Israeli aircraft attacked military sites on the outskirts of Damascus, Syria said, sending a fireball over the capital in what a top Syrian official said amounted to a declaration of war.
Israel didn’t confirm involvement in the assault yesterday that rocked the Syrian capital. Jonathan Spyer, a political scientist at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel, said the Jewish state was betting it could strike because Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is too mired in his own civil war to carry out reprisal threats.
Syria’s Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al-Mekdad told CNN the airstrikes were a “declaration of war” and that the government would retaliate in its own time. The country’s information minister, Omran al-Zoubi, said in a statement on state TV that the attack opens doors to all possibilities and that Syria would use “any means” to protect its people.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu didn’t address the attacks in opening remarks to his weekly Cabinet session. The Israeli leader did delay a scheduled trip to China for at least two hours to convene his inner security Cabinet.
Syria deployed rocket batteries directed toward Israel, the pro-government Damas Post website said, and the Israeli army said two Iron Dome missile defense batteries were deployed in the north.
Israel’s Arkia Israeli Airlines Ltd. suspended all flights from the northern city of Haifa to the southern city of Eilat on military order, Ynet said. An army spokeswoman, speaking anonymously in accordance with regulation, said civilian aviation coordinates operations with the air force and in accordance with operational assessments.
“Apparently the Syrians and the Iranians have crossed a red line of the Israelis and that means that weapons of an advanced nature, probably missiles, have been moved from Iran to Syria with intentions of moving them to Hezbollah,” U.S. Senator John McCain said on the “Fox News Sunday”program. “The whole thing is escalating.”
Israel is also suspected of carrying out an airstrike in Syria on May 3. The Associated Press, citing unidentified Israeli officials, said the attack targeted a shipment of missiles thought to be bound for Iranian-backed Hezbollah militants in Lebanon. Israel and the U.S. consider Hezbollah a terrorist group.
“Countries in the region must be aware and know that creating instability in the region is to step into the game of the Zionists,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said yesterday. Israel “should know that these crimes won’t remain without a response.”
Iranian Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi said the attacks “have taken place with a U.S. green light,” according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency.
Ahmad Reza Pourdastan, the commander of the Iranian army’s ground forces, said the “Syrian army is strong and ready to defend its borders but if needed we can provide training assistance,” according to the state-run Mehr news agency.
The extent to which the tension may escalate depends on Iran, said Aaron David Miller, vice president of Woodrow Wilson International Center of Scholars in Washington.
“This is part of the Iranian-Syrian Cold War. The question is, do the Iranians want to make it hot, and my inclination would be to think no,” Miller said. He said that should Iran decide to escalate violence, it would enlist Hezbollah.
Egyptian foreign minister Mohamed Kamel Amr condemned the Israeli airstrike, according to the official MENA news agency. Yemen’s government also denounced the raids, the state-run Yemen News Agency reported.
United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged all sides to “exercise maximum calm and constraint” in order “to prevent an escalation of what is already a devastating and highly dangerous conflict.”
The Syrian civil war has claimed more than 70,000 lives, and 1 million refugees have fled to Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and other countries, according to UN estimates. The fighting has evolved largely along sectarian lines, with many in the Sunni majority supporting the rebels while Assad draws support mainly from his Alawite community, whose religion is an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
“Israel is taking a calculated risk that Assad, Iran and Hezbollah are right now fighting a war against the Syrian rebels and probably don’t want to open up a second front against a far more formidable enemy,” Spyer said by telephone. “If Israel has now done this twice with air strikes within the last 48 hours, its ‘shadow conflict’ with Iran is no longer in the shadows.”
Israeli stocks and government bonds slipped amid reports of Israeli attacks inside Syria. The yield on the 4.25 percent notes due March 2023 rose 11 basis points, or 0.11 percentage point, the most since Aug. 13, to 3.62 percent at the close. The benchmark TA-25 Index of stocks fell 0.1 percent.
Israel is suspected of having bombed Syria three times since the rebels started their revolt. Israel has not confirmed any of these attacks. Hezbollah and Iran are backing Assad in his war against the rebels. The Jewish state accuses Syria and Iran of supplying the Lebanese group with weapons.
The overnight strike hit a military research center in Jamraya, northwest of the capital, said al-Zoubi, the Syrian minister.
Assad and his officials will “use Israel’s involvement as yet another manifestation of their simplistic narrative about foreign forces trying to manipulate the masses,” said Taufiq Rahim, Dubai-based political analyst for the Middle East at GlobeSight, an emerging markets research company.
CNN reported that 16 Israeli fighter jets entered Lebanese airspace in the first May attack. It said there was no reason to believe that they were targeting a chemical weapons storage facility inside Syria. Israel has voiced concern that Syria’s chemical stocks will fall into the hands of Hezbollah and other anti-Israel militants as the chaos in Syria deepens.
U.S. President Barack Obama declined to comment on the first May strike in an interview with Spanish-language TV station Telemundo. “I’ll let the Israeli government confirm or deny whatever strikes they’ve taken,” Obama said.
“The Israelis justifiably have to guard against the transfer of advanced weaponry to terrorist organizations like Hezbollah,” he said, according to a transcript of the interview broadcast yesterday. “Hezbollah has repeatedly said that they would be willing to attack as far as Tel Aviv.”
The Obama administration has been debating ways to increase pressure on Assad after disclosing in late April that U.S. intelligence agencies found “with varying degrees of confidence” that small amounts of sarin nerve gas were used in Syria. Obama and his national security advisers have resisted calls to arm the opposition, in part because some of the more effective militant factions have ties to al-Qaeda.
“I have real concerns,” Representative Peter King, a New York Republican, said yesterday on CNN’s “State of the Union” program. “By arming the rebels, we could be strengthening al- Qaeda.”
Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that he believed the U.S. is closer to providing lethal aid to Syrian opposition. “Our problem in who to supply is that some of these groups are strong Islamists, al- Qaeda and others,” he said.
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