For those who like to blame Israel for every aspect of American involvement in the Middle East, the debate about Syria must be frustrating. Despite being next door to the chaos in Syria, Israel’s government is making it clear that it doesn’t have a dog in the fight over whether the United States ought to intervene in some manner in the civil war tearing that country apart. Today at a New York conference sponsored by the Jerusalem Post, a member of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Cabinet stated the obvious: It’s not Israel that’s pushing the United States to take action on Syria. Yuval Steinetz, who holds the odd-sounding title of minister of strategic and intelligence affairs and international relations told an audience:
We never asked, nor did we encourage, the United States to take military action in Syria. And we are not making any comparison or linkage with Iran, which is a completely different matter.
Israel’s position on Syria is, if anything, even more complicated than America’s. Their main interest is in keeping the border with a state that is still technically at war with them quiet. Though Bashar Assad was a butcher whose regime has slaughtered tens of thousands of his own people just like his father Hafez was before him, Israel has stayed aloof from the conflict in that country. Assuming Bashar does actually fall some day, most Israelis are far from confident that the next Syrian government will be any less hostile than that of Assad. Indeed, with al-Qaeda-allied elements, it may be even worse.
Steinetz is right to state that Iran and Syria are two different questions, but if there is any linkage it was put there by President Obama, not Netanyahu or American supporters of Israel. It was he who stated that Syrian use of chemical weapons constituted a red line that warrant American action. It was he, and not the Israelis, who publicly expressed the belief that Assad had to go. If, even after the White House admitted proof existed of the use of deadly poisons like sarin, the United States does nothing, it will effectively destroy his credibility.
The White House might be more worried about the fact that, as the New York Times noted today, President Obama’s job approval rating on foreign policy is down in recent polls. But they should be more concerned with how the president’s dithering on Syria is playing in Iran, where the ayatollahs are counting on the administration being more concerned about a war-weary American public than they are of the mass murders going on in Syria to save their ally.
Friends of Israel are watching to see what happens when a foreign leader crosses what President Obama defined as a red line, as he did in Syria. If the answer is nothing, they’ll have a better grasp of what they can expect out of the administration on Iran.
But there should be no doubt about who set this red line about what is going on in Damascus. It wasn’t Israel, Netanyahu or the pro-Israel community in the United States.
The impetus to take a stand on Syria came from a president who was eager to place himself on the side of Arab Spring protesters against authoritarian regimes. No one was more vocal than Obama when it came to supporting the ouster of dictators, especially in Egypt, even when doing so brought little comfort to either Israeli or American strategic interests. Though these revolutions have brought either chaos or the rise to power of Islamist parties, the president has not recalibrated his rhetoric. He remains a firm believer in the wave of change in the Middle East as his continuing embrace of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt illustrates.
Obama’s stand on Syria was in the context of a “lead from behind” strategy that involved few risks for the United States even in Libya, where we joined a Western intervention. But no one in Israel was twisting his arm to talk about red lines on Syria, especially when he has refused to set them on the far more dangerous Iranian nuclear threat. He did so on his own hook just as his rhetoric about Assad was the function of his Arab Spring sympathies rather than any neoconservative plot.
Mass murder in Syria and the use of chemical weapons is something that ought to concern the civilized world. But having put his own credibility on the line there, the issue now is inextricably tied to that of the president’s reputation. If he succumbs to his fears on this issue, it will complicate Israel’s strategic dilemma, but it will be Barack Obama’s legacy that will be fatally compromised.