JERUSALEM – With three air strikes on targets in Syria since January, Israel is inserting itself into the Arab Spring’s most intractable conflict, heightening fears that the civil war could spiral into a regional conflagration.
But as some quietly confirmed Israel’s involvement in Sunday’s attack against a Syrian weapons facility outside Damascus, Israeli officials insisted their goals in Syria are narrow, and portrayed the engagement as defensive and largely unrelated to the fighting between rebel groups and the regime of President Bashar Assad.
Rather than trying to weaken Assad or tilt the scales for either side, Israelis say they have an eye past Syria’s 2-year-old conflict and toward the next war they expect to face the Iranian-backed Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.
The aim, they say, is to prevent Syria’s advanced weapons from being transferred to Lebanon.
“We are not taking sides and we’re not interested in interfering in the internal affairs of Syria,’’ said a senior Israeli government official who was not authorized to speak publicly because Israel’s military has not officially confirmed its role in the attacks.
“But we have to make sure these weapons do not fall into the hands of Hezbollah because the minute that happens it will be hard to track and monitor them,’’ he said “That’s the only reason we interfered. If we don’t take action now, we will be on the receiving end of those missiles. We have to act to guarantee our security, and that applies to Syria and Iran.”
The official acknowledged Israel’s role in the recent attacks, but would not specify the targets. He said Sunday’s attack prevented Hezbollah from adding a new kind of missile capability to its arsenal.
Israeli and American media reports have suggested the target was a weapons facility holding either Iranian-made Fateh-110 surface-to-surface missiles or their Syrian-made counterpart, the M-600.
Israelis noted that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly warned that transferring chemical or advanced weapons to Hezbollah would be a red line as far Israel is concerned. But that does not appear to have deterred Assad or Hezbollah from seeking to transfer such weapons, Israelis say.
Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin, a former Israeli military intelligence chief, praised the government for taking a firm stance on its red line and said Syria is becoming the battleground for the latest escalation between Israel and Hezbollah, with backing from Iran.
“One can argue that Syria is only involved geographically,’’ said Yadlin, now director of the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. “These are Iranian weapons going to Lebanon.”
Yadlin said Israel’s attempt to limit its targets to Hezbollah-bound weapons and to avoid overt attacks against Assad and his forces may reduce the pressure on both Assad and Hezbollah to retaliate.
“It enables Syrians to say this isn’t our business and enables Hezbollah to decide they weren’t the one attacked. Both sides can go into a zone of deniability.”
But he acknowledged that Israel is taking a risk that Syria, Iran or Hezbollah might strike back.
“Strategically Israel is walking a very fine line here,’’ he said. “There is a risk of creating a conflict in the north with Syria that is not in Israel’s interest.”
Netanyahu did not comment Sunday about the attack, but convened his security cabinet to discuss the matter. Two Iron Dome missile-interception systems were deployed in northern Israel and commercial air flights in the region were suspended as a precaution.
But the prime minister apparently felt confident enough to proceed with a diplomatic trip to China, leaving Israel Sunday evening.
Around the Arab world, several nations condemned what they characterized as Israeli aggression and called upon the U.N. to take action.
A Syrian Foreign Ministry official told CNN that the attack was a “declaration of war.”
Nevertheless most Israeli officials are betting that both Assad and Hezbollah, which has sent its fighters to support Syria’s regime, will be too preoccupied with Assad’s struggle for survival to open a new front with Israel.
Likud lawmaker and Netanyahu confidant Tzachi Hanegbi told the Israeli news site Ynet that a Syrian retaliation “was deemed to be a long shot.”
The real wild card might be Iran, where officials previously warned, following a similar Israeli attack in January, that any strike against Syria would be viewed as an strike against Iran.
“The bombing of Syria is really more of a test of Iran than Assad,’’ said Moshe Maoz, a Hebrew University professor and Syria expert. “Israel is testing the patience and strategy of Iran and wants to see Iran’s reaction, which might help if Israel attacks Iran itself one day.”
Israel, with the Middle East’s only nuclear weapons arsenal, has threatened to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities to prevent the Islamic republic from building its own nuclear bomb.
Syria’s unrest is providing both Israel and Iran with an opportunity to advance their interests amid the chaos, analysts say.
Hezbollah and Iran see an opportunity to accelerate the transfer of sophisticated weapons to Lebanon, particularly as Assad’s survival appears uncertain.
Israel would like to break the long-standing weapons pipeline from Iran through Syria, which enabled Hezbollah to rearm itself after its 2006 war with Israel.
“Israel is entering the scene to engage in damage control,” said Uzi Rabi, director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University.
He called Israel’s attack a preemptive strategy. “Sitting on the fence for any length of time will result in equipping potential enemies with dangerous weapons,” he said.
Batsheva Sobelman in The Times’ Jerusalem Bureau contributed to this report.