Syrian Crisis Dominates Israeli Headlines
By David Dolan
As has been the case for most of the past two and a half years, news related to the often violent turbulence that has engulfed many Arab countries in the Middle East and North Africa since early 2011 produced the main news headlines in Israel during September. As was true last month, the appalling situation in neighboring war-torn Syria dominated public and government attention, especially the continuing consequences of the August 21 chemical weapons attack near Damascus and particularly the possibility of an American military strike on targets under the control of the Syrian Assad regime. That prospect sent many Israelis scrambling to acquire gas masks for protection against a possible deadly chemical weapons counterattack after the Syrian regime threatened to strike Israel if the United States and its allies launched any military action against it.
Israeli government officials had decidedly mixed feelings about another US-led military campaign near their borders, even if many consider Syrian dictator Bashar Al Assad to be equally evil to the deposed Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein. On the one hand, such action would definitely send a sharp warning message to Syria's main regional, Iran, that the Obama administration, and at least some of its traditional allies, are willing to unleash further military operations in the raucous Middle East if deemed necessary. This might serve to slow down, if not put a brake to, Iran's nefarious nuclear development program, which Israeli leaders are convinced is designed to end with the construction of incendiary nuclear weapons. On the other hand, US-led military action could easily spark off another major Middle East war, which is certainly something that most Israelis dread, along with their Western counterparts.
The subsequent deferral of military action as a result of Russian diplomatic intervention in the crisis also produced very mixed responses in Israel. Analysts said it would probably ultimately strengthen the Assad regime as it brutally battles to cling to power, while also enhancing Russia's standing in the region. Neither outcome would be construed as positive in Jerusalem. On the other hand, it could stave off the eruption of a wider armed conflict in the tense area, at least for the time being. Analysts said the best scenario is that the Russian plan could actually end up with the promised destruction of Assad's large chemical weapons arsenal, although few actually expect this will ultimately be the case. Another major concern is America's declining status in the region, pushed down by the widely perceived serious mishandling of the latest Middle East crisis by President Barrack Obama, leaving Israel's chief international ally weakened on the world state.
Israeli officials were also said to be quietly concerned that if the embattled Syrian regime actually hands over its large chemical weapons stockpile for internationally supervised destruction, pressure will mount on Jerusalem to both approve the 1993 chemical weapons ban treaty and also to destroy Israel's nuclear warheads, whose existence was confirmed by former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert when he was in power. Although Israeli leaders signed the chemical weapons ban treaty along with almost 190 other countries, the action has never been approved by the Israeli Knesset, as it must be by law for the treaty to go into effect.
In the midst of the Syrian crisis, President Obama echoed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in saying that the Iranian nuclear program is a much greater overall threat to regional and world peace than is Syria's finally-admitted possession of chemical weapons. This came as the new Iranian President stated that nuclear weapons would never be produced by Tehran during his time in office. The statement was met with serious skepticism in Israel but welcomed at the White House. Several days later, Russian President Vladimir Putin chided the Obama government for its handling of the Syrian crisis. Soon afterwards, Putin stated that Syria's chemical arsenal has served as a necessary counterweight to Israel's possession of nuclear warheads, as if the small Jewish State was regularly threatening to blast Syria or any other neighboring country into the stone-age, as Syria's ally Iran has been doing for several years.
Despite the fact that he was rather preoccupied with the intense Syrian crisis, United States Secretary of State John Kerry managed to squeeze in another short visit to the Holy Land during the month. He came to check on the progress of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that are quietly taking place well away from media eyes, at Kerry's insistence. However instead of being encouraged by his stopover, the chief American diplomat encountered a wall of complaints from Palestinian Authority officials that the negotiations are going nowhere fast due to supposed "Israeli intransigence" over several central issues at the heart of the two people's long and bitter dispute. For their part, Israeli leaders were said to be upset by perceived inflexibility on the PA's part. Tensions between the two sides escalated when an Israeli soldier was kidnapped and murdered by a Palestinian co-worker.
While naturally focusing on the north during the month, Israeli government and military officials also closely followed jarring political and military developments in neighboring Egypt. Chief among them was an escalating Egyptian army offensive against spiraling terrorist activity in the Sinai Peninsula. This came as relations between the new military-affiliated Egyptian government and the radical Palestinian Hamas movement deteriorated still further in the wake of the dramatic ouster of Muslim Brotherhood-linked President Muhammad Morsi in early July.
