Hard Questions, Tough Answers (4.17.18) - The US, UK and France attack Syria: strategic ramifications


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

This week, Alpher discusses the US-led attack against chemical warfare targets in Syria.

Q. Was the US-led attack against chemical warfare targets in Syria on Saturday good or bad for Israel?

A. Looked at three days later, the attack was on balance bad for Israel’s overall security interests. It strengthened the hand of Russia, Iran and even Syria itself--three actors whose strategic designs are to one extent or another hostile to Israel. And it demonstrated that Israel’s ally, the United States, is operating in the Middle East with a weak hand dictated by an erratic strategy of disengagement.


Q. How could Russia have emerged strengthened by a US-led attack on Syria, its strategic base in the Mediterranean?

A. US President Trump first threatened about 10 days ago to strike Syria. As with the previous American strike against Syria last year, Trump seems to have been moved primarily by video coverage of Syrian children affected by a gas attack--children, incidentally, whose potential entry into the US as Syrian refugees he has barred. Prominently, Trump blamed not only the Assad regime in Damascus, but Russia too.

The Russian response was to threaten to shoot at any US missiles aimed at Syria and to attack the missile launch bases or aircraft. In effect, Russia announced that an American attack could bring Russians and Americans to shoot at one another, possibly precipitating a wider conflict.

In the event, no western-launched missiles or air attacks targeted Russian facilities. In fact, all 110 missiles targeted empty Syrian chemical research and development and storage facilities. Russia did not respond militarily. Both Russia and the US acknowledged that the two had been in close contact to coordinate the dimensions and targets of the US attack on Syria.

So the Pentagon got the blustering Trump off the hook by hitting empty Syrian targets. Syria’s chemical warfare capacities took some damage, but not enough to prevent more attacks. The US attack neither punished nor deterred to any significant extent. Trump stated he still hopes to be friends with the Russians. He still plans to remove America’s 2000 troops from eastern Syria. And most important for Moscow, its threat to engage a US attack head-on was apparently taken seriously enough to deter a more lethal attack.


Q. Is Syria at least deterred from launching further chemical attacks?

A. Syria under the Assad regime is a mafia state of the worst kind. It rules and deters by killing not only its enemies but its enemies’ families. It is currently enacting laws to ensure that most of the ten million Syrian refugees and internally displaced--half the population, who are hostile to Assad--cannot return to their homes. From Bashar Assad’s standpoint, notwithstanding the damage caused by US, UK and French missiles, the use of chemical terror weapons pays off. After all, the day after that latest attack in Douma near Damascus, the remaining rebels there agreed to withdraw from the area with their families. If Assad has his way, they will never return.

A year or so ago, when the Trump administration bombed runways at Syrian Air Force bases, the damage was repaired within a day or so and chemical attacks were renewed within weeks. The same is almost certain to happen this time too.

Besides, by focusing only on chemical weapons attacks, Trump is sending Assad and his Russian and Iranian patrons a triple message. First, you can kill and displace as many Syrians as you like and we won’t object as long as you don’t use chemical weapons. Second, if you do use chemical weapons, make sure POTUS does not see video of dead and wounded children. Third, if Trump does see the videos, precisely because he has no viable strategy regarding Syria he can be maneuvered and deterred into mounting a relatively harmless attack and giving plenty of advance notice of his intentions.


Q. So what’s the damage to Israel?

A. Here we must factor in the gradually escalating confrontation between Israel and Iran on Syrian soil. Russia’s President Putin has already scolded Israel in general and PM Netanyahu in person for Israel’s repeated violations of Syrian air space as the Israel Air Force pursues strategic Iranian targets. Israel is currently on alert for an Iranian attempt to retaliate for Israel’s attack on an Iranian drone base that killed seven Iranian military personnel the day after the Douma chemical attack. Israel was retaliating for an Iranian attack drone that was shot down over the Bet Shean Valley a few weeks ago.

