Officials in Jerusalem are not pleased or comfortable at being thrust into the center of an American political controversy over a possible U.S. military strike against Syria. There’s no doubt that Israel favors a strong response from Washington to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s evil use of chemical warfare against his own civilian population. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government would prefer to stay out of the limelight, insisting, correctly, that this issue is not about Israel, which fortunately can defend itself against Damascus. It’s about the perception of America in the international community, and particularly in the eyes of Iran’s leaders, who are watching carefully to see if the world’s only superpower is willing to make good on its word to prevent “red lines” of non-conventional warfare from being crossed.
Unfortunately, Israel is sure to be blamed should the United States become engaged in yet another Mideast conflict.
President Barack Obama, who boxed himself into a political and ethical corner with his declaration last year that the U.S. would not allow those lines to be crossed, has called on American Jewish groups, and the Israeli prime minister himself, to come to his aid in persuading a reluctant Congress, representing an even more reluctant American public, to support a limited military response against Syria.
The most recent development — the remarkably swift, positive response to an out-of-the-blue suggestion that the crisis be averted by having Syria’s chemical arsenal removed and destroyed — underscores the desperation on all sides to find a way out of a seemingly impossible situation. But even as the drama plays out over Syria, it’s important to keep in mind that all of this is but a prelude to the looming confrontation over Iran and its quest to produce nuclear arms. That explains why the Israeli government agreed to the latest round of peace talks, including the painful decision to free Palestinian prisoners with blood on their hands, and why it is doing Obama’s bidding in lobbying for a U.S. show of strength in Syria. And it explains why Obama is pressing for a congressional vote on the use of force, knowing full well that it would be that much more difficult to take on Iran militarily down the road without establishing this precedent of congressional approval.
All the scenarios here are dangerous. Collecting Syria’s chemical arms (an admission, incidentally, by Assad that they exist) is a dicey business. Who would know if some were left behind? A U.S. strike could escalate into war; a U.S. refusal to strike sends a signal of weakness to Iran, indicating that America is all talk and no action, unwilling to use force even in the face of the blatant use of chemical warfare against civilians.
America’s deep resistance to being drawn into a third war in a decade is understandable and correct, but as former Mideast envoy Dennis Ross noted in an opinion piece in the Washington Post this week, “if nothing else, it is time to ask the opponents of authorization of strikes in Syria if they are comfortable with a position that is very likely to rule out any diplomatic outcome on the Iranian nuclear program. Even in their eyes, the costs of inaction may then not appear so low.”
The stakes and risks are high, but in a world where enemy despots with an eye toward Israel and us, are willing to test the boundaries of destruction, flagrantly and cunningly, the price of holding back may be higher.