‘Damascus airstrike killed dozens of elite troops’

Syrian military official says soldiers died guarding critical facilities, some of which were close to presidential palace

Illustrative image released by the Syrian official news agency SANA shows a general view of damaged buildings wrecked by an Israeli airstrike, in Damascus, Syria, Sunday, May 5, 2013.  (AP/SANA)
Illustrative image released by the Syrian official news agency SANA shows a general view of damaged buildings wrecked by an Israeli airstrike, in Damascus, Syria, Sunday, May 5, 2013. (AP/SANA)

A high-ranking Syrian military official said “dozens of elite troops” were killed in Sunday’s Israeli airstrikes on targets near Damascus, some of which were close to the presidential palace.

The unnamed official told the New York Times, in an interview published on Monday, that the facilities were in some of the “country’s most tightly secured and strategic areas.”

Local residents and rebel activists backed up the report and said that the airstrikes, the second in 48 hours to target Iranian-made Fateh-110 missile shipments en route to Hezbollah, hit bases of the elite Republican Guard stationed in the capital.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Monday that at least 42 soldiers were killed in the Sunday attack. The Britain-based organization said about 150 soldiers are normally stationed in the area that was targeted, but that it was not clear how many were there at the time of the strike.

On Sunday, the Syrian Foreign Ministry stated that the strikes “killed and wounded several people.” In a letter sent to the United Nations and the UN Security Council, the ministry also said that the “Israeli aggression… caused widespread destruction.”

Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Rai reported Monday that Syrian President Bashar Assad sent a message to Israel, via Moscow, threatening that further attacks on Syrian soil would constitute a “declaration of war.” Syria’s Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad said Sunday that the attacks to date already constituted precisely such a declaration by Israel. Mekdad said Syria would retaliate, as it had in the past, and the price for Israel would be “painful.”

Syria’s Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi said Sunday that “all options are open” for Syria to respond to the attacks, which he claimed conclusively demonstrated the alliance between “the terrorists, infidels and Zionists” fighting the Assad regime. He said Syria would not allow itself to be humiliated.

The Syrian Cabinet said in a statement that Israel’s alleged strikes into its territory “opened the door to all possibilities,” and that it reserved its right “to protect the homeland, the state and the people against any internal or external aggression by all means.”

Syrian state television cited anonymous sources warning that Syrian missile batteries were prepared to attack Israeli targets in case of future attacks. Earlier on Sunday, a pro-Hezbollah TV station in Lebanon claimed that Syria had deployed missiles directed at Israel, and that a decision had been taken in principle to respond to the airstrikes. Still, Israeli officials said there was only a “low likelihood” of immediate Syrian retaliation.

Syrian officials made similar threats after an alleged Israeli airstrike on a weapons convoy near the Lebanese-Syrian border at the end of January 2013.

The Sunday strikes, which took place shortly after 2 a.m., were described by Israel’s Channel 10 as Israel’s “biggest attack in Syria since 1973” — the Yom Kippur War. Four targets were struck, the TV report said, and there were two Syrian fatalities and about a dozen people injured.

Channel 10 described major explosions at the Jamraya research center near Damascus, as well as blasts at military bases on Mount Qassiyoun and near Assad’s presidential palace. It said Israel was targeting missiles from the same Iranian shipment hit on Friday — a consignment of the latest generation of Iranian-made Fateh-110 surface-to-surface missiles (also known as M600s) that arrived in Syria last week. These missiles carry 600 kilogram warheads, have a 300 kilometer range, and are accurate to 200 meters, the TV report said.

There were no official Syrian reports on casualty numbers in either of the two sets of 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.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu landed in China on Monday morning but declined to discuss the Israeli-Syrian tensions, saying he was “prevented” from addressing the issue of the airstrikes on Syria.

Netanyahu convened the security cabinet on Sunday afternoon to discuss the escalating hostilities with Syria. He delayed his Sunday evening departure for China by two hours in order to participate in the meeting.

Netanyahu’s decision to go ahead with his China trip — he had canceled twice previously, irritating Beijing, indicated Sunday he never considered canceling this time — was designed in part to underline Israel’s desire to maintain relative calm, and avoid a further escalation of hostilities, analysts said. Channel 2 Arab affairs analyst Ehud Yaari said there were “no specific Syrian threats of retaliation.”

