Syrian lessons

In past cases, Israel pursued its best interests despite US opposition. And in retrospect, Israel was right to do so. That should be the lesson that Syria, September 2007 teaches us with regard to Iran, September 2012.

September 11, 2012 21:55
3 minute read.
Satellite photos showing suspected Syrian nuclear

syria nuclear reactor site 311. (photo credit: Courtesy ISIS)


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If foreign news media reports are correct and it was Israel that bombed a Syrian nuclear facility in September 2007, are there any lessons that can be learned today vis-à-vis the Iranian threat? That question was raised by David Makovsky in a report appearing in the latest edition of the New Yorker that breaks new ground in describing the details of that strike.

For Makovsky, former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post, there are no easy answers. Major differences in operational and geopolitical circumstances make the situation in Syria in September 2007 and Iran in September 2012 difficult to compare.

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For instance, when contemplating an attack on Syria, Israel had the benefit of deniability. The Syrian nuclear program was so clandestine that even the chief-of-staff of the Syrian military knew nothing about it. The Mossad had gotten its hands on documents held by a Syrian nuclear expert living in Vienna that provided details about the Al-Kabir facility. And Israel shared this top-secret information only with the US.

As a result, even if an attack were carried out, President Bashar Assad could opt to pretend that nothing had happened. Israel and the US could also remain mum on both the nuclear facility and its destruction.

The situation in Iran is radically different. The Islamic Republic’s nuclear program is well publicized. Even the locations of its facilities – in Fordow, Natanz and elsewhere – are known. Deniability is not an option. And with multiple facilities, some of which built underground, the attack on Iran would be significantly more complex.

But at least one lesson can be learned from what has become known as Operation Orchard. According to Makovsky, Israel faced strong US opposition. If an attack had to be launched, it was preferable that the US, not Israel, carry it out, argued then-vice president Dick Cheney. Condoleezza Rice, who was secretary of state at the time, convinced then-president George W. Bush to pursue diplomacy.

Nevertheless, Israel, under the leadership of prime minister Ehud Olmert, opted to launch an air strike. In hindsight, Israel made the right decision. With a civil war raging in Syria, the entire world should be relieved that Assad’s regime lacks nuclear capability.

Operation Orchard follows a long tradition of Israeli single-mindedness dating back to the Declaration of Independence. Though president Harry S. Truman ultimately made the United States the first nation to recognize Israel on May 14, it was unclear until the last minute how the US would react to prime minister David Ben-Gurion’s decision to declare independence. Truman’s final decision was preceded by a serious falling out with American Zionists and it went against both the State Department and the Department of Defense’s positions.

Then state secretary George Marshall later recalled that on May 8, 1948, just days before Israel declared independence, he told then-foreign secretary Moshe Shertok [Sharett] that if Israel’s War of Independence went badly and Israel “came running to us for help they should be placed clearly on notice that there was no warrant to expect help from the US, which had warned them of the grave risk they were running.”

In the run-up to the Six Day War, secretary of state Dean Rusk warned foreign minister Abba Eban that “if Israel strikes first, it’ll have to forget the US.” Similarly, relations between Israel and the Reagan administration deteriorated seriously in the aftermath of prime minister Menachem Begin’s decision to bomb the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq.

In all of these cases, Israel pursued its best interests despite US opposition. And in retrospect, Israel was right to do so.

The same sort of independence of thought and action that directed Israeli policy in each of these fateful turning points should be applied with the question of stopping Iran, a country led by apocalyptic Shi’ite mullahs vowing to “wipe Israel off the map.”

That should be the lesson that Syria, September 2007 teaches us with regard to Iran, September 2012.

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