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September 9, 2013
Syrian Unknowns Justify Rumsfeld Opposition
By Arshad M Khan
When Donald Rumsfeld, the former, Secretary of Defense, talked about 'known
unknowns' and 'unknown unknowns', it was cause for some amusement. But he had a
point, a point President Obama might well note as he rushes headlong into a Syrian
First the 'known unknowns': We may not know the exact consequences of an attack,
but we do have prior experience: Libya is no haven for democracy - it also gave us
Mali - and Iraq and Afghanistan are a devastated mess. Zero out of three is not a
record inspiring confidence as the administration contemplates another military
The Bush administration was misled by the unscrupulous, mendacious expat Iraq
lobby (though some have claimed they wanted to be misled) into anticipating a
welcome of garlands and roses; in actuality, they quickly faced an insurgency. 'No
boots on the ground' says Mr. Kerry but who can foretell the future as adversaries
respond to the escalation. The problem with an air campaign is its lack of selectivity.
It helps the opposition across the board by degrading the government's overall
capability. As a result, it helps the most powerful of the rebels most. Unfortunately,
the toughest boots on the ground among the rebels happen to be the al-Nusra,
similar in ideology to al-Qaida.
Now here is one hair-raising 'known unknown', at least for the Israelis. Syria is known
to have a large stockpile of chemical weapons. If the government is weakened
enough where the extremist al-Nusra commanders seize these weapons, it could be a
nightmare. Whatever might be said of the present Syrian government, they have
honored agreements. Not surprisingly then, the Israelis appear to be lukewarm if not
The real issue bothering them and their friends in the U.S. is Mr. Obama's
self-imposed red line. If indeed it has been transgressed, then he must act, because
not doing so would embolden Iran to ignore future warnings. And to Israel, a
nuclear-armed Iran is an existential threat. Hyperbole perhaps given its own capacity
to retaliate, but it would limit Israel's present ability to act at will against adversarial
But has the red line been crossed? The evidence provided so far is not watertight,
and the administration's moves towards Congress indicate an intent to not wait for the
UN investigators to ascertain responsibility. It is reminiscent of the Bush
administration's actions before the Iraq war.
There are other questions. For example, why would Assad invite UN inspectors and
then choose to fire chemical munitions six miles from their hotel? Why would he use
weapons that gain him little militarily but bring the opprobrium of the world and a good
chance of U.S. missiles being rained down upon him? While logic defies use, it could
have been an error of judgment at a lower level.
The British MPs voting down Prime Minister Cameron's request -- a first for a military
intervention issue in 150 years -- were certainly not convinced of high-level culpability,
although the public mood might have played a part. Some news sources, notably
McClatchy, have also pointed to lacunae in the evidence. Then there is the disturbing
report by the Associated Press and National Public Radio's Levant correspondent,
Dale Gavlak, from Ghouta, Syria itself where eyewitnesses place the blame squarely
on the rebels. Moreover, some who were complicit report the hand of Saudi
intelligence in providing the weapons but are in shock they caused the deaths of their
own relatives and friends.
So why is Mr. Obama drawing himself a red line when he could claim the evidence is
not conclusive. For a possible answer to this question, one has to consider the main
actors. Quite easily the one with the largest stake is Saudi Arabia. A major supplier
to the rebels, it is motivated by the perceived threat from Iran's regional ambitions.
'Cut off the head of the snake' (meaning Iran) was the notorious exhortation reported
through Wikileaks. The Saudis have also helped out in Bahrain, Libya and most
recently in Egypt. With the Syrian rebels in retreat and at a clear disadvantage
against air power, are the Saudis calling in the chits?
The issue should really be whether it is in our strategic interest. Our stock is already
low in the region, why would we want more negative imagery on TV channels from the
Maghreb to Indonesia. No analyst believes a short air war can actually affect the
outcome; more likely, it will merely prolong the misery, adding to the now two million
and more refugees, many blaming the U.S. for their plight.
Then of course there are the 'unknown unknowns'. The wily Mr. Putin is already
playing cat and mouse. As he doubles up (and there are rumors he is gearing up to
supply advanced weaponry) will he go so far as to risk confrontation? Who would
have thought the assassination of an archduke would result in the slaughter of
millions. Certainly not Gavrilo Princip; he merely sought Serbian independence. But
then that is why there are those 'unknown unknowns'.
The author is a retired professor and occasional commentator.