Most areas of Syria appeared calm on Tuesday, the first day of the UN-brokered peace plan. Opposition activists are predictably accusing the government of violations following a firefight in Homs and an incident on the Turkish border which left five people wounded, but on the whole the ceasefire is holding.
Syria’s political and military landscape has visibly shifted in recent weeks. It may be too early to say that Bashar al-Assad is out of the woods, but the odds are changing in his favor. His soldiers have consolidated their control over former rebel strongholds, following a series of setbacks which the loose coalition of anti-government forces—known as the Free Syrian Army—suffered in last month’s fighting.
The advocates of military intervention in Washington, such as Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), are on the defensive. There is no political will on Capitol Hill to involve the United States in another war in the Middle East just as the mission in Afghanistan is coming to an inglorious close. The concern that any weapons delivered to the Free Syrian Army may end up in the hands of Islamic terror groups is being openly aired. Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), the chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said on Easter Day that it would be risky to arm the rebels, “mainly because we just don’t know who they are.” In fact we have a pretty good idea: like their Libyan counterparts a year ago, they are predominantly Islamic militants associated with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood (SMB).
Even more compelling argument against international intervention is that the “regime change” scenario does not apply. Bashar’s departure from power would not end the crisis, it would aggravate it. The Alawite-controlled military will never give up the fight, and its cohesiveness is not in doubt. Government security forces and the army still retain their coherence and operational effectiveness. Even if Bashar agreed to go, which is unlikely, the generals would select a leader more determined than he to unleash the full firepower of the Syrian army against the rebels, including missiles and air power which have not been used thus far.
Sectarian divisions would emerge with a vengeance and plunge the country into a fully-fledged and multi-sided civil war. The choice for an intervening power would not be between “pro-democracy protesters” and “Assad’s blood-soaked regime” but between Sunni and Shia Muslims, Druze and Alawite, Kurds and Christians. A perfect quagmire.
IN THE MEANTIME, the danger of another proposed military intervention—against Iran—also seems to be receding. Tehran has hinted at the possibility of a compromise on the issue of nuclear enrichment ahead of negotiations with six powers in Istanbul later this week. The head of Iran’s nuclear program Fereidoun Abbasi has said that Iran could stop its production of 20 percent enriched uranium needed for a research reactor, and continue enriching uranium to lower levels for power generation. Uranium has to be enriched to more than 90 percent to be used for a nuclear weapon, but the U.S. and Israel have demanded in the past an end to all uranium enrichment in Iran. Agreement to reconvene follows several weeks of diplomatic wrangling between Tehran and Russia, China, Germany, France, the United Kingdom and the United States. Iran said last month that it was ready to re-engage with the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA), the U.N. nuclear watchdog.
The price of oil dropped to just over $100 on the news, as analysts expressed cautious optimism that there will be no war after all. As we’ve said before in these pages, real concerns about Iran’s nuclear program exist but they can be resolved through diplomacy. A reasonable agreement would also allow Iran to enrich uranium to the extent needed for power generation and accept Iran’s right to the enrichment technology, so long as she agrees to subject her entire nuclear program to international oversight.