Tel Aviv — Since the Obama administration’s announcement that Syria’s use of chemical weapons against its population requires a tough response — perhaps military strikes — Syria and Iran have ratcheted up their eliminatory anti-Israel rhetoric.
“If Damascus is attacked, Tel Aviv will burn,” a high-level Syrian official said. And Major General Mohammed Ali Jafair, commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, proclaimed that “an attack on Syria will mean the imminent destruction of Israel.” Despite the alleged “moderate” tone of Iran’s new president Hasan Rowhani, the Syrian civil war shows Iran’s regime remains committed to exporting its revolutionary Islamic ideology and terrorism.
But since Syria’s president Bashar Assad declared war on pro-reform and democracy activists in 2011, Israel’s preemptive self-defense posture toward Syria has been limited to four military strikes targeting long-range missiles and other weapons headed to the Lebanese terrorist organization Hezbollah, movements that threatened Israeli security. It should be noted that Israel has not confirmed any of the strikes, sticking to its well known position of deliberate ambiguity. And Israel was well ahead of curve in 2007, when Prime Minister Ehud Olmert ordered Israel’s air force to destroy a Syrian nuclear military reactor – surely a lesson the West should factor into its calculus in terms of how to address Iran’s illicit nuclear-weapons program.
Though Israel’s political leadership remains tight-lipped on a planned Western strike against Assad, it can be argued that Israel’s defense establishment sees two main advantages to military action: 1) a useful response to the use of chemical weapons in the region and 2) a shot across Iran’s bow that reminds it of the consequences of its drive toward nuclear weapons.
The Jewish state has thus far remained politically neutral in Syria, and its public actions have centered on providing medical care to the victims of Assad’s blood-soaked regime. (Sadly, the lifesaving and vital medical care Israel provided to Syrians hardly registers on the European media radar screen.)
Yossi Melman, a leading Israeli expert on security and defense, told me that Israel is “acting responsibly” with its “self-imposed restraint.” The Israeli Defense Forces’ advice to the country’s citizens with respect to the Syrian regime’s increasingly jingoistic actions and rhetoric is, he says, “Stay calm but be prepared.”
Victor Davis Hanson neatly captured one of the more interesting outcomes of the Arab revolts. He writes on NRO’s main page, “These tragic Arab revolutions swirling around Israel are paradoxically aiding it, both strategically and politically — well beyond the erosion of conventional Arab military strength. In terms of realpolitik, anti-Israeli authoritarians are fighting to the death against anti-Israeli insurgents and terrorists.”
Melman, independent of Hanson, mirrored this analysis, telling me, “Israel’s security posture has improved. Two of Israel’s bitter enemies — Syria and Hezbollah — are in deep trouble.” Melman, who co-authored the book Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars with CBS’s Dan Raviv, says Hezbollah’s best-trained forces have lost 300 fighters from an overall force of 3,000 combatants in Syria. An additional 1,000 Hezbollah militants have been wounded.
The options for Israel are limited. As a result, Melman stressed, Israel has to proceed with great caution. All “around us is chaos,” he says, and “we are on the edge of a volcano.” If there is a “wrong move,” Israel can “slip into the lava,” he says.
The increasing number of radical Islamic and secular Arab totalitarian threats confronting Israel further reinforces the assessment of the late Israeli general Moshe Dayan: “Israel has no foreign policy, only a defense policy.”
— Benjamin Weinthal is a European-affairs correspondent for the Jerusalem Post and a fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow Benjamin on Twitter @BenWeinthal.