Israeli officials, who have neither asserted nor denied responsibility for the airstrikes, said Monday that their fight was not against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or the rebels fighting his regime but against the Lebanese political and militant organization Hezbollah, which fought an inconclusive war with Israel in 2006 and is closely allied with Iran and Syria.
A senior Israeli defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing operations, said the weekend airstrikes were intended to stop weapons transfers from Iran — whose nuclear program is Israel’s foremost regional worry — via Syria to Hezbollah. The official, who declined to confirm whether the air raids were carried out by Israel, stressed that Israel has not taken sides in Syria’s two-year-old conflict.
“There are no winds of war,” Maj. Gen. Yair Golan, commander of the Israel Defense Forces’ northern divisions, said Monday.
Golan warned the public against hysterics and urged calm. Then, according to the English-language newspaper the Times of Israel, he participated in an annual fun run for the brigade that protects the north.
“Do I look tense?” Golan asked.
Lawmaker Tzachi Hanegbi, a former Israeli minister of intelligence and nuclear affairs, told Israel Radio on Monday that the weekend attacks were designed “to keep advanced weapons from Hezbollah” and “not raise tensions with Syria.”
According to news service reports, the first airstrike hit a shipment of Iranian-made Fateh-110 medium-range missiles at the Damascus airport on Friday, and an air raid early Sunday struck military and research facilities near the Syrian capital, some manned by Assad’s elite Republican Guards. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based opposition monitoring group that collects reports from inside Syria, said Monday that the strikes also killed at least 42 Syrian troops.
If Israel’s role is confirmed, the attacks would be the second and third Israeli airstrikes in Syria this year. In January, Israel conducted an airstrike that is said to have targeted an arms shipment headed for Hezbollah.
Hezbollah grew from a small militia that sought to confront Israel during its invasion of Lebanon into a powerful organization that holds seats in the Lebanese parliament and commands its own armed forces. With the patronage of Syria and Iran, the group has amassed about 60,000 rockets and missiles since the 2006 war with Israel, according to Israeli assessments. Syria has supplied Scud-D ballistic missiles, which have a range of more than 400 miles and are capable of striking any of Israel’s major cities, to Hezbollah, Israeli officials say.