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Israeli Jets Blast Arms Shipment Inside Syria
Israel bombed a suspected shipment of antiaircraft missiles in Syria on Wednesday, according to regional and U.S. officials, in its most ambitious strike inside its neighbor's territory in nearly two chaotic years of civil war there.
The early-morning strike in a border area west of Damascus targeted a convoy of trucks carrying Russian-made SA-17 missiles to Hezbollah, the anti-Israel Shiite militant and political group in Lebanon, according to a Western official briefed on the raid.
Israel launched an airstrike against a convoy of trucks moving near the Lebanon-Syria border Tuesday, a senior U.S. official and a Lebanese security official said.
Israeli officials declined to comment on the report, and to a Syrian allegation that Israel had bombed a Syrian military facility.
A strike draws Israel further into Syria's conflict—a civil war that has already deepened the region's divides as its powers have taken sides with arms and funding. It also marked a challenge to Iran, which has backed and financed Hezbollah.
"An attack of any kind is a major escalation," said Timor Goksel, an expert on Hezbollah and a professor at American University in Beirut. "Why would Israel do this out of the blue?"
The answer, according to several Western officials and security analysts, is that Israel took a calculated risk that Syria's government, strained by its own internal war, would choose not to retaliate. Meanwhile, Hezbollah and Iran—both facing coming elections and financial challenges—would also be unlikely to strike back at Israel now.
In addition to taking out weapons that could be used by Hezbollah against Israeli warplanes in a future conflict, Israel sent what amounted to a message of warning to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Iran against attempting to transfer any chemical or biological weapons to Hezbollah, U.S. and Western officials said. The use of such weapons has been singled out by President Barack Obama as a "red line" that could trigger a U.S. intervention.
Syria maintained that the accounts of a strike on an arms convoy near the country's border with Lebanon were wrong. Instead, Syria's military said, Israeli jets had attacked a military facility near Damascus.
"Israeli warplanes violated our airspace at dawn today and directly struck one of the scientific research centers responsible for elevating resistance and self-defense capabilities in the area of Jamraya in the Damascus countryside," Syria's military said in a statement carried by the official Sana news agency. The attack killed two workers and injured five others, it said, and "caused significant material damage and the destruction of the complex" and an adjacent parking lot.
Syrian activists say the Jamraya site is in a mountainous area of military facilities and training camps located on a heavily guarded road just off the main Damascus-Beirut highway.
Later Wednesday, a U.S. official said the accounts of two targets—a convoy of weapons, and a military site—weren't mutually exclusive.
The U.S. believes Israeli warplanes bombed a Hezbollah-bound convoy of antiaircraft missiles, U.S. officials said. The vehicles may have been close to a military facility, they said, cautioning their information remained incomplete.
Tensions in the broader region have been building for days. On Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel is vigilantly watching the disintegration of Syria and the fate of its "deadly weapons.'' Israel's army deployed an Iron Dome missile-defense system in northern Israel that same day.
Two days later, four Israeli jets flew low over villages in southern Lebanon, a violation of the country's airspace, according to the Lebanese military. A spokesman for the United Nations' peacekeeping forces in Lebanon said the group had recorded a higher-than-usual number of Israeli jets entering Lebanon's airspace in the past few days.
Hezbollah keeps a stockpile of weapons in military bases in Syria located near the Lebanese border, according to security officials in Iran and Lebanon.
As Syria's security has deteriorated, Hezbollah has grown increasingly concerned that its weapons cache could fall into the hands of rebels, said Gen. Elias Hanna, a retired Lebanese security official.
"Hezbollah has decided that it's no longer safe to keep the weapons sheltered inside Syria," Gen. Hanna said, adding they want to "bring them back before it's too late."
For months, Israeli officials have also spoken of the risk that Syria's weapons caches might fall into the hands of Hezbollah amid the civil war, and vowed to act if necessary. Israel has worried about specific types of weapons that would mark a "game changing" shift on the battlefield in a future conflict with the Shiite militia. Though most attention has been focused on Syria's chemical weapon stockpile, if Hezbollah were to obtain the SA-17 missiles, it would limit Israel's air superiority in Lebanon, said analysts.
Hezbollah denied that Israel had attacked a convoy of its weapons in Syria. "We have no information about this issue. We are not concerned at all," said Hezbollah spokesman Ibrahim Mousawi.
An attack on Syria would be a relative rarity for Israeli forces. In November, Israel said its forces had targeted and hit a Syrian military vehicle after a Syrian mortar shell landed in the Golan Heights. The retaliatory attack was the only previously reported Israeli attack inside Syria in its nearly two years of internal conflict.
For much longer, though, Israel has been tied to attacks aimed at blocking weapons from reaching the country's regional foes. Israel is widely believed to have attacked a site in Syria in 2007 that was suspected of being a nuclear facility under construction. The Israeli government has declined to confirm or deny that strike.
In late October, Sudanese officials accused Israel of using fighter jets to attack a weapons factory inside Sudan. Israel has viewed Sudan as a conduit for arms to the Palestinian militant group Hamas, according to regional intelligence analysts. Israel didn't comment publicly on the strike, which came about two weeks before Israel and Hamas fought an eight-day battle in the West Bank.
"Israel has a long history of intercepting and preventing weapons that are on their way to terror groups, whether it is Hamas or Hezbollah,'' said Gerald Steinberg, a professor of political science at Bar Ilan University.
Israel has typically maintained silence amid allegations of pre-emptive attacks, a stance Israeli analysts and Western officials alike view as an effort to avoid escalating hostilities.
"The usual way this plays out is the Israelis won't take credit, whoever suffered the effects will divert attention or try to down play it," said Aram Nerguizian, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a nonpartisan think tank. "The Israelis got their point across. If anyone had any questions that Israel would act on what it perceives to be its red lines…now they have an answer."
By FARNAZ FASSIHI, JULIAN E. BARNES and SAM DAGHER