Saturday, April 19, 2014
By ABIGAIL HAUSLOHNER AND WILLIAM BOOTH The Washington Post
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 bright explosions lit up the sky on the outskirts of Damascus on Friday and early Sunday.
Syrian state media said the attack 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 that 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-Qaida," the ministry said on state television. The government uses the term "terrorists" as a blanket term to refer to its opponents, ranging from secular activists to al-Qaida-linked militants, in more than two years of civil war.
There was no official confirmation from Israel that it had carried out the recent attacks. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu left Israel on Sunday night for a long-planned trip to China.
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.
As a precaution, however, the Israeli military announced that it had deployed two of its Iron Dome rocket defense batteries near its northern border, in response to what it called "ongoing situational assessments." Israeli media also reported that airspace over northern Israel and the city of Haifa was closed to civilian flights.
In Israel, defense analysts said the strikes may have been more opportunistic than reflective of an immediate threat.
Israel said last week that 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 transfers of sophisticated but conventional weaponry from Syria to Hezbollah, analysts said.
The specific weapons include advanced air defense missile systems such as the SA-17, which Israel targeted in a strike in January; Russian-made surface-to-sea missiles, with a 186-mile range that could hit Israel's new natural gas platforms in the Mediterranean Sea; and upgraded versions of Iranian medium-range Fateh-110 ballistic missiles, which appeared to be the target of both the Friday and Sunday airstrikes, and which could dramatically improve Hezbollah's military capabilities.
"This is the weapons system they do not want to be in Hezbollah's hands," said Amos Yadlin, a former head of the Israel Defense Forces military intelligence directorate and now director of the Institute for National Security Studies, a think tank in Tel Aviv.
Yadlin said he was not confirming that Israel was behind the strikes, but said the Fateh-110 is far more accurate than the Scud missiles that Hezbollah is currently believed to have.
Israel made the strategic assessment that Syria would not retaliate, Yadlin said. "Syria will not react because they know they are in danger from the opposition, and if they start a conflict with Israel, then the military balance will mean them losing some power," he said.
But the strikes will probably complicate the politics of a civil war that has drawn in a host of regional actors on both sides.
Iran, which backs Assad's regime and Hezbollah, warned Sunday that the Israeli attacks in Syria would destabilize the region, Syria's state news agency reported.
Meanwhile, Syrian opposition groups struggled to find an appropriate response to an assault that may have logistically served its interests, but came from the Jewish state.
"The Syrian (Opposition) Coalition is suspicious of the timing of this attack," the group, which represents Syrian opposition activists abroad, said in an awkwardly worded statement that blamed both Israel and Assad for the airstrikes. "These strikes have given the regime the necessary time to draw attention away from its crimes and massacres on the Syrian coast."
Syrian activists said that sectarian violence continued for a fourth day Sunday around the city of Baniyas on the Mediterranean coast, where they say pro-Assad forces have executed dozens, and possibly hundreds, of Sunni men, women and children.