'Mission Accomplished' in Syria would be blessing for Assad, trouble for Israel

Jerusalem remains concerned that the US and its partners are turning a blind eye to Iran's attempts to entrench itself in the country.

By CHARLES BYBELEZER/THE MEDIA LINE
April 15, 2018 12:27

US, British and French forces pound Syria with air strikes early on Saturday in response to a poison gas attack, April 14, 2018(Reuters)

US, British and French forces pound Syria with air strikes early on Saturday in response to a poison gas attack, April 14, 2018(Reuters)

 
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The United States, Britain and France on Saturday launched coordinated strikes targeting Bashar Assad's chemical weapons infrastructure; this, in the wake of an alleged chlorine gas attack on the besieged city of Douma—located in the strategic Eastern Ghouta suburb of Damascus, which Syrian government forces have almost entirely recaptured after a two-month fierce offensive.

The Western mission would never have been necessary had the international community enforced a 2013 deal brokered by Washington and Moscow—the latter being Assad's foremost backer—which called for the complete removal of weapons of mass destruction from Syria. The agreement, in turn, followed then-US president Barack Obama's unwillingness to uphold a publicly drawn "red line" to intervene militarily in the event of the usage of such arms by pro-regime forces.

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For his part, President Donald Trump has for the most part followed Obama's policy of limiting the US' involvement in the war to a campaign to eradicate the Islamic State, which, by all accounts, has been successful. The major exception was last year's targeting with dozens of Tomahawk missiles of a Syrian army base from which a previous chemical attack was initiated. The intended message, however, evidently was not received in Damascus, which on numerous occasions since has deployed non-conventional weapons against its adversaries.

The question, therefore, is whether the latest Western attack will have the desired effect or, given President Trump's stated goal of withdrawing American forces from Syria, the Assad regime and its allies will simply view the incident as a one-off and continue on their merry destructive way.

Notably, in the immediate aftermath of the strikes, the Syrian government shared on social media a photograph of Assad strolling into his office, a message of defiance that suggests little has changed. In this respect, while the targeting with some 100 missiles of three chemical weapons facilities constituted the most severe US, British and French intervention to date, the time-lag leading up to the response reportedly allowed the centers to be partially evacuated.

According to Dr. Jonathan Spyer, a Fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies who has traveled extensively in Syria during the seven-years-long conflict, the attack over the weekend will have "absolutely no effect on the strategic course of the war, with the possible exception that Assad might be inclined in the future to use conventional high explosives to root out rebels as opposed to non-conventional arms.

"The point of the strikes," he elaborated to The Media Line, "was that the Trump administration along with its allies wanted to enforce the international norm of the non-use of chemical weapons on the battlefield which has largely held since 1945."

Danny Ayalon, a former Israeli deputy foreign minister and ambassador to Washington, concurs that President Trump's primary motivation was to end Assad's use of chemical weapons, in addition to re-establishing a modicum of American deterrence. "After Assad persisted in using these arms after the US strike last year, Trump had to respond and by doing so in conjunction with London and Paris it brought more legitimacy.

"That said," he expounded to The Media Line, "the scope of the attack was minimal, as it was only on infrastructure related to chemical weapons and did not target other regime assets in order to hold Assad accountable. Also, Trump said the operation is completed so it appears as though he wants to close the file and maybe just leave Syria altogether. This would be a huge mistake because it would open the door for the Russians to control the entire Middle East and allow the Iranians to roam free."

Such an eventuality has raised alarm bells in Jerusalem and among regional Sunni Arab states which share a desire to curb Iran's expansionism, in particular. To date, Moscow has essentially granted the Israeli army free rein over Syria's skies in order to both prevent the transfer of advanced weaponry to Iran's Lebanese proxy Hezbollah and to ensure that Tehran is unable to gain a permanent military foothold within striking distance of Israel's northern border.

However, the playing field may be changing as evidenced by last week's public condemnation by the Kremlin of an Israeli attack on the Iranian Tiyas, or T-4, base near Palmyra.

Thereafter, Russia's Ambassador to Beirut claimed in an interview that Russian soldiers would begin intercepting missiles targeting infrastructure in Syria fired from Lebanese air space, where Israeli jets generally carry out their missions. Furthermore, Moscow announced that it is considering supplying the Assad regime with the S-300 missile defense system, a move that would jeopardize Israel's air superiority.

"The implications [of the Western strikes] for Israel from one point of view are positive," Ayalon contended to The Media Line, "as it conveyed to everyone that weapons of mass destruction—including the Iranian nuclear program—are a red line and America is determined to stop this. But at the same time" he continued, "the restricted activity shows that the US has no appetite to be overly involved in the Syrian war and when the winning parties carve out their spheres of influence the Americans will not be sitting around the table. The interests of the Israelis will thus be compromised and Jerusalem will find itself on its own."

Indeed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to highlight this broader strategic reality in the aftermath of Saturday's strikes, praising President Trump's resolve before qualifying that Assad's "provision of a forward base for Iran and its proxies endangers Syria."

This concern comes on the backdrop of the very real possibility that the White House will, in fact, opt for a complete military withdrawal from the Syrian arena. In this respect, US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis described this weekend's assault as a "one time shot," even as President Trump contradicted his "mission accomplished" statement by asserting that Washington was "prepared to sustain [a] response until the Syrian regime stops its use of prohibited chemical agents."

Overall, the collective dissonance lends further credence to those who maintain that the US lacks a comprehensive long-term strategy for Syria, a reality that, especially in light of growing tensions between Jerusalem and Moscow, bodes poorly for the Jewish state.

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