From an Israeli perspective, US President Donald Trump corrected the course of history in ordering airstrikes against the Syrian regime late Thursday.
The mere fact that the global superpower took action in the face of Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons against civilians — regardless of what military goals the operation accomplished — sends a powerful message that will reverberate beyond Syria, leaders and officials in Jerusalem said.
“In both word and action, President Trump sent a strong and clear message today that the use and spread of chemical weapons will not be tolerated,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement backing the airstrikes on the regime-held Shayrat Airfield, north of Damascus. “Israel fully supports President Trump’s decision and hopes that this message of resolve in the face of the Assad regime’s horrific actions will resonate not only in Damascus, but in Tehran, Pyongyang and elsewhere.”
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman called the missile strike “an important, necessary and moral message by the free world, led by the United States,” that shows it “will not tolerate the war crimes of the horrific regime of Bashar Assad.”
Chiming in, Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz also praised the attack, delivered via some 60 Tomahawk missiles fired from two US destroyers in the Mediterranean Sea, as “an important step both morally and strategically and a clear signal to the axis led by Iran.”
The Israel Defense Forces released its own statement, saying it, too, supported the cruise missile strike and had informed Washington of its backing.
Israel’s security establishment was updated by the US ahead of the missile strike, officials said.
In the eyes of Israeli security officials, Trump’s surprise resort to force stands in sharp contrast to the policies of former US president Barack Obama, who had declared the use of chemical weapons to be a “red line” but then did nothing when Assad crossed it in 2013, with chemical weapons strikes east and southwest of Damascus that killed 1,429 people, including 426 children.
Had Obama sent just a single jet to Damascus to drop a bag of water on Assad’s palace, history would have taken a different course, a top security official said this week. It was the US failure to enforce its own red line, more than letting the horrendous war crime go unpunished, that emboldened not only Assad but also his allies in Tehran.
Reassured that Obama was reluctant to use military force, the Iranians could drive a hard bargain in the nuclear talks that ended in the 2015 Vienna agreement, which Israel condemned as a historic mistake.
Despite the former president’s repeated statement that “all options are on the table” if no deal was struck, once Obama had made plain his aversion to being bogged down in another Middle East military confrontation, the Iranian negotiators were reassured that he wanted a deal at all costs, and they succeeded in signing what some Israeli security officials termed a “dream deal” for Tehran.
Indeed, Obama’s 2013 decision not to use military force against Assad’s regime despite its use of chemical weapons “was a pivotal moment for the entire region,” Chagai Tzuriel, the director-general of the Intelligence Ministry, told The Times of Israel last month. “This moment changed everything.”
Israel would welcome a greater American involvement, Tzuriel said at the time, and Friday morning’s strike on the Shayrat airfield’s hangars, control tower and ammunition areas was indeed greeted enthusiastically by Israeli politicians across the political spectrum.
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog said it sent a “right and correct” message to Assad; Yesh Atid leader MK Yair Lapid said: “better late than never.”
Deputy Minister for Diplomacy Michael Oren hailed a “new sheriff’ in town, saying the attack “sends a message to the entire world that America’s back,” and that “our common enemies need to fear.”
Former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon praised Trump for passing his first serious test by assuming “the important ethical role of a superpower, which the US had given up during the last years.”
“[The Americans] are telling their allies in the Middle East, you are not alone,” added Yaakov Amidror, a former national security adviser, on Friday morning in a phone briefing organized by the Israel Project.
Trump’s change of heart: ‘flexibility’ or unpredictability?
Friday’s attack impressively shows that the US under Trump dropped his predecessor’s “leading from behind” policy and will not hesitate to use military force when it feels it is justified. That is certainly welcome news from an Israeli government perspective.
But there are two other aspects Jerusalem needs to take into consideration. While possibly deterring Assad from further chemical weapons attacks, Trump’s Tomahawks created a new reality in a volatile war theater on Israel’s border that includes not only the Syrian army but also various rebel groups, Hezbollah, and the Russian army.
At this point, no one knows how the various actors are going to respond to what Damascus condemned as an American “act of aggression” and Moscow called a violation of international law.
Developments in the Syrian war theater are the most pressing concern of Israel’s security apparatus, Tzuriel, of the Intelligence Ministry, said last month.
“Syria is the key arena, because it’s a microcosm of everything: world powers, such as Russia and the US; regional actors such as Iran and Turkey; and rival groups within the country, such as the Assad regime, the opposition, the Kurds and the Islamic State,” the former Mossad official added. “Whatever happens in Syria today will greatly impact the region, and beyond, for years to come.”
Furthermore, Israeli policymakers should take note of the administration’s quick change of heart regarding Syria, which could translate into surprise moves on Israel. Just last week, US top diplomats indicated they were not keen on picking a fight with Assad.
“You pick and choose your battles,” US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said on March 30. “And when we’re looking at this it’s about changing up priorities and our priority is no longer to sit and focus on getting Assad out.”
Few people imagined that one week later US aircraft would fire 59 precision-guided missiles at a Syrian regime air base.
While Israeli officials in 2013 wanted to see Obama enforce his red line, Trump vocally called on the president not to attack Syria. Any such move is not in America’s strategic interest, the Manhattan real estate developer argued at the time.
“I like to think of myself as a very flexible person. I don’t have to have one specific way, and if the world changes, I go the same way, I don’t change. Well, I do change and I am flexible, and I’m proud of that flexibility,” Trump said on Wednesday, adding that his “attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much.”
It has been said many time that Trump is unpredictable. His decision to launch a surprise strike at Syria — a key ally of Russia, a country he was said to be close to — powerfully underlines this assessment.
As the US administration forges ahead in its effort to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, expecting goodwill gestures from both sides, Jerusalem might be well-advised to take note of the president’s “flexibility,” capacity for change, and willingness to make surprise moves.
Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.