May 5 (Bloomberg) -- Israel will try to halt the shipment of advanced weapons to Lebanon’s Hezbollah from Syria as the militant group attempts to strengthen its defense capabilities, Chatham House Associate Fellow Yossi Mekelberg said.
An Israeli air strike against Syria targeted a shipment of missiles believed to be bound for Hezbollah, the Associated Press reported yesterday, citing unidentified Israeli officials. CNN, citing two U.S. officials it didn’t identify, said Israel conducted an air strike on Syria either May 2 or May 3.
President Barack Obama declined to comment on the strike in an interview with Telemundo, scheduled to air on the Spanish language network today, saying, “I’ll let the Israeli government confirm or deny whatever strikes they’ve taken.”
Obama told Telemundo that “the Israelis justifiably have to guard against the transfer of advanced weaponry to terrorist organizations like Hezbollah,” according to a transcript of the interview. “Hezbollah has repeatedly said that they would be willing to attack as far as Tel Aviv,” the U.S. president said. Hezbollah is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. and Israel.
“If the Syrian regime is weakening and tries to move weapons to Hezbollah, Israel will assess its intelligence and capability to stop these movements,” Chatham’s Mekelberg said by phone from London yesterday. “What Israel is really apprehensive about is two scenarios. One, the movement of weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon, and two, Hezbollah opening a new front in the Golan Heights.”
The U.S. administration has been debating ways to increase pressure on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad after disclosing last week that U.S. intelligence agencies found “with varying degrees of confidence” that small amounts of sarin nerve gas were used in Syria. Obama and his national security advisers have resisted calls to arm the opposition in Syria, in part because some of the more effective militant factions have ties to al-Qaeda.
CNN reported that 16 Israeli fighter jets entered Lebanese airspace and that there’s no reason to believe that they were targeting a chemical weapons storage facility inside Syria. An unidentified U.S. official told AP that the site targeted by Israel appeared to have been a warehouse. Pentagon and White House officials declined on May 3 to comment on the CNN report.
Syrian Assistant Information Minister Khalaf Muftah had no information about the strikes, the Associated Press reported him as saying on Hezbollah’s Manar TV.
“I have my doubts whether it was chemical weapons, but I am not excluding it,” said Mekelberg, who is also program director of international relations at Regent’s University in London. “At some point or another there may be some movement of chemical weapons, to take them to another hiding place or to move them away from the rebels.”
Aaron Sagui, a spokesman for the Israeli embassy in Washington, wouldn’t confirm that an air strike took place.
“We cannot comment on these reports, but what we can say is that Israel is determined to prevent the transfer of chemical weapons or other game-changing weaponry by the Syrian regime to terrorists, especially to Hezbollah in Lebanon,” Sagui said.
Several explosions were heard in Damascus today, in what the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency said was an Israeli missile attack targeting a research center in the suburb of Jamraya. Casualties were reported, according to news agency, which didn’t elaborate.
In January, Israeli jets hit Syrian trucks carrying anti-aircraft missiles for Hezbollah across the border into Lebanon. It was Israel’s first strike inside Syria since the start of the March 2011 popular uprising against Assad that’s since become into a civil war claiming more than 70,000 lives.
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