To the extent Putin views Israel as a US ally and sees Iran and Syria as Russian allies or even clients, he could now retaliate against both the US and Israel by trying to implement new measures to restrict Israeli freedom of maneuver in Syria. The Russians are already talking about upgrading Syria’s surface-to-air anti-aircraft missile capability in ways that could hinder Israel’s attacks on Iranian weapons shipment to Hezbollah.

(Note: Syria and some Russians in Syria claim Syria’s aging SA missile arsenal intercepted most of the 110 missiles fired against it on Saturday. The US says none of its missiles were intercepted. From Israel’s own experience tracking Iron Dome interceptions of Hamas rockets, even at this relatively primitive level it is difficult to tell exactly what exploded high up in the sky. And based on Israel’s experience with Syrian intercept claims, the US statistic is largely accurate.)

In general, the scope and lethality of the US-led attack on Saturday leaves Israel underwhelmed. If Assad feels he can get away with chemical attacks on his own people, why not on Israelis in a future war? Iran, which experienced the horrors of chemical warfare fighting Iraq in the nineteen-eighties, should react with revulsion at what Assad perpetrates. Russia, which vowed in 2013 to remove all chemical weapons from Syria, should be punishing Assad.

Yet Tehran and Moscow back Damascus all the way. This is the trio of neighbors Israel faces to its north. The only one of the three that Israel consults with is Russia, whose warnings and admonitions are now liable to carry additional weight in view of Trump’s virtual abdication of superpower responsibility regarding Syria.

Further, from May 12, Iran may very well be free once again to develop nuclear weapons if Trump withdraws from the JCPOA, the Iran-nuclear deal from 2015. Saturday’s events tell Israel it will be on its own. As former IDF Chief of Intelligence Amos Yadlin wrote in Sunday’s Yediot Aharonot, “From Israel’s standpoint, the response of the western coalition signals that in dealing with the most critical issues in the northern theater it will, as of now, have to act alone.”


Q. Does Saturday’s attack affect the US profile as it approaches the scheduled mid-May US-North Korea summit, possibly in Stockholm?

A. If the Saturday attack constitutes the US response to the actual use of weapons of mass destruction by a rogue state that enjoys Russian and Iranian backing, what is North Korea’s Kim Jong-un to conclude regarding US readiness and capacity to punish him for possessing a nuclear capability he has never used on anyone? If, in addition, Trump has by May 16 effectively dismantled the JCPOA, what deterrent arrows remain in the American president’s quiver?

True, Kim now must know that Trump has at least the means and possibly the intention to destroy targets in North Korea as well. But Kim’s nuclear weapons give him a far greater deterrent capacity than that of Syria’s Assad.


Q. What is the significance for Israel of UK and French participation in this attack?

A. London and Paris are still prepared to follow the US lead and intervene in the Arab world despite the fiascos of Iraq (2003) and Libya (2011). But only to follow, not lead. Precisely for this reason, there is little likelihood that Europe, whether acting as the European Union or as individual states, will stake out an effective independent position on Israeli-Palestinian peace issues.

So much for Palestinian hopes for a European initiative on the two-state solution once Trump’s unbalanced peace plan has been laid to rest.

Q. Looking beyond Saturday’s US-led attack, what do all the relevant players seek at the strategic level in Syria? To what extent are these objectives mutually contradictory or complementary?

A. Israel seeks not to be threatened strategically or tactically from Syria by Iran, Syria or militant Sunni terrorists. It extends this approach to Iran’s ally in southern Lebanon, Hezbollah. In view of Assad’s criminal behavior, it is doubtful Israel will agree again to discuss with his regime withdrawal from the Golan Heights or, indeed, any sort of peace agreement.

Russia seeks to reestablish a strategic base in the eastern Mediterranean. It seeks to stabilize the Assad regime, which is an ally against the Sunni extremism that threatens Russia itself. Iran, which seeks hegemony as far as the Mediterranean by means of Shiite, quasi-Shiite and willing Sunni allies, has no quarrel with Russia’s aims. Yet Iran also seeks to mount a threat to Israel from southern Syria and southern Lebanon. Russia does not share this objective.

