Following the Douma sarin attack, eyes have once again focused on the prospect of military action against the Assad regime. President Trump expressed revulsion at the attack and continues to threaten military action through his Twitter account.
In March of 2018, the Israeli government officially admitted that it conducted an air strike against Syria’s nascent nuclear program in 2007. Haaretz published an extremely detailed article with accounts from those involved. The admission is a rare step for a nation that often prefers ambiguity over transparency and gives us an interesting glimpse into the workings and status of both the Israeli military as a fighting force and for U.S-Israel relations.
Below is a list of observations I made while reading the article.
Israeli Denials Are Often About De-escalation
From the article is it clear that the mission was kept secret for 11 years for political reasons, not military security. After the bombs fell, Israeli military intelligence and Mossad were much more concerned that embarrassing Basher Al-Assad than revealing operational secrets. Face-saving Military retaliation was the overriding concern, not revealing Israeli operational methods.
Israel Is Still Using The Prussian Method
Although by far the most competent military in the region, the Israeli Defense Forces are not a hegemon. As a military of conscripts and reservists, the IDF cannot be constantly mobilized. A mobilization that gets the IDF up to fighting strength could also alert enemies to its intentions. If Israel massed troops in the Golan to defend against Syrian retaliation, they risked tipping off the Syrians and compromising the mission.
Israel then, is still operating on a Prussian-style doctrine where it focuses power where it is needed quickly, rather than an American-style doctrine where a professional military is kept ready to deploy at all times.
Israel Consulted With The United States Before The Strike
In American discourse, Israeli military actions are often framed as completely independent actions. that is, they are taken regardless of external influences, and often in spite of them. This article makes clear that the U.S government was consulted months before the operation and was kept in the loop almost until the decision to bomb the reactor was made.
If this holds true for more recent strikes the U.S government could still be privy to sensitive information. Israeli air strikes against regime and Iranian targets in Syria are a possible example.(although these are also mostly unconfirmed.)
The United States Benefits
In Syria, the U.S used Israel as both a source of intelligence and a means of achieving a strategic objective while minimizing political costs to itself. It is clear from the report that the United States saw an attack on Syria’s reactor as politically unviable given the failure of intelligence (in both senses) in Iraq. The U.S could not afford another blunder, so it fell on the State of Israel to play policeman.
George W. Bush’s statement “a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do” is indicative of his intentions. He (and by extension the U.S government) was clearly willing to give Israel a free hand to protect itself and police the region while shielding the United States and the Bush administration from the political consequences.
Israel Has Self-Imposed Restraints
In contrast to its hyper-aggressive public persona, the Israeli government was extremely concerned about the environmental and human damage that could have resulted from the destruction of an operational reactor. The Haaretz article makes clear that this was a serious bone of contention within Olmert’s government and that Israel may have thought twice about blowing up the reactor if it had gone hot.
Syria Does Not Want War With Israel
In 2007 Assad’s army was at full strength. Despite this, and the recent Israeli failure in Lebanon, Assad allowed his reactor to be destroyed without so much as firing a shot in return.
The reason for this quite becomes obvious one looks at the course of the Syrian Civil War. In 2007 The Syrian army was unprepared to do much more than terror bomb civilians and kill protesters. As is the case in many dictatorships, the military is a tool of domestic politics, rather than an all-purpose fighting force. Its raison d’être is to protect the regime. In a direct confrontation with Israel, Syria would have been crushed, and Assad knew it.