With the war on its doorstep, how long can Israel manage to stay out of Syria?
TEL AVIV, Israel — Israel has been watching the approaching U.S. attack against Syria from the sidelines. It is, of course, rooting for an American success, but also -- perhaps like the United States itself -- remains doubtful about the ramifications even of a successful military strike. The Israeli leadership has no illusions about the nature of the Syrian tyrant's possible successors: The view from Jerusalem is that replacing a mass murderer with al Qaeda-linked Islamists is no victory at all.
Israel has so far been able to largely insulate itself from the upheaval of the Arab Spring, but the American strike may be a sign that this era is coming to an end. While the last three years have been the calmest period for the average Israeli citizen in more than a decade, there are signs that the Israeli military is finding it harder and harder to remain aloof from the regional upheaval.
Pax Netanyahu is all but over. According to sources within U.S. President Barack Obama's administration, Israeli warplanes have struck targets in Syria at least four times since the beginning of the year. Katyusha rockets were recently launched from Lebanon at northern Israel, which caused the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to strike Lebanon in return. Meanwhile, rockets from the Sinai Peninsula targeted the southern Israeli city of Eilat, causing the IDF to bomb a group of Islamist terrorists in the region. It was the first time Israel had assaulted Egyptian territory since the Egypt-Israel peace agreement in 1979.
Israeli defense officials are keeping in close contact with their U.S. counterparts on Syria; a high-level Israeli delegation visited Washington just this week to game out the allies' response. The Israelis assume they will receive an early warning from the Americans, at least a few hours before the strike.
Israeli defense officials have told me that their understanding of U.S. plans largely agrees with the information published in the media in the last few days. The assault, they say, will be a quick operation: A sophisticated strike, employing cruise missiles and probably also warplanes, will hit a few dozen targets simultaneously in the course of 24 to 48 hours. They will aim to destroy Syrian military bases, missile batteries, perhaps even stockpiles of chemical weapons -- if the Americans can be sure that the collateral damage will be minor.
Obama has said that the American intervention does not aim at toppling the Syrian regime -- and the Israelis believe him. At most, Israeli government officials expect the U.S. strike to weaken Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's position in the civil war and deter him from using weapons of mass destruction in the near future.
But the run-up to the U.S. strike in Syria has also revealed the vast differences in style between the Israelis and Americans in war-making. Unlike the Obama administration, the Israeli leadership does not spend time trying to build international support for its strikes beforehand. The Israelis hardly discuss what has already happened, much less what might evolve in the future. As in every good Jewish family, if something is not discussed, it probably never happened. The Americans -- as shown by Secretary of State John Kerry's two impassioned speeches on the topic and the public release of U.S. intelligence meant to prove that the Syrian regime was behind the attack -- do things differently.
Israel is perhaps more concerned about Washington maintaining its credibility in the Middle East than it is about achieving a specific strategic objective in Syria. Jerusalem worries about American weakness in the region: Top officials are convinced that the taboo against the use of chemical weapons should be reinforced and that Iran could perceive the U.S. failure to act as a green light to develop its own weapons of mass destruction.
As the Syrian crisis drags on -- and with the U.S. strike offering little hope or aim of conclusively ending it -- Israel looks poised to maintain its policy of containment. Jerusalem's limited aims in the conflict include preventing sophisticated weaponry from falling into the hands of terrorist groups: The IDF's four alleged airstrikes took place when Israel was concerned about immediate Syrian attempts to smuggle surface-to-surface, anti-ship, and anti-aircraft missiles to Hezbollah forces in Lebanon. Assad has threatened retaliation for these strikes, but so far has not acted. The next Israeli strike, however, could always be one too many for the Syrians.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's intelligence advisors tell him that there is only a low probability that the Syrian regime would respond to an American strike by hitting back at Israel. All the evidence suggests Assad would rather contain the attack and concentrate on fighting the Syrian rebels -- not pick a fight with America or Israel. But the Israeli prime minister is also acutely aware, like most Israelis, that exactly the same term -- low probability -- was used by IDF intelligence almost 40 years ago in the days before the joint Syrian and Egyptian attack that started the October 1973 Yom Kippur War. This explains the prime minister's constant threats to Assad -- he wants to make sure that the Syrian president had absorbed the message from Jerusalem.
Israel does not believe it has a role in responding directly to the use of chemical weapons against any of the warring parties in Syria, though it has been monitoring these incidents closely. In April, when an IDF intelligence officer publicly announced that Assad had used chemical weapons in at least two incidents, he was quickly rebuked by the Obama administration. It took the Americans two weeks to grudgingly admit that the Israelis were right about what had happened.
Like the United States, Israel has no good options in Syria. Netanyahu realizes that Assad's survival at this stage would represent a huge achievement for the Iran-Hezbollah axis, which represents Israel's main antagonist in the Middle East. On the other hand, the prime minister worries about al Qaeda's growing presence: A senior IDF official recently told me there were about 10,000 jihadi fighters in the southeastern Golan Heights, just across the border from Israel. At some point, Israeli officials know, these zealots will show an interest in their Jewish neighbors.
Although Israel had never announced this publicly, it secretly wishes success for both sides in the Syrian civil war. Those YouTube videos showing endless rows of Syrian corpses are indeed terrible -- but they do not change the basic Israeli belief that nothing good will come out of a victory for either side.
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