Learning the wrong lessons from Israel’s intervention in Syria

May 14, 2013

Israel’s recent attacks on military targets in Syria have made clear the widening regional dimensions of Syria’s civil war. They have also fueled debate about whether the United States should intervene. Look, some say, Israel acts when it sets red lines, and Syria’s air defenses are easy to breach. Israel’s involvement has energized those, like Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), who argue for U.S. military intervention in Syria. Unfortunately, the interventionists are drawing the wrong lessons from the Israeli actions.

The first misconception is that the Israeli strikes showed how Israel stands by its red lines in ways that bolster its credibility – a sharp contrast to the perceived equivocation of President Barack Obama’s stated red line that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would be a “game changer.”

Israel has stated that it views any transfer of chemical weapons by Bashar al-Assad’s regime to Hezbollah as unacceptable. So its targeting of missile arsenals believed to be capable of delivering such weapons appears to be making good on the threat. But while such Israeli action against Hezbollah within Syria is an escalation, it is not new. Israel targeted such missiles earlier in the year and has been targeting Hezbollah arsenals in Lebanon for years. It also fought a costly war with Hezbollah in the summer of 2006 largely to degrade (unsuccessfully, it turns out) the group’s missile capabilities. Israel was thus not acting in Syria to maintain the credibility of its red lines, but acting on specific perceived threats to its national security.

If Israel always acted on the basis of maintaining its credibility — a murkier concept than many in Washington like to believe — it would likely already have launched an attack on Iran’s nuclear program. Iran has crossed countless “red lines” with no Israeli response. Some former Israeli military officials believe Iran has already crossed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s most publicly declared nuclear red line — the one he famously drew at the United Nations last September. Israel has not acted because of concerns and debates among its security establishment about the ability of Israeli action to effectively neutralize Iran’s program. The lesson here is not that countries should act for the sake of maintaining credibility but that they should act when they believe it serves their interests and might make a difference.

A second potential mistaken lesson is that Israel has weighed in decisively on the side of the rebel forces and that U.S. intervention to oust the Assad regime would help Israel. The Israeli intervention was aimed at Hezbollah and its missile capabilities – not at helping the Syrian rebels, particularly given that many of the opposition fighters are Sunni Islamic extremists who may over time pose as serious a threat to Israel as the Assad regime.

Israel’s security establishment is deeply ambivalent about the Syrian conflict. On the one hand, defeating Assad would break the so-called “resistance axis” of Iran, Hezbollah and Syria and pose serious obstacles to the re-arming of Hezbollah by Iran. On the other hand, the war is breeding extremists who believe in the destruction of Israel. The chaos brings risks that Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal will fall into the wrong hands and pose new unconventional threats to Israel. And Israelis would not welcome an indecisive U.S. intervention that eroded U.S. power and influence, as Israel closely links its deterrent power to American power projection and capabilities. The risk that U.S. intervention in Syria could lead to an Iraq-like quagmire would concern Israelis, particularly if they viewed such an intervention as taking American attention away from Israel’s  primary concern — the Iranian nuclear program

Finally, there are rumblings among those favoring U.S. intervention that the successful Israeli strikes on targets within Syria demonstrate that Syria’s air defense capabilities may not be as formidable as some suggest. While the use of air power in Syria is worthy of consideration, any decision should be based on whether such options would help address the dire humanitarian situation, not on how easily they could be carried out. Israel’s limited airstrikes are not necessarily good indicators of the risks and limits that may emerge with the kind of sustained air campaign that would likely be necessary to achieve objectives beyond degrading the military capabilities of Hezbollah.

The Israeli intervention in Syria has certainly raised the stakes of this conflict ‑ and increased the chances of an expanding regional war. But it has not fundamentally changed the realities and complexities that have so far restrained American involvement in this conflict. The United States should take care to avoid misinterpreting Israeli action as a reason to go to war.

PHOTO: Smoke rises after shells exploded in the Syrian village of Al Rafeed, close to the ceasefire line between Israel and Syria, as seen from the Israeli occupied Golan Heights May 7, 2013. REUTERS/Baz Ratner


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You really miss the point.

If Israel and/or the US intervene on behalf of the rebels, do you think that will undermine or bolster the regime?

Posted by Urban_Guerilla | Report as abusive

With all the listed pros and cons about the Israeli air raids are you by any chance trying to sweet-talk the reluctant Americans into another ME proxy war on behalf of Israel?

Posted by boreal | Report as abusive

– The Center for Middle East Policy and the Rand Corporation – no pro-Israeli bias on the part of Ms. Kaye in this editorial.

Come on, Reuters. Can we find any ‘experts’ who are not cut from the same cloth regarding U.S. affairs and the Middle East?

