Air strikes shook the Damascus area early Sunday in what Syria said was an Israeli bombing, the second airborne attack on targets in Syria in three days and a further escalation of Israel’s response to the Syrian civil war.
The attack, following a similar strike Friday, raised fresh concerns about a spillover of the Syrian conflict into neighbouring countries, even as the United States weighs intervention following reports of use of chemical weapons in the fighting.
Israeli officials, who have vowed to stop the transfer of advanced weapons from Syria to Islamist militants, were silent about the latest strikes and reports that they targeted stocks of Iranian-made guided missiles destined for the Hezbollah group in Lebanon.
Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad, interviewed by CNN, called the air strikes a “declaration of war” by Israel, while Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoabi warned they would have “dangerous” implications for the region. But he stopped short of a specific threat of retaliation.
The Israeli silence, which analysts said was meant to avoid goading Syria into a response, seemed part of a government assessment that the attacks would not ignite a broader conflict. Commentators said that the government had taken the calculated risk that the air strikes would not draw retaliation from the embattled Syrian leadership.
Amos Yadlin, a former chief of military intelligence who heads the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, told Army Radio that Syria risked serious damage to its already battered military capabilities should it chose to respond against Israel.
“Assad knows that the rebels have made him the primary target, and if he tries to deflect the fire toward Israel, chances are that he will be attacked by both the rebels and Israel,” Mr. Yadlin said. “The regime knows … that a confrontation with Israel today will put it in far greater peril.”
The bombings, which according to reports from Syria hit multiple sites, underlined Israel’s concerns that the upheaval in Syria could lead to a loss of control of chemical weapons and sophisticated arms.
Israeli officials say they are concerned that a possible breakup of Syria could shift an array of advanced weapons to Lebanon, making it the main focus of potential confrontation with Hezbollah, which is heavily backed by Iran.
The group is reported to have sent fighters to help support Syrian government forces, and Israeli experts monitoring the organization say that it is seeking to shift weaponry stored in Syria to Lebanon.
The attacks targeted stocks of Fateh-110 missiles, which have precision guidance systems more accurate than any missiles Hezbollah is known to possess, according to a Western intelligence official in the Middle East cited by the Associated Press.
A short-range ballistic missile developed by Iran, the Fateh-110 was upgraded in 2012 to improve its accuracy and increase its range to 300 kilometres.
Commentators said that Israel viewed such weaponry, which can reach key targets deep in Israeli territory, as a “game changer” in the hands of Hezbollah, which fired thousands of rockets into Israel in a war in 2006.
President Barack Obama, speaking on Saturday before the latest raids, said that it was up to Israel to confirm or deny any reports of an attack, but that Washington co-ordinates very closely with Israel. “The Israelis, justifiably, have to guard against the transfer of advanced weaponry to terrorist organizations like Hezbollah,” Mr. Obama told the Spanish-language TV station Telemundo.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pointedly avoided any mention of Sunday’s attack in public remarks at the start of the weekly meeting of his cabinet.
But in an earlier ceremony inaugurating a road interchange named for his late father, Mr. Netanyahu said that “he taught me the enormous responsibility that we have to ensure the security of the State of Israel.”
Despite the prevalent assessment in Israel that the air strikes would not trigger broader hostilities, the army protectively positioned two of its Iron Dome anti-missile batteries in northern Israel and domestic flights were cancelled in the area.
Mr. Netanyahu left as planned for a visit to China, but delayed his departure in order to meet with his security cabinet.