Israel’s two strikes inside Syria in early May underscored its primary strategic concern in the ongoing Syrian civil war and throughout the Middle East. Jerusalem first struck on May 3, targeting a shipment of Iranian missiles at the Damascus International Airport that were destined for Hezbollah in Lebanon. Two days later, the Israeli Air Force zeroed in on a dozen sites around the Syrian capital housing Iranian arms and guarded by Iranian troops. For Israel, countering Iran and its proxies is the issue that matters.
It’s different for the White House. There it’s all talk all the time—the Obama administration says something is unacceptable, and then accepts it. For the last month, administration officials have kept critics and the media off balance with lawyerly verbiage. The president drew a red line last August over Assad’s use of chemical weapons but, as aides leaked to the press, he didn’t mean to. And it doesn’t matter anyway because even if the U.S. intelligence community concluded, along with British, French, and Israeli assessments, that chemical weapons were used in March, how do we know who used them? Assad or the rebels? We’ll revisit the issue when we have, as Obama put it, a “chain of custody.”
Israeli analysts point to the evidence that Iran has backup plans to ensure its position in Syria even if its key Arab ally, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, is driven from power. It’s not clear that the White House even wants Assad gone. Secretary of State John Kerry announced last week plans to convene a peace conference with the Russians. The joint American-Russian formula, one White House official told the Washington Post’s David Ignatius, “is that Assad will step aside ‘as part of a political process once a transitional governing body is formed.’ ” Assad’s departure then isn’t a precondition, but an outcome of the process. Now all Kerry has to pull off is the magic trick of making the Russians abandon Assad after two years of staunch support.
But why would the Russians do that, especially as the White House seems to be bending toward the Russian position? A report last week from the Abu Dhabi-based newspaper the National recounts a meeting between U.S. intelligence officers and Syrian rebel leaders. The Americans, explained Free Syrian Army officials, wanted them to take on Jabhat al-Nusra, the al Qaeda affiliate that the administration has designated a foreign terrorist organization. When the rebels explained that they’d prefer not to fight other outfits fighting Assad, the American officer responded: “We’d prefer you fight al Nusra now, and then fight Assad’s army. You should kill these Nusra people. We’ll do it if you don’t.” It’s hard to think of anything that would please Assad and his Russian backers more than an internecine battle among Syria’s Sunni rebels.
With the administration waffling on Obama’s red line over Assad’s use of chemical weapons, it’s hardly surprising that some Israeli officials increasingly wonder about the reliability of Obama’s promise to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. For instance, if Obama doesn’t think his own intelligence community has the whole story on Syrian chemical weapons, what is going to make him act on their assessment if they say Iran is on the verge of a nuclear breakout?
But maybe it won’t matter. Israel’s raids on Iranian targets in Syria suggest it might be enough if, when it comes time to go after Iranian nuclear facilities, Obama just stays out of the way. Sure, the United States has a lot more firepower but, like good china, planes and payloads are only relevant if you use them. Iran’s air defenses may be more daunting than Syria’s. But the Israelis have shown repeatedly that when they are determined to do something, they find a way.
In Israel’s 30-year conflict with the Islamic Republic and its proxies, Jerusalem has never lost a significant engagement. Western policymakers and analysts may have swallowed Hassan Nasrallah’s line that Hezbollah earned a “divine victory” in its 2006 war with Israel, but the nearly seven years of quiet Israel has enjoyed on its northern border has proven otherwise. The Israeli strikes in Syria aimed to preserve that northern peace and prevent the balance of power from shifting to Iran or its clients.
It’s perhaps useful to see the Iranian nuclear program in this context. When the clerical regime threatens to destroy Israel, it should be taken at its word. But a nuclear strike is not the only threat. The prospect of Iran’s proxies growing strong enough to win an engagement with Israel is a very real danger as well. What could change the equation is not just a doomsday device allowing Hezbollah to operate under a nuclear umbrella, but also lesser weapons, like the strategic missiles Israel just destroyed in Syria.
The Iranian nuclear program is not a stand-alone threat. The White House doesn’t want Iran to have the bomb because it knows that both Israel and the Arabs, especially the Persian Gulf sheikhdoms, are threatened. An Iranian bomb would also undermine a half-century of American hegemony in the Persian Gulf and possibly disrupt the flow of energy resources that U.S. allies and trading partners rely on. But, from Obama’s perspective, those problems are way off in the future, and in the meantime he is not about to risk his legacy by committing U.S. forces to the Middle East. Besides, he still seems to think that there’s a deal to be had with the Iranians, before or even after they get the bomb. So it’s not a big immediate worry, except for the Israelis and the Arabs, to whom Obama sends a message that has grown less and less reassuring over the last year: Relax, I don’t bluff.
The Israelis really don’t want to have to attack Iranian nuclear sites. After all, isn’t the Persian Gulf primarily Washington’s area of interest and influence? Israel has problems on almost all of its borders, even now with Egypt, the largest Arab state, and maybe sometime in the future with Jordan. The Americans, on the other hand, are out of Iraq and on their way out of Afghanistan and have all the equipment to do what’s required. It would be better for Israel and the world if Obama did it. But his waffling over Syria increases concern that he’s bluffing, however much the Israelis hope he’s not.
The Iranians may also be bluffing. Should anyone touch their nuclear program, Iranian officials thunder, the resistance will unleash a wave of terror across the world. In fact, Tehran seems to have already dispatched its dogs, and their terror operations, along with Hezbollah’s, have been rolled up in Europe, Africa, and Asia. Their greatest achievement of late was a suicide bombing last July at a bus station in Bulgaria that killed five Israeli tourists.
On the other side of the ledger, Israel seems to have taken out Hezbollah’s Imad Mughniyeh, Hamas’s Mahmoud al-Mabhouh and Ahmed Jabari, Syrian general Muhammad Suleiman, and scores of Iranians associated with the nuclear weapons program. In 2007, Israel destroyed Syria’s secret nuclear weapons facility at Deir al-Zawr. It has struck Iranian weapons facilities and convoys in Sudan repeatedly, most recently in October. The following month, with Operation Pillar of Defense, Israel degraded Hamas’s supply of Iranian missiles in Gaza.
This then is how to understand Israel’s strikes in Syria two weeks ago. Jerusalem will not allow Iran to tip the balance of power, not with medium- and long-range missiles, and almost certainly not with a nuclear bomb. The reason it has been so difficult to discern the nature of Israel’s campaign to preserve the balance of power is that this tiny nation on the Mediterranean is acting like a rational state actor in defending its interests and ensuring its citizens’ security. In contrast, the superpower that is supposed to set the tempo for the rest of the world is governed by a man who says he does not believe in balance of power.
Lee Smith is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.