Of Syria, Israel, and the United States

Israel’s military strikes in Syria leave the interested observer with admiration over Jerusalem’s steadfastness, disgust over Washington’s continued dithering, and worry over the long-term global implications.

To be sure, Syria is both a humanitarian horror and a geopolitical mess and, at this point, no one’s got a clean, easy, fool-proof way to stop the slaughter and ensure that, after Bashar al-Assad falls, the nation won’t become an even more dangerous safe haven for anti-Western terrorists.

Having said that, U.S. paralysis over the last two years – rooted in both President Obama’s hopes that Russian leader Vladimir Putin would pressure al-Assad to stop the slaughter and his fears of showcasing America’s power in another Arab country – has helped produce the outcome that Obama sought to prevent: more chaos, more slaughter, and more empowerment of radical, anti-Western forces.

The developments of recent days shed clear light on Israel, the United States, and the potential world of tomorrow.

First, consider the role of “red lines.”

Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu set a red line on transfers of sophisticated and chemical weapons to Hezbollah. That’s why Israeli forces bombed both a warehouse at the Damascus airport that housed Fateh-110 missiles, which were en route from Iran to Hezbollah and have a range that could reach Tel Aviv, as well as the Center for Scientific Research in Jamraya, which is reportedly a chemical weapons facility near Damascus.

Obama, too, set a red line – his focused on al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons. But, as evidence mounts that al-Assad has crossed that line, Obama made clear that he’ll continue to investigate and assess the evidence and deliberate over possible responses, with no deadline affixed to next steps.

“Iran is testing Israel’s and the U.S.’s determination to uphold ‘red lines,’” Amos Yadlin, the former Israel Defense Forces intelligence chief, told The Times of Israel, adding in a clear dig at Washington, “And what it is seeing in Syria is that at least some of the actors take red lines seriously.”

Second, and closely related to the issue of red line-crossing, consider the role of signal-sending.

In an ever-more connected world, nations can’t help but send signals to global audiences through their action – or inaction. Israel understands that reality, while the United States seems oddly oblivious to it.

Netanyahu signaled to al-Assad that Israel seeks no direct confrontation with Syria as his military launched its attacks from Lebanese airspace and he proceeded with his trip to China soon after Sunday’s airstrikes (and government and military officials subsequently made the point explicitly in media interviews).

Netanyahu also signaled to Tehran that Jerusalem remains focused on its nuclear pursuit and will use force to prevent its nuclear achievement if the need arises. And he signaled to Washington that, for all the fears of retribution that a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities would provoke, Israel’s latest strike on Iran’s weapons that were bound for its favorite terrorist client have evoked only rhetorical bluster.

Obama, too, has sent signals. By not responding to al-Assad’s chemical weapons usage, he has signaled to U.S. allies and adversaries alike that his commitments may be infirm, his words subject to question.

U.S. inaction in the face of Syrian red line-crossing must worry Jerusalem, which has received Obama’s assurances that he will do whatever it takes to prevent Iran’s nuclear achievement – just as it must reassure Tehran that, despite what Obama says, “all options” are really not on the President’s table.

U.S. inaction also must worry Saudi Arabia and Jordan, which fear a nuclear Iran, as well as our Pacific allies, which fear China’s rise. Meanwhile, it must reassure such U.S. adversaries as North Korea, which has developed nuclear bombs and faces U.S. pressure to abandon its program.

Third and finally, consider what the events of recent days say about America’s role in the region and the world.

Obama previously stated that a transfer of advanced weaponry, including chemical or biological weapons, to terrorist groups like Hezbollah was an issue that concerned not just Israel, but the United States and its other allies as well.

Nevertheless, the world’s greatest power stood down while its much smaller, much more vulnerable ally did the dirty work in recent days that will benefit – again – not just Israel but the United States and its other allies as well.

That may work this time, but it’s no formula for the future as, for instance, Syria slides further into chaos, Iran seeks regional hegemony, and China challenges the United States for supremacy in the Pacific and beyond.

Simply put, a world in which the United States does not lead – and lead proudly from the front, not meekly “from behind” – will be a world of more chaos and danger, and less peace and security.

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