The Syrian Foreign Ministry said Israeli missiles struck three military… (Syrian Arab News Agency )
JERUSALEM — With three airstrikes against Syria since January, Israel has inserted itself forcefully into the "Arab Spring's" most intractable conflict, heightening fears that Syria's civil war could spiral into a regional conflagration.
The bombings of targets near the Syrian capital — including two strikes in a 48-hour period beginning Friday — represent a risk-laden strategy based on the calculation that retaliatory attacks against Israel by Syria or its allies are unlikely. Still the bombings inevitably raised the specter of a broader regional war in the heart of the volatile Middle East.
But even as some Israeli officials quietly confirmed their military's involvement in Sunday's predawn assault on a reported weapons compound, they insisted their goals are narrow and portrayed the engagement as defensive and largely unrelated to the more-than-two-year uprising against the rule of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Rather than trying to weaken Assad or tilt the scales for either side, Israelis say they have an eye on the prospective next war — against the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, which is backed by both Iran and Syria.
The aim of the airstrikes, Israeli officials say, is to prevent Syria's advanced weaponry, much of it made in Iran, from being transferred to Lebanon and into the armories of Hezbollah.
"If we don't take action now, we will be on the receiving end of those missiles," said a senior Israeli government official who declined to be named because Israel has not officially confirmed unleashing the attacks. "We have to act to guarantee our security, and that applies to Syria and Iran."
Despite acknowledging Israel's role in the aerial strikes, the official would not specify the targets. He said Sunday's foray was aimed at preventing Hezbollah from adding a new kind of missile capability to its already sizable arsenal, which reportedly includes tens of thousands of rockets, some capable of carrying heavy payloads deep into Israel.
Israeli and U.S. news reports have suggested that one target was a facility housing either Iranian-made Fateh-110 surface-to-surface missiles or their Syrian counterpart, the M-600.
The Syrian Foreign Ministry, in a letter of protest to the United Nations, said Israeli missiles on Sunday struck three military sites — in the Damascus suburb of Jamraya, where a sprawling defense research complex is situated; in Maysaloun, close to the Lebanese border; and at a "paragliding airport" in Al-Dimas, also near the Lebanese frontier. The bombings caused an unspecified number of deaths and "widespread destruction," the Foreign Ministry said. Syria vowed to strike back but provided no details.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly warned Syria that transferring chemical or advanced weapons to Hezbollah would be a red line as far as Israel is concerned. But with Assad's survival uncertain, Israeli analysts say that Hezbollah and Iran feel an urgency to transfer sophisticated weapons to Lebanon.
In Syria, where the thunderous explosions shook the capital early Sunday, officials sought to cast the Israeli "aggression" as a propaganda victory — evidence of Damascus' longtime assertion that the rebellion is in fact choreographed from Washington and Israel, and features an alliance of Al Qaeda-linked rebels, Israel and the West. The attacks were portrayed by the official news agency as a desperate bid to raise the morale of rebel "gunmen" dispirited after a series of recent battlefield losses.
A Foreign Ministry official in Damascus told CNN that the attacks were a "declaration of war."
Syrian opposition figures contacted did not want to be associated with an attack by Israel. "I don't think Israel would do us a favor," said one opposition activist in Damascus.
For the time being, the strikes seemed unlikely to affect the course of the Syrian conflict, now in its third year
According to Syrian officials, the Jamraya defense compound that was hit Sunday was targeted by Israel in a Jan. 30 airstrike, its first aerial attack during the Syrian civil conflict.
The targeting suggests that Israeli officials view the Jamraya compound — situated about 20 miles from the Lebanese border — as a crucial distribution center for armaments headed to Hezbollah.
Some reports from Syria indicated that the targets included not only the Hezbollah arms pipeline but also Republican Guard bases, antiaircraft batteries and other more traditional military sites. Such targeting, if confirmed, would seem to blur the line between Israel's avowed noninvolvement in Syria's civil war and its determination to stop weaponry destined for Hezbollah.
Among the lingering questions about the weekend raids was whether Israeli jets entered Syrian airspace or instead fired rockets from positions above neighboring Lebanon. Authorities in Beirut have complained of stepped-up Israeli violations of Lebanese airspace.