The New York Times reported today (Shabbat) that Israeli Air Force planes bombed a shipment of advanced Iranian surface-to-surface missiles in Syria, although reports are confused as to whether the air-strike was on Friday or Saturday, and whether it was carried out from Lebanese air-space or over Syria itself:
The airstrike that Israeli warplanes carried out in Syria was directed at a shipment of advanced surface-to-surface missiles from Iran that Israel believed was intended for Hezbollah, the militant Lebanese organization, American officials said Saturday.
It was the second time in four months that Israel had carried out an attack in foreign territory intended to disrupt the pipeline of weapons from Iran to Hezbollah, and the raid was a vivid example of how regional adversaries are looking after their own interests as Syria becomes more chaotic.
Iran and Hezbollah have both backed President Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian civil war, now in its third year. But as fighting in Syria escalates, they also have a powerful stake in expediting the delivery of advanced weapons to Hezbollah in case Mr. Assad loses his grip on power.
Israel, for its part, has repeatedly cautioned that it will not allow Hezbollah to receive “game changing” weapons that could threaten the Israeli heartland after a post-Assad government took power.
And as Washington considers how to handle evidence of chemical weapons use by the Syrian government, a development it has described as a “red line,” Israel is clearly showing that it will stand behind the red lines it sets.
The missiles that were the target of the raid had been sent to Syria by Iran and were being stored in a warehouse at Damascus International Airport when they were struck, according to an American official.
Two prominent Israeli defense analysts said military officials had told them that the targeted shipment included Scud Ds, which Syrians have developed from Russian weapons and have a range up to 422 miles — long enough to reach Eilat, in southernmost Israel, from Lebanon.
But an American official, who asked not to be identified because he was discussing intelligence reports, said they were Fateh-110s.
The Fateh-110 is a mobile, accurate, solid-fueled missile that represents a considerable improvement over the liquid-fueled Scud missile. American officials have said it has the range to strike Tel Aviv and much of Israel from southern Lebanon.
In carrying out the raid, Israeli warplanes did not fly over the Damascus airport. Instead, they fired air-to-ground weapons, apparently using the airspace of neighboring Lebanon.
The Lebanese Army said in a statement that Israeli military aircraft “violated the Lebanese airport” on Thursday night and early Friday morning and were flying in circles over several areas of the country.
Israel’s official silence reveals the broader dilemma it faces in how to handle Syria’s upheaval. After 40 years of quiet on its northeastern border, Israel is now deeply worried about violence spilling over into its territory and about a post-Assad Syria being a vast, ungoverned area controlled by Islamist or jihadist groups, with no central authority to control militant activity.
But leaders in Jerusalem believe that they have few options beyond the targeted attacks on convoys or warehouses to affect the situation in Syria, seeing any direct action by Israel as likely to backfire by bolstering or uniting anti-Israel forces.
Jonathan Spyer, an expert on Syria and Hezbollah at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel, called Thursday’s strike “extremely significant,” and predicted more such attempts to transfer weapons — and Israeli efforts to stop them — in the coming weeks and months.
“Clearly Hezbollah is hoping to benefit from its engagement in Syria, and clearly Israel is committed to preventing that,” he said. Mr. Spyer said that in striking the warehouse, Israel was taking a “calculated risk” that its limited intervention would provoke a limited response, if any.
Another question that arose Saturday was whether Israeli jets had invaded Syrian airspace.
Based on initial indications, US officials told CNN they do not believe Israeli warplanes entered Syrian airspace to conduct the strikes. It was estimated the strike was carried out from Lebanon.
According to Reuters, Israel’s air force possesses so-called “standoff” bombs that coast dozens of kilometers (miles) across ground to their targets once fired. That could, in theory, allow Israel to attack Syria from its own turf or from adjacent Lebanon.
Ynet’s defense analyst Ron Ben-Yishai estimates the assault was not conducted from Lebanese airspace but from greater distance, possibly from over the sea. Israel’s Rafael-manufactured “Popeye” system is capable of carrying out such strikes.
Senior Defense Ministry official Maj.-Gen. (Res) Amos Gilad denied reports Saturday in the Associated Press and Reuters that Israeli officials had confirmed striking a Hezbollah-bound weapons shipment in Syria overnight Thursday-Friday.
“What do you mean ‘confirm’? Who are these officials? For me, [a confirmation by] the IDF spokesperson’s office is official,” said Gilad at a gathering in Beersheba Saturday, noting that there had been no such official IDF spokesperson’s statement.
Earlier Saturday, AP and Reuters quoted Israeli officials as confirming that the Israeli Air Force carried out a strike against Syria overnight Thursday-Friday. Israel targeted a shipment of advanced missiles, the reports said. According to Syrian rebels, the IAF struck targets at the Damascus international airport, which Channel 10 suggested might be Scud-D long-range missiles. The Lebanese National News Agency reported Israeli aircraft in the skies over southern Lebanon Saturday morning as well.
Officials reportedly told both news agencies said the shipment was not of chemical arms, but of unspecified “game changing” weapons bound for the terror group Hezbollah. One official said the target was a shipment of advanced, long-range ground-to-ground missiles.
The officials said the attack took place early Friday. It was not immediately clear where the airstrike took place, or whether the air force carried out the strike from Lebanese or Syrian airspace.
Israel is justified in protecting itself from advanced weapons shipments to Lebanon-based militant group Hizbollah, United States President Barack Obama said Saturday, the AFP news agency reports. Obama spoke following reports that Israel had bombed a weapons shipment bound for Hizbullah.
Obama joined Israeli officials in declining to comment on the reported strike, saying he would let Israel “confirm or deny whatever strikes they have taken.”
“What I have said in the past and I continue to believe is that the Israelis justifiably have to guard against the transfer of advanced weaponry to terrorist organizations like Hizbollah,” the president told Spanish-language Telemundo television during a trip to Mexico and Central America.
“We coordinate closely with the Israelis, recognizing that they are very close to Syria, they are very close to Lebanon.”
Let us hope Israel’s perseverance in preventing the shipment of Iranian missiles to Hezbollah continues to provide deterrence. We also hope that the strong cooperation between Israel and the United States continues and grows. This is the only way to show our enemies realise that our supporters cannot be dissuaded, and that our morale and our will to survive will not be broken.