Despite Words of Warning, Israel Wants to Stay Out of Syria Conflict

Experts say Assad has been using chemical weapons for some time, but the scale of last week's attack may have been a mistake.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

In all the global talk over the last week about the chemical weapons attack in Syria and the expected U.S. response, one interesting question has been shunted aside: Why on earth did Syrian President Bashar Assad do it?

Until now, he has been careful not to cross any lines that would spark international intervention; why suddenly do something that could endanger his regime?

Senior Israeli defense officials who were asked that question offered complex answers. The general view was that Assad has been using chemical weapons systematically for months, whenever he was unable to dislodge rebel forces from strategically important areas. But he has been using them only on carefully chosen targets and in low doses – just enough to be effective against the rebels, without causing enough casualties to rouse a sleeping world.

That was apparently the plan last week as well, but something went wrong. Perhaps the sarin gas was especially concentrated, or the strong winds and high humidity led to more casualties than expected. Several American media outlets reported that Western intelligence services had intercepted conversations in which a senior Syrian defense official tried to get answers from his chemical weapons experts on why so many casualties had resulted. Some of this information reportedly came from Israel.

It’s also possible that Assad simply failed to internalize the West’s double standard, whereby it’s perfectly acceptable to slaughter women and children with conventional weapons, but not with weapons of mass destruction.

Yet if until Wednesday a Western attack in the next few days seemed certain, on Thursday it seemed much less so. Britain and France said any attack should wait until UN weapons inspectors in Syria submit their conclusions, and even Turkey appeared to develop cold feet. Meanwhile, the Assad regime, which initially opposed letting the inspectors come, is using their continued presence to buy time: Now Damascus is demanding that they investigate three more sites where it claims the rebels used chemical weapons.

Nevertheless, it’s hard to see how U.S. President Barack Obama can refrain from launching an attack at some point; he has climbed too tall a tree. According to the American media, the planned attack will use weapons from a safe distance to target some 50 Syrian military sites over the course of a day or two, without trying to topple the Assad regime.

Amos Yadlin, the former head of Israeli Military Intelligence, wrote on Thursday that the United States has no military option capable of halting the slaughter or ousting the regime swiftly - i.e., at an acceptable political price. And without such an option, nothing but a limited attack is feasible.

Israel’s leadership is expressing great confidence that neither Assad nor his allies Iran and Hezbollah will seek revenge for an American attack by targeting this country. Nevertheless, the necessary precautions are being taken.

In fact, threats of revenge attacks from Gaza are being taken more seriously than those from Iran: On Thursday morning, Islamic Jihad threatened to fire rockets at Israel if America attacked Syria. But within hours, the organization’s leadership had denied making any such threat – whether due to fear of Israel or of Gaza’s Hamas government.

The Achilles’ heel of Israel’s preparations is the long lines for obtaining gas masks. The media are having a field day with the chaos at the gas mask distribution centers. On Thursday, the radio quoted one woman tired of the wait as saying sardonically, “If we don’t die in a war with Assad, we’ll die in the distribution line.”

Despite Israel’s warnings of a harsh response should Assad target Israel, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s public demand that the Americans respond to last week’s chemical weapons attack, Israel’s policy remains unchanged: Not only does it not want to get dragged into Syria’s civil war itself, but it’s not even particularly eager to see the tyrant toppled. Netanyahu, to his credit, has thus far handled the Syrian crisis sensibly and responsibly, and if Israel can possibly remain outside the arena, it won’t be involved in any American strike on Assad.

But Israel won’t shed any tears if Assad absorbs a limited strike, for two reasons: to restore the taboo against the use of chemical weapons, which had been eroded completely by America’s previous disregard of Assad’s repeated crossings of Obama’s own red line, and because a blow to Syria is also a blow to Iran, which had been gaining confidence from both Assad’s recent successes and Washington’s hesitancy until now.

For now, everyone is waiting for America to strike, and then to leave again. After that, Assad will presumably resume slaughtering his countrymen with rifles, tanks and aerial bombings. But the slaughter will henceforth be in conformity with the new rules: All means are kosher – except, of course, chemical weapons.

UN arms experts, wearing a gas mask, inspect a site of an alleged chemical attack near Damascus. Credit: Reuters

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