Washington Times on May 5, 2013, published an AP report on Israeli warplanes striking areas in and around the Syrian capital of Damascus, 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 the capital and caused casualties.
While the Syrian government tried to use the attacks to taint the rebels by linking them to Israel, 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.
Israel‘s military on May 5 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.
Israel has said it wants to stay out of the Syrian war, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu repeatedly has 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.
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, which are used to attack naval ships from the coast.
Damascus-based activist Maath al-Shami said the strikes occurred around 3 a.m.
“Damascus shook. The explosion was very, very strong,” said Mr. al-Shami, adding that one of the attacks occurred near the capital’s Qasioun mountain, which overlooks Damascus.
He said the raid targeted a military position for the elite Republican Guards that is in charge of protecting Damascus, Mr. Assad’s seat of power.
Mohammed Saeed, another activist who lives in the Damascus suburb of Douma, said “the explosions were so strong that earth shook under us.” He said the smell of the fire caused by the air raid near Qasioun was noticeable miles away.
Israeli media reported that Mr. Netanyahu also was holding an emergency meeting of his inner Security Cabinet. The prime minister’s office declined comment.
Amos Yadlin, a former head of Israel‘s military intelligence, said the strikes on Syria are a signal to Damascus’ ally, Tehran, that Israel is serious about the red lines it has set.
“Syria is a very important part in the front that Iran has built. Iran is testing Israel and the U.S. determination in the facing of red lines and what it sees is in clarifies to it that at least some of the players, when they define red lines and they are crossed, take it seriously,” he told Army Radio.
Iran has provided both financial and military support to Hezbollah for decades and has used Syria as a conduit for both. If Assad were to fall, that pipeline could be cut, dealing a serious blow to Hezbollah’s ability to confront Israel.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group, also reported large explosions in the area of Jamraya, a military and scientific research facility northwest of Damascus, about 10 miles from the Lebanese border.
The raid appeared to have taken place next to a major road that was filled with debris, and shell casings were strewn on the ground. A blue street sign on the side of the road referred to the direction of the Lebanon border and the Syrian town of Zabadani near the frontier.
Uzi Rubin, a missile expert and former Defense Ministry official, told the AP that if the target were Fateh-110 missiles as reported, then it is a game changer, as they put almost all Israel in range and can accurately hit targets.
Mr. Rubin emphasized that he was speaking as a rocket expert and had no details on reported strikes.
“If fired from southern Lebanon, they can reach Tel Aviv and even (the southern city of) Beersheba.” He said the rockets are as much as five times more accurate than the Scud missiles that Hezbollah has fired in the past. “It is a game changer because they are a threat to Israel‘s infrastructure and military installations,” he said.
Israeli lawmaker Shaul Mofaz, a former defense minister and a former chief of staff, declined to confirm the airstrike but said Israel is concerned about weapons falling into the hands of the Islamic militant group amid the chaos of Syria’s civil war.
“We must remember that the Syrian system is falling apart and Iran and Hezbollah are involved up to their necks in Syria helping Bashar Assad,” he told Israel Radio. “There are dangers of weapons trickling to the Hezbollah and chemical weapons trickling to irresponsible groups like al Qaeda.”