Syria has threatened to retaliate for an Israeli air strike and its ally Iran said there will be repercussions for the Jewish state over the attack.
www.telegraph.co.uk – By Phoebe Greenwood, in Jerusalem, Roland Oliphant and Damien McElroy
Syria declared it was ready to launch a “surprise” retaliation attack against Israel yesterday as Bashar al-Assad’s allies Russia and Iran both condemned air strikes on a suspected weapons shipment near Damascus.
As tensions mounted following the Israeli attacks on Tuesday and Wednesday, the Obama administration warned Syria not to transfer weapons to Hizbollah, thereby “further destabilising the region”.
Syrian Ambassador to Lebanon, Ali Abdul-Karim Ali, said Damascus “has the option and the capacity to surprise in retaliation” and that it was up to the relevant authorities to prepare the time and place for action.
The foreign ministry in Damascus earlier lodged an official complaint with the United Nations over the attack – part of a wave of incursions that was launched to destroy an alleged weapons shipment to Hizbollah.
The bombing campaign on military targets around Damascus and the Lebanese border came after weeks of growing concern within Israel that Syria’s disintegration poses a direct threat to its security.
The Lebanese government reported a series of violations of its airspace by Israeli jets on Tuesday and United Nations observers said the action continued into the early hours of Wednesday.
Initially the raid was reported to have involved a convoy carrying air defence systems across the border, but Syrian state television said yesterday that two people were killed in a raid on the Jamraya scientific research centre near Damascus.
Israeli leaders have vowed to prevent Hizbollah, the Iran-backed Lebanese terror outfit, gaining access to Syrian missiles and to ensure that stockpiles of chemical weapons do not fall into the hands of Islamic extremists.
But the attacks have nonetheless been criticised as a unilateral action that violated the UN charter.
Officials in Moscow, which has maintained an alliance with the Assad regime despite the descent into civil war and widespread international condemnation, expressed “deep concern” over the attacks.
“If this information is confirmed, then we are dealing with unprovoked attacks on targets on the territory of a sovereign state that violates the UN Charter and is unacceptable, and whatever the motivation, is not justified,” the foreign ministry said. “We are taking immediate steps to clarify the situation in all its details.”
Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, warned the “Zionist regime’s attack on the outskirts of Damascus will have grave consequences”.
The Arab League also spoke out against Israel’s intervention in the conflict even though it has suspended Damascus.
“This Israeli aggression is a clear violation of the territory of an Arab state and of its sovereignty, going against the UN charter and the rules of international law,” said Nabil al-Arabi.
Former Israeli security officials said an apparent shipment to Hizbollah forced the country to take action. Experts believe it is likely that action was taken against military targets to send a message that Israel was ready to act when dangers emerged.
“Wednesday’s strike indicates that Israel’s concern has been vindicated. Russian systems have been transferred to Hizbollah,” said Brig Gen Sholo Brom, a former director general of strategy for the Israeli military.
“I have just now seen information describing a combined strike. The target was an institution close to Damascus where trucks were being loaded with arms bound for Hizbollah. The convoy that was attacked was almost certainly driving away from this institution.”
Tzachi Hanegbi, an Israeli MP allied to Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, said air strikes are not enough to counter the threat of Hizbollah obtaining sophisticated weaponry from Syria.
“Israel’s preference would be if a Western entity would control these weapons systems,” Hanegbi said. “But because it appears the world is not prepared to do what was done in Libya or other places, then Israel finds itself like it has many times in the past facing a dilemma that only it knows how to respond to.”
Michael Ellemann, a director of the International Institute of Strategic Studies think tank, said the incident showed Damascus may be bartering its most sophisticated weapons technologies for help from Hizbollah and Iran to fight the rebels.
“Israel is engaged in a kind of messaging to Iran that it is prepared to take steps against Iran’s proxies as the Syrian regime collapses,” he said.
Russian commentators said the air strike represented the intervention of Israel in the Syrian civil war on behalf of the rebels. One security blogger said that Israel was now lined up with states, such as Turkey and Qatar against Russia in seeking the removal of the Assad regime.
“Israel has decided to intervene in the Syrian conflict on the side of the opposition,” wrote one commentator.
US vice president, Joe Biden, will discuss the situation in Syria with Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, and Moaz al-Khatib, leader of the opposition Syrian National Coalition at a meeting in Munich tomorrow (SAT).