First, there was a somewhat bizarre miscommunication between two very close allies, the U.S. and Israel. A senior Israeli intelligence official publicly related to the use of chemical substance by the Assad army against unarmed Syrian citizens. This was not a sweeping statement, rather a careful reference to local and tactical use of forbidden materials by the Alawite regime.
A correct statement of events, but a less than carefully calculated political move on the part of an inexperienced military person. He should have known that a statement as this should be approved by the political echelon in Israel, but it was not. So, if Netanyahu and the new Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon did not know, also John Kerry and Chuck Hagel, who just visited Israel, did not know either. Here is the stuff which accounts for a short-lived misunderstanding. Both Hagel and Kerry publicly complained that they heard nothing about the chemicals' use from Netanyahu and Yaalon, though a careful reading of their statements indicated that they did not dispute the veracity of the Israeli intelligence assessment.
Netanyahu, who is under close scrutiny in DC for his alleged lack of reliability due to previous misunderstandings/disagreements with the Obama administration, must have felt bad to be under the radar again, so a quick action on his part was in place, and after 48 hours of confusion and verbal kerfuffle, the allies are again on a par; yes, Syria did use some forbidden stuff locally and in a tactical way. This is a war crime, added to the long catalog of Assad's war crimes, but then, the entire incident aroused some other, bigger questions relating to the nature of U.S.-Israel relations, and above and beyond that, what should be done with the criminal Alawite regime in Damascus.
To start with, the visits in Israel of President Obama, and secretaries Hagel and Kerry, all in a span of some weeks, are a testimony to close and improving cooperation between the two allies in dealing with questions of regional security. Thomas Friedman and Peter Beinart, who predicted a benign neglect of Israel by the second-term Obama Administration, can chew their hats, which they will probably not do; but clearly it is the case that on the ground, the cooperation between the allies reflect the very opposite of neglect, benign or otherwise.
The two parties proved that joint interests surpass any occasional case of mis- or bad communication, and now they can deal with the overall strategic question of how to handle the latest crime of Bashar Assad.
There have been numerous reports about the use of chemical/biological materials by the Assad regime, but if only two cases can be substantiated, it indicates that the regime has not yet resorted to a wholesale use of this weapon, and as was predicted by this blog, is not likely to do so even as its predicament is growing. It has nothing to do with any sudden burst of humanity on the part of Bashar Assad and his lieutenants. Humanity and the Syrian regime is an oxymoron, but the dictator knows that any wide use of chemical/biological materials will prevent him from getting asylum even in Iran, let alone Russia, and North Korea is not a favored option for somebody who has billions of stolen dollars to waste. On top of that, he knows that in case of using the outlawed materials, the West, led by the U.S. would have to intervene, and his end will be assured, whereas now, the dictator still believes that somehow a miracle will happen, and he will stay in his palace. A false hope, but hope nevertheless.
The U.S., Turkey and Israel do not want to intervene with boots on the ground in Syria. Each one for its own reasons, and in the case of Israel it is obvious that the rebels will resent it, and any hint of Israeli involvement will immediately be used by the regime propaganda machine. Still, this is a cynical decision on the part of all three countries. Every day that passes does weaken further the Syrian military. An army which seemed menacing and impressive just two years ago is reduced to 2-3 divisions, composed mainly of Alawites and other minorities, who function more as a militia, rather than as an organized, effective regular army. Add to this the mounting losses of Hezbollah, which under Iranian diktat is getting increasingly embroiled in the quagmire, and we can see where the strategic interest of the West and Israel is.
It is cynical though, and tragically so, because in the meantime, too many innocent Syrians are paying with their lives. This is sad and unacceptable, so that if the West does not want it all to be a case of shedding crocodile tears, some action can and should be taken -- and quickly. The use of chemicals by Assad, even on a very small scale, should provide the justification for some intensive action to support the non-al-Qaeda rebels and the Syrian population at large.
Weapons such as anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles to the rebels, foodstuffs, medical supplies to the population and the creation of two safe zones, on the Turkish-Syrian and Jordanian-Syrian borders. That CAN be done quickly. That SHOULD be done.