No Longer Able to Watch From the Sidelines, Israel Must Prepare for U.S. Strike on Syria

This year was a quiet one, with Israel avoiding getting entangled in conflict. But as the region goes up in flames, the Israeli public is starting to realize it cannot remain indifferent.

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Barring some last-minute hitch, chances are good that this will be the seventh consecutive summer in which Israel doesn’t get mixed up in a war. This is good news, of course, but it doesn’t give full expression to the strategic picture. Among the security events in the past two months (some reported by the foreign media): Israel allegedly conducted an air strike against a weapons cache in Syria (for the fourth time at least, according to some sources); for the first time since the signing of the peace treaty with Egypt, the Israel Defense Forces conducted an air strike in Egyptian territory (to thwart rocket fire on the Negev); and the IDF bombed the headquarters of a Palestinian group in Lebanon for the first time since the last war there. At the same time, Katyusha rockets were fired from Lebanon on the Galilee and from Sinai at Eilat.

Each of these events got front-page headlines and yet the sequence has barely made an impression on the public. To the public it seems as if this was one of our quietest years ever, a continuation of a lengthy period of quiet. Because these attacks did not cause any deaths or injuries to our side, they barely registered on the radar of the average media consumer. Presumably other issues, like the economic decrees, were of greater interest. But Israel cannot forever suppress the events in a Middle East that’s going up in flames around it.

The Arab Spring has been running rampant for more than two-and-half years, but Israel has maintained a low level of involvement. Syria, where the bloodshed has been highest, provides a good example. Israel took precautions: It bolstered the fence in the Golan, increased intelligence gathering and in some cases (according to foreign media, etc.) acted to prevent the smuggling of weapons from Syria to Hezbollah. But Israel has not taken a side in the Syrian conflict, assuming that the two warring camps are equally bad: Assad's murderous regime is part of the allied Iranian forces in the region, while the overthrow of his rule would increase the power of radical Sunni organizations. Without saying so explicitly, Jerusalem wished both parties success. The new situation was even somewhat beneficial to Israel, because it eroded the conventional threat from Syria.

But last week’s use of chemical weapons in Damascus makes it clear that there’s no such thing as "stable instability.” The Syrian chaos is constantly producing dramatic developments, the last of which threatens to drag the United States into the war, something the Obama administration has done its utmost to avoid. If Washington makes such a move it could have implications for Israel, even though Jerusalem believes that Syrian President Bashar Assad would prefer to avoid direct military confrontation with Israel.

The most likely scenario is a U.S. attack with cruise missiles, possibly backed by warplanes, against a series of military targets, not all of them necessarily linked to the regime's chemical weapons. These could include the Syrian military's command facilities, anti-aircraft systems and surface-to-surface missile bases.

U.S. President Barack Obama is seeking a one-off hit that would punish and deter, though it’s not clear that such a thing is possible. It’s hard to know how the Assad regime would respond to a U.S. attack and whether it would not set off a regional conflagration. But America’s greatest concern in these deliberations is the risk of what’s known as “mission creep,” in which a limited operation turns into a much wider conflict. Without sending in ground forces this isn’t likely to occur, but Obama has been burned enough from the Middle East in recent years.

But while Israel is cheering the United States on from the stands, it should also be preparing itself for scenarios that now have a relatively low probability, such as getting dragged into the Syrian conflict. The Home Front is far from ready for this, as evidenced by the simple fact that 40 percent of Israelis do not yet have gas masks. On Sunday, incidentally, there was a fourfold increase in the number of those seeking to obtain them, indicating that even the public is starting to emerge from its indifference.

A couple wearing gas masks. The fourfold increase in the number of Israelis seeking to obtain them indicates they are emerging from indifference.Credit: AFP

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