Israel And The Civil War In Syria

How does crisis in Syria factor into the relationship between Israel and the US

On Tuesday this week Israel conducted a ballistic missile test in the Mediterranean, ratcheting up tension in the region. Not since Iraq has there been such a discussion about whether or not to intervene in the Middle East. Much of this tension is because of the known stockpiles of sarin gas with President Assad, and, according to the Syrian Envoy to the UN, Bashar Jaafari, the rebels too. In addition, Assad still has a highly competent air force, sophisticated air defence systems, and battle hardened veterans. The West, and especially the US, has to factor in the security of Israel into its calculations.

The UK had until recently had taken the lead on Syria. The UK’s National Security Council has drafted a resolution to be put before the UN Security Council, and the PM tweeted “We’ve always said we want the UN Security Council to live up to its responsibilities on Syria. Today they have an opportunity to do that.” But whether that happens, with Russia being so closely aligned to Syria, remains to be seen. The British Parliament narrowly advised the government that intervention is not supported by the public, and Nick Clegg has said that unless circumstances change, there will not be another vote on the issue. The world in the meantime awaits the Senate vote in the US to see if they will react.

For Israel, time and geography demand a different response. Israel will be all to aware that in 1991, in an attempt to bring about a regional war, Saddam Hussein launched 32 missiles at Israel. To the relief of the internal community Israel showed commendable self-restraint and opted against retaliatory strikes. Although the Iron Dome System should intercept any Israel bound rockets, the size and density of Israeli cities demand a shoot-first-ask-questions-later approach to missile defence.

The current peace talks could also be a catalyst for Hezbollah to launch attacks against Israel. They are opposed to any agreement, and famously call for the destruction of Israel in their charter. Security chiefs worry that elements in Hezbollah may use intervention in Syria as a distraction, and launch a fresh round of attacks to break up the talks before progress can be made.

There haven’t been any major attacks on Israel in the past few years, with some analysts saying this could be down to the terrorist organisations rearming and shoring up their support, rather than a sudden chance of policy. Hamas has reined in, for the most part, attacks from Gaza. Israel holds Hamas responsible for any attacks from Gaza, and as was seen in the last incursion, it is willing if needed, to launch a full scale military attack.

The problems for Hamas, Hezbollah and the other organisations is that many of their international backers are supporting Fatah and the Palestinian Authority in the peace talks or are cracking down on Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood. For example, the Egyptian army, worried about increasing Islamist attacks on soldiers, has destroyed several smuggling tunnels under the Rafa crossing between Egypt and Gaza.

Israel has two further strings to its bow. On the PR front, Israeli doctors are treating civilians on the Syrian border and in Jordanian camps. Though under reported in the region and the West, it has left an impression on those who’ve seen it, those who had been brought up seeing Israel as the regional monster. In addition, Hezbollah have committed forces to fight alongside Syrian government units during the Summer offensive. Although successful, the decision has reduced the forces Hezbollah could deploy against Israel, and will be a factor in both sides calculations were the war to widen in scope.

America is in an awkward spot with Israel and Syria. Obama needs to talk up the security of Israel if he wants to sell the intervention policy to Congress. Yet on the Arab street, Washington is already seen as being the lackey of the Jewish Lobby in the US. Furthermore, can Obama really risk supplying arms to the rebels with the risk that they may one day be turned on Israel? Many Jews in the key state of Florida vote Democrat but would they be willing to vote for a successor to the president who armed Israel’s enemies? Time will tell.

Alex Patnick


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