Israel conducted a rare airstrike on a military target inside Syria, foreign officials and Syrian state TV said Wednesday, amid fears President Bashar Assad’s regime could provide weapons, including chemical arms, to the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah.
According to a Syrian military statement cited by the official SANA news agency, the IAF fighter jets came from the north, “flying at a low altitude and below radars,” and bombed a “scientific research center” in the Jamraya area just northwest of Damascus.
The statement added that Israel, along with Turkey and Qatar, were in league with local rebels, or as they call them “terrorists,” aiding their effort to topple the Assad regime.
The statement concluded by affirming that “such criminal acts will not weaken Syria and its role and will not dissuade Syrians from continuing to support resistance movements and just Arab causes, primarily the Palestinian cause.”
Two workers at the facility were killed and five were injured in the strike, the Syrian Army said, adding that considerable material damage was caused to the site, which was responsible for “raising the level of resistance and self-defense” of Syria’s military.
The statement denied earlier reports that the strike was aimed at a convoy carrying weapons from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon, and did not specify as to the purpose of the installation that was hit.
At 1:30 a.m., the Local Coordination Committees of Syria (LCCSy) tweeted that emergency response vehicles were en route to Dumar, a neighborhood adjacent to Jamraya, that it said is home to a scientific facility. An hour and a half later, LCCSy reported that forces belonging to the elite Syrian Army 105th Brigade were deployed in Dumar to cordon off the area following an attack on the facility.
The LCCSy reports could not be independently confirmed by The Times of Israel.
US and regional security officials reported the strike earlier Wednesday but did not say exactly where it took place.
Regional security officials said Israel had been planning in the days leading up to the airstrike to hit a shipment of weapons bound for Hezbollah, Lebanon’s most powerful military force. Among Israeli officials’ chief fears is that Assad will pass chemical weapons or sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles to Hezbollah — something that could change the balance of power in the region and greatly hinder Israel’s ability to conduct air sorties in Lebanon.
The regional officials said the shipment Israel was planning to strike included Russian-made SA-17 anti-aircraft missiles, which would be strategically “game-changing” in the hands of Hezbollah by enabling the group to carry out fiercer attacks on Israel and shoot down Israeli jets, helicopters and surveillance drones.
Hezbollah has committed to Israel’s destruction and has gone to war against the Jewish state in the past.
A US official confirmed the strike, saying it hit a convoy of trucks.
All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the strike.
The Israeli military and Prime Minister’s Office declined to comment.
The Syrian army portrayed the strike as linked to the civil war pitting Assad’s forces against rebels seeking to push him from power.
“This proves that Israel is the instigator, beneficiary and sometimes executor of the terrorist acts targeting Syria and its people,” the statement said.
The location could not be independently confirmed because of reporting restrictions in Syria.
Israel suspects that Damascus obtained a battery of SA-17s from Russia after an alleged Israeli airstrike in 2007 that destroyed an unfinished Syrian nuclear reactor.
Earlier this week, Israel moved a battery of its new “Iron Dome” rocket defense system to the northern city of Haifa, which was battered by Hezbollah rocket fire in the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war. The Israeli army called that move “routine.”
Israel Military Intelligence Chief Aviv Kochavi is in Washington for consultations at the Pentagon, including with Joint Chiefs of Staff head Martin Dempsey.
Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom said Sunday that such transfer of arms to Hezbollah “would be crossing a line that would demand a different approach.”
On Tuesday, Air Force chief Amir Eshel said Israel needed to be wary of both conventional and non conventional weapons finding their way out of Syria.
“There is in Syria an enormous arsenal of weapons, some state of the art and some nonconventional. All of it could find its way to our borders and not just to our backyards,” he said.
Wednesday’s strike was Israel’s first inside Syria since September 2007, when warplanes destroyed a site that the UN nuclear watchdog deemed likely to be a nuclear reactor. Syria denied the claim, saying the building was a non-nuclear military site.
Syria allowed international inspectors to visit the bombed site in 2008, but it has refused to allow nuclear inspectors new access. This has heightened suspicions that Syria has something to hide, along with its decision to level the destroyed structure and build on its site.
In 2006, Israeli warplanes flew over Assad’s palace in a show of force after Syrian-backed militants captured an Israeli soldier in the Gaza Strip.
And in 2003, Israeli warplanes attacked a suspected militant training camp just north of the Syrian capital, in response to an Islamic Jihad suicide bombing in the city of Haifa that killed 21 Israelis.
Syria vowed to retaliate for both attacks but never did.
In Lebanon, the military and the UN agency tasked with monitoring the border with Israel said Israeli warplanes have sharply increased their activity in the past week.
Israeli violations of Lebanese airspace are not uncommon, and it was unclear if the recent activity was related to the strike in Syria.