab Shi'ite Iran and Sunni Gulf Arab states and a bone of contention between the U.S. and a Russia trying to recover its old role as the world's second superpower.
Assad is just a pawn among larger, more effective players than himself.
Assad, experts say, will surrender as many weapons as he needs to avoid a U.S. strike and keep Russia on his side but is likely to keep some as an insurance policy because he would have learnt from the fate of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, who surrendered their weapons and had no ultimate deterrent when they were toppled and killed.
"Assad's game plan is obviously to survive beyond everything else, but that survival will mean keeping Russia on his side, giving up the majority of his stocks of weapons of mass destruction, stopping American use of force and keeping the international community fractured and indeed to show that the opposition is not united enough to take power," says Toby Dodge, a Middle East expert at the London School of Economics.
Syrian troops, with the help of Iran and its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah militia, have been consolidating their hold on rural areas around the capital Damascus, Assad's bastion.
Assad, Syrian sources say, is throwing his efforts behind keeping control of Damascus, the Mediterranean coast which is the heartland of his Alawite sect, and Homs, which links those two regions. He will leave the north and east in the hands of mainstream rebels and jihadis fighting bitterly for its control.
The original target of the gas attack in the Ghouta area looks set to be a target again of an army offensive to clear it once and for all of rebels, a pro-Syrian Lebanese official told Reuters.
"The battle to flush out eastern and western Ghouta from rebels will start soon so that all the areas near Damascus will be clear and safe," he said.
"Assad will close off the areas that are important to him (Homs and the Mediterranean coast) and for the rest he would not care even if the biggest battles took place in rural areas of Idlib, and Aleppo."
While U.N. inspectors go through the tortuous and long process of accounting for and destroying Syria's chemical stockpiles, on the ground nobody can foresee a breakthrough in a conflict which has so far killed 100,000 people and displaced millions.
Within the rebels, another civil war is raging now between fighters from al Qaeda's Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and rival rebel forces in northern Syria, near the Turkish border. This plays in Assad's favor.
Russia, which faces its own challenge from Islamists on its southern fringes, has accused the West of helping militants by seeking Assad's removal without paying enough attention to the potential consequences. Putin said rebels could eventually expand attacks beyond Syria and the Middle East.
Assad, meanwhile, looks set to remain president of Syria, a country that his family has ruled for 40 years, and will run for next year's presidential vote, both his foes and allies believe.
"This is a decades old struggle," Dodge said. "At the moment, I don't see anything that is going to oust Assad. The opposition is still very fractured, America's position is still very tenuous and Russia still has a block on the Security Council. He is in Syria for many years to come."
"All he has to do in order to win is not lose," Dodge said.
(Editing by Dominic Evans and Janet McBride)