Assad accuses Israel of colluding with rebels

Bashar Al Assad has accused Israel of trying to destabilise Syria, as the Israelis effectively admit launching air strikes on Syrian soil. Phil Sands reports from Damascus

A man holds a child in his arms in Aleppo after an airstrike destroyed a house and killed and injured several people.
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DAMASCUS // Bashar Al Assad yesterday accused Israel of trying to destabilise Syria, as the Israelis effectively admitted launching air strikes on Syrian soil.

The Assad regime says the attack on Wednesday hit a scientific research centre near Damascus. US intelligence officials say the target was a convoy of anti-aircraft missiles on their way to Hizbollah militants in southern Lebanon.

The air strikes had "unmasked the true role Israel is playing, in collaboration with foreign enemy forces and their agents on Syrian soil, to destabilise and weaken Syria", the Syrian president said yesterday.

The Israeli defence minister Ehud Barak said Tel Aviv had warned it would not allow advanced weapons to be transferred from Damascus to Hizbollah, "and that's proof when we say something we mean it".

Syrian state television yesterday broadcast footage it said showed the damage caused in the attacks, including destroyed cars, lorries and military vehicles and a damaged building.

The apparent ease with which Israeli fighter jets were able to penetrate Syrian airspace - widely believed to be equipped with a formidable Russian-built air defence system - has been explained by officials in Damascus as evidence that Israel is working with rebel factions on the ground who knocked out radar stations before the attack.

"President Al Assad stressed that Syria is capable of confronting current challenges and repelling any aggression targeting the Syrian people, thanks to the awareness of the Syrians, the might of the Syrian army and Syria's adherence to the path of resistance," Sana, the official news agency, said.

The Syrian president made his comments at a meeting in Damascus with Saeed Jalili, secretary of Iran's supreme national security council.

According to Sana, the Iranian official pledged Tehran's full support for Mr Al Assad and "expressed trust in the wisdom of the Syrian leadership in dealing with the aggression that targets Syria's pioneering role".

Both Iran and Syria have held firm to the line that Mr Al Assad is facing a nefarious foreign conspiracy, rather than a genuine grassroots political uprising demanding greater freedoms as part of the broader Arab Spring.

Iran is a key regional ally of the Syrian regime and has made it clear it will not allow Mr Al Assad to be toppled by a 22-month uprising against his family's decades-long rule.

Syria, Iran and Hizbollah, together with some Palestinian factions, form a self-styled "resistance axis" opposed to Israel and its allies, including the US.

The resistance bloc, already weakened after Hamas fell out with Damascus over its response to the uprising, would be severely damaged were Mr Al Assad to be ousted.

On Friday, Hillary Clinton, the outgoing US secretary of state, said Tehran had been upping its support for Mr Al Assad, supplying his regime with money, arms and military advisers.

She also warned Syria was facing "the dangers of an increasing civil war and a potential proxy war".

That proxy war already appears to be taking place, with a growing number of participants. Russia and Iran have given solid backing to Mr Al Assad, while the US, Europe and the Arabian Gulf states have assisted the rebels.

Major supplies of weapons or funding have not, however, materialised for the anti-Assad factions, prompting Moaz Al Khatib, head of the opposition Syrian National Coalition, to say he was open to negotiations with the regime.

If yesterday's meeting gave Mr Al Assad an opportunity to assure Iran his military could fend off any possible future strikes by Israel, it also gave Tehran a chance to, once again, underscore its firm support for Mr Al Assad.

Iran's deputy foreign minister on Thursday had warned the Israeli attack would have "grave consequences".

Meanwhile, fighting continued across much of Syria, including the now routine artillery fire into the suburbs of Damascus.

The opposition Local Coordination Committees said at least 58 people head been killed nationwide by early evening yesterday. According to the United Nations, more than 60,000 people have been killed since last March when the uprising began.

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