Just as President Obama is worried about Syrian chemical weapons getting into the hands of Al Qaeda, Israel is concerned that the conflict in Syria will give Hezbollah cover for the delivery of short-range missiles.
That's the logic, according unnamed US and Israeli sources, for the latest Israeli air strike in Syria.
Israel hit a warehouse in Damascus early Friday where advanced surface-to-surface missiles from Iran were being stored before being shipped to Hezbollah, a Shiite group in Lebanon that fought a 34-day war with Israel in 2006, according to various reports.
The New York Times reports:
"It was the second time in four months that Israel had carried out an attack in foreign territory aimed at disrupting the pipeline of weapons from Iran to Hezbollah. The missiles, known as Fateh-110s, had been sent to Syria by Iran and were being stored at an airport in Damascus when they were struck in the attack, according to an American official."
The Fateh-110 missile is a short-range missile that's been in the Iranian arsenal since 2004. Its range is listed at 200-210 kilometers (130 miles) but there are reports that a more advanced model was under development with a range of more than 400 kilometers (239 miles). The Fateh-110 is considered more accurate and more advanced than the Scud missiles used by Hezbollah in the past.
Associated Press quoted an anonymous Israeli official confirming that the attack was "aimed at sophisticated "game-changing" weapons, but not chemical arms. One official said the target was a shipment of advanced, long-range ground-to-ground missiles but was not more specific.
Reuters quoted an anonymous US source confirming the air strike. "There was an air strike. The target was not a chemical weapons facility. It was missiles intended for Hezbollah," the official told Reuters. A U.S. official told Reuters the target was apparently a building.
While Hezbollah has not officially or specifically discussed this Israeli missile strike, The Daily Star of Lebanon quotes an official as saying that the group is backing Syria's President Bashar Assad.
“Hezbollah is ready to prevent Syria falling under the control of Tel Aviv and Washington,” said Ibrahim Amin Sayyed, a Hezbollah official, during a ceremony held in Baalbek in memory of one the party’s “martyrs.”
“This is a strategy and not an intervention in the Syria crisis. It is an intervention in the conflict against America and Israel,” he added.
His comments come just days after Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah said that Hezbollah fighters were defending Lebanese in Syrian border cities against Syrian opposition forces and hinted that Iran, Russia and “resistance groups” would step in militarily to prevent the fall of Assad.
The Washington Post notes that Hezbollah is concerned about Sunni groups gaining control of Syria. "The Shiite Hezbollah movement is worried that the collapse of the Syrian regime in Damascus and its replacement by one led by the overwhelmingly Sunni opposition will undermine Hezbollah’s dominant role in Lebanon and leave it vulnerable to Israeli attack. The movement has long relied on Syria for the transshipment of arms supplied by its chief ally, Iran, and the fall of Assad would compromise its supply routes."Meanwhile, Syrian opposition forces are claiming that the Israeli attack hit more than just a warehouse storing missiles from Iran.
The Israeli news site, Haaretz reports that rebel forces claim that five sites at the Damascus airport were hit by Israeli jets, including fuel tanks, Syrian ammunition depots, and a cargo aircraft. The Haaretz article hypothesizes that the attack on Hezbollah-bound missiles is a pretext for supporting Syrian opposition forces, when the US and other nations are not prepared to make any overt military intervention.
"In light of the alleged Israeli attack in Damascus and the refusal of Western countries to intervene in the Syrian campaign, the question arises whether Israel will be able, or will be required to expand its activities in Syrian airspace, under the guise of preventing weapons from reaching Hezbollah or other organizations and also as an aerial umbrella to protect rebel forces. Such a solution is likely to be comfortable for the U.S., other Arab countries and Turkey, who are not prepared for military intervention on their part without extensive international agreement.
In this way, Israel is likely to accustom the Syrian government and the opposition to the idea that it sees Syria as a legitimate area of activity, as it does in Lebanon."