Israeli strikes raise stakes in Syria conflict

Tensions are inflamed after Israeli warplanes target Iranian-made missiles destined for Hizbollah, with 'many' civilian casualties. Vita Bekker reports from Tel Aviv

TEL AVIV // Israeli warplanes carried out the second strike in three days in Syria yesterday, reportedly targeting a shipment of advanced, Iranian-made guided missiles headed for Hizbollah in Lebanon.
Syria immediately accused Israel of launching a strike against a military facility just north of Damascus - which Israel bombed three months ago - with the deputy foreign minister, Faisal Al Mekdad, telling CNN he viewed the attacks as a "declaration of war".
The bombardment caused "many" civilian casualties and "widespread" destruction, reported Syrian state television, which said Israel's attack was a bid to help rebel groups.
Iran, which backs the Syrian president, Bashar Al Assad, yesterday called on countries in the region to take a stand against the "assault" by Israel, Iran's Fars news agency reported, quoting the Iranian foreign ministry spokesman, Ramin Mehmanparast.
The strikes, if confirmed, raise concern that Syria's two-year civil war will spread into the region as Israel increases its involvement.
Israel - which has until now largely avoided intervening - fears the conflict will encroach on its territory and threaten security.
Egypt yesterday condemned the strikes, saying Israel "violated international law" and charging that they "exploited [Syria's] internal conflict". The Arab League demanded in a statement to the United Nations that its top body, the security council, "act immediately to end Israeli attacks on Syria", which it called a "dangerous violation of an Arab state's sovereignty".
The Israeli attacks in and around the Syrian capital of Damascus targeted Fateh-110 surface-to-surface missiles that have accurate guidance systems and a range of up to 300 kilometres, news reports quoted unnamed western and regional intelligence officials as saying.
The missiles would be capable of reaching Tel Aviv and much of Israel from Hizbollah's stronghold in southern Lebanon. The weapons are more sophisticated than any other possessed by the militant movement, which fought a 34-day war with Israel in 2006 and is viewed by the country as a top security threat on its northern border.
Israeli officials refused to comment yesterday on the strikes, but the country appeared to be preparing for possible retaliation by either Hizbollah or Syria, moving two anti-rocket Iron Dome batteries to the northern cities of Haifa and Safed. Airspace in the north was closed to civilian aircraft, including all flights into and out of Haifa's airport, Israeli media reported.
Israeli media also said the security cabinet of Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, convened in the afternoon for an unscheduled discussion of the strikes and that the army has bolstered its presence near the northern border.
The attacks come after repeated threats by Mr Netanyahu that his country may act militarily to stop arms shipments to Hizbollah through Syria. Furthermore, Israeli security analysts said yesterday that the strikes also appear to convey a threat by Israel to Iran - whose nuclear programme is viewed as a major threat by Israel - that the country would not hesitate to use its military might against Tehran.
"Syria is a very important part in the front that Iran has built," said Amos Yadlin, a former chief of Israel's military intelligence. "Iran is testing the determination of both Israel and the US in terms of red lines. What it sees in Syria clarifies to it that at least some of the players - when they set red lines that get crossed - take it seriously."
Despite Israeli preparations for possible violence with Syria following the attacks, Mr Yadlin said there was little chance that Syria would retaliate because it needed to focus on fighting rebel groups. "A lack of reaction [to the strikes] will maintain the Syrian regime's upper hand in its confrontation with the rebels."
The first attack in Syria took place on Thursday night and also hit an Iranian shipment of Fateh-110 missiles to Hizbollah.
According to Syria's state news agency Sana, the second strike yesterday targeted the Jamraya military research centre near Damascus - which had already been attacked by Israeli jets in January - the first Israeli strike in Syria since fighting started in March 2011 after protests against the government.
Sana reported the explosions caused casualties but did not elaborate. Jamraya is about 15 kilometres from the Lebanese border.
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on its Facebook page that civilians in the Qudseyya suburb of Damascus "reported seeing jets in the sky" and explosions in the area of the centre.
The US indicated support for such Israeli strikes over the weekend, with Barack Obama, the US president, saying: "The Israelis justifiably have to guard against the transfer of advanced weaponry to terrorist organisations like Hizbollah . Hizbollah has repeatedly said they would be willing to attack as far as Tel Aviv."
The attacks highlight Israel's increasing worries about violence on its northern border, whether with Hizbollah or with Syria. Israel and Syria view each other as enemies but their shared border has been relatively quiet since they fought each other in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.
Several mortar shells from Syria have fallen on Israeli-controlled territory in recent months, with some incidents drawing Israeli fire for the first time in four decades.
With an escalation of Syria's two-year civil war, analysts say Israel is especially fearful that Syria's chemical arms may fall into the hands of Hizbollah or other groups which may then use such weapons against Israeli targets.
Tzahi Hanegbi, a right-wing Israeli legislator and a former head of the parliament's foreign affairs and defence committee, said Israel's prime concern about Hizbollah was that the group would get its hands on Syria's weapons stockpile.
Speaking to Israel's army radio, he added: "We want to make sure that within the chaos in Syria, we won't see Hizbollah strengthening in a way that would give it more motivation to act against us."
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