AMMAN/JERUSALEM/WASHINGTON: Israeli warplanes attacked a shipment of Russian missiles inside a Syrian government stronghold, officials said Thursday, a development that threatened to add another explosive layer to regional tensions from the Syrian civil war.
CNN quoted an unidentified U.S. administration official as saying Israeli warplanes struck a base near the port of Latakia, targeting missiles that Israel thought might be transferred to Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
An Obama administration official confirmed to AP the Israeli airstrike overnight, but provided no details. Another security official said the attack occurred late Wednesday in Latakia and that the target was Russian-made SA-125 missiles.
A U.S. official confirmed to AFP that “there was an Israeli strike” but gave no detail on the location or the target.
“Historically targets have been missiles transferred to Hezbollah,” allied with Syrian President Bashar Assad, the official said.
One Syrian opposition source, a defector from air force intelligence with contacts in the Latakia region, said Israel struck a strategic missile battery near a village called Ain Shikak where Assad’s forces kept long-range Russian missiles that are among their most powerful weapons.
“We’re not commenting on these reports,” an Israeli Defense Ministry spokesman said. The government has not commented publicly on at least three attacks on Syria earlier this year.
One Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he thought that Israel had indeed carried out such a strike, but stressed that he was not entirely certain.
Israel has repeatedly warned that it is prepared to use force to prevent advanced weapons, notably from Iran, reaching Hezbollah.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which collates reports from opposition activists, said late Wednesday that several explosions were heard at an air defense base near Jableh, south of Latakia.
Observatory director Rami Abdel-Rahman said the cause of the explosions was “unclear” and that no casualties had been reported.
A Syrian security source meanwhile told AFP that “a rocket fell near the base, causing a fire to break out.”
The Lebanese military said six Israeli jets had flown over Lebanese territory Wednesday. Israeli aerial incursions over Lebanon are frequent, but such high numbers have in the past sometimes been an indication of military strikes against Syria.
Former Syrian intelligence agent Afaq Ahmad, a defector now in exile in France, told Reuters that contacts of his inside Syria, including in Latakia province, told him Russian-made ballistic missiles had been kept at the site that was attacked.
Noting Syria’s failure to retaliate after previous Israeli action, Ahmad said: “Israel knows Assad has lost the ability to respond ... So it has been engaging in unannounced attacks on the weapons that could pose the most threat in the hands of Assad or if they are transferred to Hezbollah.”
Israel struck Syrian targets near Damascus in January and twice in May and was suspected of being behind the destruction of a naval installation near Latakia in July.
Meanwhile, U.S. officials said Washington believes that Syria’s stock of chemical weapons would be destroyed on schedule by the end of June 2014.
“I am increasingly confident that we will be able to complete this task, the elimination of the Syria’s chemical weapons program, within the target date of June 30 of next year,” said Thomas Countryman, assistant secretary for international security and nonproliferation.
He was speaking as the U.N.’s chemical watchdog said Syria’s entire declared stockpile had been placed under a seal and all its chemical arms production equipment destroyed in line with a Nov. 1 deadline.
The work is being carried out under an ambitious U.N. resolution, cobbled together by the U.S. and Russia, to eliminate Assad’s entire chemical weapons arsenal.
“Our target dates are ambitious but they are achievable. We have the support of the international community,” Countryman told U.S. lawmakers at a hearing about the conflict in Syria.
The U.S. said it wanted to “applaud the OPCW, the United Nations and the Joint Mission staff for their unprecedented work” on eliminating Syria’s chemical weapons.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki added that “rendering this equipment inoperable is an important step in ensuring that chemical weapons are never used again by the Assad regime against the Syrian people.”
U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford told lawmakers that “the destruction of the regime’s chemical weapons is a huge success if in fact it is carried out fully.”
“All stocks of chemical weapons and agents have been placed under seals that are impossible to break,” Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons spokesman Christian Chartier told AFP, adding the seals were “tamper proof.”
“These are 1,000 tons of chemical agents [which can be used to make weapons] and 290 tons of chemical weapons,” Chartier said in The Hague.
OPCW inspectors had until Friday to visit all of Syria’s chemical sites and destroy all production and filling equipment in line with a timeline laid down by the Hague-based OPCW and backed by the U.N. Security Council resolution passed last month.
The Executive Council of the Nobel peace prize-winning organization will now meet again on Nov. 5 to decide by Nov. 15 on “destruction milestones” for the stockpile.
The U.N. resolution was agreed by the U.S. and Russia to avert military strikes on Syria after deadly chemical weapons attacks outside Damascus in August, which the West blamed on Assad’s regime.
But Ford acknowledged in the Senate committee hearing that opposition rebels had reacted with “anguish” to President Barack Obama’s decision not to press ahead with military strikes.
“They’re deeply disappointed, Senator, that we chose not to use military force. I have heard – just anguish from people that I have talked to over there,” Ford said.
He added however that the U.S. had delivered 10 pickup trucks to the Syrian opposition military forces, as part of a U.S. commitment to help them in their fight against Assad.
More than 350,000 ready-to-eat rations as well as three tons of medical equipment have also been delivered to rebel forces, Psaki said.
Ford, who was forced to leave Damascus in 2011 because of the fighting, has been working hard behind the scenes to unify the fractured opposition and bring them to the negotiating table to chart a political transition in Syria.
Separately, the Syrian press praised the visit of international peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, who wrapped up his meetings in the Syrian capital.
Brahimi’s “visit to Syria began on a good note. This is because of favorable changes on the international and regional levels, and at home in terms of popular sentiment and military developments,” said the ruling party’s Baath newspaper.