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Published: Monday, 5/6/2013

MIDDLE EAST

Syria warns of response to airstrikes

Israel attacked missiles intended for Hezbollah

BLADE NEWS SERVICES

BEIRUT — The Syrian regime of President Bashar Assad warned Sunday that a series of powerful Israeli airstrikes near the Syrian capital opened the door to “all the options,” underscoring the possibility that Syria’s civil war could spill across regional borders.

Assad’s cabinet held an emergency meeting Sunday after explosions lit up the sky outside Damascus on Friday and early Sunday.

Syrian state media said the attack had targeted a military and scientific research facility.

The Israeli military declined to comment on the strikes, but the Associated Press quoted an anonymous Middle East intelligence official as confirming that the research facility was hit.

The target was Fateh-110 missiles, which have precision guidance systems and may have been destined for the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, the official said.

Though it was unclear whether Assad’s government would seek direct military retaliation, the Syrian Foreign Ministry said the attack proved Israel is collaborating with Syrian rebels.

“The Israeli attack on military sites in Syria is proof that there is communication between Israel and the terrorist groups who take their orders from al-Qaeda,” the ministry said in a statement published on state television.

The Syrian government uses the term “terrorists” to refer to its opponents, ranging from secular activists to al-Qaeda-linked militants, in more than two years of civil war.

In Israel, retired military commanders said they doubted that Syria would retaliate with any lethal force because the Assad government does not want to draw Israel deeper into the conflict.

In Israel, defense analysts said the strikes may have been more opportunistic than reflective of an immediate threat.

Israel said last week it was “very close to 100 percent” sure that Assad’s government had employed chemical weapons against his people.

While Israel is concerned about the possibility of chemical weapons falling into the hands of extremists, the nation’s military is more interested in stopping immediate transfers of sophisticated but conventional weaponry from Syria to Hezbollah, analysts said.

One senior Israeli official said both airstrikes targeted shipments of Fateh-110 missiles bound for Hezbollah.

The Iranian-made guided missiles can fly deep into Israel and deliver powerful half-ton bombs with pinpoint accuracy. The official spoke on condition of anonymity.

Syria’s government called the attacks a “flagrant violation of international law” that has made the Middle East “more dangerous.”

Syria’s information minister, Omran al-Zoubi, reading a Cabinet statement, said Syria has the right and duty “to defend its people by all available means.”

Israeli defense officials believe Assad has little desire to open a new front with Israel when he is preoccupied with the survival of his regime.

More than 70,000 people have been killed since the uprising against Assad erupted in March, 2011, and Israeli officials believe it is only a matter of time before Assad is toppled.

Israel seemed to be taking the Syrian threats seriously.

Israel’s military deployed two batteries of its Iron Dome rocket defense system to the north of the country Sunday. It described the move as part of “ongoing situational assessments.”

The deployment followed a surprise Israeli drill last week in which several thousand reservists simulated conflict in the north.

Israel also closed the airspace over northern Israel to civilian flights on Sunday and tightened security at embassies overseas, Israeli media reported.

Israeli officials would not confirm either measure.

Reflecting fears of ordinary Israelis, the country’s postal service, which helps distribute government-issue gas masks, said demand jumped to four times the normal level Sunday.

Israel’s deputy defense minister, Danny Danon, would neither confirm nor deny the airstrikes.

He said, however, that Israel “is guarding its interests and will continue to do so in the future.”

“Israel cannot allow weapons, dangerous weapons, to get into the hands of terror organizations,” he told Army Radio.

Israeli officials said Sunday they believe Iran is stepping up its efforts to smuggle weapons through Syria to Hezbollah because of concerns that Assad’s days are numbered.

None of the Iranian missiles is believed to have reached Lebanon, officials said.

In Washington, the White House declined to comment directly on Israel’s airstrikes in Syria, but said President Obama believes Israel, as a sovereign nation, has the right to defend itself against threats from Hezbollah.

“The Israelis are justifiably concerned about the threat posed by Hezbollah obtaining advanced weapons systems, including some long-range missiles,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.

One U.S. intelligence official said the United States was not given any warning before airstrikes in Syria.

Without confirming that Israel was behind the attacks, the official said that the United States was told of the air raids “after the fact.”

Iran condemned the airstrikes, and a senior official hinted at possible retribution from Hezbollah.

Gen. Masoud Jazayeri, assistant to the Iranian chief of staff, told Iran’s state-run Arabic-language al-Alam TV that Tehran “will not allow the enemy [Israel] to harm the security of the region.”

“The resistance will retaliate to the Israeli aggression against Syria,” he said.

“Resistance” is a term used for Hezbollah and the Palestinian Hamas, another anti-Israel militant group supported by Iran.

Iran has provided both financial and military support to Hezbollah for decades and has used Syria as a conduit for both.

If Assad were to fall, that pipeline could be cut, dealing a serious blow to Hezbollah’s ability to confront Israel.

Israel appears to be taking a calculated risk that its strikes will not invite retaliation from Syria, Hezbollah, or Iran.

But Salman Shaikh of the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar issued a warning.

“All this could lead us into a wider conflict,” he said.



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