Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu headed to China on Sunday evening, despite a security alert in northern Israel following two sets of reported Israeli airstrikes in Syria on Iranian missile shipments en route to Hezbollah.
Syria’s Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad warned Sunday that the Friday and Sunday airstrikes constituted an Israeli “declaration of war.” 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.
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.
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 the possibility of Syrian retaliation. 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.
The Iron Dome system has proved highly effective in stopping short-range rocket fire, intercepting 84 percent of the incoming rockets from Gaza it aimed at during Operation Pillar of Defense last November, according to official IDF statistics.
Still, Netanyahu’s decision to go ahead with his China trip — he had canceled twice previously, irritating Beijing, and 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.”
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.”
Speaking after an emergency meeting of the Israeli cabinet, 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 Sunday.
Israel was hopeful that Syria would “get the message” and stop facilitating Iran’s weapon transfers to Iran, Israeli analysts said, which would obviate the need for further Israeli strikes. But Giora Eiland, a retired general and former national security adviser, said the regime of President Bashar Assad was now “so weak,” it might not be able to refuse Iranian and Hezbollah pressure for weapons transfers.
Mekdad made his “declaration of war” statement during an interview with CNN on Sunday morning, hours after Israel reportedly struck military targets on the outskirts of Damascus for the second time in 48 hours. He said Syria had “dealt with” similar conflicts with Israel “on several occasions.” Syria’s “retaliation was always painful,” he said, “and they will suffer again.”
Mekdad also asserted that the attacks reflected an alliance between Islamic terrorists fighting against Assad’s regime and Israel, and warned that Syria would retaliate as and when it saw fit.
Syrian officials made similar threats after an alleged Israeli airstrike on a weapons convey near the Lebanese-Syrian border at the end of January 2013.
The Foreign Ministry in Damascus 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.”
Syria’s Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi said soon afterward 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. Syria would “not allow itself to be humiliated,” al-Zoubi said, “and to see its security compromised.”
However, al-Zoubi also said the regime’s priority was to battle the forces inside Syria that were challenging the regime, and he denied claims in some Arab media that an Israeli plane had been shot down by Syrian forces and two pilots captured.
Egypt and the Arab League condemned the strike, with Cairo’s Foreign Ministry saying it was against any infraction of the sovereignty of Arab countries.
A Syrian state TV report claimed Israeli rockets hit a military research site on the outskirts of the capital at about 2 a.m.
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.
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 of 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 nonetheless 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 air space, 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 Israeli attacks, Channel 10 said.
Israel’s Channel 2 said Sunday evening that Hezbollah was engaging in “psychological warfare,” trying to further escalate tensions between Israel and Syria. The Assad regime was deploying long-range missiles to face Israel, and would now seek even more energetically to supply Hezbollah with unprecedentedly advanced weaponry, Hezbollah claimed, according to the Channel 2 report, which noted that there was no confirmation of these assertions.
There were no official Syrian reports on casualty numbers 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, 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 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.
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.
“All countries have to look after their own national security, of course, and are able to take actions to protect their own national security,” Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague told Sky News Sunday.
He said the attack showed that Syria’s two-year-long civil war risked spreading outside its borders to engulf the entire region, and argued it was time to consider lifting the arms embargo on Syria’s opposition.
“The longer this goes on, the stronger the case becomes for lifting the arms embargoes on the National Coalition, on the Syrian opposition, if we’re left with no other alternative to that,” Hague said.
AP contributed to this report.