Amidst the plethora of negative regional developments that kept many Israelis on edge during September, most people managed to enjoy the annual Autumn Jewish holidays. Tens of thousands of overseas Jewish and Christian visitors flocked to the Holy Land to celebrate Rosh Ha Shana, the Jewish New Year, and the Feast of Tabernacles, also known as the Feast of Booths, plus to mark the solemn fast day of Yom Kippur. This came as several public ceremonies were held to mark the fortieth anniversary of the surprise Yom Kippur War, which nearly ended with a major Israeli defeat forty years ago next month. Few marked the twentieth anniversary of the signing of the Israeli-Palestinian Oslo peace accord on the White House lawn in Washington DC on September 13, 1993, given that the treaty has patently failed to end the conflict.
TEMPEST OVER SYRIA
The Israeli people were as disgusted as anyone by the appalling deployment of deadly chemical weapons in Syria the third week of August, leaving well over 1,400 Syrians dead, reportedly around 400 of them children. In fact, Israeli citizens, both Jewish and Arab, probably paid much more attention to the details of the appalling attack than did most people around the globe, given that nearby Syrian missiles are known to have the capability to strike all portions of tiny Israel carrying chemical warheads. The fact that the Assad regime is also a close ally of Iran, the Shiite Muslim country that has repeatedly vowed to one day annihilate the Jewish State, only added to Israeli concerns over the vile mass killings.
Therefore, opinion surveys revealed there was far more Israeli public support for President Obama's announced decision to punish the Assad regime militarily for its apparent use of chemical weapons upon its own war weary citizens than there was in the United States or Great Britain. Still, everyone knew that the chances were hardly zero that either Assad himself, or more likely his Lebanese militia ally Hizbullah, would lash out at Israel in response to such action. However when it became clear that the American leader was only speaking of a short bombing campaign that would mainly serve as a warning "shot across the bow" as he put it, support for the proposed military strike shrank in Israel. Many echoed various American politicians and pundits in stating that the "show of force" would not be enough to actually end Assad's ability to deploy his chemical weapons arsenal against his own people and/or Israel, but would instead only stir up the already boiling pot in the region, if not ignite a devastating regional war.
Israeli military forces were quietly put on a heightened state of alert in the wake of President Obama's early September declaration that he was preparing to order an imminent military operation against the Syrian regime. However the British Parliament's narrow decision to nix the Camaron's government's decision to actively support the United States in such an operation dealt an immediate blow to the plan, leading many in Israel to speculate that it would not take place after all. Still, with France and several other countries on board, Obama seemed determined to go ahead with the action. This was buttressed by John Kerry's repeated arguments that "the international community" had to do something concrete to punish the Assad regime for "breaking the longstanding taboo" against the deployment of deadly chemical agents, even in time of war.
RUSSIA SAVES THE DAY?
At a press conference in London on September 9, John Kerry was asked by a reporter if there was "anything" that the Syrian regime could do to avert American-led military action against it. The question came just after Bashar Assad told the American CBS network that the United States would suffer undefined "repercussions" if it struck Syria in any manner. The Secretary of State's answer surprised many listeners: "Sure, he could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next weekâ€”turn it over, all of it without delay, and allow a full and total accounting. But he isn't about to do it, and it can't be done." When news reports began to circulate suggesting that the senior American diplomat was actually alluding to a possible way out of President Obama's increasingly unpopular vow to launch a military campaign against the Syrian regime, the State Department in Washington issued a statement claiming Kerry had only been making a "rhetorical argument" about the "impossibility" of the Assad regime doing anything realistic to deflect military action, not presenting a new proposal that Assad might actually implement.
Soon after Kerry spoke, it became clear he was actually basing his answer on a proposal that Russian leaders had previously shared with him. Government officials in Moscow, Assad's main big power ally, had apparently already been discussing a chemical weapons transfer to the "international community," meaning to the United States and its Western allies. The Kremlin quickly picked up on the Secretary of State's supposedly random statement, announcing that Assad and his comrades would "accept" the rhetorical statement as a serious proposal that they would promise to implement, although obviously not in one week.
