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With airstrike, Israel steps into Syria conflict

Israel's focus may have been arms for Hezbollah, but Syria has nonetheless seized on the strike as evidence of Israeli complicity in the uprising against Assad.

January 31, 2013|By Edmund Sanders and Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times
  • An Israeli postal worker shows a child how to don a gas mask at a distribution station in Pisgat Zeev, East Jerusalem.
An Israeli postal worker shows a child how to don a gas mask at a distribution… (Oren Ziv / Getty Images )

JERUSALEM — With the attack in Syria, Israel took its first overt military step into the "Arab Spring" unrest that has destabilized its neighbors and left Israelis feeling more vulnerable than they have in decades.

Israel's goal was apparently to deny sophisticated weapons to Hezbollah militants in Lebanon, and may not have been intended to stir the pot in Syria. But whether by intent or circumstance, Israel has inserted itself into a civil war that thus far had very little to do with it — and which other Western nations, including the U.S., have kept at arm's length out of concern that military engagement could only make things worse.

"Until now, Israel avoided becoming involved in this quagmire in Syria," said Moshe Maoz, a former government security advisor and a Syria expert at Hebrew University. "Now this may be the first sign that Israel has decided to escalate actions to cause [President Bashar] Assad's downfall."

Other analysts disagreed that Israel was intending to undermine Assad, especially since any successor to the Syrian leader could prove to be even more hostile. Still, the Syria strike may signal a new willingness by Israel to intervene in the region's problems.

Israel has not confirmed or denied the reported attack, which took place early Wednesday. News accounts based on anonymous sources from the United States and elsewhere suggested that Israeli fighters struck a military convoy with weapons destined for Hezbollah, which is closely allied with Damascus. The arms were said to include Russian SA-17 antiaircraft missiles, which could significantly boost Hezbollah's defensive capabilities.

Syria denied that the target was an arms shipment, saying the Israeli warplanes had bombed an unspecified "scientific research center" near Damascus, the capital, leaving two people dead and five injured. With Syria largely closed to international journalists, it was impossible to independently verify either account.

Syrian officials made a formal complaint to the United Nations about the attack, while Syria's ambassador to Lebanon said a "surprise" response could be in the offing, although he offered no details.

Tel Aviv has expressed concern in the past about the possibility of Syrian chemical and conventional weapons falling into the hands of Hezbollah or other Islamic militant groups.

Maoz said the strike might have been coordinated with the U.S. and Turkey. He and other Israeli security experts predicted that Assad would be unable to retaliate. With his military consumed by conflict with opposition rebels, the Syrian leader would be hard pressed to wage war with a foreign adversary.

"Bashar is dealing with other things right now," said Tel Aviv University's Syria expert, Eyal Zisser.

In Washington, Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes said the United States had been "in very close contact with Israel" about the situation in Syria. Without confirming the Israeli strike, he said that the U.S. has made it "very clear that Syria should not further destabilize the region by transferring, for instance, weaponry to Hezbollah."

The coming days may prove whether Israel's gamble paid off. Just as Egypt's revolution forced Israelis to cast a wary eye toward its southern border, they are now equally anxious about the north. Israel has already moved two of its Iron Dome missile-interception systems to the north, near its borders with Syria and Lebanon.

Most Israelis hope Syria and the rest of the region will behave as they have in the past, condemning Israel's actions but taking no military steps in response. That's largely what happened after Israel's 2007 strike against Syria's nuclear plant and after Iran blamed Israel for sabotaging its nuclear facilities and assassinating its scientists.

The reactions so far indicate that Damascus and its allies plan to use the incident not to strike Israel but to tarnish the Syrian opposition. They have called the raid evidence of Israeli complicity in the almost two-year uprising against Assad. Syria's official news agency charged that Israel was able to penetrate Syrian airspace because opposition forces had targeted air defense and radar installations, leaving the nation more vulnerable.

Israel and Syrian opposition forces have denied any Israeli involvement in the rebellion.

Iran's foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, called the attack a "blatant violation … in line with the policy of the West and the Zionists," reported Iran's English-language Press TV.

Hezbollah said the attack unveiled a "conspiracy against Damascus and our Arab and Muslim people," according to the website of Hezbollah's Al Manar TV.

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