Israel was instrumental in helping United States President Barack Obama climb down from his threat to bomb Syria in 2013 if it violated his “red line” against using chemical weapons, according to a new book by former Israeli ambassador to Washington Michael Oren.
“Ally: My Journey across the American-Israeli Divide” recounts Oren’s four years in Washington, from 2009 – 2013. It is due to be released on June 23.
One of the incidents it describes in detail, according to Bloomberg News, is the Syrian chemical weapons crisis of August and September 2013, which eventually ended in an agreement by Syria to ship its stockpile of chemical weapons out of the country.
At the time, the U.S. was close to entering the Syrian civil war, after United Nations inspectors confirmed that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons in an attack on rebels in the outlying Damascus suburb of Ghouta.
Obama “reluctantly acknowledged” that the Syrian dictator had crossed his red line, Oren says, but the threat of American airstrikes as punishment for the Ghouta attack subsided when Syria and Russia agreed to a plan in which Assad would acknowledge and dispose of his chemical weapons.
The source of the compromise, according to the book, was Israel’s then-intelligence minister Yuval Steinitz, who suggested that Syria relinquish its chemical weapons to the Russian government. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Oren says, received Obama’s blessing to move forward with the proposal.
At the time, the disarmament plan appeared to come about by accident, following a remark by Secretary of State John Kerry on September 9 of that year that Assad could avert a U.S. attack on his territory if he gave up his chemical weapons. Kerry’s Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, quickly seized on the remarks and presented a proposal to Syria’s foreign ministry. Within hours, a UN plan was being negotiated and America put the airstrikes on hold.
“In the course of this frenzy … I heard of a proposal to peacefully remove Syria’s chemical arsenal,” Oren writes. “The idea originated with an Israeli minister, Yuval Steinitz, who first pitched it to the Russians, who were eager to avoid an American intercession that they could not stop. Netanyahu next brought it to Obama and received a green light.”
Obama never publicly credited Israel with help on the plan, Oren notes. “In subsequent interviews, Obama rarely missed the chance to cite the neutralization of Syria’s chemical capabilities as an historic diplomatic achievement. Russian president Vladimir Putin also took credit for the initiative and praised this ‘vivid example of how the international community can solve the most complex disarmament and non- proliferation task.’ Israel’s role remained unmentioned, but its citizens were relieved not to have to sign up for more gas masks,” he writes.
Bloomberg quotes a “senior U.S. official” as giving a different account of the events. According to that account, Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin, as well as Kerry and Lavrov, had discussed disarming Syria’s chemical weapons long before August 2013. But the U.S. never thought Russia was serious.
The official confirmed that Israel quietly supported the disarmament plan, according to Bloomberg, but he disputed that Israel was the author of the plan.
In Oren’s view, Obama’s decision not to use force when Syria defied him “sent a message to the world,” Bloomberg writes. The message concerned how the U.S. would respond to nuclear infractions by Iran. “On that day the debate in Israel ended,” Oren is quoted as saying.
The debate within Israel over whether Obama would keep his word and prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons is a theme that runs throughout the memoir, as is the tension between the two capitals following the launch of nuclear negotiations with Iran in 2014.