American officials are now confirming that Israel launched an attack on a Syrian convoy transporting sophisticated weaponry into Lebanon. As expected, the Israelis had no comment about the incident. But the squeals of outrage from both Syria and its ally Iran about the attack, as well as their furious threats of retaliation, show that the operation was probably a success. It’s not clear whether the transfer of what was allegedly anti-aircraft equipment to Hezbollah is a sign that the Assad regime is falling or whether the shipment was a payment for the extensive help it has received from both Iran and its Lebanese proxies. But the question of the disposal of the massive arsenal, including chemical weapons, that Assad still possesses raises an a important point about this latest twist in what has become a Syrian civil war.
As that struggle increasingly looks like one between a bloody tyrant and Islamist rebels rather than a democratic alternative, the American decision to lead from behind in Syria rather than to take action earlier when a better result might have been possible is looking even worse than it did a year ago. Though much of the discussion about Israel’s actions has centered on how far it will go to defend its interests, the bottom line here is that, as it has done in the past, the Jewish state is doing the Americans’ dirty work for them in Syria.
The United States has cautioned Syria about its cache of chemical weapons both in terms of their use against insurgents and their possible export to safe havens in either Lebanon or Iran. But when it comes to brass tacks, it is the Israelis and not U.S. forces that are being counted on to act to ensure that those threats have teeth.
The administration has spent the last two years punting on a deteriorating situation in Syria. Initially Obama was reluctant to turn on a dictator that he and his new secretary of state may have thought was a moderate. But eventually he switched and started claiming that Assad’s fall was imminent. Had the West moved swiftly on Syria, as it did in Libya, that might have been true even though such action would have been fraught with risk. But what we have learned is that sometimes inaction can be even more dangerous than interventions.
Syria is a crucial lynchpin in Iran’s strategy for expanding its influence throughout the Middle East. By largely standing aloof from the bloody struggle there, the United States has not only been complicit in the slaughter there but has allowed Tehran to save its ally, which it has propped up with “volunteers” and arms. This has led to a worst-case scenario in which the Assad regime is still holding on while Syria is convulsed in chaos and violence. That not only endangers Israel’s security, but also creates the danger that Assad’s arsenal will either fall into the hands of unsavory insurgents or be given to Hezbollah.
Though Israel will be criticized for having its forces cross an international border, in acting to interdict Syrian arms convoys or to attack chemical weapons stored there, it is doing something that is as much in the interests of the United States as it is their own. At a time when critics continue to attack Israel as a liability for American foreign policy, this attack ought to bring home just how important the strategic alliance with the Jewish state has become.