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Israel says strikes in Syria target arms for Hezbollah

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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.

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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.

Despite the clear risk of retaliation, Israeli officials seem confident that both the Syrian government and Hezbollah are too preoccupied with Assad’s struggle for survival to open a new front with Israel. Hezbollah has acknowledged dispatching some fighters to Syria to battle rebels.

Any attack on Israel probably would trigger a devastating Israeli response. The Israeli bombing campaign during the 2006 war with Hezbollah resulted in massive damage to militant strongholds in southern Beirut and elsewhere. Iran picked up much of the reconstruction tab.

Tzachi Hanegbi, a Likud Party lawmaker and confidant of Netanyahu, told the Israeli news site Ynet that Syrian retaliation “was deemed to be a long shot.”

Israel’s asserted 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 Syria and Hezbollah to retaliate, reasoned Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin, a former Israeli military intelligence chief.

“It enables Syrians to say, ‘This isn’t our business,’ and enables Hezbollah to decide they weren’t the one attacked,” he said. “Both sides can go into a zone of deniability.”

Key U.S. lawmakers said the strikes may also have served to expose weaknesses in the Assad regime’s air defenses and could embolden the United States and its allies to take more steps to aid rebels fighting the government.

“The Russian-supplied air defense systems are not as good as said,” Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” Leahy, who heads the appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations, said the Israeli Defense Forces were using American-made F-16 Fighting Falcon jets to launch the missiles against Syrian targets.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said on “Fox News Sunday” that the Israeli airstrikes should “put more pressure” on the White House to aid forces fighting the Assad regime. McCain said the U.S. should not send in troops, but he called for “game-changing action” by the U.S. rather than incremental steps.

The White House is weighing whether to arm the rebels after intelligence reports indicated that the Assad’s forces may have used nerve gas.

The real wild card in the aftermath of the Israeli strikes might be Iran. Officials of the Islamic Republic, which is in the midst of a presidential election campaign, have warned that any attack against Syria would be viewed as a 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 a nuclear bomb.

Netanyahu did not comment Sunday about the attack, but he convened his security Cabinet to discuss the matter. Two Iron Dome missile-interception systems were deployed in northern Israel and commercial flights in the region were suspended as a precaution.

The prime minister apparently felt confident enough to proceed with his upcoming diplomatic trip to China, leaving Israel on Sunday evening.

Around the Arab world, several nations condemned the strikes and called on the U.N. to take action. Iran also condemned the attack.

edmund.sanders@latimes.com

patrick.mcdonnell@latimes.com

Sanders reported from Jerusalem and McDonnell from Beirut. News assistant Batsheva Sobelman in The Times’ Jerusalem bureau, staff writer Brian Bennett in Washington and special correspondents Nabih Bulos in Amman, Jordan, and Lava Selo in Beirut contributed to this report.


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