WASHINGTON — Israel aircraft bombed a target in Syria overnight Thursday, an Obama administration official said Friday night, as U.S. officials said they were considering military options, including carrying out their own airstrikes.
The Associated Press reported that Israel was apparently targeting a suspected weapons site, U.S. officials said Friday night.
The strike occurred overnight Thursday into Friday, the officials told The Associated Press. It did not appear that a chemical weapons site was targeted, they said, and one official said the strike appeared to have hit a warehouse.
The U.S. officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
In late January, Israel carried out airstrikes against SA-17 anti-aircraft weapons, which the Israelis feared were about to be moved to the Hezbollah Shiite militia in Lebanon.
Israel has been worried that chemical weapons and advanced arms might be transferred to Hezbollah from Syria, and the Israeli military has made clear that it is prepared to take action to stop such shipments.
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.
A spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington declined Friday night to comment on the Israeli attack, which was first reported by CNN, saying only in a statement, “Israel is determined to prevent the transfer of chemical weapons or other game-changing weaponry by the Syrian regime to terrorists, specially to Hezbollah in Lebanon.”
The Israel Defense Forces similarly declined today to discuss the attack.
The Israeli attack came as the Obama administration — as part of its examination of possible responses to obtaining conclusive proof that Assad has used chemical weapons — is considering military options with allies. Those options 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 that 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 attacking Assad’s main delivery systems, the officials say, 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 Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel met with his British counterpart and talked about “the need for new options” if Assad used his chemical arsenal, the officials said. But while the military has been developing and refining options for the White House for months, the discussion appears to have taken a new turn, officials say, in the 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.
“There are a lot of options on the table, and they’re generally carrying equal weight at the moment,” a senior administration official said Friday.
He declined to discuss the others, although Hagel talked Thursday about arming rebel groups.
So far, President Barack Obama has been reluctant to get involved in the Syrian conflict. He has ruled out placing U.S. forces on the ground, a stance he reiterated Friday at a news conference in San Jose, Costa Rica, where he was meeting with Latin American leaders.
Obama told reporters 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,” adding that he had consulted with leaders in the Mideast who agree.
When asked in recent days whether recent evidence of chemical weapons use in Syria crossed the “red line” he set in August, Obama described 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 might choose something well short of military action.
By Israeli estimates, Syria has 15 to 20 major chemical weapons sites, many near airfields that would make transport by plane relatively easy. Military planners say they would want to avoid hitting the chemicals for fear of creating toxic sites that could injure or kill civilians.
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. But that takes years, and as one official said, “We don’t have years, and we can’t keep troops there.”
That is why attacking the delivery systems seems like the next best option to many in the administration. Israel was believed to be behind an attack on some Syrian missiles in February as they were about to be transported, presumably to Hezbollah. On Wednesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Israeli lawmakers that a Hezbollah missile attack, using chemical weapons, was one of his chief concerns.
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 fire missiles without entering Syrian airspace. But it is unclear how effective those would be.
Obama has always made clear that any action should be taken with allies and neighbors. But NATO has been reluctant, and Russia, which keeps a naval base in Syria, has been opposed. Israeli officials have said that they do not want to go into Syria, fearing that any Israeli attack would fuel Assad’s argument that the civil war in his country is the result of foreign provocations. Some Israeli officials have argued that the Arab League should be in the vanguard of any attack, but it has shown little interest in direct military intervention in the Syrian conflict.
That has left the same trio that led the attack on Libya in 2011: the United States, Britain and France. There has been constant discussion among their militaries about “options of every kind,” one official involved in the talks said this week. “Clearly, an airstrike would be much more complex than in Libya,” the official said, noting that most of the targets there were in the desert.