How Concern For Israel's Security Enters Into Syria Plan

Renee Montagne talks to analyst David Makovsky of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy about the degree to which concern for Israel is shaping the Obama administration's thinking on Syria.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Israel and the U.S. conducted a defense missile test over the Mediterranean Sea yesterday, not - the Pentagon quickly said - related to a possible U.S. strike on Syria.

Still, the joint test raised questions about American-Israeli coordination on Syria, and how Israel security factors into the administration's plans. Of course, Israel's biggest worry, by far, involves another country in the region, Iran, and the possibility it will get a nuclear bomb.

To discuss how all of this is related, we invited into studio analyst David Makovsky of the Washington Institute of Near East Policy. Welcome.

DAVID MAKOVSKY: Delighted to be with you.

MONTAGNE: How much military intelligence sharing is going on about Syrian chemical weapons and Hezbollah guerillas and the various military aspects of this civil war?

MAKOVSKY: Look, we don't know for sure, but from what we know, the intelligence cooperation in general between the United States and Israel has really picked up in the last several years. And you've also seen a lot of visits between U.S. and Israeli security officials at a frequency level in the last few years that is above what we used to see.

MONTAGNE: Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham have stated explicitly in the last couple of days that if the U.S. does not strike Syria, it will show Iran that, for the United States, a redline is not a redline. And that's a big concern, generally speaking, for Israel, right, especially as it concerns Iran much more than Syria.

MAKOVSKY: Absolutely. I think the debate here is viewed differently than it is in Israel. They're not worried they're going to get hit by chemicals by the Syrians. The Syrians use chemicals against weaker opponents, not with people of very potent military capability. So there's no real threat to Israel of a Syrian chemical strike. The threat to Israel is they are very much dependent on the president's commitments about redlines. And if now redlines are conditional and require a majority of 535 other people...

MONTAGNE: That's Congress.

MAKOVSKY: ...which is Congress - to even agree to limited strikes, then, in their view, this is a horrific kind of outlook. So, I think they feel even if they win, they lose.

MONTAGNE: But I'm wondering how much this figures in American politics. The New York Times has quoted an unnamed administration official as saying that the pro-Israel lobby, AIPAC, is - and I'm quoting the New York Times here - "the 800-pound gorilla in the room." Is that your impression?

MAKOVSKY: I think they have to speak for themselves. I really don't know how they're going to make their calculations. I think they probably feel that, you know, the more they get deeper into this debate, the more people think they're doing this for Israel. And that's not the way Israel sees it. The Saudis feel this way, most of the Gulf States - the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait. They also deal with countries that are not Gulf states, like Jordan and others. You know, they have always relied on American credibility. This is not an Israel issue, per se. This is whether countries in the Middle East can, you know, rely on when the president of the U.S., you know, puts forward a redline.

MONTAGNE: At this point in time, as things stand, does Israel want to see Bashar al-Assad go?

MAKOVSKY: I think they don't have a policy consensus over there on that one issue. Let me break it down to two schools, OK. One school is what I call the devil you know is the devil, which is as bad as this guy is, he really is the worst, because he has the Iran-Hezbollah connection. The other school of thought is the devil you know, but the other guy could be worse, with a lot of these Sunni extremists, including al-Qaida offshoots. And I think part of their hesitancy - certainly refraining from doing whatever they can to make a recommendation of the United States - is that they have not clarified this policy debate over there.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

MAKOVSKY: Renee, anytime.

MONTAGNE: David Makovsky is with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

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