Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s brief statement Saturday night praising the US-led strike in Syria earlier in the day was telling.
First of all, he praised US President Donald Trump for his resolve to take a stand against Syria’s use of chemical weapons.
Then he added: “It should be clear to [Syrian] President [Bashar] Assad that his reckless efforts to acquire and use weapons of mass destruction, his wanton disregard for international law and his provision of a forward base for Iran and its proxies endanger Syria.”
US, British and French forces pound Syria with air strikes early on Saturday in response to a poison gas attack, April 14, 2018(Reuters)
In other words, it was great that the US, France and Britain hit the chemical weapons facility – as the use of weapons of mass destruction is a horror and allowing it to go unpunished is a stain on the world’s conscience – but don’t forget about Iran’s entrenchment in Syria, which for Israel is a tremendous concern.
Iran’s entrenchment in Syria – its interest in establishing a permanent military presence in the country from which it hopes to create another front to constantly pressure and harass Israel – was not addressed by this assault.
The attack was localized and only meant to deter Assad from using chemical weapons in the future. It was not meant to bring an end to the Assad regime, indicate greater US involvement in the Syrian civil war, or deter either the Russians or Iranians from involvement in the country.
Jerusalem, as Netanyahu said, is pleased that the US-led action articulated resolve about the use of chemical weapons. But the overall mess that is Syria remains – just as it was before the attack.
Assad remains in power, and the Russians, Iranians and Turks – not the US or any of the Western powers – remain the power brokers there. Israel’s situation vis-a-vis Syria did not improve much as a result of this action.
The message to Assad was specific: Don’t use chemical weapons to kill your people. Conventional weapons won’t bring about greater US or Western involvement, but chemical weapons won’t be tolerated.
Not tolerating chemical weapons is an important statement, but from Israel’s position does not go far enough.
Ever since the start of the civil war in Syria, decision-makers in Israel have been of a number of minds regarding what it wants in Syria.
There have been those arguing that it is in Israel’s interest for Assad to remain in power because then Israel has an “address” and someone it can hold accountable for any anti-Israeli activity emanating from the country.
Others have argued that he is a butcher who – for the sake of humanity – must be toppled, and that were he toppled, the country would fall under different spheres of influence, with the different sides sure to fight among themselves for decades, thereby not focusing on Israel.
Another school of thought holds that chaos in Syria serves the Iranians, since they could be counted on to use the turmoil to take control of wide swaths of the country.
Following Russian military involvement in Syria in 2015, one thing became clear: Moscow was not going to allow its Syrian ally to fall – it has too many interests at stake there.
And if Assad stays, then Iran stays as well because Assad is beholden to the Iranians and their proxy Hezbollah – almost as much as he is beholden to Russia.
Saturday’s attack does not threaten Assad; it threatens his chemical arsenal, but not his regime – because Russia won’t allow him to be toppled. And as long as Assad remains in Damascus, Iran will be allowed a foothold inside the country.
None of that changed on Saturday, leaving Israel’s decision- makers with the same dilemma they had before the attacks: how to react when Iran builds up its military capabilities and expands its footprint inside Syria.