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New Cold War Helps Warm Ties Between Pentagon and Israeli Army

The U.S. warning to Israel before its airstrike on a Syrian air base earlier this month and Gen. James Mattis’ visit to Israel reflect the increasing trust between the two militaries

Amir Oren
Amir Oren
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Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis in Tel Aviv, April 21, 2017.
Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis in Tel Aviv, April 21, 2017.Credit: JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS
Amir Oren
Amir Oren

Gen. Paul J. Selva, a flight commander by training, was the top military aide to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during the first Obama administration. As assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Selva was the Washington partner of the Office of the U.S. Security Coordinator (USSC) for Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Led by a general or an admiral, and based in the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem, the USSC team was charged with supervising and coordinating the establishment of the Palestinian security services. It was responsible for keeping Hamas from taking over the West Bank cities of Ramallah and Hebron, as it had taken over the Gaza Strip in 2007. Selva was an integral part of Clinton and President Barack Obama’s Israel-Palestine policy.

Over the years, Selva climbed the ranks, serving as the commander of the U.S. Transportation Command, before being appointed vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in July 2015. Two weeks ago, at about midnight Israeli time, as Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was laboring to translate the directives of President Donald Trump into an operational order, Selva phoned Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot. He informed him that in a few hours, a fusillade of Tomahawk missiles were to be fired from U.S. Navy destroyers in the Mediterranean Sea at Syria’s Shayrat air base (the suspected source of the chemical weapons attack in Idlib Province).

The advance warning reflected the mutual transparency between the two armies. The IDF is a full partner – the apex of a pyramid – to the two American commands that cover it: U.S. Central Command, or CENTCOM, whose area of responsibility includes countries in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia; and the U.S. European Command. Senior commanders of the three bodies meet regularly.

The trust among the organizations is stable, untouched by any political turmoil. In this atmosphere, important personal relations are created, social as well as professional. Dunford will soon arrive for his third meeting in Israel with Eisenkot. U.S. Army Gen. Curtis M. Scaparrotti – the chief of European Command and Supreme Allied Commander, Europe – has visited with the Israeli army twice in less than a year. On his first visit, he saw Syria from the Golan Heights. On the second, he toured Israel’s border with the Gaza Strip. Among other things, Scaparrotti shared with Eisenkot impressions from one of his previous assignments, as commander of U.S. forces in South Korea.

U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis landed in Israel on Thursday, as part of a visit that has included stops in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The retired U.S. Marine Corps general will pay a visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and museum, against the backdrop of White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s unfortunate remarks about “Holocaust centers.”

Mattis is old friends with Israeli officers he met during the course of his distinguished military career. These include the retired generals Shay Avital and Tal Russo. Maj. Gen. Michael Edelstein, Israel’s military attaché to the United States – and who is traveling with Mattis – is also well-liked by senior U.S. military officers, who first dealt with him as a combat and special-forces officer.

Mattis enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1969, but it was during the Obama administration that he rose to greatness, helping to shape rather than merely execute the president’s security policy in the region, before retiring as commander of CENTCOM in 2013, at 63.

The most important aspect of all of these contacts is continuity and proximity, sometimes literally. The USS Ross, a guided-missile destroyer and one of the ships from which the Tomahawk missiles were launched on April 6, regularly anchored at the Israel Navy base in Haifa. The destroyer (along with USS Laboon) docked with a friendly fleet, giving its sailors an opportunity to relax on the beach and tour Israel’s Christian sites.

On a brief press visit to the naval base, it was particularly interesting to note the similarities and differences between the experienced officers and noncommissioned officers – each with 20 years or more of military service – and the young men and women at the lowest ranks. Members of both groups, around 280 in all, wear uniforms and operate warships, but there is no sense of a combat atmosphere. The massive maritime clashes between warring task forces exist only in the archives.

The U.S. destroyers work in pairs, providing cover for each other (the USS Porter was the other destroyer involved in the Syrian airstrike). Not so in the Israel Navy, which in October 1967 lost the INS Eilat, a Z-class destroyer, to small but speedy Soviet-Egyptian missile boats, and then retired the INS Haifa and INS Jaffa, lest they too fall victim to their inferiority in the era of missiles and electronic warfare. The IDF no longer has such outdated ships, but the U.S. Navy does.

Originally intended to protect larger vessels – patrol ships and battleships – and to escort civilian convoys, for the past few decades they have mainly served as floating bases for sea-to-sea and sea-to-surface missiles. The munition that is fired from them, at distant land targets, is precise and does not endanger them. For the attack in Syria, the destroyers – which belong to the naval branch of EUCOM – were placed under the temporary operational control of CENTCOM, returning to EUCOM after the mission was completed.

