BEIRUT — Israel’s air force launched a rare airstrike on a military site inside Syria, the Syrian government and U.S.
and regional security officials
said Wednesday, adding a
potentially flammable new element to regional tensions
already heightened by Syria’s
civil war. Regional security officials said the jets targeted a site near the Lebanese border, and a
Syrian army statement said it
destroyed a military research
center northwest of the capital Damascus. They appeared to be discussing the same incident. The strike, which occurred overnight Tuesday, appeared to
be the latest salvo in Israel’s
long-running effort to disrupt
the Lebanese militant group
Hezbollah’s quest to build an arsenal capable of defending
against Israel’s air force and
spreading destruction inside the
Jewish state from just over its
northern border. The regional security officials
said Israel had been planning in
recent days to hit a Syrian
shipment of weapons bound for
Hezbollah, which is neighboring
Lebanon’s most powerful military force and committed to
Israel’s destruction. They said
the shipment included
sophisticated Russian-made
SA-17 anti-aircraft missiles
whose acquisition by Hezbollah would be “game-changing” by
allowing it to blunt Israel’s air
power. The strike may have halted that
transfer. The Israeli military and a
Hezbollah spokesman both
declined to comment, and Syria
denied the existence of any such
shipment. U.S. officials confirmed the strike,
saying it hit a convoy of trucks,
but gave no further information. All officials spoke on condition of
anonymity because they were
not authorized to brief the
media. The strike follows decades of
enmity between Israel and allies
Syria and Hezbollah, which
consider the Jewish state their
mortal enemy. The situation has
been further complicated by the civil war raging in Syria between
the forces of President Bashar
Assad and hundreds of rebel
brigades seeking his ouster. The war has sapped Assad’s
power and threatens to deprive
Hezbollah of a key supporter, in
addition to its land corridor to
Iran. The two countries provide
Hezbollah with the bulk of its funding and arms. Many in Israel worry that has
Assad’s regime loses power, it
could strike back by transferring
chemical or advanced weapons
to Hezbollah. Israel and Hezbollah fought an
inconclusive 34-day war in 2006
that left 1,200 Lebanese and
160 Israelis dead. While the border has been
largely quiet since, the struggle
has taken other forms. Hezbollah
has accused Israel of
assassinating a top commander,
and Israel has blamed Hezbollah for attacks on Jewish sites
abroad. In October, Hezbollah
launched an Iranian-made
reconnaissance drone over
Israel, using the incident to brag
about its expanding capabilities. Israeli officials believe that
despite their best efforts,
Hezbollah’s arsenal has
markedly improved since 2006,
now boasting tens of thousands
of rockets and missiles and the ability to strike almost anywhere
inside Israel. Israel suspects that Damascus
obtained a battery of SA-17s
from Russia after an alleged
Israeli airstrike in 2007 that
destroyed an unfinished Syrian
nuclear reactor. Earlier this week, Israeli Prime
Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
warned of the dangers of
Syria’s “deadly weapons” and
warned that the country is
“increasingly coming apart.” The same day, Israel moved a
battery of its new “Iron Dome”
rocket defense system to the
northern city of Haifa, which was
battered by Hezbollah rocket
fire in the 2006 war. The Israeli army called that move
“routine.” Syria, however, cast the strike
in a different light, portraying as
linked to the country’s civil war,
which it blames on terrorists
carrying out an international
conspiracy to destroy the country. A military statement read aloud
on state TV Wednesday said low-
flying Israeli jets crossed into
Syria over the Israeli-occupied
Golan Heights and bombed a
military research center in the area of Jamraya, northwest of
the capital, Damascus. The strike destroyed the center
and damaged a nearby building,
killing two workers and wounding
five others, it said. The military denied the existence
of any convoy bound for
Lebanon, saying the center was
responsible for “raising the level
of resistance and self-defense”
of Syria’s military. “This proves that Israel is the
instigator, beneficiary and
sometimes executor of the
terrorist acts targeting Syria
and its people,” the statement
said. Despite its icy relations with
Assad, Israel has remained on
the sidelines of efforts to topple
him, while keeping up defenses
against possible attacks from
the regime. Israeli defense officials have
carefully monitored Syria’s
chemical weapons, fearing Assad
could deploy them or lose control
of them to extremist fighters
among the rebels. President Barack Obama has
called the use of chemical
weapons a “red line” whose
crossing could prompt direct U.S.
intervention, though U.S. officials
have said Syria’s stockpiles still appear to be under government
control. The strike was Israel’s first
inside Syria since September
2007, when its warplanes
destroyed a site in Syria that
the U.N. nuclear watchdog
deemed likely to be a nuclear reactor. Syria denied the claim,
saying the building was a non-
nuclear military site. Syria allowed international
inspectors to visit the bombed
site in 2008 but it has refused
to allow nuclear inspectors new
access. This has heightened
suspicions that Syria has something to hide, along with its
decision to level the destroyed
structure and build on its site. In 2006, Israeli warplanes flew
over Assad’s palace in a show
of force after Syrian-backed
militants captured an Israeli
soldier in the Gaza Strip. And in 2003, Israeli warplanes
attacked a suspected militant
training camp just north of the
Syrian capital, in response to an
Islamic Jihad suicide bombing in
the city of Haifa that killed 21 Israelis. Syria vowed to retaliate for
both attacks, but never did. In Lebanon, which borders both
Israel and Syria, the military and
the U.N. agency tasked with
monitoring the border with Israel
said Israeli warplanes have
sharply increased their activity over Lebanon in the past week. Israeli violations of Lebanese
airspace are not uncommon, and
it was unclear if the recent
activity was related to the
strike in Syria. Syria’s primary conflict with
Israel is over the Golan Heights,
which Israeli occupied in the 1967
war. Syria demands the area
back as part of any peace deal.
Despite the hostility, Syria has kept the border quiet since the
1973 Mideast war and has never
retaliated to Israeli attacks. In May 2011, only two months
after the uprising against Assad
started, hundreds of Palestinians
overran the tightly controlled
Syria-Israeli frontier in a move
widely thought to have been facilitated by the Assad regime
to divert the world’s gaze from
his growing troubles at home.


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