The likelihood is increasing of an American strike on Syria as a targeted retaliation against the Assad regime for the use of chemical weapons in the Damascus area last week, according to assessments in Israel based on U.S. President Barack Obama’s statements over the past few days.
A phone conversation Friday between U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey and Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, described as routine, dealt with recent events in the region, especially the mounting civil war in Syria. No further details of the conversation were provided. Dempsey, who visits the region frequently, is expected to arrive in Jordan this week for a conference with colleagues, including senior military officials from Britain, France, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Qatar.
Israel does not expect that a first U.S. military strike against President Bashar Assad’s regime will impact Israel directly. According to intelligence assessments, Assad wants to avoid a direct military confrontation with Israel, although the international media links Israel with at least four aerial strikes against weapons depots in Syria.
Consultation among Israeli defense officials over the weekend discussed the various possibilities in light of the tension between the United States and Syria.
U.S. President Obama said Friday: “What we have seen indicates that this is clearly a big event of grave concern and we are already in communications with the entire international community.”
In an interview with CNN, Obama called on the Assad regime to allow a full investigation of the area that had been attacked, noting that UN inspectors were already there. However, Obama said, based on past experience he did not expect cooperation from Assad.
Obama also told CNN that the use of chemical weapons on a large scale “starts getting to some core national interests that the United States has,” both because of the need to ensure that weapons of mass destruction are not proliferating and also because of the need to defend U.S. allies and bases in the region.
“I think it is fair to say that, as difficult as the problem is, this is something that is going to require America's attention, and hopefully the entire international community's attention,” Obama said.
Obama met at the White House Saturday to discuss options with his senior security advisers. White House officials were circumspect in their description of their meetings. “We have a range of options available, and we are going to act very deliberately so that we're making decisions consistent with our national interest, as well as our assessment of what can advance our objectives in Syria," a White House official told Reuters.
The humanitarian-aid organization Doctors Without Borders released a statement Friday that more than 3,600 patients presenting symptoms of nerve damage by toxins had been treated over the weekend at three hospitals in the Damascus area, and that 355 of these patients had died. The NGO does not have representatives in the Damascus area, but has been supporting hospitals and clinics there since 2012.
Washington announced Friday that four U.S. destroyers in the Mediterranean Sea would be moving closer to the coast of Syria. The destroyers are armed with Tomahawk missiles that can accurately strike military targets in Syria.
Although Obama said a year ago that proof of the use of chemical weapons would be a “red line” that could lead to an American response, the U.S. ignored previous evidence of the use of chemical weapons, first and foremost two instances in Syria last March.
It seems that the evidence concerning the events of last week is more clear-cut and could oblige the U.S. to embark on military action, although Obama appears to lack enthusiasm for such a move. It is not known at this time whether a final decision has been reached in Washington. In any case, it is clear that the United States will do everything in its power to make do with a targeted response that will not embroil the United States in another war in the Middle East, and will certainly avoid boots on the ground in Syria.
Syrian Information Minister Omran Zoabi said in a television interview that a U.S. attack on his country would be no picnic and that there could be dangerous repercussions. Flames would set the Middle East on fire if the United States attacked Syria, he said.
Meanwhile, the Assad regime and the Syrian opposition continued to trade accusations over the weekend over who had used chemical weapons. Syrian television reported that the army had found a chemical weapons depot in the hands of rebels in the Damascus suburb of Jubar, one of the areas hit by such weapons. According to the report, soldiers who entered tunnels dug by the rebels in that area choked to death after exposure to the weapons.
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