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.