MUNICH – Israel’s defense minister strongly signaled Sunday that his country was behind an airstrike in Syria last week, telling a high-profile security conference that Israeli threats to take pre-emptive action against its enemies are not empty. “We mean it,” Ehud Barak said.
Israel has not officially confirmed that its planes attacked a site near Damascus, targeting ground-to-air missiles apparently heading for Lebanon, but its intentions have been beyond dispute. During the 22 months of civil war in Syria, Israeli leaders have repeatedly expressed concern that high-end weapons could fall into the hands of enemy Hezbollah, the powerful Lebanese militants.
For years, Israel has been charging that Syrian President Bashar Assad and Iran have been arming Hezbollah, which fought a monthlong war against Israel in 2006.
ANTI-AIRCRAFT MISSILES TARGETED
U.S. officials say the target was a convoy of sophisticated Russian SA-17 anti-aircraft missiles. Deployed in Lebanon, they could have limited Israel’s ability to gather intelligence on its enemies from the air.
Over the weekend, Syrian TV aired video of the Wednesday attack site for the first time, showing destroyed vehicles and a damaged building identified as a scientific research center. The U.S. officials said the airstrike hit both the building and the convoy.
Turkey, which seeks the ouster of Assad and supports the opposition that is fighting against his regime, harshly criticized Israel regarding the airstrike in Syria. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Sunday that Israel engaged in “state terror” and he suggested that its allies have nurtured wrongdoing on the part of the Jewish state.
“Those who have from the very beginning looked in the wrong direction and who have nourished and raised Israel like a spoiled child should always expect such things from Israel,” Turkey’s Hurriyet Daily News quoted Erdogan as saying.
Erdogan, who also criticized Iran for backing Syria, is a frequent critic of Israel, a former ally of Turkey. Relations hit a low in 2010 when Israeli troops raided a Gaza-bound Turkish aid ship, and nine activists on board were killed. Each side accused the other of initiating the violence.
In his comments Sunday in Munich, Barak came close to confirming that his country was behind the airstrike.
“I cannot add anything to what you have read in the newspapers about what happened in Syria several days ago,” Barak told the gathering of top diplomats and defense officials from around the world.
Then he went on to say, “I keep telling frankly that we said — and that’s proof when we said something we mean it — we say that we don’t think it should be allowed to bring advanced weapons systems into Lebanon.” He spoke in heavily accented English.
ASSAD ISSUES A COMMENT
Assad made his first comment on the strike at a meeting with a top Iranian official in Syria.
“Syria, with the awareness of its people, the might of its army and its adherence to the path of resistance, is able to face the current challenges and confront any aggression that might target the Syrian people,” Assad was quoted as saying by the state news agency SANA.
He made the remarks during a meeting with Saeed Jalili, the head of Iran’s National Security Council. Iran is Syria’s closest regional ally. Jalili, on a three-day visit, has pledged Tehran’s continued support for Assad.
Jalili, who also serves as his country’s top nuclear negotiator, condemned the Israeli raid, stressing that it has proven the “aggressive nature of Israel and its threat of the region’s security and stability.”
The chief of Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guards said Sunday that Tehran also hopes Syria will strike back against Israel.
Syrian opposition leaders and rebels have criticized Assad for not responding to the airstrike, calling it proof of his weakness and acquiescence to the Jewish state.
The Syrian defense minister, Gen. Fahd Jassem al-Freij, said Israel attacked the center because rebels were unable to capture it. Al-Freij called the rebels Israel’s “tools.”
Ahmad Ramadan, an opposition leader, said Syria’s claim that the rebels are cooperating with Israel “is an attempt by the regime to cover its weakness in defending the country against foreign aggression.”
PROTECTING BALANCE OF POWER
In the days preceding the airstrike, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a series of dire comments about the threat posed by Syria’s weapons.
Israel considers any transfer of these advanced weapons to be unacceptable “game changers” that would alter the balance of power in the region.
Israel has grown increasingly jittery as the Arab Spring has swept through the Middle East, bringing with it a rise of hostile Islamist elements. While Assad is a bitter enemy, Israel’s northern front with Syria has remained quiet for most of the past 40 years.
If Assad is toppled, the threat of al-Qaida forces operating along Israel’s frontier with Syria would pose a new and unpredictable threat.