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 on Sunday after bright explosions lit up the sky on the outskirts of Damascus on Friday and early Sunday.
Syrian state media said the attack had 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 in a statement published 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 immediate 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 on 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. The coastal region is the heartland of Assad’s Alawite sect.
The Syrian Coalition released a series of videos from the area on Sunday that showed bloodied corpses of babies and adults, some of whom had been shot in the head or burned.
Syria’s conflict has grown increasingly sectarian over the past two years, as a predominantly Sunni rebel movement battles a regime dominated by Alawites and backed by Shiites, including the Lebanese Hezbollah. Hezbollah defines itself primarily as a resistance movement against Israel.
Israeli intelligence reports indicate that Iran has transferred weapons to Syria and on to Hezbollah for years.
“But Israel’s concerns now are heightened because there is a huge stockpile in Syria,” said Mike Herzog, former chief of staff to Israel’s defense minister and brigadier general in the reserves. “And although everyone is focused on chemical weapons, there are many state-of-the-art weapons that could cause huge damage and could fall into the arms of Hezbollah,” he said.
In a statement read to reporters aboard Air Force One as President Barack Obama was en route to Ohio on Sunday morning, White House spokesman Josh Earnest did not comment directly on the strikes, but reiterated that the president believes Israel is justifiably concerned about the threat posed by Hezbollah obtaining advanced weapons systems, including missiles.
The United States “is in very close contact” with the Israeli government on a range of issues, Earnest said without elaboration.
The attacks highlight rising regional and U.S. concern over the Syrian crisis that is heightened by reports that Assad’s government has used chemical weapons.
The administration has said it is examining a range of possible interventions in Syria’s conflict, from the provision of arms to Syrian rebels to attacks that would take out the nation’s air-defense system.
U.S. officials believe that Iran and Hezbollah are building a network of militias inside Syria to protect their interests in the event that Assad falls. While the militias are fighting to keep Assad in power, they are also positioning themselves to maintain Iranian supply lines to Hezbollah to continue its fight against Israel.
So far, the war has done little to disrupt that supply chain, Mohamed Obeid, a Shiite Lebanese analyst with close ties to the group, said in an interview last month.
“[Hezbollah] still has it coming in from Syria because Damascus is still controlled by the Syrian army, and the airport is theirs,” Obeid said.
Booth reported from Jerusalem. Karen DeYoung in Washington, Liz Sly and Ahmed Ramadan in Beirut, and Ruth Eglash in Jerusalem contributed to this report.
© 2013, The Washington Post