With four US warships prowling the eastern Mediterranean, poised to respond to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s apparent usage of chemical weapons, Israeli security chiefs have likely swiveled their intelligence-collecting antennae to the Syrian front and lowered their public profiles, seeking neither to be seen as the instigator of a US strike, nor as provoking a Syrian response.
The US, for reasons ranging from presidential prestige to moral imperatives to strict national interests, seems ready to act. “I think it is fair to say that, as difficult as the problem is, this is something that is going to require America’s attention and hopefully the entire international community’s attention,” President Barack Obama told CNN over the weekend.
But of the many options open to the US — from a tongue lashing to a limited strike to a debilitating blow to the Assad regime — which, if any, serves Israel’s national interests?
Brig. Gen. (ret) Shlomo Brom, a senior research fellow at the Institute of National Security Studies, said his view has changed over the course of the brutal war in Syria. “At first, I was one of those who said that the best possible scenario is that Assad put down the rebellion like his father did,” said Brom, a former head of the IDF’s Strategic Planning Division. His thinking at the time, he said, was that if Syria was deterred by Israel, the chances of war were slim to none, and he believed that Assad, despite his ties to Hezbollah and Iran, sincerely sought a peace agreement with Israel.
“But now Syria has begun playing on a much bigger court,” Brom said Sunday, noting that the Syrian civil war had pitted Saudi Arabia and Qatar against Iran and, to a certain extent, the US against Russia. “Therefore, Israel’s interest is that he not be victorious,” he said of Assad.
From Israel’s perspective, there are two good US options and one bad one, Brom went on. The first and most likely scenario entails a strike that is punitive in nature and limited in time and scope. A one-time barrage of Tomahawk sea-to-surface missiles against a symbolic Syrian target — much like the 1998 US strikes in Sudan and Afghanistan — would not have a significant impact on the outcome of the conflict, said Brom, but it would be helpful in that it would likely deter Assad from continuing to use chemical weapons.
On the other end of the spectrum is a “true and effective intervention.” That type of move, perhaps entailing actions akin to the March 1999 invasion of Yugoslavia, is not likely, Brom said.
But it would be far preferable to the middle ground — the bad alternative — which might entail “a true intervention that is not effective,” Brom said characterizing such a step as the kind that “allowed the war to grind on and on.”
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, in July wrote a letter to Congress outlining five possible options for US action in Syria, the independent military newspaper Stars and Stripes reported. Options No. 4 and 5 — creating buffer zones to protect civilians and seizing control of all chemical weapons, respectively — would fit neatly into Brom’s least desirable category.
Professor Efraim Inbar, the head of the BESA Center for Strategic Studies, was unequivocal about the ultimate Israeli interest. “There are no good options,” he said of the situation in Syria. “But the Israeli interest is that Bashar not survive.”
As an ally of Iran, Israel’s No. 1 enemy, Assad has to go, even at the cost of anarchy or extremist Sunni control in Damascus, Inbar indicated.
Asked whether a US strike could trigger a retaliation against Israel, as happened during the first Gulf War, and whether the nature of the US strike might dictate the severity of Assad’s response, both Brom and Inbar were cautious yet dubious of Assad’s willingness to attack Israel.
“There was a broad Arab coalition against Saddam,” Inbar claimed, asserting that the point of Saddam Hussein’s missile launches in January 1991 was to drag Israel into the fray and thereby fracture the Arab unity. “Here there’s hardly any Arab coalition at all.”
Brom said Assad’s bottom line was “survivability” — a goal that clashed with a major strike against Israel. “Syria is right on our border,” he said. “We can be very effective there… actually, more so than the Americans.”