Washington - As Israel and the United States struggle to maintain a veil of ambiguity over Israel’s alleged air strike against Syria earlier this month, Congress is bringing the issue out into the open and giving American sanction to an event that now seems all but confirmed.
Democrat Robert Wexler from Florida introduced a resolution this week supporting Israel’s covert operation and backing the country’s right to defend itself “in the face of an imminent nuclear or military threat from Syria.”
“This is the world’s worst-kept secret,” Wexler told the Forward this week, stressing that his proposed resolution did not reveal anything that wasn’t already reported in the world press.
With the lack of any official American or Israeli comment on the alleged air strike, Congress has become the leading voice in debating and promoting public discussion on the issue. A congressional source told the Forward that both the administration and Israel had expressed no opposition to having Congress play this role and that they did not ask lawmakers to abide by the rule of secrecy that both governments imposed on themselves.
The congressional source said that officials in the administration have confirmed in private conversations that the attack indeed took place. The source also said that “in general terms, the reports are right,” referring to media reports describing Israel’s target in Syria.
Ranking minority member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee Ileana Ros-Lehtinen also took on the issue of the Israeli attack on Syria, which according to reports was aimed at nuclear devices that Syria received from North Korea. According to Ros-Lehtinen’s proposal, Pyongyang will not be removed from America’s list of countries sponsoring terror until it stops supplying Damascus with nuclear technology. Both resolutions are now in the process of collecting co-sponsors and are expected to be referred to the foreign affairs committee.
According to Wexler, who is a strong backer of Israel and a member of the foreign affairs committee, congressional support for the Israeli attack is needed, since it will pose “an obvious contrast” to the lack of action on behalf of Congress when Israel attacked an Iraqi nuclear reactor near Baghdad in 1981, effectively putting an end to the Iraqi nuclear program.
Wexler added that he is pushing forward the resolution, also, in order to make clear to Syria that it will have no support if it attempts to complain about Israel at the United Nations or any other international forum.
According to Wexler, the Israeli operation “has an important positive impact on America” since Israel has “proactively negated what is seen as a Syrian nuclear effort.”
Israel and the United States are in accord on issues relating to the covert action in Syria and on the need to refrain from any public affirmation of the attack, diplomatic sources said. The Washington Post reported last week that Israel had shared intelligence with the United States after first learning about the nuclear ties between Syria and North Korea.
Former Middle East envoy Dennis Ross, who is now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, wrote this week in a New Republic op-ed that the attack not only took care of a potential nuclear threat but also restored Israel’s deterrence in the region.
“In effect,” Ross wrote, “[the Israeli raid] tells President Assad that Syria has few secrets it can keep from Israel. For a conspiratorial and paranoid regime, this is bound to keep its leaders preoccupied internally trying to figure out what Israel knows and doesn’t know.”
While showing silent support for Israel’s action, the administration is also extending an olive branch to Damascus by inviting its representatives to participate in the upcoming Middle East peace conference, scheduled for mid-November in Washington. The invitation was not conveyed directly to Syria, but rather to all countries that belong to an Arab League committee on advancing the Arab peace initiative.
The notion of Syria attending the peace conference was shot down the next day, when Syrian officials said that their country will not take part in the event. Israeli sources said that Jerusalem has no say on who attends the conference, as long as the basic ground rules of recognizing Israel and renouncing terror are kept.
Scott Lasensky, a Middle East scholar at the United States Institute of Peace, said that the seemingly contradictory signals Washington is sending Damascus are yet another sign of the lack of coherent policy toward Syria.
“There is no overall strategy regarding Syria,” said Lasensky, who co-authored a study calling for a reassessment of the American approach to Syria. The study calls for a more robust policy that will include not only coercion but also engagement, and that will, among other measures, reconsider the Syrian peace offer to Israel based on its merits.
This peace offer, forwarded by President Bashar al-Assad several times in the past year, appears now to be off the table. Reuters news agency quoted an unnamed Syrian official this week as saying that the Israeli Air Force attack on September 6 had “ruined chances for peace.”
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, was the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.