Israel’s air campaign this past weekend, its two strikes Friday and Sunday on Syrian targets, shows where the Obama administration has gotten Syria wrong. Over the last few weeks, the White House has framed its Syria policy, or its lack of one, in terms of Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal and the growing strength of the Islamist opposition, including al Qaeda affiliates. With these talking points, the administration has managed to tie up its critics on two fronts.
First, the debate over whether or not Assad crossed Obama’s red line by using chemical weapons has obscured the fact that for over two years the White House has failed to take an active position in Syria and advance American interests by toppling an Iranian ally. The longer deliberations over the chemical weapons/red line story drag on the better it is for an administration that is simply using it to play for more time—to do nothing.
Second, concerns over the growing presence of Islamist elements among the rebels shelters the administration from critics who charge that its Syria policy is a strategic disaster, as well as from those who say it is a moral failure. By repeatedly emphasizing, and likely over exaggerating, the strength of al Qaeda, the White House means to show that any strategic gains to be had in setting back Iranian interests in Syria would be offset by empowering Islamist fighters. As for the humanitarian argument, the administration’s implicit rejoinder is that since such a large part of the rebellion is made up of al Qaeda, these are not really innocent civilians who deserve American help. As the conventional wisdomnow has it, “there are no good guys in Syria.”
Israel, as its air campaign showed, sees Syria rather differently than the White House does. First, in targeting Iranian surface-to-surface missiles destined for Hezbollah, Israel made clear that chemical weapons are not the only, or perhaps even the most significant, arms of concern on the ground in Syria. Second, in interdicting Iranian arms shipments at their point of entry at the Damascus airport Friday and, on Sunday, targeting a dozen sites around Damascus housing Iranian weapons and guarded by IRGC personnel, Israel has underscored the fact that it considers Tehran, not al-Qaeda, to be its strategic priority. It is these two issues—strategic weapons and Iran—that should inform American thinking on Syria, and the region more generally.
Reports explain that the Israeli air force hit its targets in Damascus from Lebanese airspace. Had Israel waited until those shipments reached Lebanon to destroy them, Hezbollah might have felt compelled to retaliate. Instead, the Islamic resistance has to date limited itself to whining that the strikes, according to Nabil Qaouq, head of Hezbollah’s executive bureau, “would have never taken place had they not had cover from the United States and the Arab League.”
Even as Assad has threatened vengeance, Israel has explained that it was not going after him and has no interest in interfering in Syria’s civil war but is simply determined to stop Hezbollah from receiving “game-changing” weapons. The advantages in striking from outside Syrian airspace are operational and diplomatic. Avoiding Syria’s Russian-made air defense systems minimizes the threats to Israeli pilots and planes. It also eliminates the likelihood of embarrassing, in no particular order: Russia, whose prestige is on the line every time once of its systems is foiled, Turkey, which lost a jetlast year to Syrian air defenses, and the White House, which has repeatedly expressed its concerns about Syria’s “world-class” air defense. Israel hardly wishes to publicize the fact that if it can circumvent those systems, as it has in the past, there’s no good reason a much more powerful United States can’t also.
The White House has quietly supported Israel’s strikes last weekend, perhaps partly in gratitude for changing the conversation to something else besides Obama’s wobbly red line on chemical weapons. Of course it was the Israeli intelligence assessment two weeks ago claiming that Assad had used chemical weapons that put the administration on the spot. Senators John McCain and Carl Levin asked the White House for clarification and were told that the U.S. intelligence community also found, with varying degrees of confidence, that Assad had indeed made use of his unconventional arsenal.
As Elliott Abrams wrote here earlier this week, Obama’s red line was a bluff from the beginning. Administration officials, wrote Abrams, “were dealing with words, with lines, with messages—never it seems with tougher decisions about actions.” In fact, the White House hadn’t even formulated a message, Obama just winged it. “What the president said in August was unscripted,” one Obama aide told the New York Times.
Even if Obama had blundered, the White House soon understood that the political damage would be limited. It was always going to be difficult to prove that chemical weapons had been used and that it was the regime that used them. Without U.N. investigators being able to work in Syria, and with so little international press reporting on the ground, the administration would be able to manage whatever evidence turned up however it saw fit. Obama could draw a red line without worrying about having to enforce it.
The fact is that chemical weapons were always a tangential issue, which the White House used to deflect attention from far more important matters. To be sure, Assad’s use of chemical weapons would mean a humanitarian catastrophe, but Assad marked that milestone many tens of thousands of corpses ago, using conventional arms. The United States is not a neighbor of Syria and has little cause to fear that, among all of the likeliest targets, Assad would try to gas an American city. However, the states on Syria’s borders, Israel above all, are right to be worried that a desperate neighbor like Assad might in time turn his unconventional arsenal against them. And it’s the role of the regional hegemon, America, to ensure that its allies, Israel, Turkey and Jordan, are capable of managing a tactical threat like chemical weapons, while Washington turns its eyes to larger strategic matters, like how best to deal Iran a blow.
The irony is that Israel, with its narrow focus on Iran, is acting strategically, while the Obama administration, obsessed with all sorts of details, resembles less a superpower than a mid-level manager. Like, the White House, the Israelis are worried about al Qaeda also—they’re just not using it as excuse to avoid advancing their interests. Jerusalem has made room for the possibility that, if required, it would take action against Sunni jihadists should strategic weapons fall into their hands, but the emphasis, as an Israeli spokesman said last week, is on “Hezbollah in Lebanon.”
The missiles that Iran is shipping to Hezbollah are capable not just of reaching all of Israel, but can reach all of Israel from all of Lebanon. The extra time, minutes or less, it would take Israeli pilots to destroy long-range missiles in northern Lebanon could prove crucial. In the past, Israel was able to concentrate on Hezbollah’s three main regions, southern Lebanon, the Bekaa Valley and the southern suburbs of Beirut. With Hezbollah running Lebanon’s government and the party of God establishing outposts throughout the country, Israel will no longer distinguish between Hezbollah and Lebanon. As for Israel’s post-2006 war doctrine holding that in the next round of hostilities Israel will lay waste to Hezbollah’s command center in the Dahieh, Beirut’s southern suburbs, all of Lebanon is now the Dahieh.
Last weekend’s strikes should be seen in the context of a larger Israeli-Iran conflict that began in the wake of the 2006 war. When Iran and its allies, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas, decided to focus on their missile and long-range rocket capabilities, Israel opened a counter-campaign. They targeted weapons procurers and key liaison figures, like Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyeh, assassinated in Damascus in 2007, Assad’s adviser Gen. MohamedSuleiman, assassinated on the Syrian coast in 2008, and Hamas’ Mahmoud Mabhouh, assassinated in Dubai in 2010, and Iranian ballistic arms specialist Gen. Hassan Tehrani Moqaddam, killed in a mysterious explosion in 2011. Israel also targeted transit points, like Khartoum, Sudan, where an Iranian arms depot was attacked in October. The next month, Israel embarked on Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza, which zeroed in on Iranian missiles as well as the chief of Hamas’ military wing, Ahmed Jabari.
The latest attacks on Syrian targets, like Israel’s January raid on an arms convoy destined for Hezbollah, are all part of the same campaign. It shows that Israel sees Iran’s regional project strategically, and Syria as part of greater whole. Why doesn’t the White House?