Israel tries to lower tensions with Syria after reports of airstrikes

Video: Israeli officials report their target was a shipment of advanced long-range missiles headed to the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah. They are both a major supporter of the Assad regime in Syria and an outspoken enemy of Israel.

JERUSALEM — Two small rockets from Syria were lobbed across the boundary into the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights on Monday, and the Israeli military quickly played down the incident as “accidental spillover” from ­Syria’s raging civil war.

The casual dismissal of the stray fire was an example of the pains that Israeli military commanders and government officials were taking to try to lower tensions with their northern neighbor after reports of two Israeli air attacks this weekend on military targets and suspected weapons depots near Damascus, the Syrian capital.

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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.

Targeting Hezbollah

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.

The Assad government warned Sunday that the powerful airstrikes near the Syrian capital, which it blamed on Israel, opened the door to “all the options,” underscoring the possibility that Syria’s civil war could spill across regional borders.

As the fight next door has spiraled, Israel has grown increasingly worried that the long-calm cease-fire line separating the Golan Heights — which Israel has occupied since 1967 — from southern Syria could turn restive and that Syria’s reputed weapons arsenal, including chemical munitions, could fall into the hands of actors more likely to use them against Israel than Assad has been.

“Clearly, the aim of Israel in terms of these raids was to intercept an Iranian arms supply on its way to Hezbollah, and the role of Syria is only as a conduit to the supply of these arms. It has nothing to do with Syria itself,” said Jonathan Spyer, an expert on Lebanon and Syria at the Global Research in International Affairs Center in Herzliya, Israel.

Uncertainty along frontier

In recent months, Israel has moved elite fighting and intelligence units to its frontier with Syria. Merkava tanks that were once miles from the boundary are now hidden in the trees, in position to charge up ramps in seconds and fire.

A barbed-wire fence, soon to be covered with cameras and sensors, will be completed within months along the 42-mile boundary that Israel shares with Syria.

On Thursday, a day before the first airstrike, an Israeli military commander was touring the frontier with reporters, pointing out the fence, the tanks and the hilltops bristling with surveillance equipment.

But when he looked across the fence, Brig. Gen. Gal Hirsch, the deputy commander of the Israel Defense Forces’ long-range special forces directorate, said he didn’t see the embattled farm towns of Syria or an impending invasion by Syrian troops, but rather “the largest arms depot on Earth.”

Many Israelis are not sure what to conclude about the civil war in Syria. Although the two countries remain antagonists, their disputed border has been quiet — until now — for 40 years.

Israel is anxious about who will control a new Syria if Assad is ousted — Islamists, who may be hostile to Israel, or a more benign, secular government.

“There is always a debate about which side Israel is supporting in Syria,” said Moshe Maoz, a Syria expert at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. “Some say Israel is siding with Bashar al-Assad, and some say Israel is siding with the rebels. But, really, it is a matter of Israeli priorities, and that is to avoid any transfer of missiles and weapons to Hezbollah.”

At a conference of defense experts last month, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, chief of general staff of the Israel Defense Forces, said that since the 2006 war, “Hezbollah has become stronger, its abilities are quite great. As a sub-state, it has unprecedented abilities.”

But Gantz, who said the group’s weapons originated in Iran, added that he did not envision Hezbollah divisions trying to cross into Israel in direct confrontation.

“I can see rockets,” he said.

Ruth Eglash contributed to this report.

 
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