Israel launches airstrike in Syria, targeting weapons shipment, officials say

JERUSALEM – Israeli forces have carried out an airstrike against a shipment of sophisticated missiles bound for the Lebanese political and military organization Hezbollah, officials in Washington, Lebanon and Israel told reporters Saturday.

The strike took place about 4 a.m. Friday at an air defense facility on the periphery of Damascus International Airport, according to a Lebanese security official who was in the Syrian capital at the time. The airport is known to be the destination for weapons flown in from Iran both for the Syrian government and for its ally Hezbollah.

There had previously been reports of a huge blaze at Damascus airport, with a video showing two locations on fire after what was described as rebel shelling. But the Lebanese official said the blasts were bigger than those caused by mortar or shellfire.

Rather, he said, the attack appeared to be identical to one in January in which Israeli jets hit a convoy carrying weapons intended for Hezbollah, with the warplanes striking their target from a location over the town of Deir al-Ashayer, in Lebanon’s Bekaa valley.

His claims could not be independently confirmed, but a Syrian opposition Web site also claimed that Damascus airport was the target, according to the Haaretz newspaper. Lebanese authorities and residents had already reported unusually intense Israeli overflights during the previous 48 hours, suggesting the warplanes may have struck their target from Lebanese airspace.

On Friday, Lebanese President Michel Suleiman called on the United Nations to press Israel to halt violations of his country’s airspace.

Israeli officials described the missiles targeted in the Friday strike as “game-changing” weapons, according to the Associated Press. They said they were not chemical weapons, but advanced, long-range, ground-to-ground missiles.

The attack, Israeli officials said, took place a day after it was approved in a Thursday meeting between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his security cabinet.

One U.S. official, who also declined to be identified, told Reuters on Friday the target was a building, rather than a convoy.

The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the development. Spokesmen for Netanyahu and the Israel Defense Forces declined to comment on the reports.

The strike coincides with escalating concerns that the Syrian war is drawing in its neighbors, with Hezbollah fighters now playing an important role in some of the battles raging inside the country.

Israel did not officially confirm that it had carried out the strike in January, which targeted a convoy reportedly carrying anti-aircraft missiles to Hezbollah along a road into Lebanon from Damascus, and the fact that officials swiftly acknowledged U.S. reports of this attack pointed to Israel’s growing determination to directly confront the threat posed by the Syrian conflict.

Netanyahu and military and intelligence commanders in Israel have sounded the alarm in recent weeks, saying they were virtually certain that forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad had used chemical weapons in at least two small-scale attacks.

After Israeli intelligence officers asserted that they were “nearly 100 percent” sure that Syria had deployed chemical weapons, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told Congress that U.S. intelligence agencies “assess with varying degrees of confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically the chemical agent sarin.”

Despite the caveats, the disclosure has put President Obama under pressure to respond. He has described the use of chemical weapons as a “red line” that Syria dare not cross.

While Obama has said that all options remain on the table, including military action, on Friday he said, “I do not foresee a scenario in which boots on the ground in Syria – American boots on the ground in Syria – would not only be good for America but also would be good for Syria.”

The Shiite Hezbollah movement is worried that the collapse of the Syrian regime in Damascus and its replacement by one led by the overwhelmingly Sunni opposition will undermine Hezbollah’s dominant role in Lebanon and leave it vulnerable to Israeli attack. The movement has long relied on Syria for the transshipment of arms supplied by its chief ally, Iran, and the fall of Assad would compromise its supply routes.

Israel and Hezbollah fought a fierce but inconclusive war in the summer of 2006, and many in Lebanon and Israel have long predicted that a replay of Israel’s effort to vanquish the Shiite militia is inevitable.

Since then, Hezbollah has significantly shored up its arsenal of rockets capable of hitting Israel, and the fact that it now appears to be trying to further boost its arsenal suggests that it is preparing for such an eventuality.

Israel is also concerned that Assad could use Hezbollah to lash out against Israel if he feels his regime is in danger of collapse, thereby fulfilling his predictions of regional chaos if he is toppled. Such a move also could deter international support for the rebels.

The strike coincided with an upsurge of violence in the coastal region of Latakia, Assad’s stronghold, where at least 50 people, and perhaps as many as 100, were reportedly killed Thursday in the mostly Sunni village of Baida, allegedly by Assad loyalists from his minority Alawite sect.

On Saturday, hundreds of Sunnis fled the area around the nearby town of Baniyas after reports of another incident overnight Friday, in which at least eight deaths have been confirmed, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. A video posted online showed the bloodied bodies of a man, several children and a baby with blackened legs.

The U.S. State Department issued a statement saying it was “appalled by the horrific reports” from the Baniyas area. Government forces and Alawite irregulars known as shabiha attacked the area with mortar fire, “then stormed the town and executed entire families,” the statement said.

“We will not lose sight of the men, women and children whose lives are being so brutally cut short,” it added.

Also Saturday, Assad made his second public appearance in three days, visiting a Damascus university to inaugurate a statue dedicated to students who have died in the violence. Footage aired by state television showed him being mobbed by cheering, waving supporters.

Assad rarely appears in public, and his visibility this past week suggests his confidence has been buoyed by recent gains by his forces in some parts of the country and by indications that the international community remains reluctant to involve itself in the Syrian conflict, despite the reports that his regime has used chemical weapons.

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