As plans for a US attack on Syria gained momentum, Israel this week embarked on a partial call-up of essential reservists and deployed the widest range ever of its three-tiered missile defense system.
Wednesday, Aug. 28, reserve members of IDF missile and anti-air units – including the teams attached to the Arrow, Patriot and Iron Dome systems – were mobilized, as well as air force, intelligence and home defense personnel.
Missile interceptor batteries were spread out at strategic and heavily-populated points on the Israeli map – from northern areas within range of Syrian and Lebanon, to the southern regions abutting Egypt and Gaza. Regular army leaves, especially in the Northern Command, were cancelled for the coming weekend and the two-day Jewish New Year festival starting Wednesday night, Sept. 4.
Air raid shelters were unlocked and made ready in the big cities of Tel Aviv and Haifa.
That was one aspect of life in Israel in the shadow of a projected Western punitive operation against Syria for using chemical weapons against its people on Aug. 21.
But there was another aspect: It was the message delivered day and night in unison by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon and Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, backed by a chorus of senior government ministers: This message informed the public that Israel is not involved in Syria’s civil conflict or US plans for military intervention in that conflict.
Therefore, expectations of Syria retaliating against Israel for this intervention are extremely low.
In any case, Bashar Assad must realize that if he did, he would rue the day because Israel would hit back hard.
Israel renders assistance to rebels in southern Syria
This message does not represent the real picture because it omits three facts:
1. Israel is secretly involved in the Syrian war. In the southern sector, Israel has carved out two buffer enclaves where rebel forces receive military and intelligence assistance from the Israel Defense Forces, as well as food and medical aid.
This project is totally blacked out, except when wounded Syrian rebel fighters – numbered so far in scores – cross into Israel from those enclaves and are admitted to Israel hospitals for treatment.
2. Israel via the US has guaranteed Jordan’s King Abdullah an IDF Air Force fighter craft and missile shield in the event of a Syrian attack on his kingdom. Some of Israel’s contacts with rebel units based in southern Syria go through Jordan.
Israel and Jordan have signed a military air relations pact permitting Israeli bombers and fighters to transit Jordanian air space to reach Syria.
3. As we reported in a separate article in this issue, President Barack Obama requested and obtained from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu a secret commitment to react with restraint to a minor Syrian or Hizballah missile attack – or not at all.
This deal has given Israeli leaders the confidence to assert that Israel is not in for major reprisals for a US strike on Syria.
Is US lenience with Syria cause for concern over Iran
Their calculations may work in the very short term. But they don’t answer either of Israel’s two long-term strategic concerns, in the view of DEBKA Weekly's Mideast and military experts.
They neglect the overriding threat looming over Israel’s head from Iran.
In the nearly three-year Syrian conflict, Israel pursued certain actions for disbanding – or, at least, weakening – the Tehran-Damascus-Hizballah alliance. This objective, which motivated its air strikes on Iranian weapons bound for Hizballah through Syria, was not achieved.
On the contrary, the flow of Shiite fighters into Syria from Iran, Iraq and Lebanon – including regular Hizballah militia units – swelled in the spring of this year. Many of these Shiite militants have taken up positions uncomfortably close to Israel’s borders.
A potent Shiite military machine rising in the Middle East is the last thing Israel needs.
As for Iran, Israel must ask itself an intensely disturbing question: If the US is not prepared to launch forceful and decisive action against Bashar Assad, even after he went to the extreme length of using chemical weapons against his own citizens, how can Israeli rely on the Obama administration to eradicate the still more lethal weapon of mass destruction, the nuclear weapon taking shape in Iran?
Israel, Saudis fear Obama will treat nuclear Iran like chemical Syria
By failing to address the Syrian chemical threat with severity, Washington is giving Iran the confidence to continue building a nuclear bomb, and even carry out nuclear tests, without fear of hindrance from the United States.
Israel can’t be sure it has been let in on all of Washington’s military plans for intervention in Syria or been forewarned of what lies ahead after its launch. The Israeli military command has therefore taken precautionary measures against possible surprises.
Iran is however a more complicated matter.
Saudi Arabia is just as prone as Israel to concerns over the Obama administration’s approach to the fast-moving potential of a nuclear Iran.
This concern has been translated into Syrian terms. In this regard, DEBKA Weekly's Middle East sources point out that Saudi Arabia is more favorably placed strategically than Israel.
Saudis steer their own ship in Syria
The Israeli share in the war on the Assad regime is limited to small corners of southern Syria and a handful of rebel units, whereas Saudi penetration of the conflict is massive, encompassing intelligence control of many rebel militias.
Riyadh is therefore armed with enough clout for developing its own role in the Syrian conflict. And indeed, the head of Saudi General Intelligence, Prince Bandar bin Sultan and his right-hand lieutenant Adel A. al-Jubeir have carved out an independent Syrian policy separate from that of the Obama administration.
When the White House and Pentagon began weighing a military response to the chemical attack in Syria, the Saudis then and there broke off relations with rebel militia chiefs and opposition elements attached to the Americans, and set about building a separate Saudi military operational arm in Syria away from US influence.