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The Impact on Israel of an American Attack on Syria

Soon after the UN inspectors leave Syria and are able to present their report to the UN Security Council, it appears that President Obama’s national security team will recommend an immediate but limited strike against the Assad war machine but will not seek to affect a regime change.

Obama has already provided the U.S. Congress with evidence of Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his civilian population. A U.S. attack would be, by all accounts, an effort to deter and degrade Assad’s air force, strike the missile stockpile capable of launching chemical weapons, and  eliminate communications and control centers. The question at this point is not if the Obama administration will launch an attack, but rather when, and to what extent the Obama administration is willing to go in order to defeat Bashar Assad.

The Obama administration has announced that it will not abide by a UN timetable. It has already consulted with NATO allies, Arab League member states, and other Middle Eastern countries.  Similar to George Bush Sr., Obama has been trying to assemble a coalition of states willing to engage in the attack on the Assad regime, including some NATO countries, as well as Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Friends of the Assad regime, including Russia, China, and Iran, have protested against the planned attack. And the Tehran regime already warned that if Assad’s Syria is attacked, Israel will suffer the consequences.

Obama, having committed himself to a red line, must act if he and the U.S. are to maintain any credibility.  There is ample evidence already about the Assad regime’s complicity and engagement in the use of chemical weapons against civilians.  The question is what effect a U.S. attack on the Assad regime would have on Israel.

An attack on Syria would be different from the U.S. attack on Iraq in 1991 to dislodge Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces from Kuwait. For one thing, the geography is different. Syria  borders Israel in the northeast.  Iraq has no border with Israel and is over 1,000 miles away. In 1991, the Bush administration ordered the Israeli government of  Yitzhak Shamir not to retaliate against Saddam Hussein’s Scud missile attacks on Israeli cities in order to preserve the wide coalition, which included Arab and Islamic states. In today’s scenario, an Israeli retaliatory attack on Assad would be acceptable if not welcomed by most Sunni-Muslim Arab states.

Despite the Netanyahu government’s pronouncements that chances of a chemical attack on Israel by the Assad regime are slim at best, Israelis are not taking chances and are preparing for the worst possible outcome. Thousands of Israelis have crowded the gas-mask distribution centers. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, in a press conference, assured Israelis that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) is ready and capable of dealing with all eventualities. The IDF has moved additional batteries of the Iron Dome anti-missile defense system and Patriot missiles to the Golan and Galilee. The long-range Arrow missiles have also been moved to the north.

An American attack on Assad’s military infrastructure that degrades his capabilities would certainly be welcomed in Jerusalem.  In spite of viewing the civil war from the sidelines, Israel has obvious strategic interests.  While the Sunni and Islamist rebels in Syria are not a welcome sight for Israelis, they do not, however, pose a strategic threat to Israel.  The Assad arsenal does. And should Assad be defeated, the “evil axis” of Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah would be broken smack in the middle. The Islamic Republic of Iran knows it, and it has invested much of its capital in maintaining Assad in power.

But even if the Assad regime would refrain from attacking Israel, there is still a chance that Hezbollah from Lebanon and Hamas from Gaza would attack the Jewish state. The chance of this happening  is also rather slim.  Hezbollah is heavily involved in Syria and, as a result, has lost much of its legitimacy in Lebanon. Attacking Israel would mean further eroding its standing in Lebanon, and a devastating retaliation on Lebanon by Israel would be blamed on Hezbollah.

Hamas has lost its Egyptian backer, deposed President Mohammad Morsi. It is now faced with a hostile Egyptian government, largely controlled by an unsympathetic Egyptian military. The need for a new patron, however, may lead Hamas into Tehran’s arms.  Still, it is unlikely that Hamas would provoke a fight with Israel. It is more likely that the Islamic Jihad terrorist groups would attack Israel from Gaza. Such an attack would result in painful retaliation that would garner little support for Hamas or Islamic Jihad in the Arab world.

Should Assad’s Syria, against all logic, attack Israel (and one has to assume that his logic is not the same as that of the Israelis and Americans) it would provide Jerusalem with a legitimate excuse to bring down the Assad regime. It is reasonable to presume that if Bashar Assad interprets the American attack as one that is meant to topple him, he might attack Israel savagely. After killing more than 100,000 of his own people, killing thousands of Israelis would bring him pleasure.

The demise of the Assad regime would be a major disaster for Assad’s Iranian patrons. Russia and China are unlikely to intervene. China does not have the global capabilities that the U.S. has, and Russia, while defending its Mediterranean port in Tartus, Syria, is committed to combating the dissemination of weapons of mass destruction along with the U.S. It will not risk a confrontation with the U.S. or send ground forces to Syria to defend Assad from Israel.

The reasonable assumption is that, at least officially, Damascus would not directly attack Israel, and neither would Hezbollah. The Iranian paymasters, nevertheless, might push Syria or Hezbollah to engage Israel. Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, knows that he may lose a great deal by attacking Israel, so he might sub-contract an attack on Israel to smaller, lesser-known groups. Additionally, Hezbollah might transfer weapons from Syria into Lebanon. In both cases, the IDF is committed to acting decisively. The transfer of lethal weapons to Lebanon is a red line for Israel.

Attacking Assad’s Syria is not a passionate humanitarian or principled move by President Obama.  He would rather stay away from another Middle Eastern involvement.  But, in this case, his credibility is on the line. The attack, if it comes, would weak and limited in scope, and it would not seek to topple Assad. A U.S. attack on Syria would serve as a symbolic gesture towards Iran by demonstrating the reach of our military.  Iran’s commander of the Revolutionary Guards, Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, is concerned about it. Hestated on August 29 that a U.S. attack on Syria would mean the “imminent destruction” of Israel. He warned that “Syria will turn into a more dangerous and deadly battlefield than the Vietnam War.”

Israel has to face an implacable enemy, not only in Syria’s Assad, but in Iran’s nuclear and conventional power. Israel cannot, therefore, afford half measures by the Obama administration or Washington’s  miscalculations in Syria.