Ever since last week’s revelation that U.S. officials believe President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has used chemical weapon, there has been more talk than ever of the United States’ potentially escalating its involvement in Syria’s civil war. (Currently, it is only providing nonlethal aid to some rebels as well as reportedly using special forces to train the opposition.) In addition to, well, using chemical weapons, the regime’s alleged deployment of sarin gas fell afoul of President Barack Obama’s stated “red line,” so that were the U.S. not to respond more seriously, its credibility on future red lines—such as Iran developing a nuclear weapon—would be compromised.
Coming on the heels of all this discussion, Israel’s strike against a weapons convoy in Syria a couple days ago—revealed Friday by U.S. officials—must seem to many casual observers as part and parcel of a general escalation against Assad’s regime by previously reluctant outsiders. But Israel’s strike, which was not even the first of its kind this year, was launched for different reasons than a U.S. airstrike would be. Israel was not endeavoring to send a message to the Syrians, promote international norms, or protect Syrian civilians; and to the extent that they were responding to a crossed red line, that was of secondary concern. Rather, Israel learned of weapons (in this case, advanced surface-to-surface missiles) heading from Iran through Syria to the allied Lebanon-based Shiite group Hezbollah, and decided to destroy them before Hezbollah could get them within miles of Israel’s northern border. When Israel struck weapons in Syria at the beginning of this year, they were anti-aircraft missiles—same idea. (And if it was Israel that bombed a weapons depot in Sudan late last year, as is widely suspected, then that, too, would be part of the series.)
Dennis Ross, who was a top White House national security adviser for the region during much of Obama’s first term, told me that the Israeli strike is for the most part “a separate issue” from any potential U.S. escalation. “It's a surprise only in the sense that I didn’t know it was coming, and I don’t think it was coordinated with us,” he said. “But basically there’s an understanding that they'll act with these kinds of targets, and there’s an understanding on our part that this is legitimate self-defense.”
The Israeli strike’s greatest relevance to U.S. policymakers, added Ross, is likely the extent to which it can serve as a model for what happens when Israel or the U.S. tries to bomb targets inside Syria. It is useful information that Israeli planes were apparently able to destroy a target at Damascus International Airport, as opposed to, say, being shot down by anti-aircraft weapons. It will be useful to see Syria’s desire (or lack thereof) and ability (or lack thereof) to respond. “The only thing it highlights is there is an ability to attack certain kinds of targets without imposing all that high risk or imposing a slippery slope,” he said. “Israel’s different [than the U.S.], but it’s pretty clear they’ve identified what they’re going to hit, and every time they see something like this, they’re acting. And in theory, we could do something similar: If we are in a position to identify which units were responsible for using the chemical weapons, in theory, we could” launch a similar strike.
Finally, it is not just about Syria. Not only does Iran provide the Hezbollah-bound weapons; much more importantly, from Israel’s perspective, it is allegedly developing nuclear weapons of its own. And though there is a disparity between Israel’s and the U.S.’s stated red lines when it comes to the Iranian bomb, there is still a U.S. red line—specifically, the development of an actual weapon; Obama has famously said that containment is not an option. There is a tremendous Israeli interest in making sure the U.S. follows through if that red line is crossed. You can play the rest out yourself: if the U.S. does not enforce its red line on Syria, that likely communicates to Iran’s leaders that they need not worry about the U.S.’s red line when it comes to them. And so, despite specific protestations that it is not asking us to intervene in Syria, Israel almost certainly wants the U.S. to step up its opposition to Assad’s regime if only to show everyone that U.S. red lines aren’t more like blinking yellow lines.
Ironically, Israel probably bought the Obama administration some time to decide how to respond to last week’s chemical weapons news with this strike (or, more precisely, Israel likely bought Obama some more time; Obama has been pretty Hamlet-like regarding Syria). After all, when you really get into the details of everyone’s actions, it turns out the U.S. has sent Iran something of a message. “It’s a reminder that when it comes to certain issues, the Israelis are going to act,” Ross said. “And the common message is, don't assume the U.S. will stop them from acting. The more you see this kind of action from the Israelis and an American posture that certainly doesn’t look like it’s surprised, that sends a message to the Iranians.” Not nearly as strong a message as, say, its own airstrike, or providing lethal assistance to the rebels, or any other option from the menu of anti-Assad escalations that Obama’s advisors and the Pentagon have undoubtedly come up with. But a message nonetheless.
Indeed, it is probably telling that Israel did not confirm the strikes until this morning: It was actually a U.S. official who first leaked that the rumors of recent days were true and Israel had struck inside Syria. In other words, the Obama administration was more eager for the world to know of Israel’s strike than Israel itself was. In large part, Israel’s mission was accomplished as soon as its planes had released their payloads and flown safely away. It’s the U.S. that has some more explaining to do.