Perhaps I lack the intellectual capacity to understand all this hoopla regarding red lines, chemical weapons, arming rebels, Hezbollah, and this really mean guy name Bashar al-Asad. All I can gather at this point is all these people and things are somehow related. Maybe understanding this entire spate of genocidal violence is as simple as connecting the dots. But that might be a little naïve on my part. So why are critics of the American response to the crisis in Syria doing exactly that?
I can understand why the world is so upset about the situation in Syria. More than 70,000 people are dead and the violence continues unabated. Chemical weapons might have been used and Hezbollah has shown itself willing to support a crumbling dictatorial regime. The Russians seem intent on propping up the Syrian government while the West seems intent on eliminating this Alawite fiefdom. A lot of blame is going around and no one quite seems ready to accept responsibility for this tragic turn of events.
While I do believe the United States has the capacity to do a little more, as does the rest of the world, I find myself dismayed by the general belief that American inaction is the source of Syria’s suffering. Maybe this stems from the fact that the United States has taken it upon itself to make itself a proverbial military leader in a number of global conflicts. This record of leadership is an admirable quality and I believe the world’s strongest military force must take the lead whenever necessary. But as the example of Libya illustrated, letting others take the lead is sometimes the best course of action. And this is what I believe is beginning to happen in Syria.
Just short of a month ago, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel visited Israel. While this visit might have seemed like your standard meet and greet I think more happened during this visit than initially meets the eye. I believe this visit was a dealmaker in the sense that Israel might have been enlisted in helping to mitigate the crisis in Syria. We might have agreed to give Israel something in exchange for their cooperation in Syria. Granted, this is pure speculation. But I do believe we should at least consider the possibility.
Most of us are aware of the proverbial red lines that President Obama articulated several weeks ago. But naysayers and critics are already saying the administration either misspoke, has reneged on a supposed promise to intervene—I am still searching for that supposed promise by the way—or has shown a lack of courage in terms of resolving the chemical weapons issue. I however beg to differ. If just for a moment we consider Israel to be part of the American strategy then we might actually be doing something.
The United States recognizes that Israel is also concerned with the prospect of chemical weapons being used so close to its borders. All too often we forget that Israel has a much greater incentive to involve itself in Syria, more so than the United States. The obvious reason for getting involved probably relates to accusations regarding the use of chemical weapons. Israel has a right to be concerned, as chemical weapons, under the right conditions, could drift south to Israel. Collateral damage is part and parcel of chemical weapons use, which is precisely what makes them so terrifying. Once the genie is out of the bottle it cannot be put back in. While the possibility is still quite remote it is a possibility Israel would rather not deal with.
It is not clear why Israel struck targets in Syria or what they were even bombing. But deductive reasoning should tell us that it either has something to do with Hezbollah or Syria. On May 3 and May 5, 2013, the IAF engaged an unspecified number of targets in Damascus. The strikes are eerily reminiscent of a daring attack during the Yom Kippur War of 1973 when Israel attacked the Syrian Army headquarters nestled in the heart of the Syrian capital. While foreign policy experts argue the recent airstrikes might have targeted a facility involved in the transfer or production of chemical weapons, it could well have been a conventional Syrian military target the Israelis hoped to destroy.
Israel likely recognizes that Syria is on the brink of falling apart and could consider the Syrian military infrastructure as targets of opportunity. Syria and Israel have been tepid foes for decades. As a proxy and ally of Iran and patron to what Israel considers a terrorist organization, Syria has been a thorn in Israel’s side for quite some time. But now that Syria is occupied with a proverbial civil war, Syria is not well poised to defend itself against Israeli attack. This is a moment Israel is unlikely to squander. Just the mere suggestion that they could eliminate Asad or deal a dramatic blow to conventional Syrian forces are powerful incentives to become involved in the conflict.
As of this point, involvement has only materialized in the form of airpower and may well remain in that form until the Syrian Army or Hezbollah is no longer a significant threat or if Israel manages to eliminate Asad. Whatever the outcome, I believe it quite plausible that Israel is trying to hit Syria when it is most divided and most weak. As Abraham Lincoln once said, a house divided cannot stand. This is exactly what is happening in Syria and Israel is likely trying to exploit that division. If it could cause a significant change in leadership then Israel could well throw the Syrian military into complete disarray. What’s not to say this happens in Syria the coming weeks? What if Israel targeted their military infrastructure thereby disrupting their efforts against the rebels? So many possibilities.
Israel also realizes that Hezbollah is an extension of Syrian military power. Hezbollah is a guerilla force that has managed to withstand an extended Israeli military campaign in Southern Lebanon in 2006. Victory for Hezbollah was being able to survive. Being able to survive a military campaign against the best equipped and best trained combat force in the Middle East is no small feat. It speaks to the resilience and resourcefulness of what many would like to write off as a bunch of ragtag fighters lacking discipline and skill. Hezbollah has proven itself difficult to eliminate and has grown bolder as a result of its apparent political and military successes. This boldness, while it remains unconfirmed, might be manifested in the desire to acquire a deterrent capability.
