As Israeli planes hit targets in Syria for the second time in three days, some Republicans on Sunday ramped up their calls for President Obama to take stronger measures against the Assad regime — but the White House response was muted.
Mr. Obama declined over the weekend to confirm or comment directly on the airstrikes, but he affirmed the right of Israel to defend itself.
“I continue to believe is that the Israelis justifiably have to guard against the transfer of advanced weaponry to terrorist organizations like Hezbollah,” Mr. Obama said in a televised interview with Telemundo. “Hezbollah has repeatedly said that they would be willing to attack as far as Tel Aviv. And so the Israelis have to be vigilant and they have to be concerned. And you know we will continue to coordinate with Israel.”
Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, is among those criticizing Mr. Obama for his less-than-explicit response to recent reports that forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad have used chemical weapons on their own people.
The Israel airstrikes complicate what was already a difficult spot for a president who promised to end two wars in the Middle East but now finds himself on the verge of being sucked into the Syrian civil war — in part because of comments he made at a news conference in August.
According to a front-page story in Sunday’s New York Times, Mr. Obama caught his own aides off guard last year when he said the use of chemical weapons would amount to crossing a “red line” that would “change my calculus” over American assistance in Syria.
But many in the White House are looking now to keep the president’s options open.
“How can we attack another country unless it’s in self-defense and with no [U.N.] Security Council resolution?” said an unidentified Obama administration official, according to the paper. “If he drops sarin on his own people, what’s that got to do with us?”
Rep. Tom Cotton, Arkansas Republican, told NBC’s “Meet the Press” that arming “reform minded, pro-Western rebels” is “something that should have been done many months ago.” He said a show of American force could include a no-fly zone and naval firepower, but no boots on the ground.
Summing up the situation, Mr. McCain told “Fox News Sunday,” “Never point a weapon at someone unless you’re ready to pull the trigger.”
Syrian powder keg
Developments in region may force Mr. Obama to act, political observers say. Syrian state television reported early Sunday that Israel delivered an airstrike outside Damascus to intercept a shipment of missiles from Iran to Hezbollah, a Lebanese militant group, and European allies seem increasingly ready to help the Syrian rebels, a move that could give the Obama administration enough political cover to offer lethal assistance of some kind.
Syria’s government called the attacks against its territory a “flagrant violation of international law” that has made the Middle East “more dangerous.” It said “Israel should know that our people and state do not accept humiliation” and warned Syria has the right “to defend its people by all available means.”
The generally muted response, read out by the information minister after an emergency government meeting, appeared to signal that Damascus did not want the situation to escalate.