On the ruins of an old bunker that hugs the Israel-Syria border, a retired Israeli general led American Congressmen and Senators last month on a viewing party of the war that raged across the border.
Pointing toward the sounds of mortar fire and smoke across the border, the Israeli general spoke of the need for the US to take a strong stance vis-a-vis Syria, reminding the American lawmakers: “We have told you about the horrors of Syria, now you can hear and see them.”
These types of exchanges are far from rare. For two years, U.S. officials visiting Israel have been inundated with data on the war in Syria. The phone line from Israel’s top intelligence officers runs straight to the Pentagon and White House, say regional experts.
Giora Inbar, the former head of an IDF liaison unit, went so far as to say that the US “relies upon” Israel’s intelligence on Syria.
For Israel, sharing intelligence with the US on Syria had a stated goal — push the U.S. to take a strong stance on the civil war that has devastated Syria for more than two and a half years.
“In Israel its important not just to have a strong position on the Arab world, but to have our allies — especially our most important allies in the White House — have a strong position on the Arab world,” said one Israeli Foreign Ministry official in an off-record briefing last month. “If the White House is seen as weak and wavering, that sends the wrong message to the entire region, from Syria to Hamas to Iran.”
Now the question in Israel is what they have to show for that campaign for American action. The perception that their strongest ally has not been able to assert a strong policy in the region troubles Israel’s leaders — though the prospect of a Syria free of chemical weapons could be more than a consolation prize.
“At the end he might have stumbled into a solution on Syria, but the key here is that he stumbled. This was not decisive leadership that showed the world a strong American. It showed a disjointed and confused policy that may or may not have been lead by the Russia and and which may or may not work,” said one Israeli diplomat based in DC. “Some in Israel thought Obama should bomb and some thought he shouldn’t. There was a lot of disagreement over what would be best. But we all agreed that some strong policy should emerge.”
Writing in the online Hebrew news site, Ynet, Israeli attorney Shoula Romano Horing wrote: “Until now there was a suspicion in the Middle East that Obama was a weak and unreliable ally but now after he flip flopped and delayed attacking Syria, this suspicion has become a reality.”
Retired colonel Jacques Neriah, the former deputy head of assessment for the Israeli Military’s Intelligence branch, said that while the compromise suggested by Russia had diffused the immediate situation, no “ultimate US goal or policy” had emerged on Syria.
“You can look at this and say, ‘Hey, the Syrians are laughing at the US,” he said.
That isn’t to say there’s no upside to Israel in the new focus on chemical weapons caches they have long feared Syria would hand off to Islamist militants. The editor of the left-leaning Haaretz newspaper Aluf Benn tweeted his support of a compromise that would rid Syria of chemical weapons without the need of military action:
And as the prospect of action in Syria seems to fade, Israelis worried that the larger, looming threat of a nuclear Iran would be bolstered by the perception that the U.S. would do whatever it takes to avoid any new military involvement in the Middle East.
Amir Mizroch, English-language editor of the right-leaning Israel Hayom said that Israel wanted the US to strike Syria to send a wider message to the region.
For many Israelis, the US policy on Syria came down to an extension of what they were willing to do to stop Iran’s nuclear program.
“If an American president is incapable of mustering international legitimization and internal support for an operation in Syria how will he be able to keep his promises on Iran?” asked popular Israeli columnist Nahum Barnea in his column in Yediot Ahronoth. “What we should be worried about is how the chemical weapons in Syria reflect on the Iranian nuclear program. The two have a lot in common. Both deal with weapons of mass destruction; both come out of the same axis of evil, with external support from Russia China and North Korea; in both Obama drew red lines.”