No Exit

What Israel's Attack Doesn't Mean For American Intervention In Syria

Ali Gharib on why Israel's attacks on Syrian weapons don't make the case for U.S. involvement.

Israel reportedly struck at Syrian weapon stockpiles and facilities twice in the last week, in the wee hours of Thursday and Sunday morning, apparently attacking Iranian-supplied weapons bound for Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shia group in neighboring Lebanon that's also been helping prop up Syria's embattled government. The U.S. should have seen the attacks coming and though it did not receive early warning from Israel, the Obama administration said it backed Israel's rights to act in its interests. Nonetheless, the strikes, for which Israel has not taken official credit, heightened an already furious U.S. debate about whether Barack Obama should further involve the U.S. in Syria's civil war. The Israeli attacks, though, don't speak directly to U.S. involvement. Israel is acting on its own imperatives: the national security objective of keeping advanced weapons systems out of Hezbollah's hands and, as reported by the New York Times, to send a message to Iran. Neither of these sync exactly with the top stated goals of American intervention advocates. The absence of an Israeli focus on the humanitarian intervention became clear when a Netanyahu aide told Israeli radio that the strikes were "only against Hezbollah, not against the Syrian regime." And Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu even reportedly reached out via backchannels to the Syrian government to reassure it that Israel wasn't seeking to destabilize the regime. That hardly resembles the U.S. tack, where advocates of increased U.S. action are explicit about humanitarian aims and trying to topple Bashar Assad's government and even Obama, who's avoided robust military engagement in Syria, has called for Assad to step down.

So what does Israel's attack mean for American intervention? One of the arguments for intervention arising from the Syria strikes relies on a bit of sophistry. "The Russian-supplied air defense systems are not as good as said," Sen. Patrick Leahy said on a Sunday show. "Keep in mind the Israelis are using weapons supplied by us." His colleague from across the aisle, the relentlessly pro-intervention John McCain, made similar arguments: “The Israelis seem to be able to penetrate [Syrian air defenses] fairly easily," McCain told Fox News. But Israeli penetration of Syrian airspace, insofar as its happened, does not correspond to the actions that would be required to set up a no-fly zone. Daniel Trombly has done yeoman's work in outlining the disparities: "You cannot create a persistent NFZ through repetitive raiding in the Israeli style, because these raids rely on minimizing time over Syrian airspace and avoiding air-to-air combat," he wrote. "NFZs, to be effective, must do precisely the opposite." Deferring to Trombly's post and looking at several other astute analyses, Michael Koplow concludes: "[N]one of this is to say that the U.S. is not up to the job, or that the Syrian military is an awesomely fearsome fighting force, or that our capabilities are anything short of allowing us to do pretty much whatever we set out to do. What I am saying is that pointing to what Israel has just done and using that as definitive proof of anything related to a potential U.S. no-fly zone is taking the wrong frame of reference as a lesson."

In addition to Trombly and Kolplow, reports in two recent issues of the New Yorker color in some of the difficulties with proposed U.S. involvement in Syria. And article in this week's New Yorker shows how few clean and easy ways there are to secure chemical weapons, a top aim of some intervention advocates. "The weapons facilities are dispersed across dozens of sites," wrote Dexter Filkins. "Bombing the facilities could result in many civilian casualties and the release of clouds of deadly chemicals. And there is no guarantee that a bombing campaign would destroy all the sites." What else can be done? A ground operation that the Pentagon says would require 70,000 troops? That hardly sounds appealing. Filkins runs through the gamut of other options, too: he recalls how a no-fly zone wouldn't have stopped the slaughter in Libya, and required what was termed a "no-drive zone" around the rebel capitol of Benghazi. But Syria doesn't have a clearcut rebel seat of government and, what's more, some of the most brutal slaughtering of civilians happens in divided cities and towns, where rebel- and regime-held neighborhoods are intertwined. In addition to Filkins's reporting, Luke Mogelson's recent New Yorker story reported from Syria illustrates these issues: in the country's largest city, Aleppo, the River Queiq divides the turf of the regime and rebels. And even on the regime side of the river, Assad's forces likely live and operate among civilians who don't fight, but might be sympathetic to rebels. How does one patrol a war of that sort from the air? Lastly there is the option of arming the rebels: both New Yorker pieces ably demonstrate the complications around this issue—which stands as another example of Israel being bearish on direct involvement in the civil war.

Advocates of intervention may want to posit the U.S. as the world's police. This argument doesn't carry much water in an age of austerity, when Americans don't want to get involved very badly, and when the Middle East is charting its own path after a decade of disastrous American military involvement there (a quick reminder that, as my friend and colleague Anand Gopal recently pointed out on television, the U.S. invasion of Iraq opened that territory to the robust jihadi presence that's now closely aligned with Syria's own extremists). And that's not what Israel is doing; it's acting on a core national security interest. What's America's? Crediblity? Will American credibility vis-à-vis Iran and North Korea suffer? Not likely, said two scholars in a guest post on Foreign Policy (adding to points Daniel Larison's been making for weeks). And Filkins's sources rightly suggest that the political price at home of inaction is always less than that of action. But with Syrians dying at a clip of hundreds a day, there are bigger fish to fry than domestic political considerations.

So what to do? A good launching point is the medical doctor's maxim, primum non nocere: "first, do no harm." The next step after accounting for that may well be some kind of intervention, but not on the heels of the sort of arguments its leading advocates are making. They need to take an honest stock of the dangers, discuss them before and with the American people, and chart a course for moves that have a high chance of mitigating Assad's slaughter and giving the U.S. an off-ramp somewhere in the not-too-distant future. They need to reconcile with the complexities, and admit that bringing down Assad may not end the civil war, explaining how their chosen policies would seek to extricate the U.S. cleanly in that case. With very few of the worst kinds of exceptions, everyone wants to see the brutality in Syria end. It's up to proponents of military involvement to show their way would do it without compromising American standing and interests down the road. A few Israeli strikes don't make that case.