It gets tiresome.

Posted by Publius1791 | Report as abusive

There are two things from the that need to be taken into account. One is the neo-cons point to the raid as if the US getting militarily involved will be a piece of cake. And of course, saying no boots on the ground. Forgetting that air power alone never solves anything.

The second is that the US will have Israel’s back, no matter what they do. So for them, it is almost a risk free mission.

But it is nice to see noted that Israel’s interest in Syria and the US interests do not necessarily intersect.

Posted by pavoter1946 | Report as abusive

“The Israeli intervention was aimed at Hezbollah and its missile capabilities”

Absolutely not true. If so why not attack Hezbollah directly in Southern Lebanon?

The truth is Israel was seeking an escalation as a way of pressuring Russia, Iran and the Syrian government to back down. The West can no longer rely on their mercenary army- which is losing on the ground- for an outcome that’s favorable to its stated regime-change goal. So Israel’s, Turkey’s attacks and threats are meant to compensate for weaknesses by western-backed militamts/insurgents.

Israel’s attacks are used by the West as a a lever to diplomatic actions that aim to make Russia accept the idea of regime-change against the Syrian government.

Posted by Fromkin | Report as abusive

is this the best the Rand Corp. can do for a Middle East expert?

Posted by rikfre | Report as abusive

The only lesson that we can really learn here is that since we have not jumped on the opportunity to start WWII by striking Iran, Israel will create/escalate a situation that will require US entry to protect our “special friend.” Of course it wont set well with others in the region, including Iran, and, walla! It has cost us billions to stave off Israel this long, but we will ultimately go. To do otherwise would be to assert that US and Israeli interests are not mutually inclusive. And whom would dare assert that?

Posted by Casandra_aqui | Report as abusive

Great, balanced analysis! Thanks!

Posted by ptiffany | Report as abusive

Good move Isreal!!!

Posted by Anonymous | Report as abusive

Wow WhyMeLord…”Peace is not a strong Jewish trait”…really? This is why I’m so convinced that the anti-Israel posturing is always veiled anti-semitism. It makes it difficult for centrists like me to engage in critical debate over Israel. There are few with a reasoned and unemotional tone. To WhyMeLord..yeah, you probably think it’s their fault that the Romans spread them around, and that Mohammed and his followers murdered entire Jewish towns and that Edward Longshanks evicted them from England and the Inquisition tried to kill them or convert them and that the Russians killed many during their pogroms and on and on through to Hitler. My guess though is that you deny the Holocaust.

Anyway, on to the article. Simply put, it made sense. It’s funny that comments have lowered themselves to attacks on the author or her organization. The article is hardly pro-Israel – in fact, it doesn’t make a judgment on the use of force. It is simply warning against taking a hawkish approach to Syria by misinterpreting why Israel took the steps it did. I think it’s a good point. I don’t see why the US should jump into Syria at all. I deplore the massacre of civilians, but I don’t see how the US will make the situation any better by entering militarily.

Posted by Bobby2020 | Report as abusive

I guess blogs are where people pass off opinion as fact. Geez I’d expect better from Rand Corp. that liberal butt-kissing.

Posted by GuitarGuyMV | Report as abusive

Turn the other cheek? Israel has been attacked since it’s inception. It would have been wiped from the map long ago under this theory. Israel has had to defend herself continually only now the world has much more sophicated weapons and those tactics have shifted accordingly. What a statement that Israel should turn the other cheeck-unbelievable. What Israel should do, however, is not cow bow to the religious right who are stiffling peace with continued settlements and unwillingness to compromise. So there is certainly blame on all sides when it comes to achieving peace, however, turning the other cheek when it comes ti security isn’t compromise, it’s suicide.

Posted by Anonymous | Report as abusive

“Absolutely not true. If so why not attack Hezbollah directly in Southern Lebanon? ”

But israel has repeatedly especially in 2006. Becaue of that they are targeting weapons before they do into Hezbollahs bunkers underneath schools and hospitals.

/but you already knew that since you dedicate yourself to lying for muslims. taqqiya.

Posted by VultureTX | Report as abusive

Isreal is an apartheid state bent on war with all of its neighbors. This artifical state was created to rid Europe of its Jews. What a shame!

Posted by KyleDexter | Report as abusive

Common sense might hint that a government that is 16.7 TRILLION in debt, a big chunk being nation building, should not engage in more nation building.

The US government still hasn’t paid for its last 10+ conflicts.

Posted by cattleprods | Report as abusive

Another useless blog post about nothing we don’t already know… Do these people get paid by Reuters for wasting space?

Posted by Megapril | Report as abusive