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.