Syrian Situation Calls for Caution

Is Israel ready for a war on Syrian soil that includes ground forces? Can it count on U.S. involvement? The consequences are dangerous

A military vehicle seen positioned on the Israeli side of the border with Syria.

The airstrike on the Syrian airport, attributed to Israel, was not a “routine” strike, one of hundreds it has carried out. Its timing could draw Israel into a war that it may not have planned for. It came as Syria is being accused of using chemical weapons against civilians in Douma; as the United States is threatening to act against Syria because of the chemical attack; as Moscow is warning Washington against military involvement and as Iran is threatening to retaliate against Israel.

At the same time, the Israeli government and the military continue to pursue an aggressive line against Iran’s continued entrenchment in Syria, accompanied by warnings that Israel will act to curb such entrenchment. The strike on the Syrian airport is being interpreted internationally as part of this policy, since it targeted not weapons convoys destined for Hezbollah but rather at a site where Iranian forces operate, and a number of Iranian military personnel were killed. The possibility of escalation into a war of multiple participants involving Israel has become more tangible than ever.

One cannot ignore the fear that Iran will expand its control in Syria, especially given its close cooperation with the Assad regime and with Russia. Israel’s demand that Russia push Iranian forces away from the border on the Golan Heights has not been met, and Iran’s ability to bring its weapons, and perhaps even its missiles, closer to Israel requires a response. 

But Israel must be aware of the dangerous consequences of a war on Syrian soil. As has been proven in the past, and not just in campaigns involving Israel, airstrikes do not guarantee the withdrawal or containment of enemy forces. Is Israel ready for a war that includes ground forces? Can it count on U.S. involvement, or at least support?

These questions have no conclusive answer, especially given the confused policy of U.S. President Donald Trump, who announced plans to withdraw American forces from Syria on one hand while on the other declared that he was considering a military response in Syria. Nor can Israel ignore a scenario in which Russia turns from an ally of Israel that coordinates aerial activity in Syria into a power that confronts it.

 We must hope these possibilities are not ignored by Israeli decision-makers who are pursuing an increasingly narrow course that could force the military to act.  What is needed now is to modulate the belligerent talk, holster its weapons and fully explore all diplomatic options. The cliché that war is easy to start but difficult to end is truer today than ever.

The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.