'Israel hit Syria weapons transfer again'
People search for survivors in the rubble in a damaged area in Syria Photo: REUTERS/Aref Hretani
The Israel Air Force struck storage facilities near Damascus housing Iranian Fateh-110 missiles destined for Hezbollah overnight Sunday for the second time in 48 hours according to foreign media reports sending flames and the sounds of blasts throughout the city.
Amateur footage shot by Syrian civilians showed several blasts, suggesting that the missiles caught on fire and were causing secondary explosions, at a site on top of Mount Qassioun, overlooking northwest Damascus.
Although the Israeli defense community believes the chances of direct Syrian or Hezbollah retaliation are low, since they are devoting their resources to the Syrian civil war and are vulnerable to Israeli air power, the IDF took a number of precautions on Sunday afternoon.
These safety measures included closing Israeli airspace to civilian flights in the North until Thursday, and deploying two Iron Dome air defense batteries, to Haifa and Safed.
Arkia Israel Airlines said that "due to IDF instructions on the closure of airspace in the North until May 9, Arkia is forced to announce the cancellation of domestic flights from Haifa to Eilat."
The IDF said only that northern civilian airspace was being jointly managed by the IAF and civil authorities in accordance with the latest evaluations.
"The sky was red all night. We didn't sleep a single second. The explosions started after midnight and continued through the night," one man told Reuters from Hameh, close to Jamraya, northwest of Damascus.
Syrian state television claimed the bombing occurred around a military research facility at Jamraya. It quoted a letter from Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem to the United Nations saying: "The blatant Israeli aggression has the aim to provide direct military support to the terrorist groups after they failed to control territory."
A Western intelligence source told Reuters: "In last night's attack, as in the previous one, what was attacked were stores of Fateh-110 missiles that were in transit from Iran to Hezbollah."
The Al-Mayadeen Lebanese television channel, affiliated to Iran and Hezbollah, said four people were killed and 70 were wounded in the attack. The same news agency claimed that Syria had pointed missiles in Israel's direction.
Ghassan bin Jiddo, head of programming for Al-Mayadeen, warned on Sunday that a response would definitely come, adding that if Israel responded to the retaliation, that would signal the beginning of a war.
In the hours following the strikes, CNN quoted Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad as saying that the action was "declaration of war."
Later the Syrian information minister, Omran al-Zoabi, held a press conference in Damascus following a meeting of the cabinet, and said, "The Israeli enemy exhibited gross aggression against Syria and used missiles to bomb military facilities in violation of all international law. This aggression opens the door to all options, and made the region more dangerous."
Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip threatened to join any retaliation from Syria.
The Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi urged countries to resist Israel, while a senior Iranian commander said Syria was strong enough to defend itself without Tehran's help though he offered training.
"As a Muslim nation, we back Syria, and if there is need for training we will provide them with the training, but won't have any active involvement in the operations," the general said in remarks reported by the official IRNA news agency.
Hezbollah's Al-Manar television aired footage showing a flattened building spread over an area the size of a soccer field, with smoke rising from rubble containing shell fragments.
It did not identify where the film was shot.
Some opposition activists said they were glad strikes may weaken Assad, even if few Syrians have any liking for Israel.
"We don't care who did it," said Rania al-Midania in Damascus. "We care that those weapons are no longer there to kill us."
Egypt condemned the reported Israeli attack on Syria on Sunday, saying it complicated a crisis that Cairo was trying to help resolve.
In a statement, Egypt's presidency said the attack was a violation of international law and a threat to regional security and stability that "made the situation more complicated."
Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby called upon the United Nations Security Council to move immediately to halt "the Israeli attacks on Syria," Egyptian state news agency MENA reported, citing an Arab League official.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon called on all sides to "exercise maximum calm and restraint, and to act with a sense of responsibility, according to his spokesman.
"The secretary-general urges respect for national sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries in the region, and adherence to all relevant Security Council resolutions," the spokesman said.
Republican Sen, John McCain said the latest Israeli air strikes will put more pressure on the US administration to act, although President Barack Obama had said he had no plans to send ground troops to Syria.
