A red line’s a red line. That was Israel’s message Wednesday, when it struck a major Syrian arms facility from the air.
Jerusalem officials declined to comment for the record, but Syrian and Lebanese media reported that the Israeli Defense Force struck a major missile and military research facility at Masyaf, Syria, that’s controlled by President Bashar al-Assad and his Iranian co-conspirators.
The daring attack carried all the hallmarks of Israel’s unique brand of non-proliferation enforcement. In an age of major proliferation crises, that method should be studied carefully and emulated when possible.
Wednesday night’s strike was “not routine,” tweeted Amos Yadlin, the director of Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies. “It targeted a Syrian military-scientific center for the development and manufacture of precision missiles” that also “produces the chemical weapons and barrel bombs that have killed thousands of Syrian civilians.”
Yadlin, who once commanded the IDF intelligence unit, knows a thing or two about combating proliferation: He was one of the pilots who took part in Israel’s 1981 “Operation Opera” to destroy Iraq’s Osirak nuclear plant.
Wednesday’s hit on the Syrian factory was reminiscent of another IDF feat, which occurred 10 years before, to the day: “Operation Orchard,” the mission that leveled a nascent Syrian nuclear facility, built with the help of Iran and North Korea.
Israel has told everyone (including UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres last week) that it wouldn’t allow into Syria and Lebanon certain arms, including precision-guided missiles, that can change the face of future wars against it. Wednesday’s operation made clear it means it.
It also dealt a major blow to Syria’s chemical arms capabilities. Washington had fingered the bombed facility as one of Syria’s three chemical arms factories.
And as it happens, just hours before the Israeli attack, the United Nations confirmed Assad’s responsibility for a horrific chemical strike on the town of Khan Sheikhun last April. Some 83 people, mostly civilians, were confirmed killed in that strike.
In response, President Trump authorized the firing of US Tomahawks on a Syrian air base, in a symbolic departure from President Barack Obama’s failure to enforce his own red line against Assad’s use of chemical weapons.
Recall that Obama, back in 2013, instead agreed to a Russian scheme for Assad to sign the international chemical arms convention, vow to never use those weapons again and destroy all his chemical stockpiles.
It’s a familiar tale: We negotiate with bad actors and proliferators of banned weapons in the hope of avoiding military action, get them to promise not to do it again and, presto, problem solved. Without firing a shot.
Obama signed a nuclear deal with Iran that was also based on promises. A decade from now, that may well look as ineffective as the deal Bill Clinton signed with North Korea in the 1990s, when Kim Jong Un’s father agreed to end his nuclear program. Kim on Sunday conducted his sixth test of a nuclear bomb, his most powerful yet.
Such non-proliferation agreements are typically applauded worldwide, because they involve no acts of violence and pose no major immediate risk of a wider war. They’re hailed as effective at the moment they’re signed — well before any time has passed to prove them the shams they are.
Now we know Assad’s promise to Obama that he’d not use chemical arms didn’t work. Would Israel’s much-maligned method be more successful?
A while back, one of the most admired diplomats in the non-proliferation arena, Hans Blix, told me Israel’s attack on Iraq’s Osirak facility was a major mistake, as it gave Saddam Hussein a huge incentive to rebuild his nuclear program.
Maybe, but Saddam never again managed to get close to possessing a nuke. Imagine if he had one in the two wars America fought in Iraq. Or if Assad possessed the ultimate weapon during these last six years of war.
As the Syrian war appears to be winding up in victory for Assad, Iran and Hezbollah, Israel is acting to prevent them from fulfilling their vow to erase it off the map, and prevent proliferation of banned arms in the process.
Israel now must “prepare for a Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah response,” Yadlin tweeted, adding that Russia too may be in “opposition” to Israel’s strike. But Jerusalem has long made its red lines clear to all, including Moscow.
This week’s lesson for the knee-jerk “no military solution” crowd is clear: Daring, well-planned surgical attacks are a non-proliferation tool that should be considered where practical — especially when the alternative is a meaningless pact with an unreliable dictator.