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Middle east

US involvement in Syrian conflict breeds uncertainty

© Haaretz


Latest update : 2013-04-30

Mounting evidence that Syrian President Bashar al Assad has used chemical weapons has sparked new calls for the US to intervene. But Chemi Shalev warns in Haaretz that it is impossible to know what effect US involvement might have on the region.

Read premium content from Israel's Haaretz on

The acknowledgement that Syrian President Assad’s regime has apparently used chemical weapons has sparked renewed calls in Israel and in the United States for President Barack Obama to intervene in Syria’s ongoing civil war. The proposed modi operandi range from arming the Syrian rebels, declaring safe havens and no-fly zones, bombing Syrian chemical weapons installations and even sending in US troops to secure sensitive installations on the ground.

One can only envy people who have such an unambiguous and clear-sighted view of what should or shouldn’t be done. But the envy should be tempered by wariness. Just as no one predicted the Arab Spring, the upheaval in Egypt or the uprising in Syria itself, no one can tell what kind of an effect an American military operation in Syria might have on Syria, on Iran, on Israel and on the Middle East in particular.

After all, it doesn’t take long to prove that in the Middle East, the Law of Unintended Consequences reins supreme, and usually for the worse. It was Israel, you will recall, who built up Hamas in the 1980’s so that it would serve as a counterweight to the PLO; Israel who viewed the Shiites as an ally in the Lebanon War; America which imposed its “freedom agenda” on Israel in Gaza; America that built up Iran by invading Iraq; and Israel, when it comes to it, that subjugated itself to 47 years of debilitating occupation in its miraculous victory in the Six Day War.

So before calling in the U.S. cavalry, perhaps one should take stock of the things one knows that one doesn’t know, to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, ever mindful that there are countless other things – usually bad things – that one doesn’t know that one doesn’t know. Among these:

1. Will a U.S. attack on Syria’s chemical weapons facilities increase or decrease the danger that Syrian President Assad will make greater use of such weapons? True, some people are claiming that a US show of force could deter Assad – but it could also embolden him. He may come to the conclusion that following such an attack, all bets are off and that he needs to take advantage of his ‘game-changing’ weapon before the U.S. and the rest of the world take it away from him.

2. If the U.S. attacks and mayhem ensues on the ground, doesn’t that actually increase the danger that the wrong kind of rebels – including, but not limited to, Hezbollah fans and Al-Qaida adherents – will be able to get their hands on some of the chemical weapons?

3. Would a U.S. attack strengthen Assad or weaken him? It could, after all, cast him suddenly not as a tyrant suppressing his own people but as a victim of a grand Zionist-imperialist conspiracy. Once Assad is seen as standing up to the Great Satan - and the Little Satan egging him on - his stature in Syria and throughout the Muslim world could improve dramatically.

4. Will a U.S. attack against Syria increase or decrease the chances that Israel could be drawn into the Syrian civil war? Would such a ploy save Assad? (Probably not. But at least he would go out in a blaze of glory.)

5. Would a U.S. attack increase or decrease the chances that it would go after the Iranian nuclear infrastructure a few months later, if necessary? Is it inconceivable that nothing would suit Tehran better than to have the U.S. become embroiled in a Syrian confrontation? U.S. public opinion currently seems to support a U.S. air strike on Iran, if it continues its nuclear drive, but that might change if Washington appears to be getting bogged down in Syria beforehand.

6. This seems doubly true if the US is drawn into sending in ground troops because it deems an air strike insufficient. Once American troops are killed in yet another Middle East country, Americans might come to the conclusion - not for the first time - that enough is enough.

7. Does anyone know how Iran, Russia and China will react to a U.S. offensive against Syria? They certainly won’t be pleased. And they might very well respond not only by resisting any further international measures against Assad, but by removing all inhibitions in promoting and defending Iran’s nuclear capabilities.

8. Is it really certain that a rebel victory would be better for Israel and the West? True, the current situation is beyond intolerable and the wholesale massacre of Syrian civilians is immoral and reprehensible. But a rebel victory could result in even greater bloodshed, this time by a vengeful Sunni majority seeking revenge for a savage civil war and for decades of discrimination at the hands of the Alawite minority. You can already see the headlines: “Massacred by the weapons that America supplied.”

9. Never mind that the successor regime could be just as radical and anti-Israel as Assad’s only with no self-discipline, no central control and no inhibitions.

10. There is a famous chizbat (tall tale) from the pre-state days of the Palmach about Mardoch and the lamp:

Once Mardoch and the gang were sailing at night on the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) with a fisherman’s lamp when his friends decided to taunt him.

“Let’s see if you’ve got a tough personality – throw the lamp into the Kinneret”.

“What has that got to do with personality,” Mardoch replied. “If I want, I’ll throw it.”

“So throw it,” they pressed.

“But the lamp will be damaged,” Mardoch said.

“See? You’ve got no personality,” they answered.

“Oh yeah?”


“OK, I’ll show you,” Mardoch said, and threw the lamp into the water.

At which point his friends turned away in disgust and said disdainfully: “See? We told you don’t have a personality. Anyone can sway you.”

So it’s inevitable that some of the same people who are now goading Obama on to make good on his “red line” ultimatum will turn around when the time comes and criticize his inability to keep the U.S. out of other people’s wars.

All of which doesn’t mean that the U.S. shouldn’t intervene. It does mean that the decision to do so is incredibly complex and agonizingly dangerous, contrary to what some politicians might lead you to believe – even if it is completely justified.

Bottom line? Give thanks that you are not the President of the United States.


By Chemi Shalev, Haaretz

Follow me on Twitter @ChemiShalev.

Click here to read more on Haaretz (registration required).

© Read premium content from leading Israeli daily Haaretz on FRANCE 24

Date created : 2013-04-29


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