BEIRUT: Israel conducted a rare airstrike on a military target inside Syria near the border with Lebanon, foreign officials and Syrian state TV said Wednesday, amid speculation President Bashar Assad’s regime could provide powerful weapons to Hezbollah.
Syria’s army announced the strike in a statement read on state TV, saying the jets bombed a military research center in the area of Jamraya, northwest of the capital, Damascus, and about 15 kilometers from the border with Lebanon.
The statement said the center was responsible for “raising the level of resistance and self-defense” of Syria’s military. It said the strike destroyed the center and a nearby building, killing two workers and wounding five others.
The Syrian army statement denied that the strike had targeted a convoy heading from Syria to Lebanon, and instead maintained it was linked to the 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,” it said.
But 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.
Among Israeli officials’ chief fears is that Assad will pass chemical weapons or sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles to Hezbollah, which 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. A U.S. official said the strike hit a convoy of trucks but did not give an exact location.
The Israeli military declined to comment, and the location could not be independently confirmed because of reporting restrictions in Syria.
Washington was similarly tight-lipped, when White House spokesman Jay Carney was asked about the strike.
“I’d refer you to the government of Israel for questions about deliberations or actions that they may or may not have taken,” he said.
A Hezbollah spokesperson told The Daily Star he had no knowledge of the alleged Israeli strike.
“I don’t have any information about that,” Ibrahim Musawi said.
While Assad’s fall does not appear imminent, analysts worry he could grow desperate as his power wanes and seek to cause trouble elsewhere in the region through proxies like Hezbollah.
Syria’s government portrays the crisis, which started with political protests in 2011 and has since become a full-blown insurgency, as a foreign-backed conspiracy meant to destroy the country.
Top Israeli officials have recently expressed worries that Assad’s regime could pass chemical weapons to Hezbollah or other militant groups.
President Barack Obama has called Syria’s use of chemical weapons a “red line” whose crossing could prompt a tougher U.S. response, but U.S. officials say they are tracking Syria’s chemical weapons and that they still appear to be under regime control.
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.”
The airstrike was the first inside Syria in more than five years. In September 2007, Israeli warplanes destroyed a site in Syria that the U.N. nuclear watchdog deemed likely to be a secretly built nuclear reactor. Syria has 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. Israeli warplanes flew over Assad’s palace in 2006 after Syrian-backed militants in Gaza captured an Israeli soldier.
And in 2003, Israeli warplanes attacked a suspected militant training camp just north of Damascus, in response to an Islamic jihad suicide bombing in Haifa that killed 21 Israelis.
Syria vowed to retaliate for both attacks, but never did.
The Lebanese Army said Israeli warplanes have sharply increased their activity over Lebanon in the past week, including at least 12 sorties in less than 24 hours in the country’s south.
A senior Lebanese security official said no Israeli airstrikes occurred inside Lebanese territory.
A Lebanese Army statement said the last of the sorties took place at 2 a.m. local time Wednesday. It said four warplanes flew in over the southernmost coastal town of Naqoura and hovered for several hours over villages in southern Lebanon before leaving Lebanese airspace.
It said eight other warplanes conducted similar flights Tuesday.
Another Lebanese security official said the flights were part of “increased activity” in the past week but did not elaborate.