Commentary Magazine


Syrian, Turkish Precedents and the Nightmare Scenario

Martin Kramer wrote an illuminating post yesterday on why American handling of the chemical-weapons crisis in Syria has unnerved Israel by causing it to doubt that America would attack Iran’s nuclear program if necessary. While I agree with his conclusion, I think that’s only part of the story. After all, most Israelis would prefer to resolve the Iranian nuclear crisis diplomatically, so one could argue–as some Israeli commentators have–that Syria sets an encouraging precedent: American threats to use military force seemingly persuaded Damascus to give up its nonconventional weapons voluntarily, which is precisely what many Israelis hope will happen in Iran.

The problem is that such an agreement only works if it’s strictly enforced, meaning any noncompliance produces massive punishment. Otherwise, even the thinnest façade of compliance will suffice to enable the signatory to maintain its nonconventional weapons program with impunity, which would be Israel’s nightmare scenario on Iran. And there are three reasons for thinking that’s precisely what the Syrian agreement will do. One is that the agreement is problematic to begin with, providing ample opportunities for evasion. The second, as Kramer explained, is that President Barack Obama’s original decision to punt the question of using force in Syria to Congress makes any military action to punish noncompliance unlikely. The third is Obama’s track record of refusing to enforce the agreements he brokers even when punishing violations wouldn’t necessitate the use of force, and would hence be much easier.

Nothing better illustrates this than an astounding interview given by the Greek ambassador to Israel last week. According to Spiros Lampridis, six months after Israel apologized to Turkey for its botched raid on a 2010 flotilla to Gaza–under an agreement personally brokered by Obama that was supposed to result in Turkey resuming normal relations with Israel–Ankara is still vetoing any NATO cooperation with Israel.

I wrote last month about Obama’s unconscionable silence after Turkey unilaterally appended two new conditions to the agreement and then used them as a pretext for not implementing its own commitments under the deal. But if you wanted to make excuses, you could at least argue that all these commitments dealt with domestic issues (returning Turkey’s ambassador to Israel, ending its show trials of senior Israeli officials, etc.), over which America’s influence is naturally more limited.

No such excuse applies to NATO. Not only is America the undisputed leader of that alliance, but NATO is currently manning Patriot missile batteries along Turkey’s border with Syria, at Ankara’s request. Yet Obama has made no effort to pressure Turkey, even though its veto not only harms NATO’s relations with Israel but also its relations with other traditional American allies like Jordan, Egypt, and Morocco. As Lampridis explained, NATO doesn’t deal with these countries individually, but as part of a Mediterranean bloc that includes Israel. Hence no Israel also means no Jordan or Morocco.

Moreover, this is happening at a time when Israel has not only fulfilled its part of the bargain but is also, as Lampridis noted, “demonstrating goodwill” beyond what the deal requires: It’s preventing significant damage to Turkish businesses by letting hundreds of Turkish trucks carrying millions of dollars worth of cargo travel to Jordan (and thence the Gulf states) via Israel every week, since they can no longer travel via Syria.

This, then, is Israel’s real nightmare: not that Obama won’t attack Iran if necessary, but that he’ll sign a loophole-ridden agreement with Iran (moves in this direction have already begun) that would also prevent Israel from attacking Iran if necessary–and then fail to enforce it, just as he has with the Turkish agreement, thereby enabling Tehran to get the bomb.

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