BEIRUT: Israel sought to reassure the Syrian regime Monday that its weekend airstrikes against military sites near Damascus were not aimed at boosting the rebels, as activists claimed at least 42 army soldiers were killed in the attacks.
Early morning airstrikes against what Syrian state media reported were scientific and military research centers shook the city, and came two days after another Israeli airstrike at the Damascus airport against a convoy of weapons allegedly being transferred to Hezbollah.
Israel had attempted to hit the Jamraya site, outside of Damascus, in January.
Syria has labeled Sunday’s airstrike as an act of war, and on Monday a Syrian political official told AFP that Damascus would respond to the attacks but would "choose the moment" and may not do so immediately.
"Syria will respond to the Israeli aggression and will choose the moment to do so," the official close to the regime, who was speaking from Damascus, said.
"It might not be immediate because Israel now is on high alert," he added. "We will wait but we will answer."
Syrian state television earlier reported that the government was encouraging guerrilla attacks against Israel from the Golan Heights.
The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command Monday welcomed the call.
Spokesman Anwar Raja told Russia Today that “We see in this announcement an important start to claim our rights and directly resist [Israel] through the Golan front,” he said.
“This front is geographically close to Israel and constitutes a vital setting for a war by the popular resistance [against Israel],” said the PFLP-GC official.
On Sunday the Syrian Foreign Ministry accused Israel of working in collaboration with the “terrorists” and “Al-Qaeda,” which is how the regime refers to the opposition.
According to Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel's biggest-selling newspaper, Monday, the Netanyahu government had informed Assad through diplomatic channels that it did not intend to meddle in Syria's civil war.
Israeli officials did not immediately confirm the report but one suggested that such indirect contacts were not required.
"Given the public remarks being made by senior Israeli figures to reassure Assad, it's pretty clear what the message is," the official told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
Veteran Israeli lawmaker Tzachi Hanegbi, a confidant of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said Monday that the government aimed to avoid "an increase in tension with Syria by making clear that if there is activity, it is only against Hezbollah, not against the Syrian regime".
Interviewed on Israel Radio, Hanegbi noted that Israel had not formally acknowledged carrying out the raids in an effort to allow Assad to save face.
But Hanegbi said Israel was ready for any development if the Syrians misinterpreted its messages and was ready "to respond harshly if indeed there is aggression against us."
As a precaution, Israel deployed two of its five Iron Dome rocket interceptors near the Syrian and Lebanese fronts and grounded civilian aircraft in the area, although an Israeli military spokesman said the airspace would reopen Monday.
The Syrian National Coalition also condemned the Israeli airstrike Sunday, saying that the timing was “suspicious” and diverting attention away from recent massacres in the coastal area of Banias, in which the Observatory said at least 62, including 20, were killed.
Rami Abdel Rahman, director of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said Monday that at least 42 soldiers were killed in the airstrikes near the capital.
Speaking to The Daily Star, he added that the figure could increase, as around 100 soldiers were still missing. "We do not know if they are dead or alive."
The figure of 42 was from local hospital reports, he said.
The New York Times reported Monday that at the military’s Tishreen Hospital a doctor said that there were as many as 100 dead soldiers, following the Sunday airstrike.
Also on Monday, Hezbollah said that the airstrikes prove that the Israelis and Islamist fighters in Syria share the same goals.
“The airstrikes against Syrian prove that the Israeli and the Takfiri terrorist schemes are the same and they should be addressed this way,” said MP Mohammad Raad, who heads Hezbollah’s Loyalty to the Resistance bloc.
Iran denied Monday that any arms targeted by Israel had come from the Islamic Republic.
Brig. Gen. Masoud Jazayeri "denied Western and Israeli media reports that an Iranian weapons depot has been targeted in Syria."
"The Syrian government does not need Iran's military aid, and these sorts of reports are propaganda and psychological war," added the deputy chief of the armed forces.
His comments were carried by the Revolutionary Guards website.
Also on Monday, Russia and China, both relative friends of Assad, condemned the airstrikes.
Russian also said that the chance of foreign intervention in Syria was increasing.
"We are seriously concerned by the signs of preparation of global public opinion for possible armed intervention in the long-running internal conflict in Syria," Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said in a statement.
On the ground Monday, Syrian rebels shot down a military helicopter in the country's east, killing eight government troops on board, as Assad's troops battled opposition forces inside a sprawling military air base in the north for the second straight day, activists said.
Government shelling continued across the country, and by mid-afternoon local time, at least 30 people had been killed, according to the Local Coordination Committees - another activist group. -- With agencies