The commonly known adage “with friends like these, who needs enemies?” may very well apply to the Obama administration. Recent leaks stemming from the US government about Israeli operations in Syria may have put Israeli security in jeopardy and endangered its civilian population. At the AIPAC conference on March 4, 2012, President Barack Obama declared “There should not be a shred of doubt by now; when the chips are down, I have Israel’s back.” The context of his statement was Iran, and he promised that he would not hesitate to attack Iran with military force in order to prevent it from acquiring a nuclear weapon. And, ironically, while he cautioned that there was “too much loose talk of war,” it has been Obama’s officials who have continually leaked information on secret Israeli operations in both Iran and Syria.
Fox News reported on March 29, 2012, that former U.S. ambassador to the U.N., John Bolton stated, “The Obama administration leaked a story about covert Israeli activity in order to foil potential plans by the country [Israel] to attack Iran’s nuclear program.” Bolton referenced comments made by former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in February, in which Panetta asserted that the Israelis could strike Iran as early as April, 2012. According to Bolton, this would be “entirely consistent” with the administration’s desire to avoid such an impending outcome. Bolton concluded that “It is unprecedented to reveal this kind of information about one of our own allies.”
The Times of Israel headlined on June 4, 2013: “US Spills Israeli Missile Defense Secrets.” The article pointed out that the “US government website reveals numerous highly sensitive details of a launch site to be built for the Arrow 3 system, crucial to Israel’s protection against nuclear threats.”
The UK’s Daily Mail, on June 28, 2013 quoted an Associated Press story about retired Marine General James Cartwright, who had been told he is a target of a probe into leaked classified information about the Stuxnet cyber-attack. According to the US media report, Cartwright played a crucial role in the covert operation (coordinated with Israel) in which a computer virus called “Stuxnet” temporarily disabled Iranian centrifuges. The Daily Mail pointed out that Republicans charged senior Obama administration officials with leaking the details of the operation to bolster President Obama’s national security credentials during the 2012 presidential campaign.
US government sources leaked information to CNN on Saturday, July 13, 2013, noting that Israel was behind the July 5, 2013 strike in Latakia, Syria, which targeted the consignment of 50 Russian-made Yakhont P-800 anti-ship missiles. These US officials “restrained” themselves for a full week before fingering Israel. A spokesman for the Free Syrian Army (FSA) Supreme Military Council, who was interviewed by Reuters, said that it was not the FSA’s doing and added that the attack was either by air raid or long-range missiles fired from boats in the Mediterranean. While the FSA spokesman did not implicate Israel, US government officials did. Earlier, on May 5, 2013, US government officials declared that Israel was behind the operation on the outskirts of Damascus just hours after the attack on Hezbollah-bound Iranian Fateh-110 missiles.
Israel maintained deniability in both of the above cases, which suited the Assad regime, as it did not want to engage militarily with Israel at this time. The Assad regime would have been content with blaming the attack on the Syrian rebels. Revelation of this information by US administration officials put enormous pressure on Bashar Assad, especially from his generals, who demanded an immediate response. Assad, bowing to pressure from his generals and subordinates, issued a stern warning to Israel, and vowed that Syria would no longer practice restraint following attacks on its sovereignty. Moreover, a top Syrian official told CNN that the “attack on the military facility was a declaration of war by Israel.”
In both Israel and the U.S., many are asking whether the Obama administration is trying to start a war between Israel and Syria. Intentional leaks by the administration officials could certainly provoke one. It should be understood by Obama’s Middle East advisors that publicly humiliating an Arab leader like Syrian President Bashar Assad would leave him with no choice but to retaliate. By exposing Israel as the attacker on his military assets, Assad would be compelled to act, even though he is engaged in a civil war and can ill afford to fight Israel directly.
American Brig. Gen. David Grange asserted on Fox News that the Assad regime remains potent with capabilities to inflict significant damage on Israel’s home front. He concluded however, that Assad will not risk an open confrontation. Syria’s ballistic missiles (some with chemical warheads) pose a lethal threat to Israeli civilians. In addition, there is always the possibility that Hezbollah would use these weapons.
Although 7,000 of Hezbollah’s fighters are in Syria, fighting against the rebels to preserve an ally, they demonstrated their capabilities in the 2006 war with Israel, and are now better equipped to cause major harm to Israel. At the same time, an Israeli counter-attack would be devastating for Hezbollah and its controlling position in Lebanon.
The above considerations are for rational-thinking leaders. In the Arab Middle East, where honor, pride and prestige are paramount, irrational actions, more often than not, overcome rational calculations. The Obama administration must be held responsible for ratcheting up tensions, which could result in a Syrian-Israeli conflict because of its deliberate leaks. At the moment, Bashar Assad has a dilemma. With the US administration revealing that Israel attacked him, what is he supposed to do — practice restraint and expose weakness? Or retaliate and become embroiled in a war on two fronts? Israel can ill afford to ignore the second choice, however irrational.
The Obama administration did apologize for the May 2013 leak, blaming it on low-ranking officials. The second leak, which was not apologized for, may have been initiated following Israel’s announcement of their successful test-firing of a propulsion system for a long-range ballistic missile that can reach Iran. Israel’s hidden message to Iran was clear. With cuts in the defense budget, Israel is still capable of launching a successful attack on Iran by itself. Obama administration officials, irritated by Israel’s “independence,” decided to refocus matters on Syria because of its reticence in engaging Iran militarily. In the meantime, Iran has reached a level of capability required to assemble a nuclear bomb.
Faced with criticism over its inaction in Syria, yet reluctant to increase U.S. involvement, the Obama administration may have chosen to reveal that an American ally, Israel, was doing something to uphold Obama’s redline in Syria, even at the cost of potentially endangering Israeli lives. It is entirely possible that the Obama administration is deliberately seeking to ignite an Israeli-Syrian war as a way out of its own dilemma. They want Assad out but are unwilling to do the dirty work. In such a war, Israel would destroy the Syrian air force and provide the rebels with a victory, an outcome Obama would like.
The leaks damage American interests as much as Israel’s by eroding the trust that has long existed between Jerusalem and Washington. Obama has demanded that Israel not surprise him with unilateral action against Iran. Israel has complied, and as a consequence, has been betrayed by the administration’s leaks. Israel can ill afford a war with Syria in order to resolve Obama’s political problems. It will have to reconsider sharing certain information with the Obama administration. The actions taken by the Obama administration endanger Israel, and it might well confirm the aphorism “with friends like Obama, who needs enemies.”
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