Apparently bracing for possible retaliation, Israel deployed two Iron Dome missile defense batteries in the north of the country on Sunday morning, hours after it reportedly struck a shipment of Iranian missiles bound for Hezbollah near Damascus.
One Iron Dome battery was deployed in Safed and the other in Haifa. The system has proved highly effective in stopping short-range rocket fire, intercepting 84 percent of the incoming rockets from Gaza that threatened population centers and strategic targets during Operation Pillar of Defense last November.
A Syrian state TV report claimed Israeli rockets hit a military research site on the outskirts of the capital at about 2 a.m. Sunday, and smoke could be seen rising from the area, in the second such strike in 48 hours. An unnamed Israeli official told AFP the target was a shipment of Iranian made Fateh-110 missiles that were on their way from Syria to Hezbollah terrorists.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was to convene his security cabinet on Sunday afternoon to discuss the escalating hostilities with Syria. He slightly delayed his scheduled Sunday evening departure for China in order to participate in the meeting.
Army Radio reported Israeli concerns that Hezbollah might seek further Iranian missile shipments, and said the security establishment was therefore remaining on alert.
There were no official Syrian reports of casualties in either of the two strikes Friday and Sunday. An unconfirmed report on the Russia Today website cited a local Syrian journalist reporting “rumors on Syrian social media” that 300 or more soldiers stationed at military bases on Mount Qassiyoun near Damascus were killed. “Many Syrians are calling for retaliation as the possibility of a full-scale war with Israel is speculated upon,” this unconfirmed report further claimed.
Activists opposed to the Assad regime reported that a blast hit an ammunition depot in the Qassiyoun mountains late Saturday. It was not clear if that reported incident was related to any Israeli activity. According to a Syrian official who spoke to Al Arabiya, the Syrian regime uses its bases on the mountain to fire missiles at rebel targets in Damascus.
MK Tzachi Hanegbi (Likud), a former chairman of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, said Sunday it was unlikely Syria would hit back at Israel over an airstrike inside its territory but did not rule this out. “A Syrian retaliation is always an option,” he conceded, “but apparently it was deemed to be a long shot.”
Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman condemned Sunday’s Israeli airstrike, but gave no hint of a possible stronger response from Tehran or its allies.
Ramin Mehmanparast was quoted Sunday by the semiofficial Fars news agency denouncing the attack on the Iranian missiles, which were believed en route to Iranian-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon. His were the first Iranian comments since Israel launched a first round of airstrikes on Friday.
Mehmanparast urged countries in the region to remain united against Israel.
“As a Muslim nation, we back Syria, and if there is need for training we will provide them with the training, but won’t have any active involvement in the operations,” Iranian general Ahmad Reza Pourdastan said in remarks reported by the official IRNA news agency.
“The Syrian army has accumulated experience during years of conflict with the Zionist regime (Israel) and is able to defend itself and doesn’t need foreign assistance,” he added.
The attacks signal a sharp escalation of Israel’s involvement in Syria’s more than two-year-old civil war between rebels and the forces of President Bashar Assad, a key Iranian ally.
Uzi Rubin, a missile expert and former Defense Ministry official, told the Associated Press that if the target of the reported strikes was a consignment of Fateh-110 missiles, then such weaponry did constitute a “game-changer”: Fired from Syria or south Lebanon, these missiles, he said, could reach almost anywhere in Israel with high accuracy.