Pentagon officials were in talks with Israeli defense officials about whether Israel might move to destroy Syrian weapons facilities, The New York Times reported Thursday.
According to two administration officials, the administration is not advocating such an attack because of the risk that it would give Syrian President Bashar Assad an opportunity to rally support against Israeli interference.
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President Barack Obama’s national security adviser, Thomas Donilon, was in Israel over the weekend and discussed the Syrian crisis with officials there, a White House official told the paper.
Obama called Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday and they agreed that the growing violence in Syria shows the need for a political transition as soon as possible.
A White House statement noted the "differences our governments have had on Syria," but said the two leaders "agreed to have their teams continue to work toward a solution."
US diplomats said Wednesday's bombing in Damascus that killed several of Assad’s closest advisers was a turning point in the conflict. “Assad is a spent force in terms of history,” Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, told reporters. “He will not be a part of Syria’s future.”
Alluding to Russia’s position, Carney said the argument that Assad’s ouster would result in more violence was refuted by the bombing, and that Assad’s continued rule “will result in greater violence,” not less.
Within hours of the bombing, The NYT reported, the Treasury Department announced additional sanctions against the Syrian prime minister and some 28 other cabinet ministers and senior officials, part of the administration’s effort to make life so difficult for the government that Assad’s allies desert him. “As long as Assad stays in power, the bloodshed and instability in Syria will only mount,” said David S. Cohen, a senior Treasury official.
It was further reported that behind the scenes, the administration’s planning has already shifted to what to do after an expected fall of the Assad government, and what such a collapse could look like. A huge worry, administration officials said, is that in desperation Assad would use chemical weapons to try to quell the uprising.
“The Syrian government has a responsibility to safeguard its stockpiles of chemical weapons, and the international community will hold accountable any Syrian officials who fails to meet that obligation,” Mr. Carney said.
'Syria will exploit any raid on weapons'
Any benefit of an Israeli raid on Syria’s weapons facilities would have to be weighed against the possibility that the Assad government would exploit such a raid for its own ends, said Martin Indyk, the former US ambassador to Israel and director of the Foreign Policy Program at the Brookings Institution.
He and several administration officials said the view was that Assad might use chemical weapons as a last resort. “But it crosses a red line, and changes the whole nature of the discussion,” Mr. Indyk said.
“There would be strong, if not overwhelming sentiment, internationally, to stop him.” Russia, in particular, would probably have to drop its opposition to tougher United Nations sanctions against Syria, and Assad’s other remaining ally, Iran, would probably not look too kindly on a chemical attack.
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