Syria Learns: Don't Cross Israel's 'Red Line'

Hezbollah thwarted from securing chemical weapons -- while U.S. leads from behind.

Image:Israel’s air force is reported to have attacked last Thursday a shipment of advanced surface-to-surface missiles from Iran that were believed to be on their way to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Then, early Sunday, according to a Western intelligence source, Israel struck Iranian-supplied missiles headed for Hezbollah again, this time in the vicinity of the Jamraya complex, Syria’s main research center for work on biological and chemical weapons. These attacks followed Israeli airstrikes early this year against a convoy of SA-17 antiaircraft weapons being readied for delivery to Hezbollah. With its strikes, Israel has made clear that it considers the transfer of dangerous weapons to terrorists to be a clear red line that will be enforced with severity if crossed and that there is no room for Syria to test the waters on this issue. The Obama administration, meanwhile, is once again leading from behind on the serious matter of preventing the such weapons from dispersing, while the region rapidly deteriorates. 

A spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington said in a statement, “Israel is determined to prevent the transfer of chemical weapons or other game-changing weaponry by the Syrian regime to terrorists, especially to Hezbollah in Lebanon.”

Israel's intelligence indicates that Hezbollah has already set up several bases in Syria, near known locations housing parts of Assad's chemical warfare arsenal. Drones may be helping Israel gather intelligence, facilitated by Jordan's decision to open its air space for the Israeli drone flights en route to Syria.

In addition to the danger of Hezbollah getting access to Syria's chemical weapons, jihadist opposition forces, led by the al Qaeda-affiliated Al Nusra Front, are now within striking distance of Syria’s largest WMD caches.

Israel understands far better than the United States and its other allies the common threat posed by Islamists on either side of the Syrian civil war. In these circumstances, as Zalman Shoval, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States said, Israel's options boil down to a choice "between cholera and the plague."  Thus, Israel's top priority with regard to Syria is to prevent the transfer of advanced weapons, chemical or otherwise, to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's Hezbollah allies and to prevent the seizure of such weapons by jihadists who dominate the opposition fighting to overthrow the regime. “The Israelis are saying, ‘O.K., whichever way the civil war is going, we are going to keep our red lines,'” said Ehud Yaari, an Israel-based fellow of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

President Obama has drawn his own red line regarding the Syrian regime's use of chemical weapons. However, his red line grows blurrier by the day as the U.S. military and intelligence communities acknowledge that we do not know where many of the chemical weapons are located, much less how and by whom they might have been used. "We’ve lost track of lots of this stuff," one U.S. official told The Daily Beast. "We just don’t know where a lot of it is."

President Obama is waiting for more conclusive proof of the Syrian government's use of chemical weapons before deciding on next steps. “We don’t know how they were used, when they were used, who used them, we don’t have a chain of custody that establishes what exactly happened,” he said. Such proof "would cause us to rethink the range of options that are available to us,” he added.

While President Obama's caution makes sense in deciding whether and under what circumstances to increase U.S. involvement in Syria, he is mistaken in waiting to "mobilize the international community to support what we do."

The United Nations, to which President Obama has outsourced major portions of his foreign policy, has been paralyzed in dealing with Syria by differences among the permanent members of the Security Council. Russia and China have vetoed several UN Security Council resolutions against the Assad regime.

Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N.-Arab League envoy for Syria, reportedly plans to resign his post in the coming weeks. Like Kofi Annan before him, who also resigned this post, Brahimi is frustrated by the inability to reach a diplomatic solution to the two year old conflict in Syria. “I am personally, profoundly sorry that my own efforts have produced so little,” he told the Security Council in a closed-door meeting last month. “I apologize to the Syrian people for having, in the end, done so little for them during these past eight months and to you, in this council, for having had only sad news to report to you.”

The United Nations has also been unable to send its expert fact-finding team into Syria to investigate alleged use of chemical weapons. Syria refuses to give its consent for the UN team to conduct the on-site investigation unless the investigation is limited only to the one instance that the Syrian government had reported to the UN, rather than also include in the investigation other instances of alleged use presented by France and the United Kingdom.

H.E. Bashar Ja'afari, Syria's ambassador to the United Nations, derided the lack of detailed information to back up the French and British allegations, such as blood samples, testimonies of injured persons, medical reports or footage that he said the Syrian government had furnished to the UN Secretariat in support of its allegation. Yet, even if such information were supplied by France and the United Kingdom to the satisfaction of the UN's technical team as sufficient to warrant an on-site independent investigation of their allegations, Ambassador Ja'afari refused to say whether Syria would consent to allowing such an investigation.

"The Syrian government is still waiting to receive information on these situations,” Ja’afari said. “Then, if the Syrian government and the secretary-general and the Security Council members feel that these allegations are also credible, the Syrian government might — might — examine the possibility of asking for further investigation...then it would be up to us.”

Aside from the UN's inability to deal with the Syrian crisis, President Obama is searching for an "international consensus" that does not exist beyond the immediate situation with Assad.  It is true that, with the notable exceptions of Russia, China and Iran, there is a broad consensus that Assad should go. The Arab League has gone as far as seating representatives of the Syrian opposition at its recent summit meeting. Although Russia and China have vetoed several UN Security Council resolutions against the Assad regime, Qatar is moving forward in the UN General Assembly with a proposed resolution welcoming the establishment of the National Coalition of the Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces and noting "the wide international acknowledgement of the Coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people." After some minor tinkering, we can expect this resolution to pass overwhelmingly in the General Assembly.

However, the notion that there is any real international consensus on what should come next after Assad is a mirage. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey are looking to establish an Islamist state in place of the current regime, not anything resembling the pluralistic secular democracy that the U.S. and its European allies have in mind. The Syrian opposition forces are in fact increasingly dominated by Islamists who hate our guts and would love to get their hands on Assad's chemical weapons to use against us.

Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey are providing arms and funding to the opposition. They are using the West's opposition to the Assad regime and the threat of its use of chemical weapons against its own people to suck us into deeper involvement in toppling Assad. Leading from behind as usual, the Obama administration is now strongly considering arming the opposition and participating in attacks on Syria's air defenses, missiles and air force, using the chemical weapons threat as a further excuse to buttress a so-called "international consensus" against Assad. France and the United Kingdom are considering supplying arms to the opposition once the European Union arms embargo ends at the end of May. What awaits us in the aftermath of Assad's overthrow is left for another day to worry about.

The United States should not be guided by a phony "international consensus." Let the Sunni Arab states and Turkey fight their own battles against Assad and his Shiite backers in Iran and Hezbollah. The carnage is deplorable but, other than providing humanitarian aid, anything we do to intervene in an intra-Muslim battle will backfire. History should be our guide here.

America's interest is to prevent Syria's chemical and biological weapons from getting into the hands of terrorists, whether they be Shiite or Sunni jihadists. That should be our only red line. Following the talisman of an "international consensus" is a recipe for disaster.

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