Benjamin Netanayhu and his wife Sara, seen boarding an airplane on their way to an official state visit in China on Sunday. (photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash90)
Benjamin Netanayhu and his wife Sara, seen boarding an airplane on their way to an official state visit in China on Sunday. (photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash90)

Nonetheless, bracing for a possible response from Syria or Hezbollah, Israel on Sunday deployed two Iron Dome anti-missile batteries, in Safed and Haifa, and Haifa Mayor Yonah Yahav ordered preparations in his city for any potential escalation. Israel also closed off its airspace in the north for the first time since the 2006 Lebanon War, halting civilian flights to and from Haifa’s airport through Thursday.

Channel 10 said the assessment in Israel was of “a low likelihood of war” and “a low likelihood even of Syrian retaliation. The prime minister doesn’t fly to China on the eve of a war.” The Assad regime “knows it would be finished” if it entered a conflict with Israel, the TV report said. But it added that the security establishment was concerned by the possibility of Hezbollah allowing terror cells in southern Lebanon to fire at Israel, and so residents of northern Israel were told Sunday night to “be on alert.”

Tzahi Hanegbi, a Likud lawmaker who is close to Netanyahu, said Monday that Israel’s aim is to “keep advanced weapons from Hezbollah as soon as intentions [to acquire it] are exposed, and to refrain from tension with Syria.”

“So if there is activity, then it is only against Hezbollah and not against the Syrian regime,” Hanegbi told Israel Radio. “In that context you must see the fact that Israel doesn’t officially admit to its operations, and that the prime minister left yesterday for China and (there is) the feeling of business as usual.”

Hanegbi, a former chairman of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, had said Sunday it was unlikely Syria would hit back at Israel, 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.”

Speaking after Sunday’s cabinet meeting, Tourism Minister Uzi Landau (Yisrael Beytenu) said that it was “essential” that Israel maintain its policy of preventing “certain weaponry from reaching terrorist groups,” but did not formally confirm Israeli responsibility for the strikes. He urged Israelis to “go about their business as usual.”

Such advice notwithstanding, Channel 10 reported a quadrupling of Israeli requests for gas mask protection kits in recent days.

Egypt and the Arab League condemned the Israeli strikes Sunday, with Cairo’s Foreign Ministry saying it was against any infraction of the sovereignty of Arab countries.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Monday that “We can understand (Israel) but it is a risk”, AFP reported. Fabius, who was on a visit to Hong Kong, added that “if the conflict spreads to neighboring countries, it is a turning point in the nature of this conflict.”

It was unclear how the blasts in Syria would affect Netanyahu’s agenda in China. Dr. Yoram Evron, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies and a faculty member of the University of Haifa’s Asian Studies Department, said Netanyahu would cite Israeli assessments of weapon transfers in the region in his discussions with the Chinese government to warn them against Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon.

“Stability in the Middle East is not only an Israeli interest, it’s also something the Chinese are worried about,” Evron said. “Israel has long argued that a nuclear Iran would be a danger not only for its own security but would destabilize the entire Middle East and lead to a region-wide arms race.”

Evron said Netanyahu would likely point out in Beijing that Tehran is already transferring weapons to Hezbollah, via Syria, and the possession of nuclear weapons would embolden the ayatollahs’ regime even more to act to destabilize the region. As North Korea’s actions in recent weeks have shown, Netanyahu might argue, rogue regimes closing in on the bomb are hard to control, and that is in nobody’s interest, Evron added.

Still, while the Chinese government does not want to look indifferent to what’s happening in Syria, leaders of the Asian giant are unlikely to change their pro-Assad position in the wake of Netanyahu’s visit. “China’s central position is to prevent a military intervention aiming to bring down Assad,” Evron said.

The fact that Netanyahu was going ahead with the China trip, diplomatic sources said, underlined Israel’s intention to de-escalate tensions with Syria. Furthermore, the sources said, the fact that Israel was privately stressing that the missiles hit in the strike came from Iran, and were intended for Hezbollah, and that Israel reportedly did not enter Syrian airspace but rather carried out the strikes from inside Lebanese airspace, was intended to reduce the focus on Syria and thus reduce the likelihood of a Syrian military response.

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 likely to be more such airstrikes, Channel 10 said.

“Iran is testing Israel’s and the US’s determination to uphold ‘red lines.’ And what it is seeing in Syria is that at least some of the actors take red lines seriously,” said former IDF intelligence chief Amos Yadlin.

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 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 and is able to defend itself and doesn’t need foreign assistance,” he added.

AP contributed to this report.

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