WASHINGTON — Israel’s willingness to hit Syrian targets it sees as threats to its own existence has complicated the Obama administration’s internal debate over arming President Bashar Assad’s foes and may change the way U.S. approaches allies as it tries to boost the rebels, including with possible military aid.
As Secretary of State John Kerry flew Monday to Russia for talks with the Assad regime’s most powerful ally, the administration remained tight-lipped on both Israel’s weekend air strikes and their implications for Washington decision-making.
Israeli warplanes targeted caches of Iranian missiles that were bound for Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based terror group that has threatened Israel.
The weapons would have allowed Hezbollah to strike Tel Aviv and as far as southern Israel from inside Lebanese territory.
Still, Israel’s actions put Damascus and Moscow on notice that the U.S. and its allies may not wait for an international green light to become more actively engaged.
The administration said last week it was rethinking its opposition to arming the rebels or taking other aggressive steps to turn the tide of the two-year-old civil war toward the rebels.
At the same time, Israeli involvement in the war carries risks. Instead of prodding Russia into calling for Assad’s ouster, it could bring greater Arab sympathy for Assad and prompt deeper involvement from Iran and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, actors committed as much to preserving Assad as to fighting the Jewish state.
Although Israel hasn’t officially acknowledged it carried out the airstrikes, Syrian officials on Monday were blaming Israel, calling it a “declaration of war” that would cause the Jewish state to “suffer.”
Russia, alongside China, has blocked U.S.-led efforts three times at the United Nations to pressure Assad into stepping down.
Officials said Kerry hopes to change Moscow’s thinking with two new arguments: American threats to arm the Syrian rebels and evidence of chemical weapon attacks by the Assad regime.