Israelis woke up on Saturday morning to news that the U.S., France, and Great Britain had attacked Syria, in response to the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government against opposition forces. The initial reaction by Israelis on the street was: Finally, there is an American President who stood by his word…a red line was indeed a red line.
As the day progressed and it became clear the American attack was limited to three targets—targets that were empty and that the operation resulted in no Syrian casualties—it became apparent to many the attack was no more than a show. In the aftermath of the U.S. attack it became clear that Assad would pay no more than a symbolic price for continuing to gas and murder more of his own people. The Russian threat of retaliation had worked and the U.S. and its allies limited their intervention to the destruction of empty buildings. Assad’s Air Force, i.e., his preliminary method of killing civilians, was left intact.
The official Israeli reaction was clear. Prime Minister Netanyahu issued a strong statement in support of the American initiative:
“A year ago, I declared Israel’s full support for President Trump’s decision to take a stand against the use and spread of chemical weapons. President Trump’s resolve and Israel’s support remain unchanged. Early this morning, under American leadership, the United States, France and the United Kingdom demonstrated that their commitment is not limited to proclamations of principle.”
However, Netanyahu ended his statement by saying:
“It should be clear to President Assad that his reckless efforts to acquire and use weapons of mass destruction, his wanton disregard for international law and his provision of a forward base for Iran and its proxies endanger Syria.”
Netanyahu made it completely clear that the provisioning of forward bases for Iran is what most troubles Israel. That being said, for Israel, the use of chemical weapons is exceedingly troubling. It is, however, a concern Israel has lived with ever since the first Gulf War. Back then, Israelis were supplied with gas masks in the anticipation that Saddam Hussein’s missiles might carry deadly gas. In the end, Hussein did not use gas in the first Gulf War—no doubt deterred by Israel’s retaliatory abilities.
What Israel fears today is the entrenchment of Iranians in Syria. Iran is the one country that regularly calls for the destruction of Israel. Only last week, Iran stated that it “would wipe Tel Aviv and Haifa off the map.” The fear of Iranian attack went from theoretical to real, when it was announced that the Iranian UAV downed over Israel in February was armed and programmed to attack a target in Israel—that drone had been sent from a base in Syria. In the immediate aftermath of the attack, the control van from which the drone had been sent was destroyed. However, a week ago, Israel apparently destroyed the Iranian base responsible for sending the drone, killing a number of Iranians, including the commander of the base. The Iranians have vowed to retaliate and Israel is taking their threat seriously.
The Israeli attack in Syria angered the Russians, who, for the first time, condemned Israeli actions in Syria. Netanyahu had been counting on Russian support, based on his close personal relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. However, it seems Putin perceived it to be in Russia’s national interest to support Assad, while maintaining and strengthening Russia’s alliance with Iran, which it appears Putin deemed to be more important.
So now, as the dust begins to clear from the American strike, it looks like little has changed strategically in Syria. Israel, while cheering the American action (it would not dare criticize the U.S.) is clearly very concerned that President Donald J. Trump will insist that the U.S. troops now in Syria return home, despite the opposition of the American National security establishment. Along with the departure of U.S. troops, whatever leverage America has in Syria will be gone, as well.
As Israel prepares to celebrate its 70th anniversary this week, the realization is beginning to dawn on many Israelis that while President Trump might have given Israel the symbolic gift of moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, his recent comment of “Mission Accomplished,” after he destroyed a number of empty buildings in Syria, suggests that Israel will likely have to confront Iran alone. Moreover, the Syrian people will be left in the hands of a man who chooses to rely on genocide on portions of his own people to remain in power.
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