US officials: Israel struck weapons facility in Syria

CNN report quoting American sources says no indication target was chemical weapons; Lebanese media say Israel conducting flyovers for fourth consecutive day

Illustrative photo of IAF F-15s flying in formation. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)
Illustrative photo of IAF F-15s flying in formation. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

Israeli warplanes flew over Beirut skies before heading north Saturday, violating Lebanese airspace for the fourth consecutive day, the Lebanese news agency El-Nashra reported Saturday morning, just several hours after US officials said that Israel had launched an airstrike into Syria overnight Thursday-Friday. The suspected target was a weapons facility, according to reports.

Lebanese media were also reporting heavy IAF activity in South Lebanon areas overnight Friday-Saturday.

The strike on Syria occurred overnight Thursday into Friday, the US officials told The Associated Press Friday night. According to a source quoted by Reuters in a report Saturday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened his security cabinet for secret talks on Thursday night, hours before the strike.

It did not appear that a chemical weapons site was targeted, said the US officials, and one official said the strike appeared to have hit a warehouse.

Fox News reported that, according to a source, it was not yet clear whether the warplanes crossed into Syrian airspace or whether the missiles were fired from across the border.

CNN reported Friday that US and Western intelligence agencies were analyzing data pointing to an Israeli airstrike on Syria. NBC quoted American sources saying the target was believed to be weapons shipment bound for Hezbollah in Lebanon.

There was no immediate indication that Israel struck chemical weapons targets, CNN said, despite heightened tensions over the Assad regime’s use of weapons of mass destruction against rebels.

Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) was quoted by a Politico reporter saying, “Israel bombed Syria tonight.”

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The CNN report followed Lebanese media reports of increased Israeli Air Force activity over southern Lebanon on Thursday and Friday.

The Israeli military declined to comment on the CNN report. Aaron Sagui, spokesperson for the Israeli Embassy in Washington, declined comment on the report as well, but added “what we can say is that Israel is determined to prevent the transfer of chemical weapons or other game-changing weaponry by the Syrian regime to terrorists, especially to Hezbollah in Lebanon.”

Syrian Ambassador to the UN Bashar Jaafari said shortly after the reports were published that he was unaware of any Israeli attack on his country, according to Reuters.

As many as eight Israeli warplanes reportedly entered Lebanese airspace, according to Hezbollah news outlet Al-Manar, while The Daily Star on Friday quoted the Lebanese military as saying that a succession of Israeli warplanes flew over the country, culminating in a pair of planes which circled South Lebanon for nearly three hours on Friday afternoon.

On Thursday, “two Israeli warplanes violated Lebanese airspace entering above the sea west of Sidon and flying over all Lebanese areas as they conducted aerial maneuvers,” the Daily Star quoted a statement from the Lebanese Army as saying.

The Israeli army’s top intelligence analyst Brig. Gen. Itai Brun was the first  prominent figure to publicly declare that President Bashar Assad was using chemical weapons — he specified Sarin — against rebel targets. Brun’s public assertion 10 days ago caused initial dismay in the US, and was at first rejected by Secretary of State John Kerry, but soon afterwards confirmed by the US and other world powers.

US President Barack Obama had said such use would be a game-changer, and Obama has been weighing how to respond for several days. Israel has said repeatedly that it will intervene to prevent Syrian chemical weapons falling into the hands of terror groups such as Hezbollah.

“Obviously we are concerned that weapons that are ground-breaking, that can change the balance of power in the Middle East, would fall into the hands of these terrorists,” Netanyahu said last week.

However Netanyahu has also told his ministers not to discuss the issue publicly, in order to avoid potential claims that Israel is urging the US to intervene military in Syria.

Foreign media reported in January that the Israeli Air Force struck either a Lebanon-bound weapons convoy or a Syrian chemical weapons facility outside Damascus, or both. But Israel never officially acknowledged the veracity of those reports.

Lebanese President Michel Suleiman on Friday condemned Israel’s alleged actions and called on the international community to intervene.

“We call on the international community to pressure Israel to stop its attacks and violations and to commit to abiding by Resolution 1701,” he said.

Al-Manar reported that UNIFIL and Lebanese military personnel jointly investigated the southern region where Thursday’s Israeli overflights were thought to have taken place.

AP contributed to this report. 

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