Syria Threat Over Israel Air Strike Risks Wider Conflict

Syria threatened retaliation against Israel after an aerial strike on the outskirts of Damascus caused explosions that rocked the capital, increasing the risk of a wider regional conflict.

The attack killed 42 Syrian soldiers, with more than 100 still unaccounted for, the Coventry, England-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said today in an e-mailed statement. Israel didn’t confirm involvement in the assault yesterday. Its military also carried out an airstrike in Syria on May 3, The Associated Press reported, citing unidentified Israeli officials who said the attack targeted a shipment of missiles thought to be bound for Hezbollah militants in Lebanon.

Syria’s Deputy Foreign Minister Fayssal Mekdad told CNN the airstrikes were a “declaration of war” and that the government would retaliate in its own time. Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi said on state TV that Syria would use “any means” to protect its people. He said the overnight strike hit a military research center in Jamraya, northwest of Damascus. Syria deployed rocket batteries directed toward Israel, the pro-government Damas Post website said.

Capabilities Diminished

Theodore Karasik, director of research at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai, said Syria’s options were limited.

“Syria’s capabilities to retaliate against Israel and Israeli targets has been severely diminished by two years of internal conflict,” Karasik said by phone. “Given Syria’s situation, it is doubtful that Assad’s forces will be able to doing anything significant against Israel. With Assad, Hezbollah and Iranian forces working together, it possible that an Iranian proxy would act on behalf of Assad.”

Israeli officials say Syria’s two-year-old civil war has increased the threat that Hezbollah or other militant groups will obtain weapons from the country and turn them on Israel. The Jewish state has repeatedly clashed with Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed organization classified as terrorist by Israel and the U.S., though there has been little conflict between them since Israel fought Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006.

Exercise Trimmed

The Israeli military scaled back an annual exercise in northern Israel scheduled for this week, following what a spokeswoman called “security assessments.” Israel Radio said the drill was cut back to avoid further inflaming tensions with Syria and Hezbollah.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu didn’t address the attacks in opening remarks to his weekly Cabinet session yesterday. The Israeli leader did delay a scheduled trip to China for at least two hours to convene his inner security Cabinet. The Israeli army said two Iron Dome missile defense batteries were stationed in the north.

President Bashar al-Assad’s government is fighting a rebel movement backed by the U.S. and most European and Arab countries that has gained control in several parts of the country. Hezbollah and Iran are supporting Assad in the conflict.

The attacks had little impact on Israel financial markets. The benchmark stock index, which fell 0.1 percent yesterday, closed up 0.6 percent today. While benchmark bond prices fell yesterday, that was largely driven by a cut in Israel’s credit rating at Standard & Poor’s.

‘Calculated Risk’

Jonathan Spyer, a political scientist at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel, said the Jewish state was betting it could strike because Assad is too mired in his own civil war to carry out the threatened reprisals.

“Israel is taking a calculated risk that Assad, Iran and Hezbollah are right now fighting a war against the Syrian rebels and probably don’t want to open up a second front against a far more formidable enemy,” Spyer said by telephone. “If Israel has now done this twice with air strikes within the last 48 hours, its ‘shadow conflict’ with Iran is no longer in the shadows.”

Israel has threatened military strikes on Iran to curb its nuclear program before it becomes capable of making atomic bombs, if diplomatic efforts backed by the U.S. to achieve the same end aren’t successful. Israeli officials say Hezbollah has multiplied its weapons stocks since 2006 and obtained more sophisticated missiles with a greater range.

Iranian officials also warned of a possible retaliation. Israel “should know that these crimes won’t remain without a response,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said yesterday. Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi said the attacks “have taken place with a U.S. green light,” according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency.

The U.S. wasn’t informed of the airstrikes in advance, Israel’s Haaretz newspaper today cited an unidentified U.S. intelligence official as saying.

“We are looking with great concern at the recent developments in and around Syria that risk dragging the region into an increasingly violent and expanding conflict,” Michael Mann, spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, said today in Brussels.

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged all sides to “exercise maximum calm and constraint” in order “to prevent an escalation of what is already a devastating and highly dangerous conflict.” The UN estimates that Syria’s civil war has claimed more than 70,000 lives and created 1 million refugees.

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