May 5, 2013
7 Quick Comments on Israel’s Syria Bombings
There should be no surprise. For 65 years, Israel has claimed that preemption is not an option but rather a necessity in this region– has claimed and has acted upon it when circumstances have made it feasible. For a country whose margin of error is relatively small, waiting for a threat to become uncontainable isn't a good option. A pro-active security doctrine is built around the assumption that it is better to have a smaller problem now than a much bigger one later. Bottom line: Israel will keep operating in Syria and Lebanon to prevent the transfer of weaponry from Iran to Hezbollah – and it will keep operating even if the other side retaliates.
Such air strikes seem grand and impressive, but the much more important part of the operation is having the proper intelligence. Is it also the more impressive part? That's much harder to asses. On the one hand, Israel had the intelligence that led to recent attacks, and that's obviously impressive. The tricky part with intelligence though, is that we only get to know what we know, and are all in the dark on those things we don't know. In other words: If Israel's intelligence is good enough to track down every attempt of Iran to transfer arms to Hezbollah – that's very impressive. On the other hand, if Israel only tracks down one out of thirty such transfers, it becomes less impressive and more troubling.
This also makes the question of the necessity and justification of these operations much trickier: if Israel can only track down and shoot down one out of thirty transfers to Hezbollah, it makes the whole operation almost negligible. Alas, we – readers, analysts, reporters - don't know the rate of aborted and accomplished transfers. In fact, it's not even clear if the military or intelligence agencies can accurately asses their rate of success in tracking down such transfers. Hence – and as much as we'd all like to know that this was a necessary and justified operation - it is not very easy to give such assurances.
If intelligence agencies don't know the rate of tracking, the only way for them is to act on what they do know. That is, if they have intelligence on a coming transfer, they recommend action. In other words: for Israeli intelligence agencies and decision makers to decide against action, they'd have to be convinced of one of two things: A. the price of operation is higher than the price Israel will pay if it lets the transfer be completed uninterrupted. B. if they have a clear indication that the transfer they do know about is only one out of many which they don't know about and can't stop. In such a case, they might decide that the impact of an operation on the larger picture is negligible.
Israel unintentionally embarrassed President Obama by revealing to the world the fact that the Syrians are using chemical weapons – and hence that Obama didn't quite stick to his "red line" on this matter. It is clear at this point that Obama has no intention of acting, and that he prefers not to correct one mistake (drawing a red line) by making another one (intervening in Syria – which he believes to be a big mistake). So for Obama, these recent Israeli air strikes have been somewhat of a blessing. Instead of having to take action- or to repeatedly evade this issue or having to deal with tough questions about it– he can pay his dues by supporting Israeli action. The strikes- clearly coordinated between Israel and the US (that is, the US is well informed and approves of them) – demonstrate to the region that there are no major policy differences between the countries in regards to Syria.
No policy differences means: both the US and Israel would not take a risk to save Syrians from their Syrian countrymen. The butchery is devastating and heart breaking, but saving Syrian lives is not a core strategic interest of the US or Israel – that's the way the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government see it. When it comes to chemical weaponry, the two countries are also in agreement: it is a red line only in the sense that the US and Israel are committed to preventing chemical weapons from falling into the wrong hands.
Last but not least: following the attacks, there's been a lot of talk about Israel's so called message to Iran, and naturally, every bold Israeli action is a "message to Iran". But think about it this way: would Israel let Syria pass missiles to Hezbollah had Iran not been a looming threat? I don't think it would. The attack had very specific goals – prevention, Syria, Hezbollah. If it also sends a message to Iran, or to anyone else for that matter, that's great. Thinking about "messages" though, one shouldn’t make the mistake of confusing cause and possible consequence.