Israeli jets hit Syrian trucks carrying anti-aircraft missiles for the Islamic militant group Hezbollah across the border into Lebanon, according to a Western official who asked not to be named citing regulations.
The Iran-backed Hezbollah “strongly” denounced Israel’s strike and called for widespread condemnation of the “barbaric aggression.” Senior Iranian officials arrived in Syria last night for a three-way meeting with Hezbollah, the pro-government Syria Steps website said.
The exact location of the airstrike conducted overnight on Jan. 29 was unclear. The target was later disputed by the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency, which said Israeli warplanes had struck a defense research center in Jamraya, northwest of the capital, Damascus, killing at least two people.
The attack is a clear signal that Israel will intervene to stop advanced weapons, such as SA-17 anti-aircraft missiles, from falling into the hands of its enemies. It was Israel’s first strike inside Syria since the start of the March 2011 popular uprising against President Bashar al-Assad that’s since morphed into a civil war that’s claimed over 60,000 lives.
“For Israel, it would be preferable that the sophisticated weapons systems in Syria be taken over by a Western power. But because the world is showing no willingness to do what was done in Libya or Iraq, Israel finds itself facing this dilemma alone,” Tzachi Hanegbi, a former head of parliament’s foreign affairs and defense committee and a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud-Beitenu party, said on Army Radio.
The Lebanese Shiite militia, considered a terrorist group by the U.S. and Israel, fought a monthlong war with Israel in 2006 during which it fired thousands of rockets at the Jewish state.
“Israel can’t allow the transport of weapons from state to non-state actors,” said Ronnie Bar-On, an outgoing lawmaker from Kadima and head of the foreign affairs and defense committee. “We are keeping our eyes open.”
Jonathan Spyer, a political scientist at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, said that the report that Israel had stopped a convoy of anti-aircraft missiles from reaching Hezbollah made sense. Israel’s air force flies over Lebanon on a daily basis even during peaceful times on surveillance flights, “and if Hezbollah were to get the anti-aircraft system that would put pilots in danger each time,” he said by phone.
The attack came as Major General Aviv Kochavi, head of Israeli military intelligence, was in Washington for talks with U.S. military officials including Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Martin Dempsey.
“This scheduled meeting has been planned for quite some time,” a Pentagon spokesman, Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Jack Miller, said in an e-mailed statement. Israel Army Radio said the Israeli government informed the U.S. about its intention to strike but gave no further details.
In recent days, Netanyahu has raised alarm about the potential diversion of Syria’s chemical-weapons arsenal as Assad’s Alawite minority fights to survive against a Sunni-led revolt that counts Islamist fighters among its ranks.
“We must look around us, at what is happening in Iran and its proxies and at what is happening in other areas, with the deadly weapons in Syria, which is increasingly coming apart,” Netanyahu told his Cabinet.
Israel’s Iron Dome missile-defense system was deployed this month at an unspecified site in the north closer to the Lebanese and Syrian borders, an army spokeswoman said on Jan. 27. Iron Dome was used to shoot down hundreds of rockets fired from the Gaza Strip during Israel’s November conflict with Hamas and other militant groups.
Hezbollah said in a statement carried by the official National News Agency that the reported Israeli strike was part of Israel’s attempts “to prevent any Arab or Islamic power from consolidating and improving its military” capabilities.
Hassan Nasrallah, the chief of the militant Shiite Muslim group, “is interested today in removing to Lebanon whatever he can get under his custody” from Syria’s arsenal, retired Israeli Brigadier General Amnon Sofrin, a former top official in Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency, said yesterday.
Hezbollah has defied a UN Security Council resolution calling for disarmament, saying it needs to defend the country from Israel, which invaded in 1978, 1982 and 2006. Hezbollah and its allies also clashed with other Lebanese groups in May 2008, leaving at least 80 people dead after its gunmen took over parts of Beirut.
“Israel has set red lines regarding the transfer of certain kinds of weaponry to Hezbollah and if these lines are crossed it will enforce them as quietly and as inconspicuously as possible,” said Spyer. “It doesn’t want to humiliate the other side so they don’t feel the necessity to respond.”