It seems clear that there is a lot more to the current developments regarding Syria than Israel’s bombing some sites there, though staunching the flow of Iranian weapons to Hizbullah through Syria is plainly a significant objective.
For one thing, President Obama seized on the attacks as an opportunity to reiterate his support of Israel’s right to do what, in its judgment, it has to in order to protect its citizens – in this case interdicting deadly weapons to be used against Israel. This straightforward declaration, sans the typical non-committal jargon we have come to expect from public officials, is most welcome and should be applauded for the message it sends to Israel’s enemies, including Iran. But it also sends the implicit message that he reserves a similar right to make judgment when it comes to protecting the interests of the United States – a significant matter given the differences between Israel and the U.S. over the threats posed by Iran and Syria.
Israel’s successful bombing of Syrian targets seems to have given the lie to dire warnings concerning the capability of Syria’s anti-aircraft defenses. This is a message of sorts to the Iranians as well that Israel – and by extension the U.S. – will not, when push comes to shove, be deterred by extravagant threats and that a way will be found to do what has to be done.
Then there was the matter of the president’s unfortunate gaffe in drawing a line regarding Syria’s use of chemical weapons. In a warning to President Bashar Assad, Mr. Obama said that “A red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.” He followed up later with, “The use of chemical weapons is and would be totally unacceptable…. If you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons, there will be consequences and you will be held accountable.”
Apparently, those strong words from the president, delivered at a press conference in answer to a reporter’s question, were beyond what was originally contemplated. As a senior administration official told The New York Times, “The idea was to put a chill into the Assad regime without actually trapping the president into any predetermined action…what the president said…was unscripted.”
Now, risking an erosion of credibility on the international stage, the president is having second thoughts on how to react and is reduced to proclaiming a lack of clear and convincing evidence concerning the use of chemical weapons. To be sure, whether to commit the U.S. to war over the use of chemical weapons in a civil war far from home is not an easy call. But the president seems to have boxed himself in, at least in the short run.
Indeed there is plenty in play on the Syrian front.