As Assad picks his poison, Syrians’ suffering and Israeli fears diverge
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AnalysisWhy did he do it here and now? Perhaps simply because he can

As Assad picks his poison, Syrians’ suffering and Israeli fears diverge

Chemical attack does not come as much of a surprise to Israel, which is more worried about a Shiite axis than sarin gas

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

This frame grab from video provided on Tuesday April 4, 2017, by Qasioun News Agency, shows a Syrian man carrying a man on his back who has suffered from a suspected chemical attack, in the town of Khan Sheikhoun, northern Idlib province, Syria (Qasioun News Agency, via AP)
This frame grab from video provided on Tuesday April 4, 2017, by Qasioun News Agency, shows a Syrian man carrying a man on his back who has suffered from a suspected chemical attack, in the town of Khan Sheikhoun, northern Idlib province, Syria (Qasioun News Agency, via AP)

A day after a chemical strike in Syria killed dozens of innocent people, with international condemnations streaming in and an emergency UN Security Council meeting called, it is difficult to find a light at the end of the tunnel for Syrian civilians.

It is, of course, possible that the international outrage over this latest use of chemical weapons by President Bashar Assad’s forces will cause the Syrian leader to think twice before using such weapons again.

But in the face of the West’s continued lack of action, with Washington turning a blind eye and Moscow winking its approval, it is reasonable to assume that all other means of mass killing — particularly the cruel bombardments by the Russian air force — will remain a standard feature of the Syrian civil war.

Many analysts assess that the absolute support Assad enjoys from Moscow and Tehran means that the battle for Syria has already been decided. It may take several more years to cement that reality, but the Syrian president isn’t going anywhere.

For Israel, Assad’s use of chemicals weapons brings an old fear back into focus.

Israel’s working assumption since August 2013 has been that despite Assad’s vow to destroy his chemical weapons stockpile, he maintains caches of such weapons for various doomsday scenarios.

Consequently, on an intelligence level there was no great surprise here that Assad still possessed such weapons or even that he used them.

What was unexpected was the timing and the target: Assad and his regime do not face an existential threat, despite the recent failed rebel assault in Damascus. And the attack was not part of any major campaign. It appears therefore to be an action mostly motivated by a desire for score-settling or perhaps to make an example out of its target.

Evidently Assad was willing to brave international condemnation simply to send such a message. Why did he do it here and now? Perhaps simply because he can.

It is worth highlighting, however, that a leader who allows the indiscriminate bombing of his own civilians with chemical weapons has likely given up the notion of ever ruling those people again. The bombing, therefore, seems to underline his own recognition that he will never regain full control over all of Syria.

In Jerusalem, Assad’s continued possession of chemical weapons, and even the likely possibility that he will use them again, won’t change the calculus much.

If Israel for decades accepted a Syria armed to the teeth with chemical weapons, it will probably continue to accept a Syria equipped with its smaller remaining stocks.

Because for Israel, the true headache in the clutter of warring cantons that were once Syria is not Assad or his chemical stockpiles, nor is it the scourge of jihadist forces planting themselves on the borders. Rather, Israel’s real, wider concern is the emergent Shiite axis, led by Iran and Hezbollah, steadily asserting itself throughout the territory.

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