Although Israel has refused to comment on the strikes, U.S. officials said the attacks were aimed at a cache of advanced Iranian-built missiles apparently intended for Hezbollah, a Lebanese militant group closely allied with Assad.
U.S. and Middle Eastern officials say any retaliation would probably come in a familiar form: attempted attacks by Hezbollah operatives on Israeli or Jewish civilian targets, perhaps far outside the Middle East.
But they also said that the rigors of the ongoing civil war in Syria and Iran’s negotiations over its nuclear program could serve as restraints. The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to provide intelligence assessments, said a terrorist attack would almost certainly be seen as preferable to a direct assault, which would risk an escalating conflict with Israel.
Hezbollah, a longtime foe of Israel with a vast international network and the patronage of Iran, has long been linked to assassinations and terrorist bombings on foreign soil, including a suicide attack last year on a bus filled with Israeli tourists in the Bulgarian resort city of Burgas.
“I expect more of the ‘shadow war’ we’re already seeing — soft targets, tourists — and targeting senior current or former Israeli officials,” said Matthew Levitt, a Hezbollah expert and former counterterrorism adviser and analyst at the Treasury Department and the FBI. “It’s already happening, and it will happen even more.”
Few options for Assad
The Israeli government has not publicly asserted responsibility for the airstrikes that occurred Friday and early Sunday, but senior officials
privately confirmed that the targets were a shipment of Iranian-made surface-to-surface missiles intended for Hezbollah.
Although Israel insists that its fight is not against Assad or the rebels fighting his regime but against Hezbollah
, Syrian opposition groups say the airstrikes killed dozens of elite Syrian troops stationed nearby.
State-controlled news media reports in Syria continued to denounce the airstrikes as acts of war. One prominent newspaper, al-
Watan, reported that Assad had authorized terrorist operations inside Israel by Syrian-backed Palestinian militants. A report on Syria’s semiofficial al-Ikhbariya television network said Syrian military officials were preparing rocket strikes against Israel in the event of an escalation.