The five days it took the U.S. administration to respond to a chemical attack in Syria were vital in order to on one hand consolidate a diplomatic coalition with two other U.N. Security Council member states and on the other hand define the military targets that would send a clear message the use of chemical weapons crosses a red line, while not serving to undermine the foundations of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime, and as a result, change the rules of the game with Russia.
From a military perspective, the Americans did not need the British and the French to carry out the attack. But the cooperation between the three countries lent the airstrikes political legitimacy, including at the U.N. Security Council.
The attack also sent another important message—and that is that in the year 2018 and in a world of competing narratives, facts still matter. Assad used chemical weapons against his own people last week, and it was not for the first time. Period. End of story.
The odd claims by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov that the chemical attack on Douma was “fabricated” by a foreign intelligence agency, along with Russia’s sweeping denials that it was behind the poisoning of Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in England, are indicative of a deeper phenomenon the world’s democracies will need to address in future conflicts. U.S. President Donald Trump’s actions are an echo of the words attributed to the 16th president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, according to which: “You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.”
While the U.S. airstrikes may well be behind us, the Syrian front continues to heat up. Israel must continue to carefully navigate this front, working to prevent Iran from establishing itself militarily on the northern border. It must also avoid pushing the limits so much that the Russians position advanced S-300 or S-400 missile batteries in Syria, leaving Israel with little room to maneuver either there or in Lebanon.
My greatest fear is that the U.S. airstrikes will be the final act in America’s involvement in Syria. U.S. military action must not conclude with a limited tactical victory; that would only result in a long-term strategic loss for the United States.
The United States must maintain and increase its presence in Syria in order to stand up to Russia and stand with its allies, including Israel, Saudi Arabia and the other Persian Gulf nations that realize that America’s presence in Syria can prevent a Russian and Iranian takeover of the country. This is not just in Israel’s interest, but in the interest of the Middle East and the entire world.
Ron Prosor is head of the Abba Eban Chair of International Diplomacy at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya and Israel’s former ambassador to the United Nations.