Israelis obtain gas masks following reports of an Israeli air force strike… (Jim Hollander, European…)
WASHINGTON -- Israeli warplanes struck targets Wednesday outside Damascus, the Syrian capital, according to Syrian and Western reports, amid rising international fear that President Bashar Assad will lose control of his nation’s stockpiles of chemical and advanced weapons.
A Western official who spoke on condition of anonymity said the airstrike hit a truck convoy believed to be carrying antiaircraft weapons for Hezbollah in neighboring Lebanon. The shipment was thought to have included Russian-made SA-17 missiles, the official said. If such weapons were obtained by the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, it could weaken Israel’s regional military power and hinder its ability to launch airstrikes in Lebanon.
Syrian state media, while also reporting an Israreli airstrike, denied that the target was a weapons shipment for Hezbollah, instead claiming that a military research facility and adjacent building had been destroyed. It said two people were killed and five were injured in the dawn attack.
Syria did not say what kind of research took place at the center in Jamraya, northwest of the capital.
Israeli officials declined to comment on the reports. But such a strike would mark Israel’s most aggressive military action in Syria during the nearly two-year uprising against Assad’s rule.
Israeli officials have been sounding alarms in recent days that Syria’s weapons might fall into the hands of militant groups that could use them against Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu raised that concern during a Cabinet meeting this week and officials have repeatedly said that any transfer of Syria’s dangerous weapons outside the country might trigger a military response.
Israel has tried to steer clear of the Syrian conflict, fearing that any actions it might take, such as supporting opposition forces or launching a military strike, could backfire or become propaganda fodder for Damascus. Syrian officials have long charged that U.S. and “Zionist” forces are behind the rebellion against Assad. Each side in the Syrian conflict has portrayed itself as an implacable enemy of Israel.
There is also fear that an Israeli strike could draw others into the Syrian conflict. Iran, Syria’s close ally, said this week that any foreign attack against Syria would be regarded as an attack on Iran.
In addition to chemical weapons, Israeli officials have been particularly worried about Syria’s stockpile of SA-17 antiaircraft missiles.
Israel often refuses to confirm or deny its activities in the region, partly out of a belief its silence might reduce the pressure on its enemies to respond.
In recent weeks, Israelis warned that Assad is losing control over his chemical weapons and that military action might be taken.
Amid the renewed warnings, Israelis living in the northern part of the country near the borders with Syria and Lebanon have been swarming into post offices and other distribution centers to pick up government-issued gas masks.
Israel relocated two of its five Iron Dome missile-interception systems to the northern part of the country, though military officials said the move was not related to fear of impending attacks.
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Times staff writers Sanders reported from Jerusalem and McDonnell from Beirut.