January 30, 2013

As Syria descends into war and chaos, Israel has entered the fray, reportedly striking a target in the surburbs northwest of Damascus where the Syrians apparently had placed a new SA-17 antiaircraft missile battery.

The Israeli attack on the SA-17 missiles was first reported Wednesday by the Associated Press. What’s intriguing is that the same area that was hit — the Jamraya research center in the suburb known as Dummar, northwest of Damascus — is also a center for chemical weapons research. This led some Syrian opposition sources to believe that the Israelis’ real target was the chemical weapons center.

According to Syrian opposition sources, the Israeli jets struck the Jamraya research center in the suburbs north of Damascus at about 2:00 a.m. 1 a.m. Wednesday, local time. The Syrian opposition sources supplemented their account with a cell phone video of what they said was an explosion at the facility overnight and an eyewitness account from a Syrian living in the area, relayed through a Syrian who spoke with me.

This opposition account accords with a Syrian government statement Wednesday that the Israelis had struck a target in Jamraya which the Syrian announcement described only as “a scientific research center responsible for raising levels of resistance and self-defense.” The Syrian statement said two workers at the facility had been killed and five wounded. The Syrians made no mention of antiaircraft weapons.

The real significance of Wednesday’s attack, to me, is that the Israelis have laid down a marker. This is the first time their jets are known to have staged combat operations inside Syria since a 2007 raid on a nuclear reactor, a preemptive strike which to this day Israel officially refuses to confirm. The Israelis have now shown that they are prepared to strike if they see evidence of weapons that might threaten them — such as the advanced SA-17 missiles or, down the road, chemical weapons that are on the move.

The Jamraya facility has an interesting history. Syrian opposition sources told me in December that this facility was personally overseen by Maher al-Assad, the brother of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. They added that two senior Syrian officers involved in Jamraya (whose names were confirmed by western sources) had transported about 100 kilograms of chemical weapons materials from their base last year, destination unknown.

As has been the case in the past with operations involving Syria, the Israeli military made no public statement Wednesday, letting Israeli arms do the talking.

David Ignatius writes a twice-a-week foreign affairs column and contributes to the PostPartisan blog.