For Israel, ‘Mission’ Not Quite ‘Accomplished’


Tel Aviv — In the U.S., President Trump declared a “mission accomplished” over the weekend after the U.S. and allies attacked a Syrian chemical weapons center in retaliation for an alleged chemical weapons attack outside of Damascus.

Official Israel responded in kind.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday that Israel “fully supports” the action, which was carried out with French and British participation. Netanyahu said that the attack sends an “important” message of “zero tolerance for the use of unconventional weapons.”

Opposition Knesset member Yair Lapid, the leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party, said the attack sends a “clear message” to the Syrian regime that the world won’t stand aside while children are killed.

But some Israeli defense and security analysts were not as upbeat. They worried that the attack’s limited nature wouldn’t reverse the overall trend of Iran’s entrenchment in Syria.

The criticism of the attack comes at a time when Israel’s regional conflict Iran has been gradually escalating toward a head-on confrontation, and just after Trump said that he eventually wants to remove all of U.S. ground troops in Syria. Those are troubling trends for the Jewish state.

“I don’t think the Israeli administration is happy because the objective of this strike was very limited and focused on preventing the further use of chemical weapons,” said Shlomo Brom, a fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, a think tank at Tel Aviv University.

“From the point of view of Israel, the strike is significant, but not the main issue, which is the entrenchment of Iran in Syria, and the threats to Israel. This attack sends the wrong message to Israel and its allies. It sends a message that we won’t intervene in Syria.”

In a policy paper published this week, Brom’s colleagues at the institute voiced similar criticism, arguing that the attack was too limited and that Israel “remains alone” in trying to stop Iran’s growing presence in Syria.

“This attack was not enough to address definitively the violations of the rules of war and wide-scale attacks on civilians by Assad forces. … The Syrian civilian population deserves more committed international support,” wrote INSS fellows Udi Dekel and Carmit Valensi.

“The limited scope of the attack; the declarations about the focus on chemical capabilities; the meticulous care to not damage Russian assets in Syria; and the non-use of the attack to increase the coalition’s involvement in regulating the situation in Syria merely reinforces Russia’s and Iran’s policies in Syria and their continued support of the Assad regime. Israel remains alone in the campaign against the consolidation by Iran and its proxies in Syria,” the researchers wrote.

Other analysts were less critical of the United States. Yaakov Nagel, a former national security advisor under Prime Minister Netanyahu, took a more diplomatic approach and refrained from criticizing the attack. Still, he said that Israel would be uncomfortable with a U.S. pullout from Syria.

“We are not giving them orders. They are the superpower; we are the small country in the region,” Nagel said. “We think that withdrawing the forces from Syria is a mistake. This is what PM Netanyahu told President Trump. At the end, I assume that they made all the calculations.”

Pointing out that the joint attack would serve as a warning to Syria and Iran that there were limits on their military activity as the civil war in the country grinds on, Gerald Steinberg, a professor of political science at Bar Ian University, argued that Israel is far from alone in the region, contrary to the position paper.

“What’s important about the raid is that it was the U.S., the British and the French together. We haven’t seen that in the Trump period, and not in the Obama period for the most part,” he said.

“Israel isn’t by itself. The message is that the Iran-Hezbollah-Syria network is not going to be allowed to do what it wants — and that there will be consequences.”

Israel and Iran have seemed as if on a collision course lately. Israel shot down an Iranian drone over northern Israel on Feb. 10, and revealed last week that the unmanned aircraft was actually armed. Then, a mysterious attack on an Iranian drone base in Syria killed seven members of the Iranian Quds Force, including the Iranian colonel who commanded the drone unit. Earlier this week, Thomas Freidman, a columnist for The New York Times, quoted a high-ranking Israeli military officer making a rare Israeli confirmation of such an attack.

“This could prompt Iran, if it thought for a moment that it might not retaliate, that it now needs to,” said Danny Yatom, a former Mossad director in an interview with Israel Army Radio.

Since intercepting the Iranian drone, tensions between Israel and Iran have escalated even further, he said. “It’s much worse now. The Iranians don’t have a choice. We have to take into consideration that we are descending into a direct conflict with Iran.”

The attack over the weekend was an important message of deterrence that the U.S. would stand behind its word to not tolerate the use of non-conventional weapons, said Moshe Yaalon, a former Israeli defense minister and chief of staff, in an interview with Israel Radio. But it also highlighted the gap between the U.S. and Israel’s “red lines” in Syria, he said. While Israel wants to prevent a violent front along the Golan and prevent Iranian control over the country, the U.S. red lines are much more permissive.

The hit on the chemical facility comes against a backdrop in which Russia has long since gained the upper hand in Syria vis à vis the U.S., whose commander and chief has said he wants to withdraw from the country. The U.S. ground presence in Syria is very limited and located in the northeast of the country — far removed from Israel’s border with Syria. A decision to leave would, however, indirectly, signal the United States’ further disengagement from the region.

The attack, however, sends a signal that the U.S. has not totally disengaged just yet.

Will the strike succeed in its limited purpose of deterring new chemical attacks? Or does it signal some new U.S. policy? Most observers understand this as a one-time intervention.

“This sends a signal that the Americans have not given up completely on Syria and the eastern Mediterranean. But it’s a weak signal,” said Ehud Eiran, a political science professor at Haifa University. “This signals greater American involvement and commitment, but it’s contained. It’s a response to a single event. It remains to be seen if this will evolve later.”