Israel’s air force attacked Syria on Sunday, rocking Damascus with loud explosions and reportedly targeting a military research centre near the capital, in the country’s second such strike on its war-torn neighbour in two days.
Syrian state media reported that the attack took place on the city’s outskirts early on Sunday morning. Initial reports suggested Israel targeted the area around a military facility in Jamraya, northwest Damascus, which it hit in a previous strike in January.
The raid followed what US officials described as an earlier air strike on southern Syria on Friday.
In both attacks, Israel hit Fateh-110 long-range missiles that were in transit from Iran through Syria to Islamic militants Hizbollah, in Lebanon.
There have been reports in recent days of Israeli jets being seen in Lebanese airspace and Sunday’s attack followed repeated warnings by Israel’s government that it would not tolerate the transfer of arms from President Bashar al-Assad’s embattled regime to Hizbollah.
Josh Earnest, spokesman for the White House, on Sunday refused to comment on the reports of new Israeli strikes. However, he said Barack Obama, US president, was “in very close contact” with Israel and that he was concerned about the threat posed by Hizbollah obtaining advanced weapons systems, including missiles.
Speaking to CNN, Faisal al Mekdad, Syria’s deputy foreign minister, described the attack as a “declaration of war” and said it would retaliate in its own time and way. Syria had the right “to defend its people by all available means”, said Omran al Zoubi, information minister, adding that the attacks were a “flagrant violation of international law” and made the Middle East “more dangerous”.
The Cairo-based umbrella group of the Syrian opposition also condemned the Israeli move, warning in a statement that the attacks drew attention away from the regime’s “crimes and massacres”.
Brigadier General Ahmad Vahidi, Iran’s defence minister, said that Israel’s “inhumane and adventurist moves” could “threaten the security of the whole region”.
However, analysts said that, while escalation was possible, neither side had much interest in launching a full-scale war against the other. A broader conflict with Israel would open a dangerous new front for the Assad regime at a time when it is already stretched by a two-year-old armed rebellion.
As in previous such strikes, Israel’s military and government would not confirm or deny either attack. Israeli media, which operate under military censorship rules, based their accounts of the two attacks on foreign media reports.
Israel’s government would not comment on reports that Benjamin Netanyahu, prime minister, had delayed a planned trip to China on Sunday to discuss the situation.
The Israel Defence Forces later said it had positioned two Iron Dome anti-missile batteries, designed to intercept short-range artillery, in the north of the country as part of what it described as a “routine operational deployment programme”.
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human rights quoted eyewitnesses in the area of Sunday’s attack as saying they saw jets in the sky at the time of the explosions.
It said the blasts hit Jamraya as well as a nearby ammunition depot. Other activists said a missile brigade and two Republican guard battalions may also have been targeted in the heavily militarised area just north of Damascus.
Video footage uploaded to the internet by activists showed a series of explosions. One lit up the skyline over the city, while another set up a tower of flames and secondary blasts.
As the fog of confusion began to lift around the raids, a pattern emerged of discrete Israeli raids with limited aims, as opposed to an all-out engagement in Syria’s civil war.
Israel’s action comes against a backdrop of reluctance among western and western-allied governments, led by Mr Obama’s administration, to undertake a full Libya-style military campaign against the Assad regime.
“It’s a really limited intervention, without trying to affect the outcome of the war,” said Yiftah Shapir, director of the Middle East military balance project at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.
Israel, which for decades enjoyed quiet on its border with Syria, has taken pains to avoid getting entangled in its neighbour’s worsening war, with some analysts even arguing that Mr Assad’s regime was the favoured side in the conflict as the “devil we know”.
Maysaloon, a prominent blogger on the Syrian conflict, said Israel didn’t have the “slightest concern about the Syrian revolution or the Syrians who are dying” but was focused first and foremost on its battle with Iran and Hizbollah.
Israeli military analysts said Mr Assad’s army was too weak to confront Israel on the ground or in the air, and was to focused on fighting its own opposition forces, to make good on any threat to retaliate.
At the same time, Israel has warned repeatedly that it would act decisively to prevent game-changing chemical or conventional weapons falling into the hands of Hizbollah or Syrian rebels.
Israel’s attack in January, which it has never officially confirmed, was on a convoy of SA-17 anti-aircraft missiles, which its government had worried would compromise its air force’s ability to operate in Lebanese airspace.
According to Israeli officials, Hezbollah have about 50,000 rockets, including dozens of long-range ones, in their arsenal.
The Fateh-110 rockets targeted in the weekend attack are a more accurate version of the Zelzal, which has been in Hizbollah’s arsenal for several years. Israeli military analysts say that as long back as 2006, the group had some Fateh rockets as well.
Additional reporting by Geoff Dyer, Abigail Fielding-Smith and Najmeh Bozorgmehr
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