Analysis

What the Escalating U.S.-Russia Tension Over Syria Means for Israel

The harsh tone taken by Russia and Iran in the wake of the U.S. strike in Syria may indirectly threaten Israel

Anti-war demonstrators shout slogans against President Donald Trump during a demonstration in front of the Trump Tower in New York on April 7, 2017, to protest the U.S. airstrike in Syria.
Jewel Samad, AFP

The international arena is changing at a dizzying pace. A little more than a week ago, U.S. President Donald Trump was still hesitating about whether to respond to the Assad regime’s chemical weapons attack in Idlib province in northern Syria. Administration spokespersons were initially equivocal, and most media assessments (including those in Haaretz) maintained that Trump’s relations with Russia would make it difficult for him to authorize a punitive attack. But in a predawn action last Friday, the United States fired 59 cruise missiles at the airport in Homs from which the Syrian aircraft that bombed Idlib had taken off. Trump has threatened to attack Syria again, and Washington is demanding that Russia dissociate itself from President Bashar Assad. For his part, Russian President Vladimir Putin has directed the ultimate insult at Trump, by declaring that the relations with the United States under the new president are even worse than they had been under his predecessor, Barack Obama.

These extreme developments give rise to a suspicion that the “Trump doctrine” in foreign policy, which American experts started to talk about in the wake of the Syrian operation, exists mainly on paper. In light of recent events, it seems more likely that the president is not particularly interested in showing consistency in his actions and messages, but is deliberately being vague, whether out of habit or in order to leave himself maximum flexibility to act.

Throughout the presidential election campaign, Trump emphasized two messages that were to some degree mutually contradictory. His primary message was his ambition and promise “to make America great again”: Here he was underlining the need to prioritize domestic issues, particularly the rehabilitation of American industry, over foreign policy. But alongside the internal focus and his declared opposition to allocating resources and troops to fighting far-flung wars, Trump constantly emphasized another message: the need to restore America’s status as a great power in the eyes of the international community. At that time, and in the weeks after his election victory and then following his inauguration, two more sentiments came to the fore: Trump’s need to prove that he’s better than Obama, and the demonstrative – at times ludicrously so – wish to be liked by Putin.

Senior U.S. officials who spoke to Israeli colleagues shortly after the inauguration said that the president and his aides were looking for a suitable arena in which to demonstrate a show of strength to the international community. In those conversations, North Korea was mentioned as the No. 1 target that was preoccupying the administration. The reasons: the concern Pyongyang was stirring up among American allies South Korea and Japan, the craziness of the regime there, and the fact that the North Koreans possess nuclear weapons. By comparison, the Americans portrayed Iran, Syria and Hezbollah as having a relatively low-priority status in the eyes of the new administration.

Assad’s decision to mount an attack with deadly sarin gas last week – due to growing self-confidence and his desire to force the rebels out of the Idlib enclave – decided the issue for Trump: Syria was chosen as the arena for the show of power. (Moreover, shortly after the bombing raid, Trump began to issue explicit threats against Pyongyang, implying that what had been done in Syria could serve as a hint of what might happen in North Korea.)

The punitive military strike by the United States took place less than 72 hours after the first reports came in about the chemical attack perpetrated by the Assad regime. Trump said he had been influenced by the images of the dead “beautiful babies” that he saw on television. The American media noted the emotional impact brought to bear on the decision-making process by Trump’s daughter and son-in-law, apparently over the objections of the president’s strategic adviser, Stephen Bannon – developments that for the first time set alt-right extremists against Trump, who until then had been their hero.

Since the cruise-missile attack on the Syrian airfield, Trump has taken an increasingly belligerent tone toward Moscow, to which Putin has responded with criticism of his own, all of it swirling around this week’s visit to Russia by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Still, after Tillerson’s arrival, Moscow announced the renewal of the procedures intended to prevent aerial friction with the Americans, a protocol that it had suspended following the cruise-missile attack.

Because Trump and Putin are both cynical leaders who attribute great importance to the element of surprise, and whose approach to the truth is highly flexible – it’s difficult to gauge whether the present clash is headed for further escalation. In any event, Trump reaped an immediate profit in the American political arena – not only from the embrace he suddenly received from conservatives and liberals who support military intervention, but also from the diversion of the discussion concerning the investigation into ties his campaign staff had with Putin, and the apparent disproof of the allegation that the new president is a type of Russian marionette.

U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Ross (DDG 71) fires a tomahawk land attack missile which U.S. Defense Department said was a part of cruise missile strike against Syria on April 7, 2017.
Robert S. Price/Courtesy U.S. Navy/Handout

But the domestic honeymoon did not last long, not least because of the appallingly bizarre character of the administration itself. First came the horror show of White House spokesman Sean Spicer, who somehow managed to come to the defense of Adolf Hitler. That was followed by a sequence of associative declarations by Trump in a television interview, in which he recalled the wonderful chocolate cake he’d shared with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the time he authorized the missile attack – but without mentioning the country that was targeted (he mistakenly referred to Iraq instead of Syria).

