Syria Strife: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ordered government ministers not to get involved in what is now seen as a domestic American affair. (Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)
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TEL AVIV — As debate continues in Washington over a prospective Syrian strike, Israeli security experts are backing away from earlier claims — first articulated by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and since adopted by President Barack Obama and pro-Israel supporters on Capitol Hill — that failure to act against Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons will fuel the threat of a nuclear Iran.
In his Sept. 10 address to the American people, Obama reiterated the Syrian-Iranian connection as one of the rationales driving his decision for military force.
“Failure to stand against chemical weapons will weaken prohibitions against other weapons of mass destruction and embolden Assad’s ally, Iran, which must decide whether to ignore international law by building a nuclear weapon or pursue a more peaceful path,” Obama said.
Nearly identical language was employed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) — Washington’s premier pro-Israel lobby — in its bid for congressional authorization to hold Assad accountable through military force.
“America must send a forceful message of resolve not just to Syria, but to those like Iran and Hezbollah… Failure to approve this resolution would call into question America’s will to carry out our commitments, including the President’s and Congress’ pledge to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons,” AIPAC wrote in a mass mailing to lawmakers.
For his part, Netanyahu has repeatedly warned, “Iran is closely watching whether and how the world responds to the atrocities committed by its client state in Syria.”
But with prospects far from certain of Obama securing the support he seeks for a Syrian strike, Netanyahu has ordered government ministers not to get involved in what the Israeli premier now claims is a domestic American affair.
In the contentious run-up to a congressional vote, a top Defense Ministry official and security experts here insist Syria is not a litmus test for Iran and caution against linking Assad’s use of chemical weapons to the Iranian nuclear threat.
Whichever way Congress votes and however Obama ultimately responds to atrocities attributed to Assad, experts here say American action or inaction should not be mistaken as a template for prospective future US-led intervention in Iran.
“Whether or not this is popular, I don’t recommend drawing conclusions about Iran from Syria. You can’t project one case onto another,” said retired Maj. Gen. Amos Gilad, the longtime director for political and security affairs at Israel’s MoD.
Speaking Sept. 8 at a conference of the Herzliya-based Institute for Counter Terrorism, Gilad said Israel’s overriding strategic concern is the looming threat of a nuclear-capable Iran. Regardless of how Washington chooses to deal with atrocities attributed to Assad, Gilad said the US president is committed to preventing a nuclear-armed Iran.
“I recommend taking Obama seriously when he says he will not allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons,” he said.
At the same event, former Israeli National Security Adviser Uzi Arad warned of unintended consequences of a Syrian strike that could sap US legitimacy and restrict its maneuvering room for future military action in Iran.
The former Netanyahu security adviser criticized the pro-Israel lobby for exhorting support for a Syrian strike that may ultimately harm efforts to combat the nuclear threat. “AIPAC is using analogies about how this reflects on Iran, but the two cases are not at all analogous.”
“There’s no shadow of a doubt that Iran is a much larger threat to the entire region, including America, than Syrian use of [weapons of mass destruction],” Arad said.
“So even during this Syrian crisis, attention must not be deflected from the real strategic threat by risking complications and US credibility in a secondary, supporting element of the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis.”
Oded Eran, a former Israeli diplomat and senior associate at Tel Aviv’s Institute for National Security Studies, said Netanyahu was wise in enforcing his current policy of nonintervention in the Syrian civil war or in the ongoing debate in Washington.
“At the beginning, there was a kind of knee-jerk linkage of the Syrian chemical issue to the Iranian nuclear threat, but these are only artificial similarities,” Eran told reporters here last week.
“I suggest we take a deeper view and not jump to quick conclusions that American handling of the Syrian issue is a forerunner of what to expect in Iran,” he said.
In a late August interview on Israel Army Radio, President Shimon Peres reflected the government’s ambiguous support for White House policy on Syria and Iran. “I have full faith in President Obama’s moral and operational stance. I recommend patience and am confident that the United States will respond appropriately to Syria… Thoughtfulness should not be confused with indecision.”
Peres insisted that Israel should not be in a position of deciding or influencing US and international action in Syria. “For various reasons, there is consensus against Israeli involvement. We did not create the Syrian situation.”
As for Iran, Peres said he took Obama at his word. “I do not believe he will allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons.” ■