For Israel, Syria Intervention is Both a Security Imperative and Risk
For both ethical and security reasons, Israel cannot allow the use of chemical weapons on its doorstep. But backing U.S.-led military retaliation on Bashar al-Assad's regime poses a real security risk Israel.
After Secretary Kerry’s strong statement yesterday, there is little doubt that the U.S. and its allies plans to carry out a military strike against Syria in the coming days. With over 1,000 people dead following a chemical weapons attack, there is really little choice in the matter.
It seems that Israeli military intelligence discovered the smoking gun via intercepted calls between senior commanders in Assad’s army.
On Friday, Israel's Channel 2 News reported that the weapons were fired by the 155th Brigade of the 4th Armored Division of the Syrian Army, a division under the command of the Syrian president's brother, Maher Assad. The nerve gas shells were fired from a military base in a mountain range to the west of Damascus, according to the report.
The images of children gassed to death in the country next door galvanized leading voices from across Israel's governing coalition to urge for international intervention. From the Jewish Home's Naftali Bennett on the right, to the dovish president Shimon Peres, there is broad agreement: From both security and ethical perspectives, Israel cannot allow chemical weapons to be used on its door step.
Over the past three years there has been an ongoing debate between foreign policy analysts about whether Israel wants Assad to stay or to go. On the one hand, it's good to have a strong man in place to keep things quiet across the border. But this particular strong man is also in league with Iran and Hezbollah, with his survival directly tied to theirs.
By urging international intervention in Syria, Israel is of course running a security risk. Much like Saddam Hussein during the first Gulf War of 1991, Assad’s most obvious response would be to attack Israel. If Israel responds, that could potentially enflame the region, which would play right into Assad's hands. The Syrian dictator probably hopes the Arab world would rally around the flag and be distracted from the atrocities he is responsible for in his own country.
I am sure that there are many high level discussions going on now, with Israeli officials urging their American counterparts not to respond in case of a Syrian counter attack, as they did in 1991 when the enemy was Iraq. But the U.S. is not the same as it was 22 years ago and neither is Israel. Netanyahu has been clear today—Israel is not part of the Syrian Civil war, but if they are attacked, they will respond with force.
With Obama's "red line" regarding chemical weapons now breached, the situation is worrying. If the U.S./NATO forces respond with military action against Syria, would Assad lash out by unleashing chemical weapons on Israel? This is an open question. But there is no doubt that the stakes are higher now than they have been since 1973.
I believe that the international community must act and should have acted long ago, given that at least 100,000 Syrians have been killed over the past two years. A failure to respond to the use of chemical weapons would be a green light, signaling that non-conventional weapons are back on the table. But it is vital to remember that Israel that will be on the front lines of a response even if they do not participate in any military action against Syria.
The unfolding events of this week are a constant reminder that Israel is located in an unstable region and faces security challenges every day. While we should all understand the need for an international response to chemical weapons we should remember that the Syrian response will attempt to make Israel into its whipping boy.