Israel strikes Syria, targeting missiles, says security source
Capital Damascus shaken by powerful blasts in second attack in days
The sky is lit up after an explosion at what Syrian state television reported was a military research centre in Damascus, in this still image taken from video obtained from a social media website by Reuters.
Israeli jets devastated Syrian targets near Damascus today in a heavy overnight air raid that Western and Israeli officials called a new strike on Iranian missiles bound for Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
As Syria’s two-year-old civil war veered into the potentially atomic arena of Iran’s confrontation with Israel and the West over its nuclear programme, people were woken in the Syrian capital by explosions that shook the ground like an earthquake and sent pillars of flame high into the night sky.
“Night turned into day,” one man told Reuters from his home at Hameh, near one of the targets, the Jamraya military base.
But for all the angry rhetoric in response from Tehran and from the government of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, it was unclear whether the second such raid in 48 hours would elicit any greater reaction than an Israeli attack in the same area in January, which was followed by little evident change.
The Syrian government accused Israel of effectively helping al Qaeda Islamist “terrorists” and said the strikes “open the door to all possibilities”; but Israeli officials said that, as in January, they were calculating Mr Assad would not pick a fight with a well-armed neighbour while facing defeat at home.
Denying it was weighing in on the rebel side on behalf of Washington - which opposes Mr Assad but is hesitating to intervene - officials said Israel was pursuing its own conflict, not with Syria but with Iran, and was acting to prevent Iran’s Hezbollah allies receiving missiles that might strike Tel Aviv if Israel made good on threats to attack Tehran’s nuclear programme.
What Israel was not doing, they stressed, was getting drawn into a debate that has raged in the United States lately of whether the alleged use of poison gas by Assad’s forces should prompt the West finally to give military backing to oust him.
Earlier today, Syrian information minister Omran Zoabi said it was Damascus’s duty to protect the state from any “domestic or foreign attack through all available means”, although he did not hint at a concrete course of action, he
The Western intelligence source told Reuters Israel carried out the attack and the operation hit Iranian-supplied missiles which were en route to Hezbollah.
“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 source said.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the scale of the attack meant it was beyond the military capability of Syrian rebels, and quoted eyewitnesses in the area as saying they saw jets in the sky at the time of the blasts.
The Observatory said the blasts hit Jamraya as well as a nearby ammunition depot. Other activists said a missile brigade and two Republican Guard battalions may also have been targeted in the heavily militarised area just north of Damascus.
Syria’s state television said the strikes were a response to recent military gains by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces against rebels. “The new Israeli attack is an attempt to raise the morale of the terrorist groups which have been reeling from strikes by our noble army,” it said.
Reports by activists and state media are difficult to verify in Syria because of restrictions on journalists operating there.
The air strike could add pressure on the Obama administration to intervene in Syria, Republican senator John McCain said.
“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.
UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon voiced alarm at reports that Israel had struck targets inside Syria. “The Secretary-General expresses grave concern over reports of air strikes in Syria by the Israeli Air Force,” Mr Ban’s press office said in a statement. “At this time, the United Nations does not have details of the reported incidents,” it said. “Nor is the United Nations in a position to independently verify what has occurred.”
It added that Mr Ban “calls on all sides to exercise maximum calm and restraint, and to act with a sense of responsibility to prevent an escalation of what is already a devastating and highly dangerous conflict.”