JERUSALEM — Israel intervened militarily in Syria’s complex civil war early Wednesday, launching an air assault that destroyed either a convoy of anti-aircraft missiles that were bound for Lebanon or a scientific research center near Damascus that previously had been the target of rebel groups.
Precise details of what took place were difficult to come by. The Israeli government didn’t officially acknowledge the attack. Regional intelligence officials familiar with the assault said the target had been an arms convoy that was traveling toward Lebanon on the main highway linking Damascus with Beirut.
The Syrian government added to the confusion late Wednesday by claiming that Israeli warplanes had struck what it called a scientific research center in Jamraya in the Damascus countryside and denying that any convoy had been struck.
“The aggression resulted in considerable material damages and destruction to the building, in addition to a vehicular development center and a garage,” the official Syrian Arab News Agency said. Two workers were killed and five wounded, according to SANA.
U.S. officials in Washington declined to comment.
As with much of what takes place in Syria, there were few sources of independent information to help explain the events. Rami Abdurrahman, the head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based group that tracks violence in Syria, said he’d confirmed that an airstrike had taken place in the Jamraya area, about 20 miles west of Damascus on the road to Beirut, but that he hadn’t yet determined what the target had been.
What was certain, however, was that Israel, whose officials have expressed concern for months that Syrian weapons would fall into the hands of either Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group or al Qaida-linked Islamists among Syria’s rebel groups, had felt compelled to act.
Indeed, Israel’s action was considered serious enough that the country’s military intelligence chief, Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, traveled to Washington earlier this week to discuss the move in advance, according to an Israeli intelligence officer who spoke to McClatchy only on the condition that he not be identified.
"Kochavi directly relayed our concerns to the Americans,” the officer said.
Another Israeli intelligence officer, based on the country’s northern border, told McClatchy that the target of the attack had been Russian-made SA-17 anti-aircraft missiles and other weapons systems that were being taken from Syria into Lebanon. He said that the weapons, which included advanced electronic systems that could disable a variety of Israeli aircraft, would have been a “game changer” had they fallen under Hezbollah’s control.
"Israel relies heavily on the strength of our air force, and its strategic deterrence," the officer said. "Weapons systems that make our air force vulnerable will not be allowed to fall into the hands of terrorist groups."
Hezbollah, which has said it’s committed to Israel’s destruction, has fought several wars with Israel, most recently in 2006, when it fought Israeli soldiers to a draw.
According to the version of events circulating in Israel, the air attack occurred shortly before dawn Wednesday, but it wasn’t clear whether it had taken place in Lebanon or Syria. The Reuters news agency quoted a rebel fighter in Syria as saying that the airstrike happened three miles south of where the Damascus-Beirut highway crosses the border, placing it in Syria. But four Israeli intelligence officers gave McClatchy contradictory statements on whether the attack happened on Syrian or Lebanese soil.
The Syrian government’s version of events clearly placed the attack in Syria.
In a statement carried by SANA, the country’s general command said Israeli aircraft had escaped radar detection by flying low over the Golan Heights, the high ground that Israel captured from Syria in 1967 and annexed in 1981.
The SANA report suggested that the bombed research center had a military purpose, saying it was “responsible for raising the levels of resistance and self-defense” in the area.
The report also attempted to link the Israeli attack to the government’s battle with rebel groups that are fighting to topple the government of President Bashar Assad and said those groups were undermining Syria’s “support for the resistance and just rights,” a reference to the long conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
The statement added that several "terrorist groups" had made failed attempts to take control of the same site in recent months.
“The General Command said that it has become clear to everyone that Israel is the motivator, beneficiary and sometimes executor of the terrorist acts which target Syria and its resistant people,” SANA said.
The Syrian government has consistently blamed outside forces for the 22-month uprising, which has claimed an estimated 60,000 lives, and it wasn’t surprising that the Assad regime would try to link the rebel groups it’s facing to the long-hated Israeli enemy.
“This blatant aggression adds up to Israel’s long history of aggression and crime against Arabs and Muslims,” SANA said.
Israel last attacked Syria in 2007, when it destroyed a suspected nuclear reactor. Neither Syria nor Israel has acknowledged that attack officially.
Meanwhile, Israeli officials said no one should be surprised that Israel took action to prevent advanced weapons systems from reaching Hezbollah.
On Wednesday, Brig. Gen. Amnon Sofrin, former head of intelligence in the Mossad, Israel’s spy agency, said Israel was monitoring the situation in Syria closely and was concerned about the stockpiles of weapons systems and chemical weapons in Syria’s possession.
“I think that if we have solid evidence shared by our own partners all over the world that chemical warheads are being transferred from Syria to Lebanon to Hezbollah, I think no one would condemn Israel for trying to prevent it," he said. “The world should be concerned about the possibility that a terror organization should possess chemical weapons the way we are concerned, because we are not the only targets in the Middle East."
Speaking to Israel’s Army Radio, Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom said the international community already had made it clear that it wouldn’t tolerate Syria’s various weapon arsenals falling into the hands of terrorist groups.
“The world – led by President Obama, who has said this more than once – is taking all possibilities into account," Shalom added. “And of course any development which is a development in a negative direction would be something that needs stopping and prevention."
McClatchy special correspondent David Enders contributed to this report from Beirut.
Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @sheeraf