Gas mask kits are distributed at a mall in East Jerusalem. Thousands of Israelis… (Jim Hollander, European…)
JERUSALEM – Amid rising fear that Syrian President Bashar Assad could lose control of his nation’s stockpiles of chemical and advanced weapons, Israel bombed and destroyed a military research center outside Damascus, the capital, Syrian state media reported Wednesday.
Israeli and U.S. military and government officials declined to comment on the report.
If it occurred, the attack would mark Israel’s most aggressive military strike against its neighbor during the Syrian uprising against Assad's rule that began nearly two years ago.
Earlier in the day, international news agencies and Arab news outlets reported that the Israeli strike had targeted a weapons convoy along the Syrian-Lebanese border as it attempted to deliver cargo to the militant group Hezbollah. Those reports could not be confirmed. Syrian officials denied the reports of a convoy as “baseless.”
Israeli officials have been voicing concern in recent days that Syria’s advanced weapons might fall into the hands of militant groups that could use them against Israel.
Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu raised the issue during a Cabinet meeting this week and officials have repeatedly said that any transfer of such weapons outside Syria might trigger a military response.
According to Syrian TV, the research facility and an adjacent building were destroyed in the dawn attack Wednesday. Two people were killed and five were injured, Syrian news reports said.
It was unclear what sort of military research was being carried out in the center, in Jamraya, northwest of the capital. There were no initial reports of chemical contamination in the area.
Syrian officials characterized the center as scientific and said Israel’s “blatant aggression” proved that it has been behind the effort to oust Assad, according to statement from the Syrian military, carried by the official Syrian Arab News Agency.
“It has become clear to everyone that Israel is the motivator, beneficiary and sometimes executor of the terrorist acts that target Syria and its resistant people,” the statement said.
To date 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, might backfire or become a propaganda coup for Damascus.
That very issue might lead the Syrian government, which has long claimed that U.S. and “Zionist” forces are behind the rebellion against Assad, to accuse Israel of attacking its territory.
Each side in the Syrian conflict has portrayed itself as an implacable enemy of Israel.
There is also concern that an Israeli strike could drag others into the Syrian conflict. Iran, Syria’s close ally, said early 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 Russian-made SA-17 anti-aircraft missiles. If such weapons were obtained by the militant Hezbollah movement, it would weaken Israel’s regional military power and hinder its ability to launch airstrikes in Lebanon.
“The initial speculation was about chemical weapons, but Israel is deeply concerned about Hezbollah acquiring this kind of advanced anti-aircraft missile,’’ said Jonathan Spyer, senior research fellow at the Center for Global Research in International Affairs in Herzliya, Israel. “It would transform Hezbollah’s game and potentially end Israel’s air superiority over Lebanon. This is entirely about Hezbollah, not about Syria.”
Officials in Lebanon denied knowledge of any Israeli attack, but complained that Israeli jets had violated their airspace for several hours, beginning Tuesday afternoon and continuing until Wednesday morning. Though Israel routinely flies over Lebanon for reconnaissance missions to keep a close eye on Hezbollah's arms stocks and movements of weapons, the activity overnight was reportedly heavier than usual.
It is often Israel’s policy to refuse to confirm or deny its activities in the region, partly out of a belief that silence might reduce the pressure on its enemies to react or retaliate.
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