Is the Russian-led agreement with the United States to do away with Syria’s
stockpile of chemical weapons good for the Jews?
Taken at face value, the deal
appears to serve a major Israeli interest. Under the terms of the six-clause
accord, Russia and the US will ensure that the tons of chemical weapons,
meticulously gathered and stored by the late Syrian president Hafez Assad, will
be located, dismantled and destroyed over the next eight months.
would eliminate the threat of a Syrian chemical weapons attack on Israel.
Hundreds of thousands of gas masks distributed here in recent weeks may not have
been made superfluous. But the likelihood seems to have been reduced that
citizens will have to break open those gas mask boxes.
Also, while Prime
Minister Binyamin Netanyahu saw a US strike on Syria as important from an
Israeli perspective in so far as it strengthened America’s deterrence vis-à-vis
Iran, Israel had no interest in an escalation of the conflict in
Maintaining the status quo of a localized civil war, with all the
unfortunate bloodshed this entails, lowers the chances that a desperate Bashar
Assad, the current president of Syria, will make the irrational move of lashing
out at Israel. Destroying the chemical stockpiles also means terrorists aligned
with al-Qaida or Hezbollah will be unable to get their hands on them and use
them against Israel.
In short, the Russian deal appears to have removed
from the stage the loose cannon of chemical weaponry, assuming of course that
Bashar Assad adheres to his part of the deal, which is far from
Russia’s rising dominance in the region might not be seen as an
entirely negative development from an Israeli point of view either. If Moscow
was successful in placing pressure on Damascus – with the threat of a US strike
lurking in the background – perhaps similar pressure could be brought to bear
against Tehran to desist from its nuclear weapons program.
In Iran as in
Syria, Putin’s Russia has an interest in solving the conflict on its own terms
and thus prove yet again its dominance in the Middle East. While Moscow might
have an interest in seeing Iran in conflict with the West, the Russians do not
want an Islamic Republic with nuclear weapons near their southern border
threatening Russian interests in the Caucasus and Central
Admittedly, Russia does not enjoy the same level of influence in
Iran that it does in Syria. But it appears that Moscow’s ability to influence
Tehran exceeds Washington’s.
Still, the decline of US influence in the
Middle East is worrying. The US is, after all, Israel’s biggest and strongest
ally and the Jewish state is heavily dependent on America, particularly
regarding Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
The threat to US interests
posed by Iran’s obtaining nuclear weapon capability is incomparably more
pressing than the situation in Syria, where America has no clear interest in
military intervention, aside from Barack Obama’s obligation to stand behind his
promises. Few conclusions can be drawn from American inaction on Syria. Still,
America’s hesitancy inevitably emboldens the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah
And rightly or wrongly, Israeli leaders – including Prime Minister
Binyamin Netanyahu – seem to interpret America’s vacillating on Syria as proof
that Israel will be forced into the unpleasant option of acting alone against
Iran. If Obama is unable or unwilling to enforce the red lines he imposed with
regard to Syria’s use of chemical weapons, argue senior officials in Jerusalem,
it is difficult to envision the US taking on the even more daunting task of a
military confrontation with Iran.
As Netanyahu noted on Sunday at a Yom
Kippur War memorial, “Israel will have to be ready to defend itself, by itself,
against all threats... That capacity is more important today than ever... and
Israel is stronger today than ever.”
The Russian-negotiated deal to
destroy Assad’s chemical weapons, if implemented, would be a boon to Israeli
interests. It is too early, however, to assess the implications for the Jewish
state of an increasingly assertive Russia and a more hesitant US, particularly
with regard to Iran.