Israel ‘playing with fire’ with Syria attack

Palestinians hold Syrian flags during a march in solidarity with the regime yesterday. Picture: AP

Palestinians hold Syrian flags during a march in solidarity with the regime yesterday. Picture: AP

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Israel’s weekend airstrike on a military complex near the Syrian capital of Damascus killed at least 42 Syrian soldiers, a group of anti-regime activists have said, citing information from military hospitals.

The Syrian government has not released a death toll, but state media have reported casualties in Sunday’s pre-dawn airstrike, Israel’s third into Syria this year.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights yesterday said about 150 soldiers are normally stationed in the area that was targeted.

Rami Abdel-Rahman, the head of the group, said his sources at Syrian military hospitals gave him information on 42 Syrian soldiers killed in the attack.

Israel’s government has not formally confirmed involvement in strikes on Syria.

However, Israeli officials said the attacks were meant to prevent advanced Iranian weapons from reaching Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia, an ally of Syria and foe of Israel.

Syria and its patron Iran have hinted at possible retribution for the strikes, though the rhetoric in official statements has been relatively mild.

Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi warned that Israel was “playing with fire,” but gave no other suggestions of possible consequences, according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency.

Syria’s government called the attacks a “flagrant violation of international law” that has made the Middle East “more dangerous”. Israeli officials have indicated they will keep trying to block what they see as an effort by Iran to send sophisticated weapons to Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia, ahead of a possible collapse of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s government.

Israel has repeatedly threatened to intervene in the Syrian civil war to stop the transfer of what it calls “game-changing” weapons to Hezbollah, a Syrian-backed group that battled Israel to a stalemate during a month-long war in 2006.

Since carrying out a lone airstrike in January that reportedly destroyed a shipment of anti-aircraft missiles headed to Hezbollah, Israel had largely stayed on the sidelines.

That changed this weekend with the pair of airstrikes, including an attack near a military complex close to Damascus that set off powerful explosions.

A senior Israeli official said both airstrikes targeted shipments of Fateh-110 missiles bound for Hezbollah.

The Iranian-made guided missiles can fly deep into Israel and deliver powerful half-ton bombs with pinpoint accuracy.

Israeli defence officials have identified several strategic weapons that they say cannot be allowed to reach Hezbollah.

They include Syrian chemical weapons, the Iranian Fateh-110s, long-range Scud missiles, Yakhont missiles capable of attacking naval ships from the coast and Russian SA-17 anti-aircraft missiles.

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