One day later, Syrian Prime Minister Wael Al-Halki told reporters that the embattled regime would "support" a Russian request that it hand over its chemical stockpile in order to avoid a looming American-led military strike. Without actually confirming in so many words that the regime indeed possesses such weapons, Halki added that the Russian proposal would be accepted "to spare Syrian blood." Later Syria's Foreign Minister, Walid al-Moualem echoed this, declaring the Assad regime only accepted the proposal because this would "remove the grounds for American aggression" against it.
To the surprise of many American and Israeli legislators, the Russian plan was subsequently endorsed by the White House. Later the Kremlin revealed that President Obama had discussed the idea of transferring Syria's large chemical weapons arsenal to international control with Vladimir Putin when the two leaders met at the G20 summit in mid- September. The revelation led to some speculation that the American Commander in Chief had been bluffing all along when he threatened imminent military action against the despotic Assad regime. If so, the subterfuge workedâ€”that is if the President's actual goal all along was to attempt to peacefully extract Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles for transfer to a safer location.
UN IMPLIES REGIME BEHIND ATTACK
Despite the Assad government's reluctant agreement to surrender its large chemical weapons arsenal to international control, the Syrian dictator, who is fluent in English, continued to insist that rebel Sunni Muslim forces had been behind the August Sarin attack, not his own regime. In an interview with Fox News on September 18, Bashar Assad admitted for the first time that his regime possesses such weapons, but denied that they have been used against any of its own citizens. "We have evidence that terrorist groups used Sarin gas," he maintained, adding that "The whole story doesn't even hold together." Later he claimed more bluntly that his regime "didn't use any chemical weapons." The following day, Russian President Putin echoed this highly dubious contention, averring that rebel Sunni Muslim militia commanders had somehow come into possession of such weapons in a sufficient quantity to deliver the deadly punch that took the lives of up to 1,500 people in a southern suburb of the Syrian capital city, Damascus. If so, they also managed to acquire the heavy rockets that were used to launch the assaultâ€”something Middle East security experts pointed out was very unlikely.
John Kerry reacted with open anger to the Syrian and Russian contentions, pointing out that a United Nation's probe had determined that highly toxic Sarin nerve gas was if fact deployed in the mass attack, something the regime is known to possess in copious amounts. Speaking during an unscheduled appearance at the State Department's regular daily press briefing about the assertion that rebel forces had carried out the vile assault, Kerry uttered only one word, "Please!" He went on to note that UN inspectors found that, "Sarin was used. Sarin killed. The world can decide whether it was used by the regime, which has used chemical weapons before, the regime which had the rockets (to deliver the deadly poisons to their targets) and the weapons. Or whether the opposition secretly went unnoticed into the territory they don't control to fire rockets they don't have, containing Sarin that they don't possess, to kill their own people." Then Kerry addressed the international community, saying Assad regime complicity was basically a given. "This isn't complicated," he bluntly stated. Finally he urged the United Nations to take the issue seriously, hinting that military action would remain a constant possibility until Syria's chemical weapons arsenal is verifiably dealt with.
When mentioning the certainty that toxic Sarin nerve agents were unleashed in the August 21 attack, the senior American diplomat was referring to a United Nations investigation report that was released on September 16. In it, the UN team reported they found ample evidence of the presence of Sarin gas in blood and urine samples of dozens of victims of the atrocious assault. The powerful poison was also discovered in sections of exploded rockets at the scene, the report said. While staying away from naming who might have been behind the attack, the UN inspectors did note that the Assad regime is known to possess both Sarin gas and the type of rockets that had landed in the rebel-held suburb, whereas there is no evidence that the insurgents have any Sarin nerve gas or the type of rockets that were deployed in the attack.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon called the use of banned Sarin gas a "war crime and grave violation of the 1925 Protocol on chemical weapons." He added that it was "the most significant confirmed use of chemical weapons against civilians since Saddam Hussein used them in Halabja, Iraq in 1988, and the worst use of weapons of mass destruction in the 21st century." Seeming to hint that he might look the other way if the United States and its allies launch a military response against the Assad regime, he declared "The international community has a responsibility to ensure that chemical weapons will never be used again as an instrument of warfareâ€¦those responsible should be brought to justice as soon as possible."
WILL IT WORK?
