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Supporting Israel in the Face of Syrian War Spillover

JINSA Report #: 

February 4, 2013

Last week, the Israeli Air Force reportedly attacked two different targets in Syria. One is said to have been a convoy ferrying advanced anti-aircraft missiles to the Shiite terrorist organization Hezbollah, the other, a large compound reported to contain training camps and research facilities housing Russian technicians as well a number of Iranian special operations troops. Accounts are incomplete and Israel has not officially acknowledged either attack.

Such military strikes would conform to Israel's policy of pre-emptive covert and overt military action to prevent Hezbollah, an Iranian pawn, from acquiring and/or using both sophisticated (such as the SA-17 surface-to-air missiles that are said to be the convoy's chief cargo) and unconventional weapons.

The Assad regime has stepped up assistance to Hezbollah, a longtime ally in the fight against Israel and increasingly one of the regime's chief battlefield allies in the Syrian civil war along with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force. Units from both terrorist groups have been fighting alongside Assad's forces.

Curiously, just two days before the strikes, the head of Israel's National Security Council, Yaakov Amidror, a retired IDF general, was in Moscow reportedly on a mission to convince the Russian government to take action to prevent Syria's unconventional weapons from falling into the hands of terrorist groups.

The longer Assad brutalizes his own citizens and lays waste to population centers where the resistance operates, the more attractive the extremist Islamist militias engaged in the fight against Assad become to Syria's Sunni majority, a point made in a previous JINSA Report. The larger the Assad regime's loss of control over Syrian territory, the less control it wields over its vast arsenal of anti-aircraft, anti-tank, and surface-to-surface missiles, and chemical and biological weapons.

This dynamic is likely to motivate Israel to take similar and quite possibly larger unilateral military actions to ensure its security. And while the likelihood of a large-scale Israeli military operation against Assad's forces is currently remote, the ongoing civil war in Syria increases the risk of Israel coming into conflict with non-state actors emanating from the chaos, a development desired by Tehran.

The overriding American interest in Syria is stability under a post Assad government, preferably one that is not militantly Islamist, hostile to its neighbors, and in possession of Assad's unconventional weapons arsenal. Israel's interests are the same, but also include preventing the acquisition of those game-changing weapons by Hezbollah, itself a terrorist organization with American blood on its hands.

Overhead surveillance and intelligence collection is essential to any Israeli preemptive action against this threat. It was not a coincidence that the IDF Intelligence Chief, Major General Aviv Kochavi, was meeting with U.S. officials at the Pentagon the same day that allegedly the Israel Air Force struck the targets. The United States and Israel have mutual interests in stability in Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon, and that includes thwarting Iran's regional ambitions. The current instability, which is strongly impacting Jordan and Turkey, is a matter of the great concern for both countries.

Now, after the election of new administrations in both the United States and Israel, the U.S. government would be prudent to engage in political and diplomatic initiatives to ensure as much as possible that no cracks are visible in American support for a threatened Israel.

Positive steps the Obama administration could take to support Israel if it is again forced to act include:

  1. President Obama, acknowledging the deterioration of the Syrian situation and that as a consequence Israel has been drawn into the conflict, issues clear and unequivocal statements that America stands firm with its ally Israel.

  2. Initiate a diplomatic campaign aimed both at our global friends and within the halls of the United Nations to blunt undue criticism of Israel for acting in its own defense.

  3. Increase the frequency and scope of joint U.S.-Israel military exercises, intelligence sharing, and cooperative counter-terrorism and cyber security activities as a public demonstration of the unshakable bonds between the two countries.

  4. Initiate a U.S.-Israel military study and planning group to prepare joint recommendations regarding policies and potential strategies for likely contingencies given that the employment of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) is currently a distinct possibility in the region.

  5. Develop and advance plans for working with regional actors to secure and/or destroy the Assad regime's chemical and biological weapons arsenal in the event of a governmental loss of control. In doing so, make the most of Israel's significant intelligence collection capabilities.

Furthermore, Congress - where the American public's overwhelming support for Israel is most apparent - should make clear its support for Israel's right to take action against the Assad regime if it is shown to be arming Hezbollah or Iranian-allied forces with WMD.

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