The Obama administration’s ostentatious display of indecision over the threat of chemical weapons use in Syria will only be exacerbated by the report of Sarin gas use by the opponents of the Assad regime. But as Emanuele Ottolenghi noted earlier today, the notion that the dictator has lost control of all of Syria’s weapons of mass destruction should make it all the more imperative that the president’s Hamlet act about treating the “red line” he set for the country end as soon as possible. But the Israeli attacks on Hezbollah and possible chemical targets in Syria have again made it clear that for all the scurrilous talk from conspiracy theorists and anti-Semites who promote the Walt-Mearsheimer “Israel Lobby” theory about the pro-Israel tail wagging the American dog, it is once again Israel that is doing America’s dirty work in the Middle East.
It is true, as Alon Pinkas writes in today’s Haaretz, that the Israeli strikes on Syrian targets are likely not directly related to the question of the use of chemical weapons. Israel’s interests in the Syrian conflict are immediate and tactical rather than strategic, meaning that it is far more concerned with the transfer of Iranian weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon than the ultimate fate of the regime. However, far from dragging the United States into the conflict, as Israel-haters were alleging after Israeli sources confirmed the use of chemical weapons, it is the armed forces of the Jewish state that are playing a vital role in keeping a lid on the conflict. While Israel has no desire to become embroiled in a Syrian civil war between factions that likely share only their hate for the Jews, its ability to interdict the regime’s efforts to transfer its weapons to a fellow ally of Iran is giving Obama time to continue to make up his mind.
There are still serious arguments to be made on behalf of U.S. caution in Syria, and it appears the president is sufficiently chastened by them so as to paralyze American action even after the “red line” he set was apparently crossed. The opposition is potentially as bad as Assad, and it may be that Washington has simply waited too long to act for an intervention to bring about a result that is even remotely palatable to Western interests. Short of a Western decision to enforce no-fly zones or to give heavy weapons to rebels, or at least those rebels the U.S. believes are not connected to al-Qaeda, the end of this war may not be in sight. Despite President Obama spending the last two years consistently calling for Assad to go, it may be that he will still be sitting in his Damascus palace three years from now when the president has left office. Given the bitter nature of the war, that may seem unimaginable. But the staying power of his regime and the value of the help he has received from Iran and its terrorist proxies has already been proved.
Short of the president arriving at a decision he seems unable to make, Israel remains a powerful deterrent against Iranian adventurism in Syria and Lebanon. Due to its hangover from Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States may choose to find a reason to stay out of the line of fire in Syria. Despite Israel’s ease in demonstrating that Syria’s vaunted air defenses are not able to stop attacks, America’s far superior forces may stand down no matter who is using chemical weapons there. That will create more problems that will only worsen. But so long as Israel is available to keep Assad and Iran in check, President Obama may feel free to continue “leading from behind.”