In Syria, A Deadly Game Of Bluff


Israel’s air strikes inside of Syria in recent days delivered not only bombs but also strong messages. The question is how they will be interpreted.

The Netanyahu government was putting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Hezbollah on notice that Israel would not tolerate the transfer of long-range or chemical weapons to the Shiite terror group operating in Lebanon and committed to the destruction of the Jewish state.

Israel has monitored but not acted on the enormous stockpiling of tens of thousands of rockets by Hezbollah, and by Hamas in Gaza, in recent years. The apparent bold Israel Defense Forces move last weekend indicates that while Jerusalem has no intention of becoming involved in Assad’s civil war against insurgents, including elements allied with al-Qaeda, it will protect its own security as the fighting has spilled ever closer to its northern border.

The Israeli action also sends a message to Washington, which remains stymied as to whether to support the rebels in Syria or stay out of the conflict, even as the death toll of civilians continues to grow. President Barack Obama appears to have backed off, at least for now, of his previous threat to intervene if a “red line” — the use of chemical weapons by Assad — is passed. The president is loath to commit to another Mideast war just when the United States is finally pulling out of Afghanistan. But he also doesn’t want to see Syria become a failed state, ripe for the takeover by Islamic militants, not to mention the moral tragedy of inaction in the face of more than 70,000 deaths.

The Israeli action could be seen as a sign indicating to the U.S. that Assad, fighting for his life, is vulnerable to attack and unwilling to strike back at Israel, or others not involved in the civil war.

With a U.S.-Israel-Iran showdown looming, last week’s military action can be viewed as a preview of sorts, each party carefully monitoring the response of the others. Will Israel act alone against Iran’s nuclear plants, as it presumably did against Syria’s military bases? Will the U.S. ultimately hold back from striking Iran, as it has, to date, stayed out of the Syrian fighting? Will Iran resist striking back at Jerusalem for fear of igniting further attacks?

The mood is tense and the stakes are high, but so far Israel has scored an unanswered point in this dangerous battle of wits.