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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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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.

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