The aftershock of the US military strike has shaken the globe far beyond Syria. President Trump showed the world that if necessary, he will 'put his money where his mouth is'. Russia's own Machiavellian Vladimir Putin probably admires Trump for it. But those 59 Tomahawk missiles served not only as a cynical super-power ploy, they were also blow dealt in the name of international morality against the Syrian war criminal Bashar Assad.
My full disclosure for which I have witnesses: Right after seeing dying Syrian children foaming at the mouth and suffocating to death, I told a number of people that Trump should launch some cruise missiles at Syria. I mentioned the possibility of several various targets:
- Assad's own presidential palace in Damascus
- The Syrian airbase from where Assad launched his horrific raid
- Rocket both the palace and air base for good measure
This was not my knee-jerk reaction of disgust and anger and a natural demand for retribution from Assad. There was a precedent for such a reaction - President Ronald Reagan ordered an air strike on the palace of another Arab tyrant, Muammar Gaddafi in Tripoli. Such an American response would send a stern warning not only to Assad. But this was rebuffed by my critics, including a former Israeli ambassador, who contended that Trump would not risk getting America into a new Middle East war or risk a clash with Putin. But this position, held generally in Israel, did not hold water. An air strike against Assad, an Alawite Shiite Muslim would not have upset the Sunni Arab countries that hate Assad's guts. On the contrary, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States would applaud Trump, as indeed they did.
The Arab states feel that Obama sold them out to their arch enemy Iran with the nuclear deal of 2015. Moreover, an airstrike would also send a stern message to Tehran, which has kept Assad in power with massive military aid. In addition, the Arab states fear Iran's nuclear weapons program as much as Israel, maybe more. As for clashing with Putin, the Kremlin could kick up a storm about America's military intervention, but without a leg to stand on after Russian jets have been carpet bombing Syrian rebels and civilians for the last two years. So, Putin could be expected to grin and bear it - while thinking he would have done the same thing in Trump's place. Having said all that, Trump could expect to be hailed as the champion of universal morality against 'the butcher of Damascus' as Assad is known in the Arab world.
'President Obama said in 2012 that he would establish a red line against the Syrian use of chemical weapons, and then he did nothing!'
Question: did Assad seek a green-light from Putin before committing his latest atrocity against his own people? There is no answer at present. The Syrian leader violated Obama's deal with Putin to get rid of all his chemical weapons and kept a secret arsenal, probably to use as a doom's day weapon if he felt he was about to lose the civil war. So why did he reveal his secret cache at this point when the rebels are on the run as a result of the relentless Russian air offensive?
One explanation is that several days prior, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson disclosed the US had dropped Obama's demand that Assad must go. Led to believe the US was determined to stay out, maybe the Syrian leader could not resist the temptation of punishing the other side, mainly innocent civilians, by again bombing them with chemical weapons. This was a massive miscalculation. Trump had continuously ridiculed Obama for not honoring his pledge to retaliate against Assad for his repeated use of chemical weapons. In 2013, after Assad's forces killed 1,400 Syrians with chemical weapons, Obama backed down and sought the phony deal with Putin to dismantle Assad's chemical weapons. Trump charged, 'President Obama said in 2012 that he would establish a red line against the Syrian use of chemical weapons, and then he did nothing!'
Obama had created the impression throughout the Middle East and elsewhere that the US was a paper tiger. But with his ill-timed chemical attack in Idlib province, Assad supplied Trump with a golden opportunity to restore the perception of American power not only in the Middle East but also to Russia, North Korea and China. All this without Trump taking any big risk - in fact, the Syrian leader served it to the new US President on a silver platter. It was a win-win situation with a slap at Obama to boot. So, Trump has now emerged as a forceful American president in the model of Teddy Roosevelt's carrying a 'big stick'. Granted, Trump does not 'speak softly'.
Lessons for Israel?
