The Middle East seems like an iceberg again: only about 10% of what’s really going on is visible.
One noteworthy example: Officials in Washington are increasingly convinced that Israel’s military is continuing to pound targets in Syria — not to help the rebels there, but to prevent anyone from getting new and potent weapons. The latest example: mysterious explosions at a Syrian port on July 5, soon after Russian vessels delivered advanced missiles that can strike ships offshore.
CNN and ABC News reported that, according to U.S. sources, Israel attacked the Syrian port. The Sunday Times of London reported that an Israeli submarine carried out the attack, which would be a new and dramatic technique.
Israel refuses to say a word about it. The pattern of silence about operations in Syria was firmly set in 2007, when Israel’s air force demolished a nuclear reactor being built in a remote site in northeastern Syria — and Israel has never confirmed what the CIA and other credible sources affirmed: that Israel did it to preserve its nuclear monopoly in the Middle East.
The dynamic moving parts now in the region are in Arab countries — with ambitions, tensions, and violence ignited by the Arab Spring movement that began in 2011. The future of Egypt and Syria: still unknown.
The United States and Israel, maintaing close consultations and publicly stressing their alliance — a history of which we wrote in 1994 (the book, Friends in Deed) — are reacting quite differently.
That’s the situation that Ron Dermer will be inheriting, when he becomes Israel’s ambassador to Washington in September. Replacing another American-born Israeli, Michael Oren — a historian and professor who had a fascinating 4 years that surely will spawn books and lectures — Dermer is well known to Obama Administration officials. Dermer is so close to Benjamin Netanyahu that the prime minister has often sent Dermer to Washington as his personal envoy on touchy issues.
Mideast-watchers in Washington are referencing Dermer’s feisty right-wing views. Folks who are skeptical of the Oslo Accords, the notion of a two-state solution with the Palestinians, and most anything the New York Times writes love Dermer’s sardonically polite explanation to the Times of why Netanyahu would not write an op-ed article for the paper.
Obama Administration officials are probably not going to hold Dermer’s views against him, because his closeness to “Bibi” is a lot more significant. Their disagreements are mostly over re-starting negotiations with the Palestinians — and, more essentially, whether a Jewish state and a Palestinian Arab state can respect fair borders and live side-by-side in peace.
Syria, Egypt, and Iran’s nuclear program are far more pressing issues right now.
The Obama Administration, after all, knows that anything America says and does will be closely watched worldwide: Send weapons to the rebels? Train them in neighboring countries, Turkey and Jordan? Set a deadline for toppling President Bashar al-Assad? Operate only through a multinational coalition, as the U.S. chose to do during Libya’s civil war?
Israel, sitting just to the southwest of Syria and buffered only by the Golan Heights which Israel captured in 1967, cannot afford to sit and watch with its proverbial hands under its rear end.
The only policy lines which Israeli officials have declared are: (1) Israel isn’t taking sides, as to which faction should win in Syria. (2) Any attempt by the Assad government to move advanced weaponry or chemical weapons to Lebanon or to any guerrillas will not be tolerated. (3) No Syrians will be allowed to fire toward Israelis on the Golan.
Number 1 seems to be true, in part because Israeli officials — including analysts in the intelligence community — are unusually confused as to what outcome they would prefer in Syria. At first, it was clear that weakening Assad by distracting him looked great. The possibility that he would be overthrown would probably shatter Syria’s alliance with Iran — and perhaps even with Israel’s bitter enemy, the Hezbollah in Lebanon.
So one would think that Israel would like “the rebels” to win. Yet as it became clear that there were all kinds of rebels — and some might put hostility toward “the Zionist entity” near the top of their priorities — Israeli analysts realized that they didn’t like any of the rebels, either.
Some Israeli officials privately say what Israel has traditionally thought when Arab and Muslim nations are fighting against each other in the Middle East: “Let them keep on fighting each other. It’s only good for us.” Others honestly feel terrible that tens of thousands of civilians have been killed in Syria — and recognize the volatile danger that over a million Syrian refugees can represent in other countries.
It is traditional that refugee crises give intelligence agencies fantastic opportunities. Western agencies almost certainly are planting spies among the refugees — to learn what can be gleaned about politics and military positions inside Syria, and perhaps to go with the Syrians when they eventually reenter their country. It’s a great time to recruit agents and place long-time moles in place.
It was noteworthy (Saturday, July 13) that Al-Jazeera English is emphasizing a story about Al-Qaeda-affiliated rebels in Syria having killed a commander of the Free Syrian Army. “Rebels are fighting each other,” the TV news said, and the reporter who told the story practically urged Western nations to arm the FSA before it’s too late. A commentator added that Western policies are inadvertantly helping Al-Qaeda by starving the relatively pro-Western FSA.