Israeli airstrike in Syria aimed at Iran

Tuesday - 5/7/2013, 4:14am EDT

Iranian and Syrian students chant slogans during an anti-Israeli demonstration in front of the UN office in Tehran, Iran, Monday, May 6, 2013. Iran Condemns Israeli Air strikes on Syria and urged countries in the region to stand against the attack. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)

JOSEF FEDERMAN
Associated Press

BEIRUT (AP) -- From Israel's perspective, its airstrikes near Damascus were more about Iran than Syria: Tehran's shipment of guided missiles destroyed in the weekend attacks would have posed a potent threat had the weapons reached Iranian proxy Hezbollah in Lebanon.

While Israel says it has no interest getting involved in the Syrian civil war, it could find itself drawn into the conflict if Syrian leader Bashar Assad's Iranian patrons continue to use his territory to ship arms to Hezbollah.

Repeated Israeli strikes would almost certainly prompt Syrian retaliation, yielding a nightmare scenario in which Israel finds itself in a Syrian morass teeming with jihadi rebels, sectarian hatred and chemical weapons.

For the West, it offers another compelling argument that the Syrian war must somehow be brought to an end.

Since the uprising in Syria began in March 2011, Israel has carefully avoided taking sides.

At the same time, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly declared a series of red lines that could trigger Israeli military intervention, including the delivery of "game-changing" weapons to Hezbollah.

The first test of this policy came in January when an Israeli airstrike in Syria destroyed a shipment of advanced anti-aircraft missiles bound for Hezbollah, according to U.S. officials.

Israel and Hezbollah fought an inconclusive monthlong war in 2006 and are bitter enemies.

When Israeli intelligence determined last week that sophisticated Iranian-made Fateh-110 missiles had entered Syria, the military prepared to strike again.

Although Israel has not officially confirmed the operation, a senior official said a first airstrike at a Damascus airport early Friday destroyed most of the shipment, while a series of subsequent airstrikes on nearby locations Sunday took out the remnants of the missiles. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss a covert military mission.

Residents in Damascus said they felt and heard several huge blasts before dawn Sunday. Radwan Midani, a 25-year-old office assistant, said he "saw the sky light up."

Midani and others in the Syrian capital said they were more concerned about random mortar attacks by the rebels on their areas than Israeli strikes.

The rebels' weapons are less accurate than Israeli missiles, said Fadi, a 29-year-old businessman who would not give his last name for fear of repercussions for talking to the foreign media.

While also less concerned about the Israeli strikes, "it's very disgusting to have the Israeli mess around with our country's sovereignty," he said in a phone interview.

Assad's regime has tried to portray the rebels as traitors engaged in a foreign-led conspiracy. Syrian officials stepped up those claims after Sunday's strikes, alleging the opposition is cooperating with Israel.

The Israeli attacks pose a problem for those trying to topple Assad because ordinary Syrians might be convinced that there is something to the regime claims, said Elizabeth O'Bagy of the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank.

"The idea of the conspiracy of Israel working with the opposition becomes that more real," she said.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an anti-regime group, said at least 42 Syrian soldiers were killed in Sunday's strike, citing information from military hospitals.

The Syrian government has not released a death toll, but Syrian state media have reported casualties in Sunday's strike, Israel's third into Syria this year.

Syria and Iran have hinted at retaliation, though they took no action Monday and the official rhetoric has been relatively mild. There also were no new reports of Israeli airstrikes in Syria.

Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi warned that Israel was "playing with fire" because of the weekend attacks, suggesting that its proxies such as Hezbollah could launch attacks in retaliation.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov voiced concern Monday, speaking by telephone with his Syrian counterpart, Walid al-Moallem. Russia's Foreign Ministry said Lavrov called for restraint and emphasized the need to respect Syria's sovereignty and territorial integrity

In launching the strikes, Israel took a gamble that Assad and his allies Iran and Hezbollah do not want to open a new front while preoccupied with the survival of his regime.

Israel moved quickly to reduce tensions. In a sign of "business as usual," Netanyahu traveled Monday to China for a previously scheduled trip.

Tzachi Hanegbi, a lawmaker in Netanyahu's Likud Party who is close to the prime minister, said Israel is trying to avoid "escalating tension with Syria."

"If there is activity, then it is only against Hezbollah, and not against the Syrian regime," he told Israel Radio.