Even so, Trump did the right thing morally when he chose to respond to the recent resumption of chemical warfare by Assad. As such, he did more than his predecessor in the White House. who, in 2013, made a famous U-turn, when he reneged at the last minute on his commitment to attack if the Syrian regime were indeed to use chemical weapons, which he had defined as a red line for the United States. At the time Obama did score an important achievement – an agreement with Moscow for dismantlement of the bulk of Assad’s chemical weapons stockpiles – but his hesitation and the backtracking on his decision to take action were received very badly in most Middle Eastern capitals, from Cairo to Riyadh to Jerusalem. It also turned out, back in April 2016, as reported in Haaretz at the time, that Syria’s president was still using chemical weapons sporadically against the rebel forces.

The latest such attack again raises the question of whether the Americans’ optimistic assessments of the scope of the chemical weapons’ dismantlement – said to range from 95 percent to 98 percent of the existing stock – were unwarranted.

Mistaken analysis

The escalating tension between the United States, on the one hand, and Russia and Iran has potential consequences for Israel, too. On Sunday, an unusual statement issued by a media outlet identified with Hezbollah – on behalf of a joint command center including Russian and Iranian forces as well as the militias that support the regime in Syria – condemned America’s retaliatory attack on April 7 and declared that the alliance that supports Assad will respond strongly to any new assault against the regime. “What America waged in an aggression on Syria is a crossing of red lines. From now on we will respond with force to any aggressor or any breach of red lines from whoever it is and America knows our ability to respond well,” the statement said.

The credibility of this communique is not clear. Separate official declarations, issued by both Moscow and Tehran, expressed similar support for Assad, but did not include an explicit threat of action.

If the declaration is indeed credible, does it also apply to Israel? Only on March 17, in the wake of an unusual chain of events, did Israel for the first time make a direct reference to a bombing raid it had carried out in Syria. The Arab media have been reporting air raids on Hezbollah arms convoys and depots in Syria since January 2012, less than a year after the civil war broke out there – but Israel, though affirming that such attacks are indeed its policy, never directly admitted to any of them. In last month’s incident, SA5 missiles were fired at Israel Air Force planes as they attacked southeast Syria. When one of the missiles entered Israeli airspace in the Jordan Valley it was intercepted by an Arrow missile, and this was followed by an official announcement by Jerusalem concerning the incident. At the same time, and not for the first time lately, Syria too threatened to exact revenge on Israel.

These Syrian threats can be seen as meaningless. Undoubtedly, the last thing Bashar Assad wants now – in addition to the kind of entanglement with the United States he mistakenly got embroiled in last week – is a confrontation with Israel. But an indirect Russian-Iranian threat to Israel is a more serious affair. Heightened Russian involvement in favor of the Assad regime – first with the deployment of two combat squadrons in northwestern Syria, then with the installation of long-range antiaircraft missile batteries – has affected Israel’s room for maneuver, though according to Arab media reports it hasn’t led to a halt of attacks on Hezbollah targets in Syria. Russia and Israel have worked out a mechanism to prevent aerial confrontations. (According to reports in the foreign media, in several cases, such collisions were avoided only at the last moment.)

With regard to the March 17 attack, the Russians were reportedly angry at Israel, because its air force’s attack took place close to a Russian airbase in Syria. Now there’s more on the table, especially after the Americans took such an unusual step and no one knows what their next move will be.

In the background is an Israeli concern, now being expressed publicly, that continued advances by the regime in southern Syria, or a long-term cease-fire in the country, will restore Assad’s rule on the border with Israel in the Golan Heights – and also bring about the return to that area of Shi’ite militias, Iranian Revolutionary Guards or Hezbollah fighters.

Such a front could also spread into Lebanon. The headline of an article by Nicholas Noe, a Beirut-based Western researcher, in The Independent newspaper this week, says it all: “Why Israel and Hezbollah are heading for a new, devastating war.” His far-reaching conclusion is based in part on what seems to me to be a partially mistaken analysis of Israel’s intentions, against the background of the operational deployment of the David’s Sling rocket-intercept system and the operational success of the Arrow.

The way things look from here, Israel’s leadership has nothing to gain now from a confrontation with Hezbollah, and is aware of the civilian front’s vulnerability to massive volleys of rockets and missiles launched from Lebanon.

What’s interesting, though, is Noe’s impression that Hezbollah secretary general Hassan Nasrallah and senior figures in the organization are “entranced by the idea that the Israelis have become a soft people protected by a soft army that will not be able to collectively bear the economic and security dislocation resulting from Hezbollah’s land, sea and air strikes” on Israel. That’s a totally mistaken analysis on the part of Nasrallah, as Noe himself acknowledges. Still, he adds, after 13 years of following the situation in this part of the world, he has never before seen this level of anxiety among the political leadership in Lebanon about the possibility of war breaking out in the near future.