As the chaos and carnage in Syria continues to escalate, some conservatives are very happy indeed with word of Israeli air strikes against weapons shipments reportedly destined for Hezbollah. While John McCain crowed that "the Israelis seem to be able to penetrate it [the Syrian air defense system] rather easily," former Mitt Romney stenographer Jennifer Rubin sneered that "Israel steps up to the plate."
Unfortunately for those eager to intervene in the Syrian civil war, Israel's unilateral actions may well make life much harder for any coalition seeking to halt the slaughter or overthrow the Assad regime. It's not just that U.S. and Israeli aims toward Damascus are not identical. As it turns out, Prime Minister Netanyahu's attacks may only serve to bolster Bashar Assad's legitimacy within Syria, while undermining the very rebel groups President Obama, France, the UK and their Arab allies are trying to support.
Of course, you'd never know that from reading the likes of Rubin, who charged President Obama with outsourcing U.S. national security in the Middle East to Israel:
Not only does the Israeli action contrast with the U.S. government's fecklessness, but it also raises the issue of whether the United States would prefer Israel police the Middle East. It is unbecoming for a superpower to let little Israel take on the Iranian surrogates. It will likely unnerve our allies elsewhere and embolden foes in other parts of the world.But in Syria, Israel isn't acting on America's behalf, but on its own. (Otherwise, the Netanyahu government might have given Washington advance warning of its planned strikes, which Reuters unlike the Daily Beast reports it did not.) While the U.S. and its western allies have focused on preventing a humanitarian disaster through the systematic use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime and forestalling a regional sectarian conflict, the Israeli strikes were narrowly focused on keeping Iranian missiles and anti-aircraft weapons out of the hands of the Tehran-backed Hezbollah militias in Lebanon. That's one reason why the Netanyahu government moved Monday to declare that its air sorties and the killings of scores of Syrian soldiers do not represent an attack on Syria or an intervention in the ongoing civil war:
Reuters reports that Israel has made several soothing overtures to its war-racked northern neighbor after launching airstrikes in Syria on Friday and Sunday. Tzachi Hanegbi, a confidante of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told Israeli radio on Monday that Mr. Netanyahu aimed to avoid "an increase in tension with Syria by making clear that if there is activity, it is only against Hezbollah, not against the Syrian regime."But there's another powerful motivation for Netanyahu to issue that kind of statement. As it turns out, neither the anti-Assad rebels nor their backers in Saudi Arabia and Qatar can possibly support Israeli attacks in Syria.
As CBS News reported Sunday, it's not just the Assad government which condemned the Israeli strikes:
Syrian opposition forces also spoke out against the airstrike in a press statement, saying it hurt their efforts to take down the regime of Bashar Assad.As CBS rightly noted, "Leaders in the Arab League find themselves facing a conundrum...No Arab leader wants to be perceived as giving a green light for Israeli attacks." On Monday, Saudi Arabia called for U.N. action to end Israeli strikes on Syria, describing the raids as a "dangerous violation" of the sovereignty of an Arab state, the official SPA news agency reported. Despite its opposition to the Damascus government's use of military force against its people, Egypt, too, warned that "the attack on Syrian assets (and) the violation of Syria's sovereignty" only "made the situation more complicated."
"The Syrian Coalition is suspicious of the timing of this attack," the statement said. "These strikes have given the regime the necessary time to draw attention away from its crimes and massacres on the Syrian coast. It is not unlikely that as a result of these attacks, and world distraction, more crimes will be committed."
And thus the paradox for President Obama and the United States. If the U.S. in conjunction with a broad coalition of European and Persian Gulf allies is ultimately going to take any action to end the bloodbath in Syria, for all intents and purposes Israel cannot play a role in it. This is not because Israeli resources aren't needed or its interests aren't at stake. Unfortunately, the blowback in the Arab states from Israeli participation could unravel the very alliances the West is seeking to build against Assad and his Shiite partners in Iran.
If this sounds familiar, it should. During the First Gulf War in 1991, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir reluctantly agreed not to retaliate against Saddam's Scud missiles fell on Tel Aviv. "Our people want to fight very much," Shamir lamented, "But we are taking into account the complex situation and don't want to complicate it even more because our goal is the victory of the coalition." American guarantees to hunt down the Iraqi missile launchers and the very public words ("We will use every resource possible to suppress and destroy the mobile Scuds") from President George H.W. Bush thanking Israel for its "restraint" helped preserve a multinational coalition which included Saudi Arabia, Egypt and, ironically, Syria.
Israel, like any nation, will do what it deems necessary for its self-defense. (That neither Israel nor the United States would ever accept pre-emptive strikes on its own soil is another matter for another time.) But that doesn't mean Israeli interests coincide with American goals. Whether or not Bashar Assad crossed President Obama's red line with the use of sarin gas, he apparently already stepped over the Israelis' crimson stripe. (As the New York Times explained today, "The Israelis were responding to a different threat, in the form of weapons being sent to the Islamic militant group Hezbollah.") Jennifer Rubin has it completely wrong:
When a U.S. president is this passive and unwilling to act in accord with its words, the West and the Sunni states can take comfort in knowing that Israel is there to rein in the mullahs and their surrogates.Instead, Israel may have just made that task much more difficult.