TEL AVIV — Washington’s new resolve concerning Syria is being seen in Jerusalem as a crucial litmus test for U.S. readiness to confront another looming Mideast showdown over unconventional weapons.
Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime "has become a full Iranian client and Syria has become Iran’s testing ground,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday following a meeting with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius. “Now the whole world is watching. Iran is watching and it wants to see what would be the reaction on the use of chemical weapons.”
The attack last week in the suburbs of Damascus reportedly killed hundreds of civilians and, given the number of casualties, witness reports and other available facts, left “very little doubt” that a chemical agent had been used, according to a senior Obama administration official quoted by The New York Times.
Although he has called for Assad’s resignation, President Barack Obama thus far has resisted direct U.S. involvement in the Syrian civil war. Polls have shown that Americans oppose becoming embroiled in another Middle East conflict. But Obama also has said that if Assad used chemical weapons, it would cross a “red line” that would necessitate a response. The administration is now reportedly weighing a limited military strike.
“This will make the U.S. do something, but it will be something symbolic,” said Eyal Zisser, a senior research fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University. “I don’t see American interest in a complex intervention, war or sending forces. They need to do something, but not something deep.”
The Israeli government repeatedly has broadcast concern about the possibility that the Syrian conflict could spill over and destabilize what has long been one of Israel’s quieter borders. As the war has intensified, Israel has taken steps to protect its northern frontier along the Golan Heights, where it recently built a security fence.
The prospect of a nuclear Iran is viewed with much greater concern in Israel, though Obama has declined to establish any similar red lines even as he has sought to assure Israel that he is not making empty threats about preventing Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon.
American action in Syria might be enough to persuade Netanyahu the Americans are serious about Iran, Zisser said. But Netanyahu’s comments at his weekly Cabinet meeting on Sunday suggested that Israel is prepared to take action on its own.
“The most dangerous regimes in the world must not be allowed to possess the most dangerous weapons in the world,” Netanyahu said. “Our finger must always be on the pulse. Ours is a responsible finger and if necessary, it will also be on the trigger.”
Netanyahu was meeting with his Security Cabinet this week to discuss the repercussions on Israel of a possible U.S. military strike on Syria. On Monday, a delegation of senior Israeli officials met in Washington with U.S. security officials.
Monday's Israeli delegation was headed by Maj.-Gen. Yaakov Amidror, chairman of Israel’s National Security Council and Netanyahu’s national security adviser.
A statement issued late that day by the U.S. National Security Council said that National Security Adviser Susan Rice hosted the meeting “for consultations on Iran, Egypt, Syria, and a range of other regional security issues.”
“Today’s meetings were the latest in a series of regular, high-level consultations between the United States and Israel, consistent with our strong bilateral partnership, and part of our unshakeable commitment to Israel’s security,” the statement said.
Syrian and Iranian officials have said that if the United States attacks Syria, Israel will come under attack by the two countries and other allies in the Middle East.
“No military attack will be waged against Syria,” said Hossein Sheikholeslam, a member of Iran’s Islamic Consultative Assembly, according to the Times of Israel. “Yet if such an incident takes place, which is impossible, the Zionist regime will be the first victim of a military attack on Syria.”
Khalaf Muftah, a senior Baath party official in Syria, said in a radio interview, according to the Times of Israel, that Damascus would consider Israel behind any military strike on Syria and would respond with “strategic weapons” in strikes on Israel.