The Israeli Air Force (IAF) struck at least one target inside Syria between Thursday evening and Friday morning. US officials told NBC News on Friday that the target was likely “related to delivery systems for chemical weapons” that were destined for Hezbollah. On Saturday, The New York Times reported that Fateh-110 surface-to-surface missiles from Iran were struck at an airport in Damascus.
Press reports had originally suggested that a “building” or “warehouse,” and not a chemical weapons facility, was hit. According to the Wall Street Journal, “the US doesn’t believe Israel would target one of the Syrian regime’s many chemical weapons facilities” as “[t]here could be unintended consequences in hitting such a facility, including unleashing poisonous gas, or by allowing others to raid the damaged facility and steal the weapons.”
An attack on delivery systems is not surprising, however. As former Mossad operations officer Michael Ross noted in February, “The chemical weapons issue is important,” but “it is tangential to the overall issue of Israel’s enemies possessing long range missile capability and other advanced technological weapons systems. Stemming the flow and technological upgrade of these rockets and missiles is a top priority for Israel’s military and intelligence community.”
While Israeli officials have not taken official responsibility for the alleged strike, prior to the news breaking late on Friday evening, Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, told CNN: “If the Syrian regime tries to transfer chemical weapons, or what we call game changing weaponry, to terrorist organizations, particularly to Hezbollah in Lebanon, Israel will not remain passive.” In addition, anonymous Israeli officials on Saturday said a raid had targeted a shipment of advanced missiles, according to Reuters and the Associated Press.
Senior Defense Ministry official Amos Gilad denied the confirmation, however. “I don’t know what or who confirmed what, who are these sources? In my book only the IDF’s spokesperson unit is official,” Gilad said.
Syria’s ambassador to the United Nations, Bashar Ja’afari, denied knowledge of the attack, as he told Reuters, “I’m not aware of any attack right now.”
On Saturday evening, Damascus was rocked by a series of explosions [see video above]. Sources told Al Jazeera that “an Israeli jet broke the sound barrier and hit several military posts.” Reuters reported that Syrian state television claimed the target was the same research facility in Jamraya that Israel struck near to in late January. A senior US official confirmed Israel carried out the strike to NBC News.
The latest reported airstrikes are at least the second and third by the IAF in Syria since the start of the uprising against the regime of Bashar al Assad.
In late January, the IAF reportedly struck targets near the Scientific Studies and Research Center (Centre D’Etudes et de Recherches Scientifiques) in Jamraya. According to reports, the IAF targeted a weapons convoy, which included Russian-made SA-17 antiaircraft missiles, near the facility.
Like the strike that occurred between Thursday and Friday, the January attack was reportedly carried out by Israeli aircraft that never actually entered Syrian air space.
While some reports of the January strike suggested that the SSRC facility itself was targeted and “flattened,” satellite imagery released on Feb. 6 revealed that the facility was relatively unscathed. The images did show a burnt road near the facility, possibly indicating the location of the Syrian weapons convoy when it was hit, however.
While Israel has not taken official responsibility for the January strike, then Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told a conference in Munich on Feb. 3 that “I cannot add anything to what you have read in the newspapers about what happened in Syria several days ago …. But I keep telling frankly that we said, and that is another proof that when we say something we mean it.” More recently, current Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon hinted that Israel was behind the January strike. “We have a clear red line with the Syrian regime and that is not to allow advanced weapons to be passed on to Hezbollah and other militant groups …. When they crossed a red line, we have acted,” Ya’alon said on April 22.
Israeli officials have repeatedly warned that they are prepared to act in Syria to prevent Hezbollah and other terror groups from obtaining advanced weaponry. In a recent interview with the BBC, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, “We are prepared to defend ourselves if the need arises and I think people know that what I say is both measured and serious.”