The Russian-Chinese veto of a rather weak Security Council resolution that would have increased the international pressure on Syria has brought the international search for a diplomatic solution to an impasse. Moscow and Beijing have signaled that they have no interest in lending international legitimacy to a campaign for the end of Assad’s rule, so further actions will risk their fury. It’s likely that the next step will be stronger moves from the Arab League and the Arab Spring’s new great power, little Qatar. However, the end of the U.N. process has provoked a gush of violence around Syria that will certainly yield more calls for physical action. Calls for international support for the Free Syrian Army rebel group are becoming more common. This is an aggressive step that could lead to an all-out civil war. If the rebels win, there could be great opportunity for a regional transformation–Iranian influence in the Levant would be strangled, and a new government might change Syria’s decades-old rejection of the Arab-Israeli peace process. Lebanon might become more stable. However, a rebel victory is hardly certain. Several constituencies within Syria still want Bashar in power, and he’s being fed a steady supply of Russian arms. Providing the rebels access to similar volumes of weaponry might yield a long and bloody war. How would this affect America’s interest in the region?
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An anonymous Free Syrian Army officer, speaking to London’s Asharq al-Awsat, said that the militia is buying weapons from a number of sources, including the Assad-sympathetizing shabiha militia. This shows the danger that Assad has put himself in with his many unsavory bedfellows. The Shabiha got their start as (to borrow a phrase from Assad’s lexicon) armed gangs that made their money through smuggling that the regime tolerated as long as they remained loyal. Now, while they help Assad wipe out his unarmed opponents by day, they aid his armed opponents by night. That’s the cost of doing business with these types.
This might be a foretaste of a future Iranian revolution, should one occur. The IRGC, like the Shabiha, is not loyal to the regime alone–they have growing interests in the economy, including in the black market. If the Islamic Republic starts to fall apart, elements of the Pasdaran might start playing both sides in much the same fashion.
This is not the only unsettling news about semi-official forces moving weapons. There have been reports in the Israeli media that Hezbollah has taken possession of some of Syria’s formidable arsenal of chemical weapons. If they can integrate these into their array of rockets, Israel will be at a new level of vulnerability. Reports indicate that perhaps 40% of the Israeli population does not have gas masks. An all-out Hezbollah rocket attack would be a disaster for Israel; a chemical attack would be even worse. This prospect could shape Israel’s strategic calculations toward Hezbollah and its allies Syria and Iran.
Mideast journalist Patrick Seale has a new column in the Diplomat asserting that Iran has “defeated” Obama, whose alleged policies of “demonizing” the Islamic Republic continue to throw away a golden chance at engagement. It’s unusual to see a piece so full of errors in a major publication, so I felt it would be worth addressing.
Obama did misread Iran, but in precisely the opposite direction from that which Seale alleges. The candidate Obama took a very open, soft stance to Iran, making promises of face-to-face meetings with no preconditions. Obama meant it, too–it was, in technical terms, a costly signal, for Clinton and McCain criticized him for it relentlessly, yet he stuck to his guns. Obama thought that by opening America’s ears to Tehran, there would be a change in calculations as the mullahs realized that the US was not an eternal enemy and that our two nations share some common interests and, beneath the chador of the state’s harsh Islamism, a lot of common culture. Those taking this position have a lot of explaining to do–how can America even be neutral towards a major proliferator and sponsor of terror, how can it ignore the soldiers dead from Iranian bombs in Iraq, how can it ignore the tragic repression of one of the world’s most ancient cultures? However, it’s not a totally indefensible position by any means. There are always glimmers of hope emerging from beneath the system, and the hardline stance of the regime gives it few friends–shouldn’t it want to reach out? Can’t the perennial appearance of reformists be a sign of a chance for detente?
I’m a big fan of using Google Alerts to get my news on the Middle East, because it scours a huge array of media outlets and sorts (by no obvious algorithm) them into a short list of important stories. One downside is that it picks up a lot of propaganda pieces–my Iran alert, for instance, is usually 50% stories from the very state-run Fars News Agency. The upside of this is getting exposed to some pretty absurd news, like the claim I recently mentioned by Iran to have powerful missiles that could target aircraft flying in space. Anyway, here are a few of the more ridiculous stories: