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A day after it launched an airstrike outside of Damascus, killing scores of Syrian soldiers, Israel sought to play down the attack as a strike against regime-ally Hezbollah, not President Bashar al-Assad.
Reuters reports that Israel has made several soothing overtures to its war-racked northern neighbor after launching airstrikes in Syria on Friday and Sunday. Tzachi Hanegbi, a confidante of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told Israeli radio on Monday that Mr. Netanyahu aimed to avoid "an increase in tension with Syria by making clear that if there is activity, it is only against Hezbollah, not against the Syrian regime."
Hezbollah, which seeks Israel's elimination, has long relied on the Assad regime to transfer weapons from Iran into its own hands. Damascus and the Lebanese Shiite militant group appear to have drawn closer together as a result of Syria's civil war, with Hezbollah fighters battling the Syrian opposition from inside the country.
Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel's biggest-selling newspaper, said the Netanyahu government had informed Mr. Assad through diplomatic channels that the attacks were not attempts to affect the outcome of Syria's civil war.
Israeli officials did not immediately confirm the report, but one suggested that such indirect contacts were not required.
"Given the public remarks being made by senior Israeli figures to reassure Assad, it's pretty clear what the message is," the official told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
Netanyahu and his advisers concluded that canceling the visit at the last minute would be interpreted by Syria and Hezbollah as a sign of Israeli intentions to escalate the situation....
As part of its effort to calm things down, Israel will continue to maintain official silence about the two air strikes. A senior Israeli official said the goal is to make clear to Assad that Israel’s sole interest is in preventing advanced weaponry from reaching Hezbollah: It isn’t interested in intervening in Syria’s civil war or helping the rebels topple his regime. Jerusalem hopes this will make it easier for Assad to avoid a military response to the strikes.
The Sunday airstrike hit a military facility near the presidential palace in Damascus, The New York Times reports. A Syrian official said that dozens of elite troops were killed in the attack, and one military hospital doctor said that at least 100 were dead, with scores more injured.
Although Israel did not comment on the attacks, Israeli analysts say that they were likely targeting weapons meant to be transferred from the Syrian military to Hezbollah. A US official told the New York Times that Friday's smaller airstrike, on the Damascus International Airport, had a similar target.
Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al-Mekdad told CNN on Sunday that the Israeli strikes were "a declaration of war" and that Syria would respond. "We dealt with this on several occasions, and we retaliated the way we wanted, and the retaliation was always painful to Israel, and they will suffer again." And Syrian state TV accused Israel of aiding the rebels – a charge that it likely hopes will tarnish support for the rebels, given Israel's broad unpopularity among Syrians.
But The Christian Science Monitor reports that neither Syria nor Israel want the situation to develop into something greater.
Despite longtime enmity between Israel and Syria, the two neighbors have not directly come to blows for almost four decades, other than battling each other briefly in Lebanon in 1982. Israel has staged military moves inside Syria on a few occasions in the past decade – assassinating militants in Damascus, bombing a Palestinian training camp, and most notably by destroying a suspected nuclear reactor in northeast Syria in 2007. On each occasion, the Syrian regime has either ignored the incident or vowed a retaliation that was never fulfilled.
And the Monitor adds that "neither Hezbollah nor Israel appear to desire a fresh conflict, mindful that the next encounter promises to be much more destructive than the 2006 war." Israeli security analyst Reuven Pedhazur told the Monitor that Syria and Hezbollah are not likely to be willing to retaliate, even symbolically, as Israel will respond in kind.
“Israel will not back off,” he says. “If they respond, Israel will respond on the other side.”