Stephanie d'Arc Taylor

On Syria, Obama follows Israel’s lead

obama and netanyahu

Last year it was a “red line.” Last week it was a potential “game changer.” Now, given the latest near-incontrovertible evidence that embattled Syrian president Bashar al-Assad has used chemical weapons against the Syrian opposition, Barack Obama is calling – stalling? – for “thorough investigations” to see what can be proved, and what can’t.


As bodies continue to pile up (deaths as a result of the war in Syria now exceed 70,000) and record numbers of refugees stream across borders facing uncertain fates, Obama’s fixation on chemical weapons seems increasingly misplaced. But the inexplicably sycophantic tenor of Obama’s trip to Israel earlier this month, during which he went to great lengths to convince Israel’s politicians and people alike that the US will be there for them come what may, forever and always, may shed some light on why chemical weapons have come to represent Obama’s stated point of no return.


Obama has lighted on chemical weapons as his Syria game-changer because they pose the greatest threat to Israel, one much more dire than a continuation of the fighting that has gripped Syria for over two years.


It has become apparent that Obama desperately wants to avoid direct US intervention not only in Syria, but the broader Middle East, a strategy Dr. Hilal Khashan, professor of political science at the American University of Beirut, calls “the Obama Doctrine.” Initially elected with a mandate of non-intervention, given his predecessor’s humiliating foreign policy catastrophes in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama has calculated that the domestic political capital he has to lose from a bungled Syria intervention far outweighs that of any potential international triumph. Obama is hoping that his amorphous threats of a ‘game change’ (and back-door support for the opposition by way of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey) will dissuade Assad from continuing his flirtation with chemical agents.


The unique threat chemical weapons pose to Israel certainly hasn’t escaped the keen attention of its government. During Obama’s visit to Israel earlier this month, three senior Israeli officials took the opportunity to make bold statements to the media about the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Newly-minted minister of intelligence and strategic affairs Yuval Steinitz told Israel’s Army Radio that the evidence of a chemical attack is “apparently clear,” intelligence borne out by the Associated Press via two more (anonymous) senior government sources. Steinitz went on to say that the use of chemical weapons “against civilians…shows the urgency of taking care of the issue.”


All of these sources declined to say whether the chemical agents had been used by Assad’s forces or by the opposition, a differentiation Steinitz said was “not important.”


“Not important.” In this casual dismissal, Israel’s representative admits that its government has no interest in – much less basic human compassion for – who is doling out grisly death to who in Syria. Its only concern is the threat these dangerous chemical agents pose to humans living on the right side of the border.


Despite these carefully-timed leaks, Dr. Khashan doesn’t see Israel as attempting to push Obama towards action of any kind in Syria. Indeed, “what is happening in Syria is a godsend for the US,” as well as Israel. Israel especially has a stake in the conflict going on for as long as possible: “there is nothing the Israelis love more than seeing… the Syrian army gradually being destroyed…. What is happening in Syria is key to Israeli security.” For its part, Dr. Khashan sees the US appreciating an (arguable) “weakening of Islamic militancy” as the conflict in Syria drags on: “the task that the Americans could not complete in Iraq and Afghanistan.”


Back in Washington, while members of the US legislature have worked themselves into a frenzy over accusations of the use of chemical weapons, many of their justifications have been concerns for their regional allies rather than for the fate of the Syrian people (with the notable exception of US House Intelligence Committee head Mike Rogers, who claimed on CNN that the US is “morally obliged to do something about [the Assad regime’s] ability to deliver [chemical] weapons”). In a March 20 hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R – FL), Ted Deutch (D – FL), Doug Collins (R – GA), and Edward Royce (R – CA) mention many times the danger that a continuation of the war in Syria poses to the US’ allies in the region (primarily, of course, Israel), while taking humanitarian considerations into account as seeming afterthoughts.


As commentator Michael Weiss reported last weekend for NOW, Obama’s red line has been all but crossed. There remains little doubt that Assad’s forces have deployed chemical agents against the opposition. These attacks have been largely indiscriminate, and victims have included non-combatants.


Despite his hot air about chemical weapons and red lines, it seems that Obama’s baffling loyalty to Israel will trump any humanitarian debt he feels he owes to the people of Syria. Unless Assad’s chemical weapons begin to pose a clear threat to Israel, Dr. Khashan says, “there will not be a radical solution to the crisis in Syria.”


Stephanie d'Arc Taylor is the Contributing Editor of NOW. She blogs at Refugee Yoga.


Read this article in Arabic

Obama and Netanyahu share a moment during the former's visit to Israel earlier this month. (AFP photo)

"In this casual dismissal, Israel’s representative admits that its government feels no interest in – much less basic human compassion for – who is doling out grisly death to who in Syria. Its only concern is the threat these dangerous chemical agents pose to humans living on the right side of the border."