Airstrikes 'an opportunity' to aid rebels

Last updated 12:23 06/05/2013

Two "Iron Dome" anti missile batteries have been deployed in northern Israel. Deborah Gembara reports.

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The United States was not given any warning before airstrikes in Syria against what Western and Israeli officials say were weapons headed for Hezbollah militants, a US intelligence official said.

Without confirming that Israel was behind the attacks, the intelligence official said that the US was essentially told of the air raids ‘‘after the fact’’ and was notified as the bombs went off.

Israeli jets bombed Syria on Sunday for the second time in 48 hours.

Israel does not confirm such missions explicitly - a policy it said was intended to avoid provoking reprisals, but an Israeli official acknowledged that the strikes were carried out by its forces.

‘‘It would not be unusual for them to take aggressive steps when there was some chance that some sophisticated weapons system would fall into the hands of people like Hezbollah,’’ the US intelligence official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

While the air raids raised fears that America’s main ally in the Middle East could be sucked into the Syrian conflict, Israel typically did not feel it had to ask for a green light from Washington for such attacks.

Officials have indicated in the past that Israel saw a need only to inform the United States once such a mission was under way.

US President Barack Obama said on Saturday that Israel had the right to guard against the transfer of advanced weapons to Hezbollah, an ally of both Syria and Iran.

Rather than an attempt to tip the scales against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Israel’s action was seen more as part of its own conflict with Iran, which it feared was sending missiles to Hezbollah in Lebanon through Syria.

Those missiles might hit Tel Aviv if Israel made good on threats to attack Tehran’s nuclear programme.

Another Western intelligence source told Reuters the latest attack, like the previous one, was directed against stores of Fateh-110 missiles in transit from Iran to Hezbollah.

People were woken in the Syrian capital by explosions that shook the ground like an earthquake and sent pillars of flames high into the night sky.

Syrian state television said bombing at a military research facility at Jamraya and two other sites caused ‘‘many civilian casualties and widespread damage,’’ but it gave no details. The Jamraya compound was also a target for Israel on January 30.

The US intelligence official said additional strikes in the future could not be ruled out.

‘‘Any sophisticated weaponry that finds its way there (Syria) that looks to be destined to fall in the hands of bad actors, I think there is a likelihood that those could be targets as well,’’ the second official said.

ADDED PRESSURE

Obama has repeatedly shied away from deep US involvement in the Syrian conflict, which erupted in 2011 and has killed an estimated 70,000 people and created more than 1.2 million refugees.

Hours after the Israeli attacks, several US lawmakers voiced concern over the mounting uncertainty in the Middle East.

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Influential Republican lawmaker John McCain said Israel’s air strikes on Syria could add pressure on the Obama administration to intervene, but the US government faces tough questions on how it can help without adding to the conflict.

‘‘We need to have a game-changing action, and that is no American boots on the ground, establish a safe zone and to protect it and to supply weapons to the right people in Syria who are fighting, obviously, for the things we believe,’’ McCain said on Fox News Sunday.

‘‘Every day that goes by, Hezbollah increases their influence and the radical jihadists flow into Syria and the situation becomes more and more tenuous,’’ he said.

US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said last week that Washington was rethinking its opposition to arming the Syrian rebels.

He cautioned that giving weapons to the forces fighting Assad was only one option, which carried the risk of arms finding their way into the hands of anti-American extremists among the insurgents.

The United States has said it had ‘‘varying degrees of confidence’’ that chemical weapons have been used in Syria on a limited scale, but was seeking more evidence to determine who used them, how they were used and when.

DEFENCES NOT UP TO IT

The Israeli air strikes inside Syria may have exposed weaknesses in the regime's air defences and could embolden the US and its allies to take more steps to aid rebels fighting the regime there, US lawmakers say.

"The Russian-supplied air defence systems are not as good as said," Senator Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., said on NBC's Meet the Press.

Leahy, who heads the appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations, said the Israeli defence forces were using US-made F-16 Fighting Falcon jets to launch the missiles against Syrian targets.

"Keep in mind the Israelis are using weapons supplied by us," Leahy said.

"They have enormous prowess with those weapons."

US officials said Israeli war planes last week targeted shipments of anti-aircraft missiles in Syria that Israel believed were being sent to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

- Agencies

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