Israel and the Syria deal

It is too early to assess the implications for the Jewish state of an increasingly assertive Russia and a more hesitant US, particularly with regard to Iran.

Kerry Lavrov geneva 14.9.13 370 (photo credit: Reuters)
Kerry Lavrov geneva 14.9.13 370
(photo credit: Reuters)
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.
This 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 Syria.
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 certain.
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 Asia.
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 axis.
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.