Last updated: January 31, 2013 6:29 pm

Syria lashes out over Israeli strike

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By John Reed in Jerusalem and Abigail Fielding-Smith in Beirut

A Syrian official warned on Thurday Damascus might launch a “surprise” response to a rare air strike by Israel, but diplomats and military analysts played down the risk of retaliation from either Bashar al-Assad’s embattled regime or its regional ally Hizbollah.

Syria map

Syria map

Israel’s raid in the Syrian-Lebanese border region in the early hours of Wednesday brought condemnation by the Arab League, Syria’s allies Russia and Iran, and Hizbollah itself.

Israel remained silent about the attack. Foreign diplomats said they understood it was a one-off event. Israeli officials had in recent days warned about the risk of Syria’s chemical and conventional weapons, particularly anti-aircraft systems, shore-to-sea missiles and long-range ballistic missiles, reaching Hizbollah as the regime’s grip on power weakens.

Details of the raid remained sketchy. Western officials, speaking anonymously, said on Wednesday that Israeli jets had hit a convoy of SA-17 anti-aircraft batteries heading from Syria towards southern Lebanon, where Hizbollah is based. Israel feared that the weaponry would compromise its ability to patrol the skies over Lebanon by giving Hizbollah the ability to shoot down its aircraft, officials said.

The Syrians denied any strike on a convoy, saying that Israeli warplanes had targeted a military research facility in Jamraya, killing two people and injuring five more. The area of the reported attack is highly militarised, so the two versions of what happened are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

Ali Abdul-Karim Ali, the Syrian ambassador to Lebanon, told a Hizbollah website that Syria might take “a surprise decision to respond to the aggression of the Israeli warplanes”.

Syria’s foreign ministry summoned the head of the UN peacekeeping force in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights to protest the strike, which Damascus said violated terms of the disengagement agreement the two countries signed after their last war in 1973.

Hizbollah said the air strike was an act of “barbaric aggression”, and supported Syria’s claim that a research centre had been targeted. The Arab League deplored what it called “cruel aggression” and said that Israel “should be held liable for the results of its aggression”, and Syria compensated for the damage.

In Israel’s north, civilians and officials moved to a higher state of alert. The post office, which dispenses gas mask kits, said it had seen a spike in demand for them since the beginning of this week.

Analysts said that despite the Syrian official’s warning, a full-scale military confrontation was probably not imminent because Mr Assad’s regime, embroiled in fighting rebel groups, could not afford to open another military front.

“Both Syria and Hizbollah are in a situation of extreme weakness, and it doesn’t serve their interests to start such clashes now,” said Shlomo Brom, a research fellow with the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies. However, he added, they could make “covert, under-the-surface attempts to reciprocate”.

Elias Hanna, a former Lebanese army general who teaches at the American University of Beirut, said that the strike might have been intended as a “message”. He said: “Nobody is willing to go to war these days.”

One prominent Syrian analyst, however, warned that further military escalation on the border could not be ruled out. Samir Taqi, a former adviser to the Syrian foreign ministry, said the suspicion that Mr Assad’s regime was sending heavy weapons to Hizbollah suggested that Damascus was weighing the option of opening a new front through a conflagration with Israel, perhaps to divert attention from its own widening internal war.

Diplomats said the Syrian regime might have been transferring the missiles to Hizbollah in order to keep them out of rebels’ hands, or to bolster the capabilities of its ally.

Israel’s public silence over the attack is in keeping with similar actions in the past, when it undertook military operations under the radar in order to avoid an open confrontation that might lead to war. In 2007 the country attacked a nuclear facility in Syria, but it has never publicly confirmed this.

Additional reporting by Roula Khalaf in London

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