The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

The Israeli debate over Syria's chemical weapons and Iran

Israeli officials complain that the delay of American military action on Syria will be detrimental to their national security, and that Obama has left them holding the bag yet again. And while the removal of Syrian chemical weapons under international auspices would benefit Israel, it does not benefit Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his associates' position on Iran -- where they would like to see military action to prevent the development of nuclear weapons. 

"Israel provided intelligence to the Obama Administration on Syria. Now, [there is] a debate over what they have to show for it," writes Sheera Frenkel. What Israel will "get" at present for its intel on the weapons is the (temporary) tabling of the military option against the regime - much to the chagrin of many Syrians opposed to Assad's regime, who had placed high hopes that the threat of strikes would lead to something more than this, a hope that has dimmed every day the U.S. has refrained from an attack. Now, a deal is tentatively in place for these weapons to be removed from Syria under international monitoring by 2014. So the U.S. has legitimized the regime it has simultaneously (though not even half-heartedly) been trying to remove.

In Netanyahu's mind, containment and monitoring has been tried and has been failing for years against Tehran. The Russian proposal will at best be spotty to enforce and could take years to achieve. Unsurprisingly, all of the Persian Gulf states feel exactly the same way, though their support for a strike goes beyond mere shared animus towards Iranian influence. And unlike Israel, they have decided who they want to "win" the war. For Israel, no endgame in particular is necessarily desired. Since the start of the conflict, the IDF has used the civil war to weaken the "Axis of Resistance" whenever possible by striking targets of opportunity and not interrupting their enemies while they make mistakes. Israeli officials are not thrilled with the prospect of a rebel victory in Syria - there are too many "known unknowns" about potential postwar rulers and Assad has shown that he is more responsive to the security concerns of Israel's government than the Syrian opposition. 

But they also do not relish the idea of Assad retaining power, strengthened by renewed international recognition, because this will benefit Iran. Up until a U.S. military operation became an option, this posture explained why there was so little pressure from Israeli officials or AIPAC on the White House to do much more than what it was already doing. 

A compromise solution involving international monitors is the second-best outcome in Netanyahu's view. Loose sarin and VX stockpiles, potentially trading hands among pro-Assad militias, Republican Guards, Free Syrian Army brigades, or al Qaeda pledges, are a frightening prospect for Israeli officials. Unlike the (still non-existent) Iranian nuclear bomb, these nerve agents exist and can be deployed by those who know how to use them. But a U.S. strike to "deter" or "degrade" Assad's capabilities is still the preferred choice because 1) the Israelis (justifiably) do not believe Assad will really surrender all his weapons and 2) Obama will have set a precedent for Iran in Syria if he uses direct force instead of hedging bets on third parties. Winning that debate is a gamble for the Israeli PM, because his main pillar of support in the U.S. - Congressional Republicans - have split on the Syrian Civil War, as has the American right in general. 

In Netanyahu's view, if the U.S. does not strike, Syria will end up keeping some quantity of its nerve agents, and Iran will be emboldened to accelerate its nuclear program to achieve a bomb-making capability. Enforcing deterrence is the Israeli priority - even if in the near term, an American sortie over Damascus would not physically eliminate the proliferation threat that Syria's chemical weapons pose. 

Joel Schalit notes that "the Syria strikes are the best chance yet for Netanyahu to prevail in his struggle with Israel's military leadership to deal with Iran. And ironically, it's Obama [who] made that possible." He may regain the initiative on Iran from his generals as a result of the Syrian crisis -- an initiative he lost last summer when a series of leaks in the Israeli press exposed how isolated the PM was from many of his ministers and security chiefs, and the grey cadre of retirees from those offices, on Iran. 

As Schalit suggests, this was not an intentional development. Netanyahu did not win a promise from Obama to set a Syrian red line last year and, in a Xanatos Gambit, plan five turns ahead so that any choice the U.S. made would help him sell a war with Iran. Instead, Obama put himself in this situation all by himself, and Netanyahu now realizes it can benefit his perennial campaign to win a concrete American promise of hitting Iran. Only now is it an opportune time to broach the matter: the Israeli government was doing its best to avoid commenting on Syria's chemical weapons - in contrast to its usual bluster on security issues involving Egypt and Gaza.

There are two main factions at work within the Israeli government: the Prime Minister's Office and the military-intelligence community, specifically the Mossad and the General Staff of the IDF. The former is still angling to get the U.S. to commit to a preemptive strike on Iran's nuclear program, while the latter, more or less united behind IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, continues to balk at the ideas of either a unilateral operation or a diplomatic effort that puts the U.S. in a position where it will "have to" support Israel on short notice in bombing Iran. 

Early last August - only a few weeks prior to when Obama made his redline comment on Syria, in fact - the Hebrew-language headlines blazed with military and intelligence community leaks broadcasting Israeli generals' discontent with Netanyahu's handling of the Iranian nuclear debate going into the U.S.' presidential election. That these reports emerged at the same time U.S. military officials were warning against a "premature" strikes was by no means a coincidence. Neither countries' militaries are enthused about the prospect of such a war.

As I reported at PBS on August 1, 2012: "Anonymous [Israeli] officials have leaked information that key members of Israel's top military brass oppose an attack on Iran." This dissent was aired quite openly earlier in 2012, and former security officials publicly cautioned against an attack. Less than two weeks later, Israel's leading news outlets again revealed further names of the establishment against a strike, and dissension within the Defense Ministry. Combined with the defeat of Mitt Romney in November and the PM's earlier failure to place his former military secretary at the helm of the IAF, this meant that Netanyahu had nothing left to use against his domestic critics on Iran as 2013 began. 

But after Israel's "top men" revolted against their C-in-C by going to the press, Obama inadvertently gave renewed life to Netanyahu's favored policy of preemption by making chemical weapons a red line last August.

Now that the Administration is trying to escape it predicament through the Russian proposal - one that I am not convinced the White House sought to evoke by making threats to strike, but arrived at in a state of distress - it remains to be seen if Netanyahu can rebuild momentum for military action against Iran with the gift that Obama's Syria inconsistencies have given him.