Israelis support a US strike on Syria, but their larger concern is maintaining US credibility in the region in order to deter Iran.
As President Barack Obama pours on the pressure for a US strike in Syria, the overarching concern in Israel is not the potential for retaliation if the US goes ahead; it’s whether the US can regain some of the credibility it has lost over the past decade in the Middle East due to its controversial war in Iraq and somewhat muddled policy during the Arab uprisings.
Restoring that credibility is seen as a crucial deterrent to Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
“I think if there is Israeli pressure for the Americans to do something, it’s on the Iranian issue,” says Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University. “The only way for America to regain its credibility in the Middle East is to act against Iran. Because even a late strike on Syria would look very tepid and forced upon Obama by circumstances.”
Some take a more measured approach, however, suggesting that even a limited strike on Syria – making good on President Obama's threat of a red line if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons – would help boost US credibility.
"From a broader perspective, it is important for Israel that the United States reestablish its strategic influence in the Middle East and improve its credibility and deterrence in the region, including against conventional behavior by its adversaries," wrote former Israeli Air Force general Amos Yadlin and Avner Golov in a paper outlining Israel's interests in a strike.
President Obama began pressing for a US strike on Syria after a series of reports and videos claimed that Syria’s Assad regime had launched a chemical weapons attack on the outskirts of Damascus Aug. 21, allegedly killing nearly 1,500 people. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad denied his involvement, blaming rebel groups instead. The US Congress, which reconvenes today, is expected to vote soon on whether to authorize Mr. Obama to proceed with a strike.
To be sure, Israel is not putting obstacles in the way of a US strike, and there is strong support from the Israeli public. A poll last week by the conservative daily paper Israel Hayom found that two-thirds of Israelis are in favor of such a strike, even though roughly the same percentage of respondents said it would likely draw Israel into the war.
But Israeli leaders have largely been quiet on the issue, and while the main pro-Israel lobby has pressed congressmen to support the proposed strike, it has been done more in the context of upholding world order rather than protecting narrow Israeli interests.
“This critical decision comes at a time when Iran is racing toward obtaining nuclear capability,” said the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in a Sept. 3 statement. “Failure to approve this resolution would weaken our country's credibility to prevent the use and proliferation of unconventional weapons and thereby greatly endanger our country’s security and interests and those of our regional allies.”
Nor is there much evident pressure from Israeli officials in Washington.
“I don’t think they’re lobbying, I think some people are interested in their view of how [a US strike] would affect them,” says Josh Block, CEO of The Israel Project in Washington and a former AIPAC spokesman. “Most people are focused on the fundamental implications for global security…. It has very little to do with Israel and far more to do with Syria and their allies Iran and Hezbollah and what kind of world we want to live in.”
Israel has already launched several air strikes against key Syrian weapons depots over the past year, according to international news reports, and also took out a Syrian nuclear facility in 2007. Syria’s failure to retaliate to any of those attacks indicates confidence in Israel’s deterrent capabilities.
Israel expects the Syrian regime to respond to any US strike with some degree of restraint, given the fact that robust retaliation would likely trigger a devastating response from Israel.
"I think Bashar [al-Assad] will react in some way," said Maj. Gen. Gadi Shamni, who recently retired from a long career in the Israel Defense Forces, most recently as defense attaché in Washington. “But I think he understands that the meaning of attacking Israel might have very severe consequences to Bashar's ability to continue his regime."
Editor's note: The original version of this story was updated for clarity purposes.