This satellite image released by the U.S. Department of Defense shows a damage assessment image of Shayrat air base in Syria on April 7. 2017. The U.S. warned Israel in advance about the airstrike.Credit: /AP

CENTCOM did not yet exist at the time of the previous U.S.-Syrian confrontation in this arena, in 1983. Then, the enormous but ancient battleship the USS New Jersey fired huge, 2,700-pound shells – described as “flying Volkswagens” – at targets of a pro-Syrian militia in Lebanon’s Chouf mountains. During the escalation, fighter planes from the Sixth Fleet were deployed. A U.S. plane was shot down, its pilot killed and its navigator captured. Syria’s then-president, Hafez Assad, nobly agreed to release him only after Rev. Jesse Jackson (a political rival of then-President Ronald Reagan) came to Damascus for a joint propaganda project. The Russians, still under the “Soviet” label, were already there, with surface-to-air missiles that clipped the wings of the Israel Air Force.

What is mass destruction?

The Syrian-Israeli-American-Russian quadrangle is there once again, under different circumstances. The context for the Tomahawk strike was not Syrian President Bashar Assad’s civil war with rebel forces, but his use of chemical weapons. The distinction is an important one, which bridges the gap between the U.S. rule of only using force in Syria against Islamic State and the exception to this rule. According to this perspective, preventing another chemical weapons attack is vital to U.S. national and security interests. It’s a position U.S. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and his colleagues, who are loath to get caught up in a local conflict, can defend.

It is no different, in principle, from the decision by then-President George W. Bush, a decade ago – as related to Haaretz by the CIA’s then-Director Michael Hayden – to take action against the North Korean nuclear reactor in Syria. The Americans contributed intelligence; Israel brought its military might. In the new circumstances of the internal conflict in Syria, Israel’s involvement focuses on obtaining intelligence (and distributing it to its allies), and on treating ill and wounded Syrians.

The first three months of Trump’s presidency were full of ludicrous sharp turns and reversals from his campaign promises. All the nonsense actually obscured the claims he hasn’t gone back on, as well as the ones to which he has not returned. For example, his attack on the U.S. intelligence community for erring in its assessment of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction capabilities – as a result of which, according to Trump, it cannot be trusted to investigate the ties of Trump and friends to Russia, or on any other matter.

But when it comes to chemical weapons in Syria, the same intelligence becomes credible and trustworthy. Or perhaps it doesn’t matter and what’s really important is what’s on Fox News, or what Ivanka said to Daddy. Trump is detached from the details: It was Gen. John Nicholson, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, who gave the order to drop the “mother of all bombs,” killing 36 ISIS fighters in Southern Nangarhar. Nor does Trump, the commander in chief, have any idea where U.S. aircraft carriers are going – to his country’s embarrassment.

The problem is that the bombastic term “weapons of mass destruction” eludes an agreed-upon definition. In the Department of Defense’s Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, they are defined as “chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear weapons capable of a high order of destruction or causing mass casualties,” but “mass casualty” on its own refers to events such as a military aircraft accident or natural disasters that produce a large number of casualties in a relatively short period of time.

In Israel’s military lexicon, mass destruction refers to nuclear, chemical or biological weapons that can cause a large number of casualties over large areas. When Syria began to develop missiles with chemical warfare capabilities three decades ago, then-U.S. Secretary of State George P. Shultz warned his Soviet counterpart, Eduard Shevardnadze, saying: “Without getting into whether or not Syria intended to use such weapons, their existence would represent a threat to Israel. It was impossible to state how Israel might react to such a threat. Thus, the potential existence of a Syrian chemical weapons capability was a threat to regional stability.”

Shevardnadze, who was being asked to dissuade Hafez Assad from pursuing a chemical weapons program, responded by saying that if the U.S. information about Syria were correct, it would be not only unpleasant, but “inadmissible.” In the name of balance, however, the Soviet foreign minister introduced into the conversation Israel’s nuclear program, saying he knew the Syrians were very concerned about the possibility that Israel would obtain nuclear weapons and delivery systems, including missiles.

Colin Powell, who was a high-ranking officer on active duty when he also served as national security adviser between 1987 and 1989, attended the Shultz-Shevardnadze talks. He presented the positions of the Reagan administration, which sought, and succeeded, in reaching a ban on chemical weapons. But as a military man, he minimized the threat they posed. After resigning his post in both Bush administrations, in both Iraq wars, Powell said that soldiers needn’t fear a gas attack – they move on and avoid being hurt, because the gases were only dangerous for people who remained at the site of the attack. Small comfort to civilians, including the young and elderly, who are gassed in a confined space.

When Saddam was captured in December 2003 and brought in for questioning – he talked about how he fooled even people who were close to him when he implied he had weapons of mass destruction – the FBI agent who interrogated him was George Piro. Piro is now heading the FBI’s Miami field office.

On Tuesday, he and his colleagues in Florida’s law agencies announced, to great fanfare, that thanks to the case they put together, a judge sentenced Harlem Suarez to life imprisonment for attempting to procure a weapon of mass destruction and use it in order to aid ISIS. Nuclear? Chemical? Biological? Suarez, who moved to the United States from Cuba when he was 11, wanted to make a nail bomb, to conceal it in a backpack he planned to bury in the sand on a beach in Key West, and then detonate it remotely using a cellphone. Like any attack carried out in a crowded area, his scheme could have caused many deaths. But it’s not exactly “mass destruction” – notwithstanding the fact that in the 1770 incident that went down in history as the Boston Massacre, five people were killed and six others were wounded.

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