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The U.S. Makes Israel Play the Bad Cop With Syria

Throughout last week, rumors percolated that an explosion in Latakia, Syria, was the handiwork of the Israel Defense Force. Then, over the weekend, U.S. officials confirmed that Israel, acting as it has said it will do and as it already has done several times this year, blew up weapons it deemed threatening—in this case, anti-ship cruise missiles.

There was one detail about the attack that made it slightly more provocative than others of its kind. In the past, the weapons Israel has destroyed in Syria—such as those two months ago—originated in Iran and were bound for Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based anti-Israel militia. In this instance, however, according to The New York Times and other sources, the weapons were sold to the Assad regime by Russia, and may or may not have been bound for Hezbollah. Still, it is hard to see how that alters the fundamental principle under which Israel has long claimed to act. It wants to disrupt the shipment of dangerous, far-reaching weapons to Hezbollah, which controls southern Lebanon and has in the past displayed a willingness to launch such weapons at Israeli population centers. Even if these weapons were not themselves bound for Hezbollah, they could have made it more difficult for Israel to bomb future such weapons. As for their source, an anti-ship missile from Russia presumably does the same damage as an anti-ship missile from Iran.

The only man-bites-dog aspect of the saga, really, is how we know about it. Israeli officials, per usual practice, haven’t commented, even anonymously. It was rather U.S. officials who confirmed Israel’s strike. Just like last time, the United States is more eager for the world to know that Israel will take effective pre-emptive action against potential threats than Israel itself is.

It is possible that the Israeli strikes should be viewed almost as an American action, carried out by a proxy. A recent Tablet article hypothesized that the Palestinian conflict’s supersession by other regional crises could see a return to the Cold War model of Israel doing much of the U.S.’s regional dirty work. On a day when we learned just how weak sauce the new U.S. aid to certain Syrian rebels is, the spectacle of an Israeli air strike on a Syrian port seems a more appealing salvo against the regime.

But more likely—as before—this is about red lines and sending messages and, above all, Iran. “It’s a reminder that when it comes to certain issues, the Israelis are going to act,” Dennis Ross, a former top national security adviser to Barack Obama (and New Republic contributor), told me the last time U.S. officials leaked confirmation of an Israeli strike. “And the common message is, don’t assume the U.S. will stop them from acting. The more you see this kind of action from the Israelis and an American posture that certainly doesn’t look like it’s surprised, that sends a message to the Iranians.” Seen this way, Israel’s value to the U.S. is less as a proxy and more as an allied loose cannon. Especially given the election of a new and ostensibly more moderate Iranian president, the contours of America’s “good cop, bad cop” strategy couldn’t be clearer.

Which leads us to the final question: Is Israel willing to play the bad cop? Not necessarily. On Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took to several public forums—including the CBS talk show “Face the Nation,” in case his intended audience isn’t clear enough—to put pressure on the U.S. not to lose sight of Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program. In advance of meetings Tuesday among those nations negotiating with Iran, Netanyahu told Americans that Iran’s leaders “should know you’ll be prepared to take military action; that’s the only thing that will get their attention.” As many have explained (including Michael Crowley in The New Republic), and as even opponents of a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities acknowledge, a U.S. strike would likely be far, far more effective than an Israeli one; U.S. bunker-busters, for example, would have a far better chance of effectively damaging Iran’s Fordo uranium enrichment site, which lies way underground near the city of Qom.

The U.S. government wants Iran to think Israel would bomb it if it crossed a red line. The Israeli government wants Iran to think that, too, but it also wants it to think the U.S. would as well. For now, the “good cop, bad cop” routine is probably not a bad way to go. But if something especially urgent happens—a declaration by Iran’s true leaders (of which the president is not really one) that they are working towards nuclear weapons; expulsion of international inspectors; convincing intelligence that Iran is extremely close to actual, workable bombs—then the good cop and the bad cop may instead find themselves playing a game of chicken with each other.