The latest report that the Israeli Air Force has conducted an attack in Syria comes not from the Syrian rebels but from U.S. officials. Why our officials might be talking to the media about this is a separate topic. More on it in a moment.
The information disclosed to the media is sketchy; it’s not even clear that the target was actually in Syria, as opposed to Lebanon. I heard on Fox earlier this evening that people in Lebanon had reported seeing IAF aircraft overhead during the period in question (some time Thursday or Friday). The statement(s) of U.S. officials indicate that we don’t think the IAF aircraft entered Syrian air space to conduct the attack.
The overall description of the Israeli strike package – an aircraft group of limited size; no evidence of multiple, extended sorties; striking from a position over Lebanon – strengthens the case I laid out earlier this week that Israel is likely attacking arms shipments to Hezbollah rather than attacking installations in Syria.
The IAF has far more capability than it needs to attack the weapons storage and handling facilities in Syria, and – as The Tower lays out here – has good reason to be concerned about the fate of Syria’s chemical weapons, in particular. But the descriptions we have of the reported air strikes are not consistent with attacking those facilities. To inflict the appropriate damage on the industrial and warehouse structures involved, the IAF would need to enter Syrian air space and put precision ordnance on them from overhead. It would need multiple, sequential sorties to accomplish a worthwhile job. There would be big, unmistakable explosions, in areas where thousands of Syrians would hear them.
If the IAF is attacking convoys – arms shipments to Hezbollah – the attack profile indicated by the descriptions we have received fits perfectly. The planes would spend little time in Syria, and might not need to enter Syria at all.
The area where they would operate is no more than an abstraction for an American news audience: our minds tend to wrongly attribute to it the vastness and untracked-ness of unknown territory. But for Israeli military planners, it is a small geographic area – it would fit nicely in about 30% of southern California, and have similar terrain – and it is much reconnoitered, intensively studied, and exceedingly well developed from the standpoint of military characterization. Every hill and valley is known, marked, and surveyed regularly. The IDF knows where the roads are; it knows where the goat paths are, and where Hezbollah spotters stand around with binoculars. It knows what traffic is normal, and what is odd. It listens to radio and cell phone communications. It knows far more of what is going on in Lebanon than it reacts to.
So when the attack profile derived from third-party reporting sounds like the IAF is attacking mobile targets in Lebanon or just across the Syrian border, that’s probably what’s going on. Given the few data points we have, it appears that Israel is actively interdicting shipments to Hezbollah. The evidence so far does not suggest that Israel has undertaken to destroy Syria’s weapons facilities.
She may ultimately have to, of course. One question raised by today’s disclosure from U.S. officials is why there was a disclosure from U.S. officials. What is the purpose of making sure this gets on CNN? American officials skirted the last two reports of Israeli air attacks in Syria (in late January, and earlier this week). Those previous reports, originating from Syrian rebels, were circulated by foreign news agencies and bloggers. But today’s report came from the Obama administration.
It is doubtful that looking at conventional security motives will be a useful tool for sifting the intentions of Team Obama. It hasn’t been so far, and this situation is no different. There is no conventional security motive that would prompt the Obama administration to wave this red flag at this particular moment.
We can discard the possibility that Team Obama just wants to clarify that it wasn’t us sending war planes over Lebanon. That clarification would be unnecessary. No one could possibly think it was us.
The typical motives of Obama’s officials have come from two basic lines of effort: electoral politicking, and the promotion of radical-left ideas popularized in the 1960s. Tending constituencies – politicking – with foreign policy isn’t always a straightforward proposition, although my conclusion is that Obama does have a default mode: don’t get into major overseas involvements that the people are going to hear much about. If you absolutely must get involved, do as little as possible, and minimize your exposure to potential failure and bad press. Use drones and special forces wherever possible, but just don’t take on too much to begin with.
I don’t see how this motivation would prompt Friday’s disclosure about the Israeli strike. Neither does it seem that the radical-leftism line of effort would do so. Radical leftism was clearly behind our approach to Libya two years ago, as well as behind Obama’s drop-all-demands approach to getting a new START treaty with Russia. It is certainly behind his endless global apology tour, with its most recent stop in Mexico. But as a motive for putting out an information tidbit on an Israeli strike in Lebanon or Syria, it doesn’t make sense.
The normal procedure of a U.S. administration would be to remain silent on the subject and decide what to say if it comes up in questioning from the media. Nothing is gained for U.S. interests by introducing the topic to the public. I have to assume the U.S. officials involved are aware that, by putting out this news tidbit, we are revealing nothing they don’t already know to Hezbollah, Assad, the Syrian rebels, Turkey, or Jordan. Besides the fact that these parties already knew about it, they would have learned of it from other sources anyway, even if they weren’t tracking it directly. So would important third parties like Russia, Iran, and the major EU nations. Even if we speculated that Obama officials had some nefarious reason for turning a spotlight on Israel’s activities to interdict arms to Hezbollah, it would be downright stupid to suppose that anyone relevant needed that spotlight in order to see what Israel is doing. No one does.
The default analysis would seem to be that U.S. officials want Americans to know that the IAF has attacked targets in or near Syria. Why that would be is not clear. The idea that it would reassure the Americans clamoring for U.S. intervention in Syria – hey, we’re not needed there; Israel will take care of the chemical weapons – seems like a pathetically childish calculation. It’s about as narrow, one-dimensional, and juvenile as it could be. Surely Obama’s officials are not that … silly.
It’s not like the unnamed official(s) provided a narrative to go with the data point. They didn’t give key details either, claiming not to know what the IAF struck. Why tell it to the media, then? This disclosure leaves an impression without conveying anything conclusive. It really isn’t clear what the point of putting out such a weak-sauce data point might be. Readers, any ideas?