"We need to have a game-changing action, and that is no American boots on the ground, establish a safe zone and to protect it and to supply weapons to the right people in Syria who are fighting, obviously, for the things we believe," McCain said on Fox News Sunday.
"Every day that goes by, Hezbollah increases their influence and the radical jihadists flow into Syria and the situation becomes more and more tenuous," he said.
Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.
05/05/2013 21:28 Israel has cautioned the Assad regime in recent months that it will not tolerate the transfer of "game-changing" weapons to Hezbollah. And if recent foreign media reports are accurate, the Israel Air Force has now backed up that warning.
Message to Assad
Early on Sunday morning, Israeli rockets hit a military research site on the outskirts of Damascus, according to Syrian news sources. This attack followed a previous strike early on Friday on a warehouse at the Damascus airport believed to be under control of operatives from Hezbollah and Iran's paramilitary Quds Force, according to foreign media.
In both cases the target seemed to be a Syrian version of Iran's Fatah-110 missile, capable of traveling 300 kilometers with a half-ton warhead.
Uzi Rubin, a missile expert and former Defense Ministry official, told the Associated Press that transfer of Fatah-110 missiles to Hezbollah would indeed be a game-changer since they would be a threat to Israel's infrastructure and military installations.
Fired from Syria or southern Lebanon, these missiles could reach almost any place in Israel including Tel Aviv. And the Fatah-110 is about five times more accurate than Scud missiles that Hezbollah has fired in the past.
That fact that Israel has been identified as the responsible party could carry negative ramifications.
The Assad regime is now seeking to exploit the raids to tie the rebels to "the Zionist entity." The regime may succeed in tricking Arabs in the region into believing that Syrian opposition forces are receiving Israeli support and thus delegitimize the rebels.
Already, there are cracks in what was once a broad Arab consensus against the Assad regime. In Lebanon, Syrian opposition forces are being blamed for "exporting" the conflict. Meanwhile, Jordan and Turkey are being taxed by ever increasing numbers of Syrian refugees. And with no sign that the Assad regime is about to fall, pressure is growing to force an end to the conflict, even if Bashar Assad remains in power.
Israel may have exposed itself to a Syrian retaliation.
In what seemed to be an attempt to brace against a possible Syrian response, the IDF deployed two Iron Dome missile defense batteries in the north of Israel on Sunday.
Despite all the potential negative fallout, Israel's decision to strike under the circumstances was a calculated risk that was both justified and essential for maintaining deterrence and security not just on the Syrian front but also in the ongoing conflict with Iran.
Bogged down by a civil war, Assad is in no position to launch an offensive against Israel. Nor is it likely that Assad, after having massacred 80,000 of his own people a horrifying number of casualties that far exceeds all of the Arabs killed in all of the wars against Israel will succeed in diverting the Syrian opposition's efforts away from toppling the regime and against the "Zionist entity."
Hezbollah, meanwhile, is facing a civil war in Lebanon and fighting a bloody war in support of Assad in Syria. It also has no interest in provoking Israel.
Technically, Sunday morning's attack was not directed against Syria per se. Rather it targeted a shipment of missiles earmarked for Hezbollah. Therefore, Damascus has not been forced into a corner that leaves it no choice but to retaliate to save face. Israel's refusal to comment on reports of the air strike is essential for preventing an unnecessary direct clash with the Syrian regime or with Hezbollah.
Most important of all, however, is the message that is sent to both Syria and Iran. By standing by its warnings that it would not tolerate the transfer of gamechanging weapons to Hezbollah, Israel has made it clear this time at least that when it uses the rhetoric of "unacceptable" and "intolerable" it is not just being "so hectoring and schoolmarish," as Foreign Policy's Rosa Brooks recently put it in an article titled "Would Machiavelli have drawn a red line?" While statesmen of other countries seem to make declarations without having any intention of standing behind their words, Israel will not tolerate Syria's crossing its red lines. And that is an important message for the mullahs of the Islamic Republic, too.
Israel has cautioned the Assad regime in recent months that it will not tolerate the transfer of "game-changing" weapons to Hezbollah. And if recent foreign media reports are accurate, the Israel Air Force has now backed up that warning.