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Gas Masks and Soldiers in Anxious Tel Aviv

Syria crisis marks the end of a quiet Israeli summer

Jonathan Spyer
August 28, 2013
Israelis queue up as they wait to collect their gas masks at a distribution center in Tel Aviv on August 28, 2013. (DAVID BUIMOVITCH/AFP/Getty Images)
Israelis queue up as they wait to collect their gas masks at a distribution center in Tel Aviv on August 28, 2013. (DAVID BUIMOVITCH/AFP/Getty Images)

The late summer quiet in Israel is no longer reassuring. The apparently imminent U.S. attack on Syria has people on edge. There is a late rush to renew gas masks. The comments by a junior Syrian minister threatening an attack on Israel if Syria is struck have been well noted. Khalaf al-Maftah may be only a lowly deputy information minister. But there was also the Iranian, Hossein Sheikholeslam, who said that the ‘Zionist regime’ would be the ‘first victim’ of any attack on Syria.

People here notice things like that. They don’t necessarily dismiss them. A friend of mine is convinced that a limited call-up of reserves has already taken place. The evidence? There were ‘too many soldiers’ on the train heading north from Tel Aviv on Sunday morning. So it goes.

The quiet of the last two years always seemed like something of an anomaly. With the region ablaze around them, Israelis have spent the last period basking in a rare and welcome normality. There have been the usual political scandals, an economy ticking along, a glorious summer. Now, the feeling is that all this may be drawing to an end.

Israeli broadcasts have done their best, understandably, to downplay any possibility of Israel being drawn into the circle of fire following a U.S. attack on Syria. But the key point to bear in mind is that the likelihood of an attack on Israel will probably be directly in proportion to the severity of a strike by the U.S. and its allies on Syria. The greater the depth and dimension of the U.S. attack, the more likely that the Syrians or one or another of their proxies will respond against Israel.

According to available evidence, it appears that any upcoming U.S. strike will be limited in scope, and designed to demonstrate to the Syrian leader that further use of chemical weapons will bring with it a cost that he is likely to prefer not to bear. If the U.S. strikes, from its destroyers or submarines in the Mediterranean, or from the air, at a selected list of Syrian military and government targets, this will not remove Assad’s chemical weapons capability. The American calculus—and hope—in such an operation would be that it would remove Assad’s will to further employ these means in his war against his own people.

Because the U.S. could employ such means at little immediate risk to American lives, they could be re-used, and perhaps ratcheted up in severity, should the dictator ‘re-offend’ on the issue of chemical weapons. Such a move, in a way, would be reminiscent of Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza earlier this year. It wasn’t meant to be decisive. It was meant to establish deterrence, and, importantly, to be repeatable.

It is not certain, of course, that this is the form that U.S. action will take. But a move on this level would be in keeping with Obama’s more general policy of disengagement from the Middle East. The use of chemical weapons in Syria has almost certainly not changed his thinking in this regard. But as his preferred strategy in Pakistan and Afghanistan shows, when he decides military force is required, this president prefers it to be focused, brief, and not to involve visible ground action.

If this is the form that U.S. action against Syria takes, it means that it will have little implication for the balance of power between Assad and the rebels. Assad will not feel his regime is in imminent danger, and will think that he still may prove victorious in his war, or at least survive. In that case, retaliation against Israel would make little sense. Why engage in an action that would certainly bring about a massive retaliation, when victory against the far less formidable internal enemy may still be achieved?

Of course, if the U.S. chooses to opt for a far bolder policy, involving intense and ongoing air and missile strikes, then the calculus must change. Such a decision would effectively mean U.S. and NATO air power converting itself into the air wing of the Syrian rebellion, a la Libya, 2011. This would represent an attempt, which might well prove successful, to bring about a sea change in the direction of the war, making a rebel victory possible. Assad is likely to prove at his most dangerous when he is most desperate. It would be as he nears the point of defeat that the possibility of his carrying out or supporting a strike on Israel would be most high. As of now, this point does not look imminent. A limited U.S. and allied strike would not make it so.

Which means that the odd situation in which we here in Israel manage to live normal, productive and pleasant lives even as a raging storm goes on all around us, may have a while to run yet. The end of the summer may not quite yet be upon us.

Jonathan Spyer is a senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs Center, a fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a columnist at the Jerusalem Post. He is the author of The Transforming Fire: The Rise of the Israel-Islamist Conflict.