“How did you do it?” Pentagon officials asked their Israeli counterparts after Iraq’s Osirak nuclear site was destroyed in 1981. “The mistake then, as now, was to underestimate Israel’s military ingenuity,” wrote Gen. Amos Yadlin in The New York Times last year.
Though he was referring to persistent speculation about a possible military response to Iran’s ongoing quest for nuclear-weapons capability, the former head of Israeli military intelligence was emphasizing an essential characteristic of his country’s security posture: Israeli leaders will determine how best to defend their people, and act on it.
That approach certainly applies to Syria, where an increasingly complex and violent civil war endangers neighboring countries. Syria shot down a Turkish air force jet in June 2012, and a skirmish along Syria's southern border left one Jordanian soldier dead in October.
Two years ago this month, Syrian President Assad encouraged Palestinian demonstrators to mass on the border with Israel and climb over the fence. To be sure, occasional shelling from IDF tanks on the Golan Heights has kept at bay Syrians contemplating any direct encounters with Israel. However, a side door is still open, and despite the civil war, Syria, colluding with Iran and Hezbollah, has kept the threat alive.
The alliance between Hezbollah, Syria and Iran has been a concern starting long before the Syrian uprising started in March 2011.
Israel has preemptively intervened, with air power, more than once to disrupt the arms supply line to Hezbollah in Lebanon. But the direct involvement of Hezbollah and Iran in boosting Assad – Sheikh Nasrallah finally admitted last week that Hezbollah is engaged on the ground in Syria – raises the stakes higher.
After the latest strikes inside Syria, President Obama declared that Israel has the right to defend itself. “The Israelis justifiably have to guard against the transfer of advanced weaponry to terrorist organizations like Hezbollah,” he said.
The neighborhood around Israel has become ever more perilous since political upheavals erupted more than two years ago across the Arab world. Syria’s stockpiles of chemical weapons and advanced missiles pose a special dilemma. Neither can be left unsecured or allowed to fall into the hands of Hezbollah. Those are Israel’s red lines.
“When we say something we mean it,” Ehud Barak, then Israel’s defense minister, warned in February, acknowledging that Israel had hit a convoy in Syria carrying missiles to Lebanon.
The U.S. says Israel did not alert it in advance of the recent strikes, though America supports Israel’s right to take defensive measures. But the question is why Israel took military action again, not just once, but twice in recent days.
In the 2006 war, initiated by Hezbollah, rockets and missiles from southern Lebanon hit Haifa and much of Israel’s north. Rockets fired from Hamas-ruled Gaza reached Jerusalem last November and the Israeli Mediterranean city of Ashkelon.
Understandably, curtailing if not eliminating the rockets and missiles in the hands of Hezbollah and other terrorist organizations is an Israeli priority.
Yet Hezbollah, with Iranian and Syrian assistance, has significantly restocked its arsenal. It controls southern Lebanon, where Iranian President Ahmadinejad visited in October 2010 and then went on to see Assad in Damascus. The Hezbollah-Iran-Syria alliance of terror is just as strong today, and factoring in the chaos inside Syria, all the more dangerous.
But Hezbollah and its Iranian patron pose a threat not only to Israel.
Hezbollah was responsible for the bombings 30 years ago of the U.S. Embassy, and the U.S. and French marines barracks in Beirut. Now, despite Bulgaria fingering Hezbollah for a terror attack last July and the recent conviction of a Hezbollah operative in Cyprus, the European Union remains reluctant to designate Hezbollah a terror organization.
Similar resistance to engaging the crisis in Syria has emboldened Assad and his Hezbollah and Iranian allies. Both the U.S. and the EU have demanded that Assad step down and warned him not to use chemical weapons, but have been reluctant to take firmer action, such as establishing a no-fly zone or creating safe havens for the millions of Syrian refugees seeking safety from Assad’s forces.
Obama’s own red lines on Syria have proven ambiguous, and sooner rather than later the U.S. will need to reconsider current strategy and act. Empathy for Israel is welcome, but Israel, which is not a party to the war in Syria, should not be left alone to take responsibility for confronting the threats emanating from Syria.
Lest we forget the essence of the conflict, it all began with the Assad regime’s brutal response to schoolchildren and parents protesting his rule. For the sake of Syria’s innocents and in the hope of holding together this fragmented country, the U.S. and its European allies should determine how best to end the conflict, restore order and rebuild – and then act before the situation becomes even worse.
Kenneth Bandler is the American Jewish Committee's director of media relations.