Hezbollah has rather successfully carved out a large niche in the Lebanese political scene. It is officially represented in the Lebanese government and is fast becoming one of the dominant political forces in the country. With the Lebanese military being nothing more than a puppet and a centralized government an idyllic fantasy, Hezbollah has managed to fill the void as the de facto armed and political force of Lebanon. And while other militias remain they are ill equipped and too divided to mount a challenge to Hezbollah. Hezbollah has consolidated a large support base in the Shi’a and Christian communities throughout the country. Its effective social welfare programs have made it very hard for a good number of Lebanese citizens to bite the hand that feeds. Hezbollah is well aware of the political opportunities available and is moving fast to expand upon them. The organization is more than just a band of guerillas. It is also a potent political force that is gaining a greater degree of legitimacy in the past few decades. If Hezbollah continues along this path of relative success it could well usher in an era of politics that is an alternative to Ba’athism.
Now back to the idea of Hezbollah acquiring a deterrent capability. Chemical weapons are in a sense, a poor man’s version of nuclear weapons. They are easier to obtain and do not require the level of sophisticated maintenance nuclear weapons entail. Hezbollah is unlikely to obtain a nuclear weapon anytime soon and will most likely not seek to obtain one for fear of incurring the wrath of Israel of the United States. That is much too risky and could well jeopardize the political infrastructure it has worked so hard to establish. Chemical weapons are likely perceived as a middle ground between conventional and nuclear weaponry.
Chemical weapons are nasty to say the least. But judging by how the world responds to the use of chemical weapons the world seems rather ambivalent regarding their use. Just ask the Iraqi Kurds what kind of help they received when Saddam Hussein ordered chemical attacks on them. To put it bluntly, the rest of the world claims to view the use of chemical weapons as particularly abhorrent but hardly does anything to stop them from being used. Hezbollah therefore might consider the acquisition of chemical weapons a worthwhile risk in light of the tepid global response to their use. In acquiring chemical weapons, Hezbollah would probably adopt the Israeli deterrent strategy. Israel has not publically confirmed it possesses a stockpile of nuclear warheads and it does this to keep its conventional foes guessing. Some will say this strategy have shown itself to be very effective. This sort of guessing game was also pioneered by Saddam Hussein who inflated the belief he was in possession of a vast chemical weapons arsenal to intimidate his foes and probably stave off further American advance during the first Gulf War. In that sense, Hezbollah would likely hint that it is in possession of chemical weapons but never openly confirm or deny. This would definitely make Israel nervous but also make it think twice before engaging Hezbollah like it did 2006.
Israel is probably well aware of Hezbollah’s ambitions. It also has no desire to see it become a popular political force and it certainly does not want it to acquire a deterrent capability. They do however have a desire to prevent these outcomes from being realized and its recent military actions reflect this. This is where the United States comes in. The Obama administration established the use of chemical weapons as a red line and implied that something would be done about it. Now we assume that means that the United States might respond with its own military. But what if that was not the strategy the Obama administration sought? What if the United States wanted respond to the use of chemical weapons by way of proxy?
The administration recognizes that the people of the United States are fed up with more than ten years of sustained warfare. Families are affected by the loss of loved ones, the economy has suffered tremendously, and the military is in great need of a reprieve to rebuild and retool itself for the twenty-first century. Under these circumstances it was a miracle the United States was able to do much of anything with regard to Libya. But it also had help and Libya was much easier than Syria in terms of complexity. Granted, Libya is currently in the throes of sectarian strife. But that is a topic for another day. The point is the United States has essentially run out of steam to do much else military.
Recognizing the reality of limits the Obama administration has likely chosen response by proxy as the best course of action. That proxy, you guessed it, is none other than Israel. The United States recognizes that Israel is more concerned about the use and transfer of chemical weapons than they are. But both countries are nevertheless aligned in their interest of eliminating them. Israel however has a much greater incentive to destroy those weapons than the United States. Syria and Hezbollah reside in Israel’s proverbial backyard and to turn a blind eye to it is nothing short of unacceptable. The insinuation that those weapons might have been used would be enough to get Israel to respond militarily. Unlike the United States, Israel knows the lay of the land and is none too shy about buzzing Syria. It routinely flies over Syria for training purposes and has operated in Syria in three major conflicts. They can more effectively attack Syria than the United States can and has actual combat experience operating in the country. In recognition of our aligned interests and Israel’s military history with Syria and Hezbollah, why would we even bother using our military? Why do things yourself when others can and want to do it for you?
Israel has proven to be a remarkable asset in terms of keeping Syria from obtaining nuclear weapons and has demonstrated a consistent record of success with regards to attacking targets in Syria. The United States has no proven track record in Syria and would more than likely put American pilots at risk of being shot down. It would be a nightmare for an American to be captured by the Syrians and paraded around as a bargaining chip that would put us at an even greater military disadvantage. Why go through all of that angst when you have someone who could do the job much better than we can?
To borrow an analogy, in a football game, it is not always the quarterback that wins the game. Sometimes the game is won by a kicker. Everyone loves the quarterback. But sometimes the kicker is your best and only option. After all, how stupid would it be for a quarterback to go for six on fourth down when the only thing you have to do is put your kicker out there to do it for you? Sure, the kicker might miss. But it is a hell of a lot better than doing something as risky as trying to complete a pass on fourth down. That is how we should look at this red lines situation. The United States is the quarterback and the one who is perceived as being the proverbial leader, the guy who gets things done. Israel is the kicker, the alternative when the quarterback is unable to get the job done. This does not represent weakness but rather a change in how the game is played. Everyone likes a good ole touchdown now and then. But sometimes it’s just smart to take three points and call it a day. You might not win the game in a blowout but at least you’ve won. And in the world of foreign affairs winning by the skin of your teeth is the name of the game.