- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 5, 2013

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.”

Republican critics

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.

SEE ALSO: Israeli warplanes again strike Syria, target Iran-made guided missiles

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.

Instead, it tried to use the strikes to taint the opposition, claiming the attacks were evidence of an alliance between Israel and Islamic extremist groups trying to overthrow Mr. Assad.

The air raids pose a dilemma for the regime: Failure to respond could make it look weak and open the door to more strikes, but retaliating militarily against Israel would risk dragging the Jewish state and its powerful army into a broader conflict.

U.S. being drawn in

Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said Israel’s airstrikes send a signal to Iran and Hezbollah — as well as the United States — that the situation in Syria “is getting very, very tense.”

“I think in the next few days, my view is that the president will opt towards some kind of limited military option,” Mr. Richardson told “ABC’s This Week.”

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, said he also feels the United States is inching closer to providing lethal aid to rebels who are fighting pro-government Syrian forces, but it must be done carefully.

“Our problem in who to supply is that some of these groups are strong Islamists — al Qaeda and others — and we’ve seen like in Libya and Egypt and elsewhere, the Islamists tend to get the upper hand if they get in there,” Mr. Leahy told “NBC’s Meet the Press.”

But former Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican who left the Capitol at the start of the year to lead the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank, accused the president of taking a passive role in the Syrian conflict.

“I think the president needs to make it clear what we will do. And he’s already tried to do that with his bright red line, which he hadn’t followed through on,” he told ABC. “So I don’t know what his steps should be right now, but clearly, his indecisiveness has destabilized and probably brought Israel into this.”

Mr. McCain told Fox News he is especially worried about radical jihadists flowing into Syria, making the situation “more and more tenuous.”

“The whole thing’s escalating,” he said.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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