Why Israel Can't Be Part of Obama's Calculus on Syria

AP Photo/Ariel Schalit

From Tel Aviv, so the usual map sites say, you could drive to Damascus in three hours and 20 minutes, if only there were no borders, barbed wire or war in the way. From vacation cottages in the Upper Galilee, where city people go to find some quiet, you can look across the Jordan to the ridge that barely blocks a view of the Syrian capital. Just past the horizon, impossibly close to us, people are killing their countrymen. Cities are being crushed into rubble.

Israel is a place with very little agreement on anything. Perhaps the closest thing to a national emotional consensus is horror at what's happening in Syria. But there's also unusually wide agreement, especially among policy and strategic experts, that Israel can do pretty much nothing to affect the outcome of the Syrian conflict. At most, it can take limited steps to protect narrow Israeli security interests. For now, the government and military appear to be partners in this consensus.

Put differently: The Israeli airstrikes over the weekend weren't a bid to push the United States to intervene in Syria. Senator John McCain's attempt to use the Israeli operations to bolster his case for much wider American military action shows more confusion than logic. The American debate is about intervention on a different scale, aimed at achieving different goals. Israel isn't part of that discussion.

Besides the airstrikes, one other piece of evidence has been adduced recently to show that Israel is pushing America to act. Last month, a top Israeli intelligence officer asserted that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons against rebels—meaning that it had crossed the line that President Obama set for an American response. Gigabytes of analysis have been devoted to divining the purpose of the statement and who was involved in the decision to make it. Based on his contacts, researcher Shlomo Brom of the Institute for National Security Studies told me this week that "there was no purpose." The officer's comments were an extended slip of the tongue. "In the Middle East, there's a tendency to conspiracy theories," said Brom, a former head of strategic planning in the Israeli army. "If you have two possible explanations, conspiracy and stupidity, in most cases the right one is stupidity."

In the Syrian civil war, the Israeli stance is "to sit on the sidelines," neither trying to bring Assad down nor to keep him in power, says Itamar Rabinovich, Israel's former ambassador to Washington and its chief negotiator with Damascus in the mid-1990s. Rabinovich, Brom and other analysts agree that Israel's practical concerns are much more limited: Israel fears that as the Assad regime collapses, its strategic weapons could fall into the hands of extreme Islamic groups. While the regime lasts, it can transfer such arms—chemical weapons and sophisticated missiles—to its ally, Hezbollah, or allow Iran to do so via Syrian soil. Deterrence has kept Syria from using such weapons against Israel, but deterrence isn't effective against sub-state groups that seek to escalate a conflict.

By all reports, stopping arms shipments to Hezbollah was the objective of latest Israeli attacks, just as it was the purpose of a previous airstrike in January. So far, the Syrian government has let the incidents pass without a military response; it has other problems. But the number of times the tactic can be used is limited, Brom stresses. Each Israel strike against a target inside Syria adds to the regime's humiliation and creates "cumulative pressure" on it to retaliate.

And there's a world of difference between an extended American operation, such as imposing a non-fly zone over part of Syria,  and a "one-off thing, like the Israelis are doing," according to Joshua Teitelbaum, a professor of Middle East Studies at Bar-Ilan University. For the United States, he says, "if you get involved in Syria, you know how it begins. You don't know how it ends." Or for that matter, when it ends.

As Teitelbaum notes, American intervention would be a different scale because it would serve other purposes: ending the bloodletting, and removing Assad from power. There's a reasonable claim that America, as a superpower, has a moral obligation to stop the slaughter. There are also reasonable arguments, based on experience, that American power cannot necessarily put a country back together after it has collapsed into warring communities.

But Israel is a mere spectator to this debate. Israelis may be horrified at what is happening a few kilometers from their homes. But Israel does not have the capability of humanitarian intervention, and therefore does not have the obligation to consider it. In fact, as Rabinovich notes, any kind of Israeli humanitarian effort, military or not, would embarrass the Syrian opposition and play into the hands of the regime.

Israelis can and should argue about whether military actions reduce or increase the chance of getting burned by the fire next door. But nothing Israel has done is a precedent for America. Israel is close to the conflagration. But bringing Israel into an American decision on intervention is a distraction. This time, we're not so relevant.

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