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Obama’s “red line”: fighting for gas masks in Israel while Syria waits for US bombs

In a matter of days, US President Barak Obama will seek authorisation from Congress to begin airstrikes against Syria. The members of Congress are being asked to approve “limited” intervention aimed at “deterring” President Basher Al-Assad from using chemical weapons.


The resolution allows for a 60 day window for military action against Syrian forces, with the possibility of 30 additional days following consultation with Congress, but blocks the use of American ground troops.

Obama is now busy rallying support for the strikes. His attempt to gain allies during the G20 summit succeeded only partially, with 11 countries issuing a carefully-worded statement which, whilst condemning the use of chemical weapons, placing the blame with Syria’s leader Bashar al-Assad and supporting the US decision to act, fell short of pledging agreement over military action. Russia’s Vladimir Putin used the occasion to insist that he is prepared to stand with Assad in the event of any such action.

Meanwhile the pro-Israel lobby is also busy rallying support for a strike. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the most influential lobby group in Washington, plans to descend upon Capitol Hill ahead of the vote, with 250 activists meeting with their senators and representatives.

The group has been careful to maintain that airstrikes are in the US national interest, with Israel’s security as a side-line: “It is in America’s national security interest to hold Damascus accountable and to send a strong message to Syria, Iran and others that the use of weapons of mass destruction will not be tolerated,” said AIPAC in a memo. “Maintaining our strong position and following through on our commitments helps strengthen our interests, including Israel’s security.”

Since Obama’s decision to take the issue to a vote at Congress, despite his admission that a “no” vote will not necessarily equal a “no” to strikes, the Israeli government has stayed officially quiet on the matter. 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.”

US State of Secretary John Kerry also invoked the Holocaust memory, referring to the situation in Syria during a Press Conference in Paris as their “Munich moment”. “This is not the time to be silent spectators to slaughter,” he said, bringing a reminder to all of the international silence as thousands of Jewish men, women and children were sent to their deaths in gas chambers in Nazi Germany.

A letter from a coalition of American Rabbis urged Congress to authorise strikes: “We write to you as descendants of the Holocaust survivors and refugees, whose ancestors were gassed to death in concentration camps.” The letter went on to claim, “Through this act, Congress has the capacity to save thousands of lives.”

Israel’s Ambassador to Washington Michael Oren released Israel’s first official position statement on the subject last week. “Israel agrees with President Obama that the use of chemical weapons is a ‘heinous act’ for which the Assad regime must be held accountable and for which there must be ‘international consequences,” he said. His statement made an indirect reference to Iran, claiming that US inaction would encourage “governments who would choose to build nuclear arms”.

Netanyahu asserted in his Jewish New Year speech that, “Israel is not involved in the internal conflict of Syria, but we will defend ourselves, we will act with resolve to protect our people, and no-one should doubt our resolve.” He spoke in the middle of the call-up of reserve soldiers to the Golan region and reports of a joint missile defence system test between Israel and the US over the Mediterranean Sea.

The stark warning, born out of the possibility that Assad and his allies will attack Israel in the event of the US military strike, was followed by Netanyahu’s reiteration of the threat of Iran to world peace. “These events prove yet again that we simply cannot allow the world’s most dangerous regimes to acquire the world’s most dangerous weapons,” he said.

Israel has long warned of the need to act on Iran, a staunch ally of Syria’s Assad, whose nuclear weapons programme has prompted concerns. In an interview earlier this year, Netanyahu called on the Obama administration to show by “action” that a military option to solve the Iran issue is on the table, warning that if the White House was too slow in Israel’s eyes, Israel could act unilaterally.

Israel is thus hoping that US action in Syria will send a clear message to Tehran that it is prepared to back up its “red lines” with action, and also a clear message to Israel that it does not stand alone. But with Iran heavily invested in propping up Assad, it seems unlikely that the limited, punitive action envisaged in the resolution will send the message that Israel hopes; it is also uncertain how far the newly-elected moderate Iranian President Rouhani will be willing to sacrifice potential diplomatic ties to protect Assad. On the other hand, Israel may fear a mission creep, with America tangled in a Middle East conflict weakening its position to act assertively on Iran.

Whilst Israel is no friend of Assad, the idea of the rebel movement gaining control of Syria hardly fills Netanyahu with joy, with some touting “better the devil you know”. The opposition is being bolstered by a number of supporters; combined with the punitive strikes this may pave the way for the fall of Assad and the rise of the rebels. Ambassador Oren’s statement addressed Israel’s concerns: “Even regarding the jihadist opposition, we prefer the bad guys who aren’t backed by Iran over those who are.”

According to Alon Pinkas, “This is a play-off situation, in which you need both teams to lose, but at least you don’t want one to win — we’ll settle for a tie.” The former Israeli consul general in New York added, “Let them both bleed, haemorrhage to death: that’s the strategic thinking here. As long as this lingers, there’s no real threat from Syria.”

As the threat of a US strike remains imminent, thousands of citizens flock to gas mask distribution centres in Israel. Not so far away in Damascus, Syrians who have lost so much in the two and half civil year war, now await US bombs to fall and, after around 100,000 deaths, the reaching of Obama’s “red line”.

As the Syrian crisis has grown in scale, it’s become more important to Israel — with the Assad regime moving closer to Iran, the archenemy of Israel, and the rise of jihadi groups also bent on Syria’s destruction, which have been popping up in areas adjacent to Israel,” said Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow in the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

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

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