But how committed is Russia to Israel’s security? Israel has made efforts to accommodate the Russian presence in Syria and in the eastern Mediterranean and has established a measure of strategic dialogue with Russia. Those understandings are now being called into question by Moscow.

The United States under President Trump, as under his predecessor Obama, has minimized its presence in war-torn Syria to the nearly complete campaign to decimate ISIS. Hence Trump’s pledge to withdraw forces. In general, just as Obama sought a US exit from the region, so does Trump. The US does not like Assad and in the past has demanded his removal, but has taken no serious steps toward this end and has in effect reconciled itself to Assad’s survival and alliance with Russia and Iran. If Obama sought to accommodate Iran’s presence in the Arab Middle East, Trump seems prepared to ignore it.

Washington seems also to have acquiesced in Turkey’s aim in Syria to rebuff and crush autonomy by the Syrian Kurds--until now an American ally against ISIS--and in Turkey’s flirt with both Russia and Syria regarding the Syrian and regional power balance. And regarding Russia, whether in Syria, Ukraine, the Baltic states or the cyber arena, the US response has been less than strategic. This can be attributed possibly to Trump’s strange relationship with Russia’s Putin, and definitely to Trump’s incoherent thinking, which unfortunately is a “given” regarding all calculations for the next couple of years. Russia’s response to US peace efforts in Syria (the Geneva process), going back to the Obama presidency but including Trump, is manipulative if not downright dismissive.

Of course it is also possible to justify the US stance regarding Syria and indeed the entire Middle East. Post-ISIS and post-Iraq, Washington does not need this dysfunctional part of the world, this “quagmire” (Obama’s term). Trump’s outrage at the site of gassed children is admirable. A limited strike to send a moral and deterrent message regarding chemical weapons is legitimate, appropriate and worthy of praise from any and all who remember the gas chambers of WWII. Let Iran control the troublesome Levant and call America the “Big Satan”. So what? But then, this set of rationales inevitably calls into question the US strategic commitment to Israel, too.

Hence a worst case scenario from Israel’s standpoint is a series of clashes with Iranian and Iranian-proxy forces in Syria that escalates to a point where Israel endangers the Iranian presence. At this point Russia intervenes and the US suffices, at best, with angry Trump tweets.


Q. Is the Iranian presence in Syria really so threatening to Israel?

A. IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot recently estimated Iran’s forces in Syria as about 2,000 Iranian advisers and combatants, some 7,500 Hezbollah fighters and around 9,000 Shiite militiamen from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The non-Iranians were brought in by Iran and Syria after Iran discovered that its public is sensitive to losses among Iranian army and Quds Force soldiers so far from home--an interesting feature of the Iranian presence.

All in all, this is not a large force. But it is complemented in southern Lebanon by up to 30,000 Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah fighters who take their orders ultimately from Tehran and who possess a huge 100,000-strong arsenal of rockets and missiles aimed at Israel.

Shiite Iran and Hezbollah, almost alone in the Middle East (except for Sunni Hamas, which Iran supports) preach Israel’s total destruction. Against a backdrop of Syrian gas warfare and the inevitable Holocaust association, Israel cannot be expected to sit quietly regarding these threats. It cannot allow itself to wait peacefully and hope the situation doesn’t deteriorate.

Israel’s immediate concern is with the likelihood that the force under Iran’s command in Syria will move south to Israel’s Golan border where it could, in coordination with Hezbollah, sponsor terror attacks and/or a war of attrition while threatening massive missile barrages. In this connection, Israel seeks to ensure that Iran not pursue its buildup of sophisticated missile and other forces in southern Lebanon. This explains Israel’s interventions in Syria from the air, of which according to Eizenkot only about one percent have become known to the public.

Taken together with the Hamas threat from Gaza, this is Israel’s current “war between the wars”. Israel can control the threat from Hamas far more easily than it can deal with Iran’s drive westward through Iraq and Syria to the Mediterranean. In dealing with Hamas, Israel enjoys cooperation with both Egypt and the West Bank-based PLO. In dealing with Iran in Syria, neither Russia nor the US is helpful.

And Russia threatens to become downright hostile.