Shadow Government

Bibi Needs Trump’s Help Countering Iran in Syria

Restraining Tehran is in the interest of both Israel and the United States.

U.S. President Donald Trump, right, speaks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, on Jan. 25. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump, right, speaks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, on Jan. 25. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

When U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sit down in the Oval Office this week, they will both have much on their minds: when and whether the United States will present a plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace, impending decisions on the future of the Iran nuclear deal, and their own respective domestic and legal challenges. But the most pressing issue on their agenda is Iran’s efforts to entrench military capabilities in Syria — as a base for attacks against Israel. With Israel’s warnings of this emerging threat proving well founded in light of the February 10 incursion by an Iranian drone, Trump and Netanyau must consider how the United States can help Israel deter and defend itself from those attacks.

Israelis can be forgiven for some confusion about what the current U.S. policy is. In a January 17 speech on Syria, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson identified five objectives for the 2,000 U.S. special forces members that have remained in the country following the defeat of the Islamic State. Among these: preventing Iranian military entrenchment in Syria, including by holding key border areas to prevent the establishment of an Iran-controlled land bridge.

But Tillerson’s decision not to visit Israel during his Middle East tour following the February 10 incident sent a poor signal about U.S.-Israel coordination. The talk throughout the Middle East was that Russia, which brokered the end of the hostilities that day, now far eclipsed the United States in regional influence. U.S. National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster deployed tough rhetoric at the Munich Security Conference, where he said that “the time is now to act against Iran” and its proxies, but his silence about Iran’s direct role in Syria did little to allay fears.

To compound matters, on February 23, Trump told reporters, regarding U.S. troop presence in Syria, “We’re there for one reason: to get ISIS and get rid of ISIS and to go home.” It would not be the first time the president articulated a view at odds with his own government’s actual policy. But it is a telling signal that his appetite for extensive U.S. military engagements in Syria is very much in check. So was Gen. Joseph Votel of U.S. Central Command’s testimony before the House Armed Services Committee in Febuary, when he said, “countering Iran is not one of the coalition missions in Syria.” In fairness, it must be said that the same limited appetite also applies to former President Barack Obama, Congress, and, one must conclude, the American people.

Israel does not need, and is not seeking, U.S. use of force in response to Iran’s provocations, at least at this stage. For the past five years, Israel has carried out an effective campaign to interdict weapons shipments through Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon, conducting some 100 attacks, according to Israel’s recently retired Air Force chief, General Amir Eshel.

Now, with Iran more aggressively inserting Shia militias, drone operators, and other equipment into Syria, with the express intent of attacking Israel, the country needs to expand the target set of its raids, both geographically and definitionally. The strike against the Iranian drone operations center, staffed by Iranians, was one such action.

Here is what the United States should do to support these efforts: First, it should continue to defend Israel’s freedom of action in Syria, by vouching for the legitimacy of these raids, as both the Obama administration did and the Trump administration has done. Well-coordinated statements and demonstrations of support for Israel’s right to defend itself help reinforce the correct understanding that Israel is not the aggressor, but responding to Iran’s threats. That’s truer now than ever, since Iran has attacked Israel for the first time directly, not through proxies.

The United States should supplement its support with diplomatic efforts, aiming at three key targets: Russia, Lebanon, and Iran. Israel handles its own deconfliction with Russia just fine, but the United States should engage Russia to reinforce Israeli requests that Moscow impose constraints on Iranian provocations and military capabilities in Syria. In Lebanon, which will suffer greatly if Hezbollah joins the fray, the United States should underscore Israeli messages of deterrence. And Iran should hear, at least indirectly via European governments, that the United States would hold Tehran accountable for any attacks against Israel.

Second, the United States can support Israel in operational ways, both now and in the event of a major escalation. U.S.-Israeli intelligence cooperation, including the sharing of real-time data and strategic deployment of resources, is at its height. It needs to focus intently on Iran’s activities in Syria.

Missile defense is another important area for U.S. support. Israel’s medium- and long-range missile defense systems are now deployed and operational, but still limited in the coverage they provide. An accelerated production schedule for interceptor missiles would help Israel defend itself better in the event of a full-scale conflict. The U.S.-Israel Memorandum of Understanding on military assistance provides $500 million per year for Israeli missile defense programs. Congress and the administration should consider providing Israel an advance on those funds to enable the systems in question to defend more critical Israeli targets, like airfields and power plants, sooner.

For over a decade, thousands of U.S. troops have trained with their Israeli counterparts on a plan to defend Israel in a major ballistic missile war, in a biannual exercise known as Juniper Cobra. This year’s iteration, fortuitously, gets underway March 4, sending a well-timed signal of solidarity. After the exercise, U.S. commanders must be ready to deploy those troops and associated assets on a moment’s notice, to ensure that America’s support would arrive in time to be relevant to the fight.

Third, with Iran feeling emboldened and spreading its tentacles across the region, deterrence must be an element of the joint U.S.-Israel strategy. Netanyahu warned in Munich that Israel would hit back at Iran in Iran, and not limit itself to striking Iran’s proxies or forces deployed abroad. Israel has capabilities, including the F-35 fighter jets, which make the threat more than just rhetorical. But in the event of a major war, Israeli planners may be more focused on homeland defense and near-theater offense, rather than stretching to a long-range attack. Indeed, in a wartime scenario, Israel’s primary military requirement from the United States will be timely resupply of the ammunition and ordnance necessary to strike key targets in Lebanon and Syria.

Despite his bluster about the Iran nuclear deal, Trump is not looking for war with Iran any more than he is looking for war in Syria. But in an extreme situation, in which Israel faces a major challenge on its northern front, including the possibility of its missile defenses being overwhelmed, the United States needs to have its own offensive role, in the form of airstrikes against Iranian targets, planned, coordinated, and ready, and the ability to explain it to Congress and the American people. That provides deterrence, which hopefully ensures Iran will not risk such adventurism.

Finally, U.S. and Israeli strategists need to have a deep conversation on a sensitive subject. The First Northern War–a two-front war in both Lebanon and Syria, with Iran fully engaged–is now widely considered inevitable by many Israelis. Israel has long been preparing for another war with Hezbollah, but has sought to postpone it as long as possible.

The question at hand is whether a shift in Israeli strategy is warranted. If a conflict is inevitable, is there an Israeli interest, or an American one, in it taking place sooner rather than later, before the Iranian threat in Syria consolidates too much, or before Hezbollah gains a domestic capability to produce precision-guided missiles? It is questionable whether any Israeli government could defend to its own public a decision to initiate such a war, which will surely bring a high cost in Israeli military and civilian casualties. But allies must not surprise each other. Restraining Iran, and maybe one day fighting Iran, is a joint U.S.-Israeli interest and project. In addition to supporting Israel in its self-defense in this new phase, we need to ensure we are coordinated for every possible future phase.

Daniel B. Shapiro is distinguished visiting fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. He served as U.S. ambassador to Israel, and senior director for the Middle East and North Africa, in the Obama administration. @DanielBShapiro

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