May 5, 2013

Israeli warplanes strike Syria in escalation

The airstrikes pose a dilemma for an Assad regime already battling a relentless rebellion at home.

The Associated Press

BEIRUT  — Israeli warplanes struck areas in and around the Syrian capital Sunday, setting off a series of explosions as they targeted a shipment of highly accurate, Iranian-made guided missiles believed to be bound for Lebanon's Hezbollah militant group, officials and activists said.

The attack, the second in three days and the third this year, signaled a sharp escalation of Israel's involvement in Syria's bloody civil war. Syrian state media reported that Israeli missiles struck a military and scientific research center near Damascus and caused casualties.

Syria's Foreign Ministry condemned the attacks, saying the "flagrant Israeli aggression aims to give direct military support to terrorist groups" fighting the government. Syria refers to rebels trying to topple President Bashar Assad's regime as "terrorists."

The ministry, in letters sent to the United Nations and the U.N. Security Council, also said the Israeli strikes killed and wounded several people and "caused widespread destruction."

While the government tried to use the attacks to taint the rebels by linking them to Israel, the Syria's arch rival, the airstrikes still pose a dilemma for an Assad regime already battling a relentless rebellion at home. If it fails to respond, it looks weak and opens the door to such airstrikes becoming a common occurrence. But any military retaliation against Israel would risk dragging the Jewish state and its powerful army into a broader conflict.

The tempo of the new strikes added a dangerous dynamic to the conflict, fueling concerns that events could spin out of control and spark regional crisis.

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

A senior Israeli official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to disclose information about a secret military operation to the media, confirmed that Israel launched an airstrike in the Syrian capital early Sunday but did not give more precise details about the location. The target was Fateh-110 missiles, which have precision guidance systems with better aim than anything Hezbollah is known to have in its arsenal, the official told The Associated Press.

The airstrikes come as Washington considers how to respond to indications that the Syrian regime may have used chemical weapons in its civil war. President Obama has described the use of such weapons as a "red line," and the administration is weighing its options - including possible military action.

Iran, a close ally of the Assad regime, condemned the airstrikes but gave no other hints of a possible stronger response from Tehran.

Israel has said it wants to stay out of the Syrian war, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly stated the Jewish state would be prepared to take military action to prevent sophisticated weapons from flowing from Syria to Hezbollah or other extremist groups.

Israel and Hezbollah fought a monthlong war in mid-2006 that ended in a stalemate. The militant group is believed to have restocked its arsenal since that conflict with tens of thousands of rockets and missiles.

Earlier this year, the Iron Dome system was credited with shooting down hundreds of rockets during a round of fighting against Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip.

Israel is especially concerned that Hezbollah will take advantage of the chaos in neighboring Syria and try to smuggle advanced weapons into Lebanon. These include anti-aircraft missiles, which could hamper Israel's ability to operate in Lebanese skies, and advanced Yakhont missiles that are used to attack naval ships from the coast.

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