As Obama mulls Syria attack, high stakes for Israel

With the US Congress to take up President Obama's call for military action against Syria, some in Israel hope for a sustained attack while others fear the consequences.

Bernat Armangue/AP
Israeli soldiers man a mobile artillery unit in the Golan Heights, on the border with Syria.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other top Israeli leaders remained mum a day after President Barack Obama’s surprise announcement he would seek congressional approval for a proposed punitive strike on Syria. But their silence today is not out of disinterest.

The stakes are high for the Jewish state as Congress prepares to debate an act of war, going beyond the immediate Syrian civil war to a possible regional showdown with Iran over its nuclear program.

There was widespread disappointment in Israel at the mixed signal sent by a president who, on the one hand made a strong moral argument for intervention in Syria over chemical weapons usage, and at the same time backed away to place the fate of such a decision in the hands of legislators.

"The Iranians are laughing…  and the Syrians are celebrating their triumph," said one Israeli official, who asked not be named. "It’s impossible for a massacre with weapons of mass destruction to go unpunished. It’s a moral issue. This is something that must be immediately rejected, punished and deterred by the international community. If not, the message to other dictatorships that hold WMD is that you can use them with impunity.’’

Israel fears that the hesitation will erode US deterrence in the region because the president appears hesitant to act after defining chemical weapons use by the Assad regime as a "red line" and after a week of rising expectations of an attack.  

Failure to heed Mr. Obama’s call to action would undermine Israeli confidence that the US will make good on Mr. Obama’s assurance that "all options are on the table'' to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and increase the worry here that at the moment of truth the Jewish state will be on its own.

A year ago, Mr. Netanyahu said that Iran was quickly approaching the ability to create its own weapon. He has repeatedly expressed concern that US-led diplomatic effort to convince Iran to stop uranium enrichment will be exploited by Iran to buy time and build a weapon before force can be used. 

"Anything that the US as a superpower does in the Middle East has wider implications, because it affects how it is viewed," says Shomo Brom, a former Israeli military planner and a fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. "If there is an impression that under no circumstances will the US use military power against states, then it will probably effect how Iran behaves."

Danny Gillerman, a former Israeli ambassador to the UN who has dovish views on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, was more blunt, saying that aggressive words by the president and Secretary of State John Kerry were not backed up with action.

"We are witnessing in the recent days an international diplomatic fiasco that recall the dark days of Jimmy Carter," he said in an interview with Israel Radio. "The US looks weak and hesitant, like it's losing its hegemony, its moral and superpower superiority. This projects to the enemies of the US that there’s no one to fear, and to the US allies, there’s no one to rely on. The Iranians are listening and drawing conclusions."

Despite some withering criticism, however, analysts and officials acknowledged that should Obama win congressional approval it would mark a precedent setting action against a state for chemical weapons usage that would strengthen Israel’s position in the future vis a vis Iran.  

"The U.S. would move from merely lobbying against the proliferation and use of non-conventional weapons, to actual punishment," says a former senior Israeli adviser. "This would be an elevation of the US sense of mission, to be the law enforcer… this becomes a position of great moral thrust, it becomes a great undertaking."


Exactly what a US reprisal should look like and how would it serve Israel’s interests is less clear. On that question, officials and experts demur. Officials close to the government point out that Israel is already in an awkward position standing on the sidelines and calling for international intervention, so it doesn’t want to appear as if it's telling the US what to do.

But an opinion piece by former IDF Intelligence Chief Amos Yadlin, who now heads, Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, argued that a pinpoint punishment would not be enough to restore US prestige or change the behavior of the Assad regime.

Mr. Yadlin, called in the article for a combination of no fly zones, demilitarized zones, and an ongoing campaign against Syrian strategic targets. He argued that an American reprisal should be planned with the aim of weakening the regime over the long term, so as to hurt Iran.  Acknowledging this is at odds with Obama’s policy of withdrawing from Middle East conflicts, Mr. Yadlin argued this "it is the least problematic of the bad options."

However, Mr. Yadlin’s colleague from the same think tank argues that a limited strike is preferable. Mr. Brom, a former military planner, said a prolonged US assault risks sparking Syrian reprisal strikes against Israel and warned Mr. Assad’s fall could create even more chaos to Israel’s north.

"An operation that will achieve the limited deterrence may be enough,’’ says Mr. Brom. "Israel has an interest that Syria will be punished by (violating) the norms of no use of chemical weapons. Israel wants this norm to be very strong, and minimize the possibility that anyone will use them against Israel."

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