While publicly supporting the US decision to give diplomacy a chance to safely rid the Assad regime of its deadly chemical weapons stockpiles, Israeli government officials were said to be highly dubious that the Russian proposal would actually be transformed into a chemical weapons-free Syria. Although Prime Minister Netanyahu had earlier asked his cabinet ministers to remain silent on the Syrian crisis in public, Israeli media outlets said some had gone off the record to reveal their deep skepticism over the Russian initiative. Government skepticism was more publically expressed in other world capitals, with British Prime Minister David Cameron's spokesman stating "The onus is very much now on the Russian government and the Assad regime to follow up in a way to show that the initiative is a serious and genuine offer."
Israeli officials were heartened to hear that Western military action against the Syrian regime was not being taken entirely off the table, even though they have mixed feelings about its potential for success. The revelation that Western forces might still act was made by NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who told reporters in Brussels, "I think it is essential for keeping momentum in the diplomatic and political process that the military option remain on the table." However, he also made clear that it would be up to each NATO member country to individually decide how to respond to the Sarin nerve gas attack, adding he did not see any formal NATO role other than to continue to protect Turkey, a NATO member located due north of Syria. Russia insists that the threat of an American-led military strike be entirely removed before the diplomatic process can proceed.
Also in Belgium, a spokesman for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said on September 21 that the international group had begun to receive partial information from Syrian officials concerning their chemical weapons arsenal. However a spokesman for the watchdog group made clear that "we expect more" from the Syrian regime. The group is expected to begin processing the information and assessing the quantity and quality of the chemical stockpiles within nine months, as spelled out in the Kremlin deal with John Kerry. Meanwhile the agreement could be scuttled by the United Nations Security Council if the Obama administration attempts to insert a credible threat against the Assad regime in any resolution about the issue, which Russia would be expected to veto.
General Israeli ambivalence about the final outcome of the blood-soaked Syrian civil war was reinforced when the respected HIS Jane's defense consultancy firm based in London reported that around half of the estimated 100,000 rebel Islamic fighters struggling to overthrow the Assad regime are connected to extremist Sunni Muslim groups like Al Qaida and the Muslim Brotherhood movement. The prospect that such groups might eventually seize power in Damascus, along with the regime's significant weapons depots which includes advanced jet fighters and anti-aircraft and other threatening missile systems, is hardly welcomed in Jerusalem. The Jane's report went on to reveal there are over 1,000 independent rebel factions fighting in the fray, with some at times battling each other for ultimate dominance on the warfront.
SWEET TALKING WHILE PREPARING FOR WAR?
Israeli officials poured scorn on statements made in mid-September by new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani that his country had no intention of developing nuclear weapons either at this time or in the future. The Netanyahu government pointed out that the "moderate" Iranian politician has long publicly advocated that the Shiite Muslim clerical regime wear a more "moderate" mask when it addresses the world in public, while simultaneously moving full speed ahead with its uranium enrichment program, a central component in the development of nuclear warheads. The White House spokesman welcomed Rouhani's statements, while noting that "actions are more important than words."
John Kerry's quick stopover in Jerusalem and Ramallah to assess the current status of clandestine peace talks going on between Israeli government and Palestinian Authority negotiators was generally ignored by both publics during the month. Analysts said most people are far more concerned over the growing prospects of a new regional war emanating from Syria than they are with the current state of a protracted peace process that has consistently failed to end the conflict between the two related peoples. New tensions between the two peoples surfaced when a 20 year old Israeli soldier was lured to his death on September 20 during the annual week-long Feast of Tabernacles. A young Palestinian man that he had worked with at a restaurant invited him for a drive before killing him and throwing his body down a 22 foot well. The murderer was later arrested, revealing that he had hoped to negotiate the release of his brother from an Israeli prison in return for the slain soldier's body. Authorities said the prisoner is serving time for planting explosives and planning a suicide terrorist attack against Jewish civilians.
While the awful killing and talk of war marred the festive Feast of Tabernacles celebrations in Israel this year, thousands of Jews and Christians nevertheless took to the streets of Jerusalem as usual for an annual festival parade. Marchers rejoiced in God's abundant goodness and His faithful protection over his Chosen People despite the continuing violence in the region. Many recalled that the Prophet Zechariah prophesied a time, apparently now on the horizon, when all the nations that will go up to war against Jerusalem in the biblical last days will instead send surviving remnants from their countries to the Lord's special land. Their role this time will be "to worship the King, the Lord of Hosts, and to celebrate the Feast of Booths" (Zech 14:18).
DAVID DOLAN is a Jerusalem-based author and journalist who has lived and worked in Israel since 1980.