For an Israeli government near Syria’s front lines, not all U.S. military interventions are made the same.
- By Amos HarelAmos Harel is the senior military correspondent for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
Israel’s public response to the U.S. strike on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime last week was unambiguous. It praised President Donald Trump’s decision to fire cruise missiles on a Syrian air base near the city of Homs in retaliation for the regime’s use of chemical weapons to slaughter dozens of civilians in the town of Khan Sheikhoun. Israel had been critical of the Obama administration’s performance in the Middle East, and the recent strike gives Israelis reason to hope that maybe, just maybe, the United States is ready to take a tougher stance against clear violations of international law.
But Israeli officials’ public praise for the attack contrasts sharply with their privately expressed skepticism that Washington has carefully thought through its next steps in Syria. They are perfectly aware that Trump’s decision may have been driven by personal motives — notably his desire to prove that he is stronger than his predecessor, and his need to distance himself from allegations of Russian manipulation in the presidential election. From Israel’s perspective, that’s no replacement for a coherent strategy for the region.
Israeli officials were out in front of the Trump administration in laying the blame for the Khan Sheikhoun attack at the feet of the Assad regime and demanding a forceful response. Hours after the attack, Israeli intelligence officers already told me that they were convinced that senior members of the regime were involved in the decision to strike. On Thursday, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman claimed in an interview with the Ydiot Aharonot newspaper that Assad had personally approved the use of sarin gas in the attack, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on the international community to complete its effort to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile.
The remarks by Lieberman, a former citizen of the Soviet Union — the defense minister emigrated from Moldova to Israel in the late 1970s — particularly irritated the Kremlin. According to Russian media, President Vladimir Putin called Netanyahu to complain.
Israeli and Russian officials have gone to great lengths to avoid confrontation in Syria. Putin and Netanyahu met five times during the past 18 months, mainly to discuss the situation in Syria. But evidently the tone in the latest phone conversation wasn’t so friendly. It is not difficult to understand why. During the first two days after the chemical attack, the Russians were busy spreading disinformation and blaming Syrian rebels for releasing the poisonous gas.
Geography may have something to do with Israel’s more aggressive posture toward the ongoing disaster in Syria. The events are happening in Israel’s backyard and could have direct implications on its security. Israeli intelligence officers are obliged to remain on much higher alert about developments in Syria, and the Israeli cabinet is expected to meet this week to discuss a renewal of distribution of gas masks to the Israeli population, in light of last week’s events.
In the past six years, Israel’s leadership has been generally wise enough to remain on the sidelines of the Syrian conflict, participating only to the extent it deemed absolutely necessary. Early in the war, Netanyahu defined Israel’s red lines. There would be a military response for every attack into Israeli territory, even for unintentional spillover, and the Israel Defense Forces would act to prevent any transfer of chemical weapons or sophisticated weapons systems from Syria to Hezbollah. Unlike former President Barack Obama, Netanyahu stuck to his red lines.
International media outlets have reported dozens of Israeli airstrikes against weapons depots and convoys during the past several years. When asked about this, however, Israeli officials usually shrug and say nothing. The idea behind such “constructive ambiguity” is that the Assad regime may not be motivated to escalate further if it isn’t embarrassed publicly.
Russia’s intervention to save the Assad regime in the fall of 2015 complicated matters for the Israelis. Putin and Netanyahu decided to establish a de-conflicting mechanism in order to prevent air battles between the two sides. But the Russian deployment of anti-aircraft systems and long-range radars in the Hmeymim air base in northwestern Syria now means that it can spot any movement of Israeli planes beginning at the southern Israeli city of Beersheba. Most of Israel’s air bases are in the north, giving Moscow unprecedented knowledge of Israeli air activity.
Israeli officials are also worried that Assad’s growing military strength could transform the balance of power in southern Syria. If the Syrian army tries to drive the Sunni rebels out of the Golan border area near Israel, its allies — Iranian-backed Shiite militias, Hezbollah, even the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) — may not be far behind. This would allow Iran to double the border area it could use as a base from which to hit Israel, in addition to southern Lebanon.
Netanyahu has told both Putin and Trump that such a development would be dangerous to Israel’s security interests. He also expressed concern about Iran’s apparent attempt to lease a Syrian harbor on the Mediterranean coast, the same way Russia leases the port in the Syrian city of Tartous. This seems to be part of a larger Iranian strategy. According to a Kuwaiti newspaper, the IRGC recently built an underground production line for missiles and rockets in southern Lebanon and handed it to Hezbollah.
Assad’s regained confidence may have sparked a recent confrontation with Israel. On March 17, Israeli warplanes struck a weapons depot near Palmyra, and Syrian anti-aircraft systems shot back with SA-5 missiles. Although the missiles missed their targets, one entered Israeli airspace near the Jordanian border. Israel used its Arrow system to intercept the missile. When parts of the intercepting missile landed in the Jordanian town of Irbid, Israel embarrassed its closest ally in the region, King Abdullah. In order to prevent claims that Jordan was ignoring an Israeli attack, Jerusalem had to explain itself — and publicly admitted for the first time that it was bombing weapons convoys in Syria.
If Israel hopes to constrain the potential threats it faces in Syria, it needs the help of the United States. Netanyahu understands that Trump is unpredictable and may be offended by the slightest insult. This is why the Israeli premier made such quickly accepted the president’s demand over certain restraints on building West bank settlements. Netanyahu will now probably try to persuade Trump to stop leaving diplomatic negotiations on Syria entirely to the Russians. At the same time, he will emphasize Israeli priorities: blocking Iran’s resurgence, weakening the Assad regime, and, most importantly, preventing Iranian proxy forces from entering the border area in the Golan Heights.
On Sunday, Russia and Iran threatened to retaliate against any further strikes in Syria. The joint statement should also concern Israel: Does this include strikes against Hezbollah’s weapons convoys?
But don’t expect Israel’s suggestions to Trump about Syria to go beyond an insistence that Israeli interests, narrowly conceived, be taken into account. The Israeli government is well aware of the mess that Syria has become. As Amos Yadlin, a former head of Israel’s military intelligence, put it: “[T]he Syrian cube is harder to solve than Rubik’s. It seems no matter what you do at least one face would remain out of place.”
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