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Israel sends message with dawn attack in Syria

In an early morning air raid Israel targeted weapons being transfered from Syrian President Assad's military to Hezbollah. Official secrecy shrouded the event, which reportedly killed two in Jamraya (located between Damascus and Lebanon's border).

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Such a strike or strikes would fit Israel's policy of pre-emptive covert and overt action to curb Hezbollah and does not necessarily indicate a major escalation of the war in Syria. It does, however, indicate how the erosion of the Assad family's rule after 42 years is seen by Israel as posing a threat.

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Israel this week echoed concerns in the United States about Syrian chemical weapons, but its officials say a more immediate worry is that the civil war could see weapons that are capable of denting its massive superiority in airpower and tanks reaching Hezbollah; the group fought Israel in 2006 and remains a more pressing threat than its Syrian and Iranian sponsors.

Israeli officials have said they feared Assad may be losing his grip on some chemical weapons, including around Damascus, to rebel groups which are also potentially hostile to Israel. U.S. and European security sources told Reuters they were confident that chemical weapons were not in the convoy which was bombed.

Wednesday's action could have been a rapid response to an opportunity. But a stream of Israeli comment on Syria in recent days may have been intended to limit surprise in world capitals.

The head of the Israeli air force said only hours before the attack that his corps, which has an array of the latest jet bombers, attack helicopters and unmanned drones at its disposal, was involved in a covert "campaign between wars".

"This campaign is 24/7, 365 days a year," Major-General Amir Eshel told a conference on Tuesday. "We are taking action to reduce the immediate threats, to create better conditions in which we will be able to win the wars, when they happen."

Jets over Lebanon 

In Israel, where media operate under military censorship, broadcasters immediately relayed international reports of the strike. Channel Two television quoted what it called foreign sources saying the convoy was carrying anti-aircraft missiles.

Israeli jets routinely fly over Lebanon and there have been unconfirmed reports in previous years of strikes on Hezbollah arms shipments. An attack inside Syria could be diplomatically provocative, however, since Assad's Iranian ally said on Saturday that it would view any strike as an attack on itself.

There was no immediate comment on the incident from Tehran, which Israel views as its principal enemy and with which it is engaged in a bitter confrontation over Iran's nuclear program.

On Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, set for a new term after an election, told his cabinet that Iran and turmoil in Arab states meant Israel must be strong: "In the east, north and south, everything is in ferment, and we must be prepared, strong and determined in the face of all possible developments."

The Israeli military confirmed this week that it had lately deployed two batteries of its Iron Dome rocket-interceptor system to around the northern city of Haifa, which came under heavy Hezbollah missile fire during a brief war in 2006.

Israel's refusal to comment on Wednesday is usual in such cases; it has, for example, never admitted a 2007 air strike on a suspected Syrian nuclear site despite U.S. confirmation of it.

By not acknowledging that raid, Israel may have ensured that Assad did not feel obliged to retaliate. For 40 years, Syria has offered little but bellicose words against Israel. A failing Assad administration, some Israelis fear, might be tempted into more action, while Syria's Islamist rebels are also hostile to Israel and could present a threat if they seize heavier weapons.

Israeli Vice Premier Silvan Shalom said on Sunday that any sign that the Syrian army's grip on its presumed chemical weapons stocks was slipping could trigger Israeli intervention.

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