What Syria doesn’t teach us about Iran

Will the attention given Israel’s 2007 bombing of a Syrian nuclear reactor help focus the world on Iran? Not if the Europeans can help it.

A view of the of the Syrian nuclear reactor before and after it was hit by Israel. Credit: IDF Spokesman Unit screenshot.
A view of the of the Syrian nuclear reactor before and after it was hit by Israel. Credit: IDF Spokesman Unit screenshot.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

The explanation many pundits are offering for the Israeli government’s belated admission that it was responsible for the 2007 bombing of a Syrian nuclear reactor is to send a message to Iran.

A view of the of the Syrian nuclear reactor before and after it was hit by Israel. Credit: IDF Spokesman Unit screenshot.

Other more mundane explanations may be closer to the truth. Whether the reason has more to do with politics than national security, the fact that Israel will not tolerate mortal threats to its existence is one that deserves both respect and a thorough examination by those currently debating what to do about an Iranian nuclear deal that does nothing to forestall Iranian adventurism or its eventual acquisition of a weapon.

The backstory about why the details about the bombing raid ordered by former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert were finally released is fodder for Israeli political junkies, but of little interest to anyone else. The general assumption that it allows current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to send a message to Iran that will deter its ambitions or genocidal intent is a bit of a stretch. The only government in this world that can credibly do that is the one that sits in Washington, D.C., not the one in Jerusalem.

The differences between the choices that faced Olmert in 2007 and the ones that Netanyahu and/or his successors confront now on Iran are enormous. Like Menachem Begin’s 1981 decision to order a raid on Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor in Iraq, Olmert’s decision was difficult, but it still promised a decisive result. A single facility is a much easier target than Iran’s vast nuclear infrastructure, which remains heavily defended and much more difficult to reach than a short run to Syria or even the longer flight to Iraq.

Netanyahu postured about the possibility of a strike on Iran for years. Indeed, even figures in the Obama administration credit the prime minister’s threats for generating support for international sanctions. While the Europeans weren’t eager to deal with the issue, they seemed genuinely worried that Netanyahu would use force to halt the Iranian threat.

Due to opposition from the United States, and much of the Israeli military and intelligence establishment—coupled with the substantial difficulties involved in such a mission—Netanyahu refrained from giving the order. In the end, he may have come to the conclusion that only the United States had the military power to sustain a decisive strike on Iran that would eliminate, rather than merely damage, Tehran’s nuclear capability.

If that was true then, then it’s even more the case today, after Obama’s nuclear deal gave Iran’s nuclear infrastructure an international seal of approval. Any Israeli leader would order the Israel Defense Forces into action if an existential threat was believed an imminent possibility. But the correlation of forces involved in calculating the chances of decisive success are even more heavily against Israel in 2018 than they were a few years ago. Moreover, Israel’s leaders are far more focused now on the conventional and terrorist threat posed by Iran’s occupation of Syria, protected as it is by Russia, than they are about Tehran moving to acquire a bomb more quickly than Obama’s deal already allows.

Yet even if we concede that the Syria precedent doesn’t tell us much about the possibility of a repeat performance for the IDF over the skies of Iran, there are still lessons that need to be learned from this episode.

The Trump administration should not repeat the mistake made by George W. Bush in Syria. Bogged down as U.S. forces were in Iraq and Afghanistan at the time, Bush refused to take action on the nuclear threat in Syria. He was, however, happy for Israel to do the West’s dirty work.

An even bigger mess in Syria confronts Trump. The successful intervention by Russia and Iran in the Syrian civil war followed Obama’s humiliating “red line” retreat on Syrian President Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons. Trump shouldn’t expect Israel to play that same role again; instead, the United States must re-engage in the region and demand something tangible in Syria from Vladimir Putin if he’s going to continue to appease him.

Trump must also use Israel’s willingness to defend itself to demand that America’s European allies join him in an effort to renegotiate and/or extend the nuclear deal with Iran. And he should use the threat of unilateral sanctions that will hurt Europeans to not take no for an answer.

As for the Israelis, they should draw some conclusions of their own beyond thinking a bit better of the unpopular and since disgraced Olmert.

The first is that Olmert was forced to make a decision because of an intelligence failure. With the help of North Korea, the Assad regime had been building a reactor under Israel’s nose for as long as five years, though Israel’s vaunted intelligence services only discovered it months before the strike. Blind faith in the ability of the country’s “Gatekeepers”—as a film that promotes the notion that the Jewish state’s spies know more about what to do about the Palestinians than its political leaders—is never a smart idea.

The second is that there is no substitute for decisive leadership. After badly bungling the Second Lebanon War in 2006, Olmert didn’t want to fail again. Those who seek to replace a tested leader in Netanyahu with another novice should think about what that would mean in a crisis.

Third, the history of the last decade in Syria should remind Israelis that surrendering strategic assets in exchange for promises is a fool’s game. In the 1990s, the Jewish left was determined to give up the Golan for the hope of peace with Syria. But a nuclear threat that was only belatedly extinguished—combined with the country’s chaotic collapse, leading to occupation by Iran and Hezbollah—makes it clear that such a scenario was a potential nightmare. Those who believe that this can’t be repeated in the West Bank are not thinking straight.

Israel may never be able to solve its Iranian problem the way it did the Syrian nuclear threat, but if Americans and Israelis can absorb the lessons learned, this addition to the historical record will be well worth it.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — the Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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