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AEI Resident Scholar Michael Rubin’s Syria Assessment

Friday, September 6, 2013

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HH: From Andrew McCarthy, a huge opponent of the AUMF, we now go abroad, and with a little bit of a time delay, I assume, with Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute, one of their resident scholars there. Michael Rubin, I have had a parade of opponents of the AUMF on today – James Lyons, retired admiral, Frank Gaffney, Andrew McCarthy, Ron Johnson, Senator from Wisconsin voted against it yesterday. I am assuming that you would counsel a vote in favor of the AUMF, but tell us what your position is.

MR: My position is that we need to strike at the chemical weapons depots, and the units which launched the attack, any unit which has launched chemical weapons, be they on the government side or on the opposition side, simply because American prestige is on the line. Perhaps it’s unfortunate, but there’s no way that President Obama can walk back from the red line he so clearly declared without having the reverberations come through Korea, Iran, and every other rogue regime on Earth.

HH: Andrew McCarthy just argued that it’s too dangerous that we are empowering the fanatics of the most extreme Islamist variety, al Qaeda, of course, that there are tens of thousands of them, and that we cannot take that risk of empower them, Michael Rubin. How do you respond?

MR: I share Andrew McCarthy’s assessment of the opposition, which is why I oppose a decapitation strike, which will leave a vacuum. Make no mistake, John Kerry is wrong. The opposition has not grown more moderate. They’ve grown more radical with time, unless John Kerry believes that cannibalism is a sign of moderation. That said, what I think needs to be done is a symbolic strike along the lines of what happened in 1998 when in the aftermath of the East Africa Embassy bombings, the Clinton administration ordered a Cruise missile attack on both Sudan and Afghanistan. The only difference is unlike Bill Clinton, I would suggest that the Obama administration target the buildings they go after when they are full, rather than wage jihad against Syria’s night shift janitors.

HH: General Keane on this program yesterday, in an interview that’s transcribed and over at www.hughhewitt.com, argued for three days of, or two days of strikes at the airfields and the air force of Assad in order to shift the momentum of the war against Assad. Your reaction to that, Michael Rubin?

MR: That may be a little bit too much to bear, given the radicalization of the opposition at this point. That said, one of the other problems such a strategy would run into is the fact that President Assad in Syria has a safe haven. That safe haven is the area around the Tartus port, where the Russians have a naval base. There’s no way the United States is going to strike at airfields and anti-aircraft emplacements that could be manned by Russians.

HH: Is there any way, in your estimate, of empowering a third force like General Keane, and others, like the Kagans, your colleague, Fred Kagan, at AEI, and Kim Kagan, or Congressman Tom Cotton or others have said at www.nationalreview.com, does in fact exist as a possibility? Is there a way to do it?

MR: Timing matters. What I think we need to do in this case, look, the Syrian regime is like dying of a heart attack. An opposition’s victory would be like dying of cancer. Unfortunately, the time for preventative medicine was two, two and a half years ago. There’s a conceit in Washington that we can have our debates on going and endless, and that the ground, the shift on the ground never changes, that the ground truth remains the same. That’s simply wrong. Ultimately, one side is going to win in Syria, one side is going to lose, both are bad, but once that happens, then that’s the time to deal with the new reality, figure out how to contain and undo and defeat that new force. And at that point in time, you can hope for some sort of more moderate outcome.

HH: Michael Rubin, how do you read the statements and the actions of the Israeli government, talking here about Prime Minister Netanyahu, not the President, who’s not really authorized to talk about this, Peres. But what do you think they want the United States to do if they felt open enough to actually convey that?

MR: Well, ultimately, again, momentum matters. I have every belief that Israel, first of all, the Israelis want quiet on their border. They are scared to death of an opposition victory. That said, President Obama, he had the opportunity to strike and strike hard, and almost immediately. He didn’t. What this has enabled the Syrian regime to do is prepare retaliations, a retaliation that would likely target Israel with chemical weapons. If Bashar al-Assad didn’t hesitate to gas sleeping Syrians in their sleep, he’s not going to hesitate to gas sleeping Israelis, either. Now what one question I have is President Obama and others have said that their military advisers have told them that there’s no cost to waiting, that waiting, that any military action will be just as effective two weeks from now as it would be two weeks ago. Every military officer I’ve talked to says that is patently false. It would be interesting to see who those military advisers are that President Obama is relying upon, and whether or not they have ever served in the military.

HH: And so try and forecast, Michael Rubin, you’re kind of in the middle of everyone here. I mean, I’ve had proponents of the strike, or the AUMF, and opponents of the AUMF. It sounds like you would vote for it. And in fact, you’re endorsing what probably is going to happen, a slap on the wrist strike against military units that used the chemical weapons. But what is the one year and two year out strategy that you would hope or pray that President Obama would adopt?

MR: Well, unfortunately, I don’t think President Obama is capable of that. And regardless, the faces, not matter who wins in Syria, the face of Syria has forever changed. It would be wrong to imagine a parallel to Syria in the Libyan civil war, much more carefully, about what happened in Bosnia. What we do not have, and frankly, what the United Nations and the international community does not have is a strategy to deal with a face of Syria which has completely shifted, a Syria that is made up of cantons no matter who wins – an Alawite canton, frankly, an al Qaeda canton, a Kurdish canton, a Druze canton, and so forth. That’s the reality we need to craft a strategy for, and no one among the Democrats or the Republicans has broached that issue, yet.

HH: So it’s Lebanon again, but Lebanon of the 80s?

MR: Let’s hope it’s Lebanon, Hugh, and not Somalia.

HH: Meaning what, that it’s just complete breakdown…

MR: Well, Somalia, of course, you had cantons as well. It wasn’t all a unitary government. You had a de facto state in Somaliland, which was relatively stable and peaceful. We can make a parallel there to the Kurdish state, which is developing in Northeastern Syria. You had Puntland in Somalia, which became known for its piracy, that most of the pirates that plagued international shipping up until last year, they weren’t from Somalia proper. They were from this off-shoot Puntland province. And then you had al Qaeda take root in Southern Somalia, and at times, in Mogadishu. That’s the type of future which I’m afraid we’re going to have in Syria.

HH: Wow, sobering. Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute, thank you for joining us, follow all of Michael’s Tweets, you can follow him at, just go search Twitter for Michael Rubin. You’ve got to stay in touch with what he thinks.

End of interview.

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