A delegation of Israeli officials met with US National Security Adviser Susan Rice in Washington on Monday afternoon to discuss the latest developments in Syria and Egypt, as the Obama administration planned its response to a chemical attack near Damascus.
The Israeli team was headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s outgoing National Security Adviser Yaakov Amidror.
A statement issued by the White House noted that the officials also discussed Iran and other regional issues, and that the meeting was part of a series of regular discussions within the framework of the good relations between the two countries. But the meeting comes at a time when Israel finds itself facing an increased threat.
A senior Syrian official on Monday issued a first direct warning that if attacked, his country would retaliate against Israel. Khalaf Muftah, a senior Baath Party official who used to serve as Syria’s assistant information minister, said in a radio interview that Damascus would consider Israel “behind the [Western] aggression and [it] will therefore come under fire.”
“We have strategic weapons and we’re capable of responding,” he said. “Normally the strategic weapons are aimed at Israel.”
Muftah concluded with a warning that “If the US or Israel make the mistake of taking advantage of the chemical issue… the region will go up in flames… that will affect security not only in the region but across the world.”
His words were echoed by Iranian officials, who on Monday shrugged off the threat of a US attack on its close ally Syria, but said that if such a strike were to take place, Israel would suffer.
“[The Americans] are incapable of starting a new war in the region, because of their lacking economic capabilities and their lack of morale,” said Mohammad Reza Naqdi, the commander of the Republican Guards’ elite Basij force.
“No military attack will be waged against Syria,” said Hossein Sheikholeslam, a member of Iran’s Islamic Consultative Assembly. “Yet, if such an incident takes place, which is impossible, the Zionist regime will be the first victim of a military attack on Syria.”
Israeli military officials have indicated they believe it unlikely that Syria would target Israel if the US or others intervened, but Israel has reportedly been taking security precautions just in case.
The Obama administration on Monday toughened its criticism of Syria’s alleged chemical weapons use, with Secretary of State John Kerry cutting short his vacation to deliver a scathing indictment of the Assad regime. It was the first time the US said unequivocally that the Syrian government was behind a devastating attack that killed hundreds last week.
In an address at the State Department (read the full speech here), Kerry said that chemical attacks were “inexcusable” and “undeniable,” that they defied “the code of morality” and should “shock the conscience of the world.” He called the killing of innocent women and children a “moral obscenity” and reiterated — in what appeared to be a direct threat to the Assad regime — that there must be accountability for the use of such weapons.
In an apparent jab at Russia, which has been insisting that the West does not have sufficient evidence of chemical weapons use to justify an attack on Syria, Kerry said that anyone who thought the evidence of a chemical attack was “contrived” or fabricated “must check their moral conscience.”
Also on Monday, the US State Department canceled a meeting with Russian officials about setting up an international conference to find a political resolution to the Syrian crisis, scheduled for this week. A senior State Department official said Monday the meeting between Undersecretary Wendy Sherman and US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford with their Russian counterparts was postponed.