Last weekend, Israel saw a threat to its interests and acted, staging aerial attacks on Syria’s military research facilities and on a shipment of Iranian missiles waiting to be sent from Syria to Hezbollah militants in Lebanon.
Israel’s action — which it has yet to acknowledge — and the retaliation it might trigger from Syria, Hezbollah or Iran are potent reminders of the dangers posed by Syria’s escalating conflict. Indeed, unless the United States works more resolutely to end the conflict, it risks a spiral into a wider regional war.
The Israelis had good reason for their Damascus raid. Hezbollah is intent on the destruction of Israel. During their 2006 war, Hezbollah fired thousands of rockets into Israel, and has since stockpiled thousands more. The shipment that was hit reportedly included solid-fueled missiles that can be deployed quickly and fired precisely to reach targets in Tel Aviv from Lebanon. For the Israelis, such weapons, along with the shipment of anti-aircraft weapons that it attacked in late January, would have been a “game-changer,” to use a phrase favored by President Barack Obama.
While Israel moved quickly to respond to this threat, the Obama administration was caught up in an unseemly debate about what extent of chemical weapons usage, and by whom, in Syria would constitute a crossing of the “red lines” it set for a more forcible intervention.
Let’s clarify where things stand: Israel’s attack has increased the odds that Syria’s conflict will embroil the region; the U.S., France, Britain and the United Nations have all acknowledged credible reports of chemical weapons usage; more than a million Syrian refugees are putting pressure on Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey; and the al-Nusra Front, one of the more effective members of the Syrian rebel coalition against the regime of Bashar Assad, has declared its loyalty to al-Qaida. Facing these realities, the U.S. has to understand that the situation isn’t going to improve.
On his current trip to Russia, Secretary of State John Kerry should give his hosts one more chance to stop arming and funding Assad and to support a U.N. effort to secure a cease-fire, a heavily armed peacekeeping force and a political transition that ushers Assad from power.
If the Russians refuse, then the U.S. should commit to providing the Free Syrian Army with lethal aid, including anti- aircraft weaponry, and stepping up its training efforts. Ideally, this would be in conjunction with France and Britain, when the European Union’s arms embargo ends this month.
The allies should also establish buffer zones to shelter fleeing civilians — along the Jordanian border, for starters, where a small U.S. force is already in place. This step would require a significant deployment of air power and, inevitably, some U.S. boots on the ground in Syria.
With the best of intentions, Obama may not want to take such risks, and the American public is rightly reluctant to involve U.S. forces in another Middle Eastern war. Yet as the latest Israeli airstrikes suggest, continued inaction may be the surest path to the large-scale intervention the U.S. wishes to avoid.