Israeli warplanes struck areas in and around the Syrian capital Damascus yesterday as they targeted a shipment of guided missiles believed to be bound for Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group.
The attack, the second in three days and the third this year, signalled 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 centre near Damascus and caused casualties.
Syria’s government called the attacks against its territory a “flagrant violation of international law” that have made the Middle East “more dangerous”.
Information minister Omran al-Zoabi said the air strikes “open the door to all possibilities”. He claimed the Israeli strikes are evidence of the Jewish state’s links with Islamic extremist groups trying to overthrow president Bashar al- Assad’s regime.
He added that Syria has the right and the duty “to defend its people by all available means”.
Egypt’s president also condemned the Israeli air strikes, calling them a violation of international law and warning they complicate the ongoing civil war in that country.
The statement from president Mohamed Morsi’s office said Egypt “strongly objects” to the bloodshed and the use of Syria’s military against its people. But it also rejects the violation of Syrian sovereignty and “exploiting its internal crisis under whatever pretext”.
The tempo of the new strikes adds a dangerous dynamic to the conflict, fuelling concerns that events could spin out of control and spark a regional crisis.
Israel’s military yesterday deployed two batteries of its Iron Dome rocket defence system to the north of the country. It described the move as part of “ongoing situational assessments”.
A senior Israeli official confirmed that Israel launched an air strike in the Syrian capital early yesterday 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 air strikes come as Washington considers how to respond to indications that the Syrian regime may have used chemical weapons in its civil war. President Barack 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, and a senior official hinted at a possible response, not from Tehran, but rather from Hezbollah.
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 flowing from Syria to Hezbollah or other extremist groups.
Israel and Hezbollah fought a month-long war in mid-2006. The militant group fired thousands of rockets at Israel, while Israeli warplanes destroyed large areas of southern and eastern Lebanon during a conflict that ended in stalemate.
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 neighbouring Syria and try to smuggle advanced weapons into Lebanon. These include anti-aircraft missiles, which could hamper Israel’s ability to operate in Lebanon.
Syria’s state news agency reported explosions at the Jamraya military and scientific research centre near Damascus and said initial reports indicate they were the “result of Israeli missiles”.
It said there were casualties although did not give a number.