March 29, 2003

Rumsfeld on Syria Rumsfeld's comments

Rumsfeld on Syria

Rumsfeld's comments on Syria certainly did not appear to be off the cuff remarks like, perhaps, his "Old Europe" locution or grouping Germany together with Cuba and Libya as nations not providing any help with regard to the U.S. action in Iraq. As the linked transcript shows, they were part of his prepared remarks. His prepared language was as follows:

"And to Iraq's neighbor, Syria: We have information that shipments of military supplies have been crossing the border from Syria into Iraq, including night-vision goggles. These deliveries pose a direct threat to the lives of coalition forces. We consider such trafficking as hostile acts and will hold the Syrian government accountable for such shipments."

The FT, in somewhat sensationalistic fashion, has run a large headline in their weekend edition titled U.S. Warns Syria on 'Hostile Acts.' One might think the U.S. if off to Damascus in short order!

Meanwhile, the Syrian foreign ministry spokeswoman has described Rumsfeld's comments as "absolutely unfounded."

But one has too look at some of the Q&A to get a better feeling of what Rumsfeld meant. Here are all the relevant passages from yesterday's Pentagon press conference:

Q: Mr. Secretary, I'd like to ask you about your statement about military supplies moving across the border from Syria. You described those as hostile acts. Are they subject to military action in response if that continues?

Rumsfeld: There's no question but that to the extent military supplies or equipment or people move across borders between Iraq and Syria, that it vastly complicates our situation. And that is why I said what I said.

Q: But so are you threatening military action against Syria?

Rumsfeld: I'm saying exactly what I said. It was carefully phrased.

LATER:

Q: Mr. Secretary, I wanted to clear up what you said earlier about the Syrian -- or the NBGs coming in through Syria. Are you suggesting or is there information that this in fact state-sponsored, these are state-sponsored shipments of military goods?

Rumsfeld: I don't think I want to get into it. It's an intelligence issue. They control their border, and we're hopeful that that type of thing doesn't happen. (Cross talk.)

LATER:

Q: Mr. Secretary, for someone who's always advocating private channels of diplomacy, I'd like to go back to your statement about Syria and Iran. Be very precise. What message are you sending the governments of Syria and Iran from this podium? If the rules -- are the rules of the road for this conflict to other countries the same as they are for the war on terrorism: You are with or against us, which is the president's message? Is that what you are saying here, your message?

A: And specifically, with respect to Syria, I pointed out that we have seen military supplies and materials and equipment crossing the border, and we'd like it to stop. And to the extent it keeps on, we have to consider it a hostile act. [my emphasis]

The FT and other media outlets have headlined their stories per Rummy's initial remarks, ie. that the Syrians are engaged in hostile acts and they could be held accountable as a result. But, as the Q&A shows, Rummy later tipped his hand a bit by stating that, "to the extent it keeps on, we have to consider it a hostile act." In other words, it was the proverbial "shot across the bow," a stern warning to the Syrians (particularly, it appears, regarding night vision goggles--provision of which mitigate coalition forces advantages in urban fighting and, as the weather gets hotter, when allied forces might prefer to engage the enemy during the cooler night hours).

A couple points: I really hope that the U.S. approached Damascus on this issue through private channels before this highly public airing of Washington's concerns. If we did, and the Syrians denied they were allowing any assistance to cross their border to Iraq, and the U.S. had highly compelling intelligence that they were fully cognizant of such transfers, then I can understand Rumsfeld's need to issue a public warning to Damascus. But only if we made best diplomatic efforts in private first. Needless to say, the regional situation is immensely complex with each of Iraq's neighbors. There are, obviously, fears in Teheran and Damascus that they are next. To employ, in public, bellicose language about "hostile" acts in reference to one of these two countries should be done only when absolutely necessary--as it fans suspicions among Arabs (or Iranians) throughout the region that we have designs on strategic control of the entire region. It will be interesting to see if Powell has any comments on Syria in the coming days respecting this issue--I would be heartened if he backs Rummy up as it would show that the entire Administration has a coordinated posture on this issue and, likely, that we had already approached Damascus with our concerns to no avail. If Powell, instead, appears to differ with Rumsfeld on this issue it will be another example of lack of coordination between battling fiefdoms in the Adminstration--not what the U.S. needs during these critical times.

Another issue to keep in mind is whether Syria is allowing Hezbollah or Palestinian elements transit rights over their border and the equipment comes from such groups. If so, Syria still is culpable and needs to be held to account--but the tensions are unlikely to spill out of control. If Damascus itself is providing the equipment--and continues to do so after Rumsfeld's warning--the prospects of greater regional de-stabilization are significantly enhanced.

Posted by Gregory at March 29, 2003 12:19 PM
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