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Israel weighs up options as brakes are placed on Obama's military action

January 24, 2014 at 5:39 am

Last week, Congress was due to vote on a resolution which would authorize US President Barak Obama to conduct “limited” military strikes, aimed at “deterring” Syria’s leader Bashar Al-Assad from the use of chemical weapons.

Obama’s resolution brought worldwide condemnation, with anti-war protestors taking to the streets, as he desperately wrangled for domestic support in the shadow of Iraq and Afghanistan. However just before the vote, Russian President Vladimir Putin became an “unlikely hero” proposing a solution that has put the brakes, at least for now, on Obama’s military plans.

Under Putin’s proposal, Assad has agreed to provide a full declaration of his chemical weapons cache and their locations and access for UN and other international inspectors to the sites. Following talks between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, a broad framework for the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal was agreed on Saturday.

Obama has heralded the Russia plan as a potential breakthrough during a series of TV interviews. In his address to the nation from the White House he said, “It’s too early to tell whether this offer will succeed, and any agreement must verify that the Assad regime keeps its commitment….But this initiative has the potential to remove the threat of chemical weapons without the use of force.”

But as the world seemed to celebrate the aversion of an international crisis, one country may be less than pleased with the US hesitancy. Following Obama’s decision to bring the military strikes to a vote in congress, Israel’s prominent right wing politician Naftali Bennett commented, “The international stuttering and hesitancy on Syria just proves once more that Israel cannot count on anyone but itself. From Munich 1938 to Damascus 2013 nothing has changed. This is the lesson we ought to learn from the events in Syria.” While President Shimon Peres attempted to show trust in Obama to make the correct move, claiming he is “confident the US will respond against Syria… I think it’s permitted to carefully consider a decision beforehand rather than after, and I trust him on anything connected to Israel.”

Although Israel has stayed officially silent on the matter, remaining careful not to be seen as pushing the US into war, the now apparent suspension of strikes to follow an uncertain Russian proposal has caused concern. Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s former foreign minister commented on the Russia plan developments, “We rely only on ourselves.” This echoes the sentiment of various politicians, including Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and stems from Israel’s anxiety that Obama’s hesitation over Syria means they stand alone when dealing with Iran. Israel has been pressing the US to address the perceived threat of Tehran’s nuclear program, and last year threatened to act solo if the White House failed to show military force was on the table.

If Obama “is not willing to have a very modest, limited strike on Syria, a punitive strike, would he be contemplating a bigger move on Iran?” said Ehud Yaari, a fellow of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy to the New York Times.

However for some the avoidance of strikes comes with relief. Israelis flocked to gas mask distribution centers following the announcement of possible US strikes, with genuine fear that Israel would face the brunt of an attack. A poll showed while 66.8% of Israelis supported a US-led military intervention in Syria, the same percent feared Israel would face retaliation attacks. Assad, with allies Iran and Hezbollah presents a powerful nexus in the region against Israel. Syrian and Iranian officials have already issued warnings that Israel would be the “first victim” of the US strikes.

Netanyahu made it clear that while Israel was not involved in the Syrian civil war, they would react with a force to any threats. In his Jewish New Year speech he said “we will act with resolve to protect our people, and no-one should doubt our resolve,” as reports of a joint missile defense system test between Israel and the US over the Mediterranean surfaced.

It seems that in the strike or not to strike debate in Israel, Russia’s proposal presents the best answer in terms of its national interests. Weakening the Assad regime through strikes at the same time as bolstering the opposition may lead to the rebels gaining control. For Israel, who has enjoyed a relatively stable relationship with Assad and his predecessor and father, Hafez Assad, for four decades, this is a frightening prospect, with the Al-Qaeda affiliated Al-Nusra amongst the rebels.

“Better the devil we know than the demons we can only imagine if Syria falls into chaos and the extremists from across the Arab world gain a foothold there,” said one Israeli intelligence officer in an interview with the Times London. According to the “intelligence sources” referenced in the paper, an intact, but weakened, Assad regime would be preferable for the country and the region. With an Assad disarmed of its major threat, chemical weapons, Israel hopes he will become an embattled leader too pre-occupied fighting sectarianism and trying to stick together the fragments of Syria to wage a war with Israel.

Head of the Military Revolutionary Command in Aleppo, Abed al Jabar al Akhidi, said in an interview with Al-Arabiya, “Neutralizing Assad’s chemical weapons serves Israel, not the Syrian people, because the international community’s attempt to disarm Assad from his chemical arms stems from the public outcry and not from the killing.”

While Syria has reportedly signed the UN Convention on chemical weapons following Russia’s prompting, Assad reminded all that Israel has yet ratify its own signature, which has itself been accused of using chemical weapons against civilians. Israel may have condemned the deplorable deaths of Syrian civilians as a result of chemical weapons, but it seems that once the threat against Israel is defused Syrian lives will not hold the same importance, nor will Israel hold onto the same moral outcry against such weapons when it comes to ratifying the UN convention.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.