The week ahead: Israel, Syria turn focus to Middle East

The Israelis feel time is running out for them to be able to stop Iran’s nuclear program with a military strike, while the United States is pushing for time to let sanctions on Iran take their full effect.

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Iran so far has been defiant in the face of sanctions. The Iranians claim their nuclear program is for producing energy, not weapons, but the United States, Israel and other Western allies say the nation is seeking the ability to build a bomb.

Obama warned against “loose talk of war” in his speech Sunday, while affirming that he has “Israel’s back” and calling for time so diplomacy and “crippling” sanctions could take effect against Iran.

Netanyahu is looking for assurances from Obama that if Israel does not attack Iran, the United States would follow through with a military strike, if necessary, to stop Iran.

In an interview with The Atlantic published Friday, Obama said the United States “has Israel’s back.”

“I think that the Israeli government recognizes that, as president of the United States, I don’t bluff,” Obama said in the interview.

In addition to Iran, the situation in Syria will get a public airing this week as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) pushed for the Syria hearing, as he and some other senators have called for arming the rebels, who have been pounded by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.

The hearing comes after U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, who was pulled from the country amid the escalating violence there, testified Thursday at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The Obama administration has said it believes Assad will be forced to relinquish power, but has opposed arming the Syrian opposition at this time, worrying that additional arms could escalate the violence.

Senators at the Ford hearing also expressed concern over who the opposition is, as Ford said it remains divided.

At the same time that Panetta and Dempsey are testifying Wednesday morning on Syria, the House Foreign Affairs Committee will be marking up a bill to impose sanctions on the Syrian government.

Hearings on the 2013 defense budget continue this week in the House and Senate Armed Services committees and House Appropriations Committee, including panels on the Army, Air Force, military personnel and space operations.

Two hearings involve the special operations budget, which would get more funding under Obama’s new military strategy. Special-operations teams have been in the headlines, too, after conducting the mission that killed Osama bin Laden and the rescue of two hostages in Somalia in January.

Adm. William McRaven, who led the bin Laden mission, will testify Tuesday at Senate Armed Services and Wednesday at House Armed Services.

The House panel is also holding a hearing on base closures, which is sure to raise a cacophony of complaints from members of Congress, who have been bipartisan in their opposition to additional rounds of the base closure commission that were included in the president’s budget.