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.