Not long ago, the Israeli Defense Forces staged an unusual daylight attack on Iranian military facilities at Damascus international airport. In response, the Iranians fired a missile of their own at Israel. The Israelis’ Iron Dome air defense system intercepted the Iranian missile and destroyed it as skiers on the slopes of Mount Hermon watched.
Then, Israel made a response of its own, hitting more Iranian installations around Damascus and close to the Golan Heights. So far, notwithstanding a few deaths and a lot of destruction in Syria, this was a pretty standard-issue tit-for-tat not-quite-war in the Middle East.
Then, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu tossed the standard script and went public about what the Israeli military had done, “drifting,” as the Washington Post put it, “further away from its longstanding policy of playing down or covering up its military activities in the war-torn country.”
It’s not as if Netanyahu was giving away a secret. Israel’s outgoing military chief, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, had already told the New York Times that Israel had struck “thousands of targets [in Syria] without claiming responsibility or asking for credit.”
It’s hard to believe Gen. Eisenkot wasn’t authorized by his boss the Prime Minister to speak out.
So why would the Israelis make a public spectacle of their slapping around of Iran and its surrogates in Syria?
Moshe Yaalon, a former military chief and defense minister, said it’s all about Netanyahu’s campaign for reelection. “What does the publication give us? Can someone tell me what the benefit is, besides politics?”
But others say Israel’s taking public ownership of hundreds of air strikes in Syria is a message to Iran and Russia; that Israel will forcefully stand its ground even as its best ally, the United States is pulling troops out of Syria.
Meanwhile, American officials like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton say, the U.S. troop withdrawal will neither diminish American influence in the Middle East nor hamper the U.S. from accomplishing its missions in Syria: defeating the Islamic State and expelling all Iranian forces out of the country.
Even as the Americans prove once again that a lot of political talk is false and cheap, the Israelis hope that their honest braggadocio about their air strikes against Iranians in Syria doesn’t come at a cost.
Kenneth M. Pollack is a former CIA intelligence analyst and expert on Middle East politics and military affairs. He has served on the National Security Council staff and has written several articles and books on international relations. Currently, he is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, where he works on Middle Eastern political-military affairs, focusing in particular on Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf countries. Before that he was Senior Fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution and a Senior Advisor at Albright Stonebridge Group, a global business strategy firm.