WASHINGTON — Israel aircraft bombed a target in Syria, an Obama administration official said late Friday, as U.S. officials said they were considering military options, including carrying out their own airstrikes.
The strike occurred overnight Thursday into Friday, the official said. It did not appear that a chemical-weapons site was targeted; an official said the strike appeared to have hit a warehouse.
U.S. officials did not provide details on the target of the Israeli strike. But in late January, Israel carried out airstrikes against SA-17 anti-aircraft missiles, which the Israelis feared were about to be moved to the Hezbollah Shiite militia in Lebanon.
Israel has been worried chemical weapons and advanced arms might be transferred to Hezbollah from Syria, and the Israeli military has made clear it is prepared to take action to stop such shipments.
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President Bashar Assad of Syria has long had a close relationship with Hezbollah, and Syria has been a gateway for shipping Iranian weapons to the militia.
Hezbollah has sent trainers and advisers to Syria to help Assad with his war against the Syrian opposition, U.S. officials say, and Syrian opposition officials report that Hezbollah fighters are also involved in the conflict.
Israeli Embassy spokesman Aaron Sagui would not comment on the report of an Israeli strike in Syria.
“What we can say is that Israel is determined to prevent the transfer of chemical weapons or other game-changing weaponry by the Syrian regime to terrorists, [especially] to Hezbollah in Lebanon,” Sagui said in an email.
In 2007, Israeli jets bombed a suspected nuclear-reactor site along the Euphrates River in northeastern Syria, an attack that embarrassed and jolted the Assad government and led to a buildup of the Syrian air-defense system.
Russia provided the hardware for the defense-systems upgrade and continues to be a reliable supplier of military equipment to Syria.
The airstrike, first reported by CNN, came hours before President Obama said at a news conference in Costa Rica that he didn’t foresee a scenario in which the U.S. would send troops to Syria. More than 70,000 people have died and hundreds of thousands have fled the country as the Assad government has battled rebels.
The Israeli airstrike also came as the Obama administration, as part of its examination of possible responses to obtaining proof Assad has used chemical weapons, is considering military options with allies that include attacking Syria’s anti-aircraft systems, military aircraft and some of its missile fleet, according to senior officials from several countries.
Those officials say attacking the chemical stockpiles directly has been all but ruled out. “You could cause exactly the disaster you are trying to prevent,” a senior Israeli military official said in an interview last week in Tel Aviv.
But by attacking Assad’s main delivery systems, the officials say, they would curtail his ability to transport those weapons any significant distance. “This wouldn’t stop him from using it on a village, or just releasing it on the ground, or handing something to Hezbollah,” said one European official who has been involved in the conversations. “But it would limit the damage greatly.”
The topic was alluded to Thursday when Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel met with his British counterpart and talked about “the need for new options” if Assad uses his chemical arsenal, the officials said.
While the military has been developing and refining options for the Obama administration for months, the discussion appears to have taken a new turn, officials say, as they struggle to determine whether the suspected use of sarin gas near Aleppo and Damascus last month was a prelude to greater use of such weapons.
Asked about the planning, a senior Obama administration official said Friday that “there are a lot of options on the table, and they’re generally carrying equal weight at the moment.”
He declined to discuss the others, though Hagel talked Thursday about arming rebel groups, something Obama said Friday that he was unwilling to do. “As a general rule, I don’t rule things out as commander in chief, because circumstances change,” he said at the news conference in San Jose, Costa Rica, where he was meeting with Latin American leaders. He added that he did not foresee a situation in which “American boots on the ground in Syria would not only be good for America but also would be good for Syria.”
He noted that he had consulted with leaders in the Mideast who “agree with that assessment.”
The president Obama has been reluctant to get involved in the Syrian conflict. He has ruled out placing U.S. forces on the ground, and when asked whether recent evidence of chemical-weapons use in Syria crossed the “red line” he set in August, Obama described a lengthy series of questions he would need to have answered — including when and how chemical weapons were used — before he would take action. Even then, he made clear, he may choose something well short of military action.
Ideally, one U.S. commander said, the stockpiles would be surrounded, protected and then incinerated, much as the United States has done with its chemical arsenal.
That is why attacking the delivery systems seems like the next best option to many in the administration.
If Obama and his allies proceeded with an attack on air defenses, missiles and the Syrian Air Force, they would most likely use Tomahawk cruise missiles launched from ships in the eastern Mediterranean and fighter jets that might be able to launch missiles without entering Syrian airspace. It is unclear how effective those would be, however.
Obama has always made clear that any action should be taken with allies and neighbors, but NATO has been reluctant and Russia has been opposed to such moves.