Israel plays down fears Syria strikes may spur a regional war

Syria's Assad gives go-ahead to missile batteries for quick response should another attack occur, as demand for gas masks in Israel soars. Vita Bekker reports from Tel Aviv

TEL AVIV // Israel yesterday tried to play down speculation that the air strikes it reportedly carried out in Syria may spur a regional war, with an Israeli general stating there were "no winds of war" and the army reopening its northern air space for flights after closing it on Sunday.
Syria, however, expressed fury at the Israeli attacks on its territory that, according to a report yesterday by the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, killed at least 42 Syrian soldiers as they hit several critical military sites near Damascus.
The Syrian president, Bashar Al Assad, according to the Kuwaiti paper Al Rai, had notified the United States via Russian diplomats that he gave orders to allow deployed ground-to-ground and ground-to-air missile batteries to be used against Israel without advance notice should Israel embark on another strike.
Israeli officials kept mum on the strikes on Friday and Sunday that targeted what were believed to be Iranian transfers of sophisticated Fateh-110 missiles to the Lebanese group Hizbollah, which fought a month-long war with Israel in 2006 and which Israel says is gearing for another round of fighting.
Israel yesterday attempted to convey calm, with the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, embarking on a scheduled five-day visit to China in an apparent show that he foresaw no immediate clashes.
Yair Golan, head of the army's northern command, said: "It is always right to prepare and train, but there are no winds of war ... do you see tension? There is no tension. Do I look tense to you?"
Still, analysts said the country may be preparing for retaliation, not on its northern borders with Syria and Lebanon but in the form of terror attacks abroad.
Jonathan Spyer, a political scientist at the Interdisciplinary Centre in Herzliya, said the Syrian regime was unlikely to launch an attack on Israel because it was too preoccupied with its two-year-old civil war, and Hizbollah would probably not risk testing Israel's military might by striking the country from southern Lebanon.
Instead, he said, Hizbollah and Iran may attempt to launch terror acts against Israel abroad. "We have been seeing ongoing attempts by Hizbollah and Iran cooperating on a global terror network to hit Israel abroad. It's most likely that if retaliation comes, it'll be from that network," he said.
Israel blamed Hizbollah and Iran for a July 2012 attack against Israeli tourists in Bulgaria and other plots against Israeli targets in Thailand, India, Georgia and elsewhere.
Yesterday, in an apparent bid to persuade Mr Al Assad to avoid any military action against Israel, Tzachi Hanegbi, an Israeli politiian viewed as being close to Mr Netanyahu, said Syria was not the target of the strikes.
He said the Israeli government "aimed to avoid an increase in tension with Syria by making clear that if there is activity, it is only against Hizbollah, not against the Syrian regime".
Furthermore, Israel's newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth said yesterday the Israeli government sent a message to Mr Al Assad through diplomatic channels that it had no intention of intervening in Syria's civil conflict.
While Syria did not appear to be Israel's target in the strikes, analysts said the attacks were also a bid to warn Iran, whose nuclear programme is viewed as a major security threat by Israel.
Ron Ben-Yishai, a veteran commentator on security issues for the popular Ynet news website, said yesterday: "Israel's first message to Iran is that it will not tolerate the transfer of weapons to Hizbollah. The second message is that when its interests are in danger, Israel has the means and the methods to act against targets like the nuclear military facilities in Iran."
Israelis, however, expressed some alarm at the possibility of retribution against the Israeli strikes, with the newspaper Haaretz reporting that daily demand for gas masks had quadrupled this week.
Israel drew condemnation yesterday from abroad, with China and Russia both appearing to criticise the air strikes. In China, at the start of Mr Netanyahu's visit, a foreign ministry spokeswoman said: "We oppose the use of military force and believe any country's sovereignty should be respected."
In Russia, a weapons supplier to Damascus, a foreign ministry spokesman said reports of the Israeli attacks "caused particular alarm" and added: "The further escalation of armed confrontation sharply increases the risk of creating new areas of tension, in addition to Syria, in Lebanon, and the destabilisation of the so far relatively calm atmosphere on the Lebanese-Israeli border."
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