Israeli warplanes bombed two areas near Damascus on Sunday, the Syrian military said, drawing harsh criticism from the Syrian and Iranian foreign ministers.
The warplanes struck near the city’s international airport and outside Dimas, a town close to the Lebanese border. The Syrian government said via state news media that the strikes caused material damage; there were no immediate reports of causalities.
The airstrikes were the first in more than a month attributed to Israel. Since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011, Israel has carried out several strikes in the country, targeting sophisticated weapons systems believed to be destined for the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah. The Iranian-backed Shiite group has been fighting on the side of President Bashar al-Assad's regime in the Syrian civil war.
While the Israeli government refused to confirm or deny the latest reports from Syria – a policy it says it follows to avoid retaliation – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged earlier Sunday to continue to deal with regional threats. The New York Times reports that some Israeli analysts read his remarks with hindsight as a hint of what was to come later in the day.
“We are closely monitoring the Middle East and what is happening with open eyes and ears, and a lot is happening,” said Mr. Netanyahu, according to The Times. “We will stay informed and we will deal with these threats and challenges, which are not taking a timeout. We will deal with them with the same responsibility that we have up until now.”
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem and his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, called the airstrikes an act of aggression that proved Israel was "in the same trench" with extremist groups fighting the Syrian government, The Associated Press reports. They spoke Monday at a joint news conference in Tehran.
Mr. Moallem said Israel was trying to compensate for losses incurred by Islamic extremist groups at the hands of the Syrian Army, but he did not elaborate.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based monitoring group, said 10 explosions were heard near Dimas on Sunday. The airstrikes were apparently aimed at weapons depots in hangars in and around a small air base. The strikes near the Damascus international airport hit a warehouse for newly arrived weapons.
Sunday wasn’t the first time Israeli warplanes have been suspected of bombing targets inside Syria. As the Washington Post reports:
Previous Israeli strikes appear to have been aimed at deterring shipments of Iranian missiles and other weaponry to the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah movement. Sunday’s raids were probably no different, said Jeff White of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Israeli officials have repeatedly said Israel will not hesitate to strike to prevent advanced weaponry from reaching Hezbollah in Lebanon, where Hezbollah and Israel fought a brief but fierce war in 2006 and where border tensions have risen in recent months.
“This is part of an Israeli pattern where, when they see a shipment of destabilizing arms going to Hezbollah, they strike,” White said. The bombing raids had less to do with the dynamics of Syria’s war than “with the Israeli-Hezbollah equation,” he added.
The Israeli military has been in direct contact with Syrian rebels for more than 18 months, according to new reports from the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force. The reports say Israeli soldiers have facilitated the treatment of wounded fighters and at times exchanged parcels and ushered uninjured Syrians into Israel.
"The quarterly reports bolster speculation over the past year that Israel’s humanitarian assistance to more than 1,000 wounded Syrians had also opened a channel of communication with Syrian rebels," The Christian Science Monitor's Christa Case Bryant writes.