Bibi was quick to praise Trump for reacting militarily to another Syrian chemical weapons attack, something Obama refused to do. However, an angry Putin got on the hotline to Israel's leader reproaching him for blaming Assad before an international enquiry had been conducted. Moscow backs Assad's cock and bull story about how Syrian jets had bombed a rebel arsenal where chemical weapons were stored and the subsequent leakage from the chemical weapons killed the civilians.
Incidentally, Israeli intelligence was also the first to reveal that Assad had ordered his forces to use chemical weapons in the civil war.
Israeli intelligence had not harbored any illusions that Assad had indeed kept his agreement to abandon all his chemical weapons. Some analysts estimated that the Syrian leader had given up 95% or so. At the time, Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon stopped an emergency supply of gas masks to Israeli civilians. The feeling was Assad would never dare attack Israel with chemical weapons knowing full that he would not survive a massive Israeli retaliation - Putin or no Putin! But it is another example of how international agreements on weapons-control are usually not worth the paper they're written on.
Case in point, there is Obama's nuclear deal with Iran that does not cover the Parchin military base where Israel says it has evidence that research was conducted on nuclear detonators. But Tehran insisted the UN inspectors would not have free and immediate access to its military sites. Obama complied. Incidentally, Israeli intelligence was also the first to reveal that Assad had ordered his forces to use chemical weapons in the civil war. This also applies to the massive build-up of over 100,000 Hezbollah rockets stored secretly in South Lebanese villages ready to be launched at Israel - all this in violation of a UN Security Council decision, and under the noses of UN peace monitors stationed in southern Lebanon.
Implications for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations?
There are also ramifications for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Trump is trying to breathe some new life into it via his special envoy Jason Greenblatt. The President has now emerged with an enhanced moral and operational role and his say will carry even more clout. Bibi and his Right-wing coalition will have to take this into consideration because it is very possible that Trump, who is facing trouble at home, may want to push harder to show some progress on the Israeli-Palestinian track. Consider this: Trump has met with Jordan's king Abdullah, Egypt's President el-Sisi, and is about to roll out the red carpet for Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. All three are plying Trump with the urgent need to move on an Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty. Egypt and Jordan have already made peace with the Jewish state and are eager to support a deal with the Palestinians. Although Trump previously told Bibi anything agreed by the two sides was acceptable, the obvious answer is the two-state solution that is rejected by Bibi's coalition cabinet. On the other hand, there is an Israeli consensus that the Palestinians must be prepared to recognize the Jewish state and that millions of refugees will not be allowed to return to Israel.
New stars in Israeli politics?
On this score there have been some intriguing developments in domestic politics. Gideon Sa’ar, a young and very popular Likud star, took a time-out from politics two and a half years ago. Although he denies it, Sa’ar apparently smells blood in the Likud in light of the ongoing police investigations into charges that Bibi and his wife Sara have accepted gifts worth hundreds-of-thousands of dollars. In addition, Bibi may have tried to illegally fix newspaper coverage. It is still undecided, but if Bibi is eventually charged, all hell will break out in the Likud about whether he should resign. In that case, it appears that Sa’ar wants to be set to run for new party leader.
Things are also heating up in the Labor/Zionist Camp that is lagging far behind the Likud and Yair Lapid's party. An internal party poll indicates that newcomer Avi Gabay is leading Amir Peretz in the internal party election due in July. Current party chief Yitzhak Herzog is lagging far behind. Gabay, although a newcomer to Labor, is gaining popularity among the rank and file, and if he livens up his TV persona, he could take the party by storm.
Not trigger-happy enough?
Israel's critics often malign IDF soldiers for being trigger-happy in shooting Palestinian attackers. In this case, Sgt. Elchai Teharlev did not open fire in time. He and another soldier were guarding a bus stop near the settlement of Ofra in the West Bank when a Palestinian drove his car deliberately at high speed, trying run over the two soldiers and people waiting for a bus. Sgt. Teharlev was killed on the spot while the second soldier was hurt lightly. The car then careened off the side of the road, lightly injuring the terrorist who was then arrested. It turned out that two years ago the terrorist tried to infiltrate a settlement and was sentenced to four months in prison and then released.