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Israel sees Syria as part of its Iran problem—why doesn't Obama?

4:01 PM, May 8, 2013 • By LEE SMITH
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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.”

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