A dangerous game: Israel, Syria and US air strikes

Watchful: Israel faces Syria across the Golan Heights. Wikimedia Commons

The Times of Israel reacted strongly on Friday to the UK’s vote against joining America in punitive air strikes against Syria’s Assad regime: “Perfidious Albion hands murderous Assad a spectacular victory” thundered one headline, denouncing what founding editor David Horovitz called a “perfect storm of political ineptitude, short-sighted expediency, and gutlessness”.

Elsewhere, as speculation of the form and timing of a possible US military intervention in Syria gathered pace, editorials talked up the moral rectitude of action against Syria while at the same time cautioning readers about the dangers this posed to Israel’s security as emphasised by a comment from Syria that: “If Damascus is attacked, Tel Aviv will burn.”

“There can be no passivity when a coterie of evil powers hurls deadly threats at Israel in the context of a struggle in which it is uninvolved,” opined the Jerusalem Post.

Israel has generally avoided any entanglement in the uprisings and political changes of the Arab Spring. This avoidance of internal Arab politics has been wise, reducing the chance of getting sucked in and issues being reframed in the classic Arab-Israeli conflict paradigm. Though most Israelis – as expressed in Ha’aretz and Yedioth Ahronot – undoubtedly share Obama’s and Cameron’s conviction against the use of chemical weapons, it is clear that an Israeli punitive strike would be too provocative to consider. When Israel has perceived its vital interests as being threatened by the Syrian civil war, however, they have reacted.

Artillery rounds have been exchanged across the occupied Golan Heights, and the area has remained tense. Israel has also launched a series of airstrikes – in January and May this year – in order to prevent the delivery of Russian and Iranian weapons from the Syrian state to its Lebanese ally, Hizb’allah. These produced a risible reaction from Assad, who accused Israel of destabilising Syria, but also a threat to retaliate in the event of further strikes.

Iran, Syria, and Hizb’allah have now explicitly extended this threat to the event of a US strike on Syria. Given the close relationship between the US and Israel, this is hardly surprising; these retaliatory options have been suggested if either Israel or the US attacked Iranian nuclear facilities.

‘Our finger is on the trigger’

In reaction, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a clear statement of Israeli readiness: “Our finger is a responsible one and if needed, is on the trigger. We will always know how to protect our citizens and our country against those who come to injure us or try to attack us.” This message has also been reiterated by the IDF, stressing that there is no cause for alarm. Iron Dome missile defence batteries, previously shown to be effective, have been deployed along the northern border and in Tel Aviv. Nonetheless, there is widespread Israeli concern about the availability of gas masks, resulting in violence at a distribution point in Haifa.

Arguments against the likelihood of a chemical or otherwise substantial attack against Israel are based on Israeli deterrence capability as demonstrated in Lebanon in 2006 and the realist pragmatism of Assad and his allies keen to ensure their own survival. Saddam Hussein, for example, clearly understood this during the 1991 Gulf War. Threats of retaliation are likely to be principally for domestic public consumption. While this analysis is convincing, the Israeli sense of threat is palpable, with memories of rockets from Hizb'allah in 2006 and Hamas in 2012 still vivid. The legacy of the Holocaust remains ingrained in the national psyche and resurfaces regularly. Episodes such as this will do little to dispel such feelings.

Despite Hezbollah joining the chorus of threats, a senior source close to the organisation has suggested that any retaliation would depend on the scale of the US attack. Any action intended to dramatically turn the tide of the civil war and topple the Assad regime would trigger large-scale retaliation, but a limited strike would not. Given the jihadist nature of substantial elements of the Syrian opposition, this is not a particularly palatable option for the US either. Still, how these limits would be defined remains open to question and interpretation, which can be dangerous, but it does seem to leave some room for manoeuvre.

Under threat: Israel’s press supports US strikes against Syria. Wikimedia Commons

Ultimately, all parties involved want to show strength and resolve without incurring unacceptable damage and losing face. A limited strike by the US could serve this purpose, sending a clear message about the use of chemical weapons and American “red lines”, but as the Americans are all too aware, war is easy to start but difficult to end. Should there be any retaliation against Israel, even if highly limited and only intended to be symbolic, a cycle of escalation difficult to control could be set in motion.

America restrained the Israeli response to Saddam Hussein’s scud attacks, but would it be able to do so again? Could Israel be convinced to deviate from its classic belief in self-help as the “nation that dwells alone”? Will Israel’s “responsible finger” prevail, and adhere to proportionality in the event of an attack on its soil?

A number of crucial questions remain unanswered. What would the specific goals of any Western military strike be? Are these goals achievable by limited military means? How would a limited military strike fit into an overall strategy to end the civil war in Syria? Although everyone will want to avoid such a scenario, the prospect of a regional conflict involving Israel and Iran is real and grim, and war is unpredictable. If indeed there is a Western strike, it will need to be very carefully measured to avoid a widening of the Syrian civil war.

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