Washington — Israel’s punishing air strikes against Syria highlight the delicate dance about sharing information with the U.S. — a balance that provides a blueprint for a possible attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Following a pattern set in decades of military cooperation, Israel did not provide the U.S. with advance warning about its intention to launch two strikes on advanced missiles near Damascus, sticking to boilerplate statements about the need to “take any action needed.”
But insiders say prior consulations would be required before any Israeli attack on Iran, because — unlike the Syria attacks — such a strike would likely drag the U.S. into military intervention of one kind or another.
Aaron David Miller, a former State Department official involved in U.S.-Israel relations, called an attack on Iran “the big one” and stressed that Israel would have to share information at the highest level of decision-makers.
“It’s not something that you can come on Sunday and say ‘we’re attacking on Tuesday,’” Miller said, suggesting that approval from the U.S. would take some time.
Still, even in this hypothetical case, the White House would not expect Israel to provide exact details in advance.
“It’s inconceivable that the Israelis will say: ‘We’re going to attack Iran on this day at this hour,” said Elliott Abrams, former deputy national security adviser to President George W. Bush.
He predicted that the U.S. would not require such specific information and Israel would be reluctant to provide it, fearing leaks from the administration. But Abrams agreed that Israeli officials would tip their hand that an attack was certain, even if they withheld some details.
“Maybe they’ll come and say: ‘we reached the point of high probability,’” said Abrams, who is now with the Council on Foreign Relations.
The air strikes on Syria took place on May 3 and 5 and were aimed at warehouses storing dozens of advanced surface-to-surface Fateh-100 missiles.
The missiles, provided by Iran, were on route to Hezbollah in Lebanon and were viewed by Israel as game changing weapons in its ongoing battle against the Lebanon-based terror group. The U.S. administration was quick to make clear it had received no advance notice about the attacks.
President Obama, in an interview while travelling to Costa Rica, announced his support for Israel’s action, saying he believes “Israelis justifiably have to guard against the transfer of advanced weaponry to terrorist organizations like Hezbollah.”
The decision not to provide advance notification to the United States and not to seek pre-approval fits a long standing pattern of military coordination between the two countries, one that can best be described as following the rule of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
Ambiguity is helpful for both sides. For Israel, determined to prove its sovereignty in making security-related decisions, lack of advance notice makes clear all decisions were made independently. For the United States, as it tries to avoid taking responsibility for Israeli actions, this ambiguity provides a safe distance from the events. “The American side wants to be kept in the loop, but at the same time, the U.S. also wants to maintain some deniability,” said a former Israeli official who has dealt closely with this intersection of relations. “The result,” the official added, “is a compromise between the need to know and the need not to know.”
History shows that the calculus about whether Israel needs to provide details to the U.S. depends on the degree to which American interests are directly involved.
In the case of Syria, there was no direct impact on the U.S. Hence, there was no need for any advance warning.
“I don’t think this is terribly consequential to the United Stats,” said Miller, who currently serves as vice president for new initiatives at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Even without specific advance warning, the Obama administration was not surprised by the Israeli action. In private conversations with their American counterparts, as well as in public statements, Israelis have made clear they will not tolerate transfer of weapons to Hezbollah through Syria. This was enough to convey the message that an attack could occur.
“We do not have a green light, red light relationship with Israel,” Abrams said.
The policy of ambiguity in sharing exact details of military action has been honed in the crucible of repeated Israeli military actions during Mideast crises.
In 1981 Israel took out Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in a bold air strike thousands of miles from its border. Israeli officials had raised their concerns over the Iraqi nuclear program with the highest levels of the Reagan administration, but upon hearing America’s reservations regarding taking action against the nuclear site, Israel launched a surprise attack, triggering a furious response from Washington.
Since, the two nations improved their communications and avoided friction over military actions. The decision to start two widespread military campaigns in Gaza and the second Lebanon war followed the pattern of discussing the policy in general terms with the U.S. in advance while stopping short of actual notification about the exact timing, scope and operational details of the upcoming attacks.
This system was put to its most significant test with the September 2007 attack on Syria’s nuclear site, which was being built in northern Syria. Elliott Abrams recalled in his recent book “Tested by Zion: The Bush administration and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,” discussions held between the two governments before the attack. Israel expressed its concerns over the evidence that Syria was building a nuclear reactor and when the U.S. suggested dealing with it by diplomatic means rather than launching a strike, Israel made clear it would consider a military option, but provided no details.
“It took two months before the Israelis attacked,” Abrams said in an interview, “the only advance notice we had was the discussion months before.” Still, the Bush administration did not condemn Israel for the attack.
For America, experts and former officials agree, not knowing the details is, more often than not, the best case scenario. Specific advance knowledge of Israel’s military plan could imply that the United States gave its stamp of approval to the operation and would also suggest that Israel cannot act without prior approval from America. Both would be unwelcome.
“There is a desire on both sides to make clear that these are sovereign national security decisions,” Abrams said.
Contact Nathan Guttman at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @nathanguttman