Israel signals it was behind Syria strike: 'We mean it'

  • Associated Press
  • February 3, 2013 - 10:17 PM

MUNICH - Israel's defense minister strongly signaled Sunday that his country was behind an airstrike in Syria last week, telling a high-profile security conference that Israeli threats to take pre-emptive action against its enemies are not empty. "We mean it," Ehud Barak declared.

Israel has not officially confirmed that its planes attacked a site near Damascus, targeting ground-to-air missiles apparently heading for Lebanon, but its intentions have been beyond dispute. The New York Times reported that the attack appeared to have damaged the country's main research center for work on biological and chemical weapons, according to U.S. officials who are sorting through intelligence reports.

While the main target of the attack Wednesday seems to have been SA-17 missiles and their launchers -- which the Israelis feared were about to be moved to Hezbollah forces in Lebanon -- video shown on Syrian television backs up assertions that the research center north of Damascus also suffered moderate damage.

That complex, the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center, has been the target of U.S. and Western sanctions for more than a decade because of intelligence suggesting it was the training site for engineers who worked on chemical and biological weaponry.

During the 22 months of civil war in Syria, Israeli leaders repeatedly have expressed concern that high-end weapons could fall into the hands of enemy Hezbollah, the powerful Lebanese militants.

For years, Israel has been charging that Syrian President Bashar Assad and Iran have been arming Hezbollah, which fought a monthlong war against Israel in 2006.

Over the weekend, Syrian TV broadcast video of the Wednesday attack site for the first time, showing destroyed vehicles and a damaged building identified as a scientific research center. The U.S. officials said the airstrike hit both the building and the convoy.

In his comments Sunday in Munich, Barak came close to confirming that his country was behind the airstrike.

"I cannot add anything to what you have read in the newspapers about what happened in Syria several days ago," Barak told the gathering of top diplomats. Then he went on to say, "I keep telling frankly that we said -- and that's proof when we said something we mean it -- we say that we don't think it should be allowed to bring advanced weapons systems into Lebanon."

In Syria, Assad said during a meeting with a top Iranian official that his country would confront any aggression, his first comment on the airstrike.

Israeli defense officials tried to play down Barak's comments. Even so, it seemed that Barak was sending a message that Israel's warnings are not hollow and that further military action should not be ruled out.

"There is a real danger now that seriously problematic weapons will reach Hezbollah, and Israel is trying to prevent this," said Reuven Pedatzur, a defense analyst at Tel Aviv University. He said the threat has reached the point "where weapons are actually being loaded on trucks and sent on their way. That is new."

Pedatzur said the decision by Syria to try to move weapons to Lebanon could indicate that Assad's days are numbered. Assad might fear that he won't be able to secure the weapons for much longer, or he might be under pressure from Iran to transfer the arms to Hezbollah before he is toppled.

The New York Times contributed to this report.

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