From the left and the right, from the center and extremes, Israeli politicians clamored over one another to declare their disgust at the apparent chemical weapons attack in Idlib, Syria, on Tuesday. But amid a cacophony of calls for action, it’s not clear what, if anything, Israel can or will do to stop the atrocities next door.
Soon after news of the attack reached Israel, Education Minister Naftali Bennett called for an emergency meeting of the security cabinet to “discuss all the options.” As of Tuesday night, that meeting had yet to be scheduled, his office said.
At least 58 people were killed, including 11 children, in the Idlib gas attack, with unconfirmed reports putting the death toll closer to 100.
The United States, United Kingdom and European Union all laid the blame for the attack at the door of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
In Israel, the attack also spurred security officials into action.
The security services prepared what’s known as a “situational assessment,” detailing what the defense agencies know about the attack and the potential risks to the Jewish state, officials said.
According to Channel 10 news, part of that assessment is that Russia approved the alleged gas attack, believing it would “only” draw international condemnation, but no action.
This was not the first reported use of chemical weapons this year. Despite Assad agreeing to give up his chemical weapons in 2013, his regime has been accused of carrying out at least eight gas attacks in the first quarter of 2017 alone.
But most of the reported chemical attacks in Syria since 2013 were said to have been carried out with mustard or chlorine gas. Tuesday’s attack was reportedly conducted with sarin gas, an organophosphate, which interrupts the communication between nerves, preventing regular body functions like breathing.
It has yet to be officially confirmed that sarin gas was used, but videos from Idlib hospitals showed victims with unresponsive, constricted pupils — a tell-tale sign of exposure to the nerve agent.
Israeli politicians’ responses to the alleged chemical attack included including some calls on the country to do more about the suffering across the border, but they uniformly lack detailed proposals.
And military intervention seems to be off the table.
Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Yadlin, head of the Institute for National Security Studies think-tank and former head of Military Intelligence, was one of the few people to urge direct action against Assad, calling the chemical attack a “crime against humanity.”
Speaking to Army Radio, Yadlin encouraged Israel to destroy the planes used in Idlib “from afar,” in an apparent reference to a missile attack.
“An action that weakens Assad is right morally and strategically,” he said.
Yadlin later walked back on the call to bomb the planes, but said Israel could use military deterrence to ensure Syria doesn’t use them again to carry out chemical weapon attacks.
Official policy maintains that Israel should stay out of Syria, unless a “red line” is crossed. That refers to: Israeli civilians being attacked; Israeli sovereignty being breached; or the transfer of advanced weapons to terrorist groups. Gas attacks on Syrian children, as horrible as they are, do not cross that line.
Israel has every reason to avoid being dragged into the Syrian quicksand, not the least of which is that it would put the country at odds with Russia. Israel would also be inviting retaliatory strikes by Syria and/or its ally, the Iran-backed Hezbollah.
Therefore, should Israel decide to take action in light of this latest apparent chemical attack, it will likely be in a behind-the-scenes or humanitarian way.
Israel could try to be more vocal and exert more pressure on the US and Russia to remove Assad’s remaining chemical weapons stocks.
The Jewish state has already provided medical care for more than 3,000 Syrians, it could expand those efforts as well and begin to take in refugees.
But well over half a decade into a civil war that has torn Syria asunder as the international community has mostly watched from the sidelines, and with little appetite in Israel, the US or elsewhere for expanded military engagement, one would also be forgiven for thinking Jerusalem and the rest of the world might continue to do what they have done to Assad for the past six years: Nothing