JERUSALEM: President Barack Obama’s difficulties in securing support for a strike on Syria are seen by Israeli media and analysts as a sign of the decline of American deterrence in the Middle East.
Congress will on Monday begin to debate military action proposed by Obama, who accuses Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime of perpetrating an attack with chemical weapons near Damascus last month that killed more than 1,400 people.
But for Israeli commentators, a congressional green light is far from assured.
Even France — so far the most solid voice of support for armed action from the international community — wants to wait for the UN report on the August 21 incident, before a possible strike.
“President in a trap” declared the Sunday front page of Israel Hayom, the top circulation daily considered close to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“Alone in the battle” was the headline of widely read Yediot Aharonot next to a picture of Obama with tightly pursed lips.
“The United States cannot afford to be seen as a weak and declining superpower whose red lines are not complied with,” said Boaz Ganor, director of the institute for counter terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Centre Herzliya, near Tel Aviv.
“It is essential for Obama to get the green light from Congress — not for the sake of the strike, which is likely to be merely symbolic — but in order to preserve the credibility of the American deterrent force in the Middle East,” Ganor added.
Israeli officials have remained silent — at Netanyahu’s orders — about a possible strike on Syria.
Israel has already taken military precautions against a spillover from Syria onto its territory in the wake of a possible US strike.
“We are watching over Israel, an island of tranquillity, quiet and security,” Netanyahu said at his weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday, not naming Syria but only noting “the storm raging around us”.
– “Errors of judgment” –
According to Yediot Aharonot’s military commentator, the likelihood of US strikes against Syria is now “less than 50 percent”.
Israeli citizens gather to change and pick up gas masks near Haifa.
“If Obama’s conduct up until last week unsettled his allies in the Middle East, today it is seriously beginning to worry them.
“Heads of state in the region now realise that while Obama has a very solid worldview, in practice he translates it into gut decisions,” wrote Alex Fishman of the president seeking congressional approval for a strike.
“Obama is losing credibility in the Middle East, where only the strong leaders are respected,” said Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv.
“He was already perceived as weak in the region because of his many errors of judgment, particularly in regards to Egypt and Libya,” he added.
For former deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon, who also served as ambassador to the US, seeking congressional approval could be a way for Obama to avoid taking action on Syria.
“An appeal to Congress for limited military action of this kind is almost unprecedented in American history,” he told army radio.
“Obama did not need the approval to act against this kind of situation, as many other American presidents did in the past,” he said.
In contrast, President Shimon Peres, whose function is largely ceremonial, defended Obama’s tactics, saying that weighing decisions was not tantamount to dithering.
“I recommend patience. I am confident that the US will respond in the right way to Syria,” he said in an interview with army radio last week.
For Inbar, the “true test” of the United States will be Iran, which Washington believes is seeking to develop nuclear arms, despite Tehran’s denials.
“After his hesitation on Syria, the only way for Obama to restore American deterrence in the region is by preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, using military means if necessary,” he said.
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