Israel has carried out an air strike targeting a shipment of missiles in Syria bound for Hezbollah guerrillas in neighboring Lebanon, an Israeli official said yesterday.
Israel had long made clear it is prepared to resort to force to prevent advanced Syrian weapons, including Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s reputed chemical arsenal, reaching his Shiite Muslim Hezbollah allies or Islamist insurgents taking part in a more than two-year-old uprising against his government.
Hezbollah, allied with Israel’s archenemy Iran, waged an inconclusive war with the Jewish state in 2006 and remains a potent threat in Israeli eyes. Israelis also worry that if al-Assad is toppled, Islamist rebels could turn his guns on them after four decades of relative calm in the Golan Heights border area.
The target of Friday’s raid was not a Syrian chemical weapons facility, a regional security source said earlier.
A US official, who also declined to be identified, said on Friday the target was apparently a building.
The Israeli official who acknowledged the raid and described its target spoke on condition of anonymity. Israel’s government has not formally taken responsibility for the action or confirmed that it happened.
The attack took place after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s security Cabinet approved it in a secret meeting on Thursday night, the regional security source said.
CNN quoted unnamed US officials as saying Israel most likely conducted the strike “in the Thursday-Friday time frame” and its jets did not enter Syrian air space.
The Israeli air force has so-called “standoff” bombs that coast dozens of kilometers across ground to their targets once fired. That could, in theory, allow Israel to attack Syria from its own turf or from adjacent Lebanon.
Lebanese authorities reported unusual intensive Israeli air force activity over their territory on Thursday and Friday.
A Lebanese security source said his initial impression was that Israeli overflights were monitoring potential arms shipments between Syria and Lebanon, potentially to Hezbollah.
“We believe that it is linked to Israel’s concerns over the transfer of weapons, particularly chemical weapons, from Syria to its allies in Lebanon,” said the official, who asked not to be named.
Syrian government sources denied having information of a strike.
Syrian ambassador to the UN Bashar Ja’afari said: “I’m not aware of any attack right now.”
However, Qassim Saadedine, a commander and spokesman for the rebel Free Syrian Army, said: “Our information indicates there was an Israeli strike on a convoy that was transferring missiles to Hezbollah. We have still not confirmed the location.”
Rebel units were in disagreement about what type of weapons were in the convoy. A rebel from an information-gathering unit in Damascus that calls itself “The Syrian Islamic Masts Intelligence” said the convoy carried anti-aircraft missiles.
The rebel, who asked not to be named, said: “There were three strikes by Israeli F-16 jets that damaged a convoy carrying anti-aircraft missiles heading to the Shiite Lebanese party [Hezbollah] along the Damascus-Beirut military road.”
“One strike hit a site near the [Syrian] Fourth Armored Division in al-Saboura, but we have been unable to determine what is in that location,” he said.
Saadedine said he did not think the weapons were anti-aircraft.
“We have nothing confirmed yet, but we are assuming that it is some type of long-range missile that would be capable of carrying chemical materials,” he said.
In January this year, Israel bombed a convoy in Syria, apparently hitting weapons destined for Hezbollah, according to diplomats, Syrian rebels and security sources in the region.