Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was supportive of then-US president Barack Obama’s 2013 decision to seek Congressional approval before launching military strikes in Syria, an ex-top White House official said.
After the regime of President Basher Assad used chemical weapons and killed hundreds of civilians outside Damascus, Obama was determined to attack government positions in Syria. But he asked Congress for a green light, delaying the move, which was ultimately scrapped altogether.
According to Ben Rhodes, who was Obama’s deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, the president called several world leaders to inform them of his decision not to launch military strikes against the Assad regime in retaliation for its use of chemical weapons against civilians until after a vote in Congress. Netanyahu was one of the leaders Obama contacted.
“Your decision was right, Netanyahu said, and history will be kinder than public opinion,” Rhodes writes in his new memoir, an excerpt of which was published earlier this week by The Atlantic.
An Israeli official told The Times of Israel in response that Netanyahu was “surprised by the decision to go to Congress,” but did not claim that the prime minister had expressed disapproval. “The president presented it as a fait accompli and the prime minister thought the best thing to do was to pass it,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Obama had previously declared the use of chemical weapons against civilians a “red line” that, if crossed, would be punished militarily by the US. In the aftermath of an August 21, 2013, chemical attack in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, which killed hundreds of noncombatants, the US administration argued in favor of military strikes. But when it became clear that lawmakers would not vote to approve such a move, a deal was struck with Russia to remove chemical weapons from Syria. The planned vote in Congress never took place.
Since then, Israeli officials have often portrayed Obama’s decision to ask Congress for approval before launching strikes — and the fact that he failed to enforce his own red line — as weakness in the face of murderous Middle Eastern regimes that would embolden other regional actors to increase their hostile activity.
“We were shocked and dismayed by the president’s decision to go to Congress,” Deputy Minister Michael Oren, who at the time served as Israel’s ambassador to Washington, told The Times of Israel on Tuesday.
“We were deeply concerned that US inaction in the face of Assad’s use of chemical weapons would create a precedent that would in some way compromise our ability to defend ourselves against Syria’s non-conventional capability,” he said.
Oren, who said he was not on the call during which Obama informed Netanyahu of his decision to ask for Congressional approval, said he was utterly surprised when he learned the news by listening to an Obama speech on television.
In his 2015 memoir “Ally,” Oren recalled that he was shocked to have not been informed of a decision that could have major implications for Israel’s security.
“Even if Congress gave Obama a green light, Assad would have days now to prepare his defenses,” he wrote. “And while the president had received congressional cover for his actions, Israel was left exposed. The entire Middle East, and especially the Iranians, now knew that America would dither before enforcing an ultimatum.”
The administration of Donald Trump has so far launched two limited airstrikes against Syrian regime targets following chemical weapon attacks, both of which were welcomed by Jerusalem.