Syrian retaliation threat after Israeli air strikes
Syria has accused Israel of supporting "terrorists" including al-Qa'ida, threatening retaliation for Israeli air strikes on military bases that have drawn the Jewish state deep into the civil war raging across the border.
The strikes north of Damascus, in the early hours of yesterday, lit up the night sky and felt "like an earthquake", according to residents.
Continuing explosions suggested weapons and ammunition facilities were hit, in line with Israel's policy of preventing heavy arms transfers to Hizbollah, Syria's ally in neighbouring Lebanon.
Israeli officials refused to comment, but the strikes went beyond the claims made for a previous major attack early Friday morning and an air raid in January that they were targeting weapons convoys.
"The blatant Israeli aggression against military sites in Syria confirms the co-ordination between Israel and terrorist groups," the Syrian government said. A cabinet meeting warned that "the aggression opens the door wide to all possibilities".
The Syrian National Coalition opposition group also condemned the strikes, saying the Jewish state had "taken advantage" of the ongoing conflict.
Witnesses reported columns of flame erupting from the Jamaraya military facility, perched on Mount Qasyoun overlooking the Syrian capital and just 10 miles from the Lebanese border, as well as a series of massive explosions in the city's northwestern suburbs.
One report said up to six sites were hit, including a missile brigade, two Republican Guard battalions and a nearby ammunition depot.
Others put it at three, saying that as well as the Jamaraya facility – officially a scientific research centre – the sites were a nearby weapons storage unit, and an anti-aircraft missile base at Sabura, west of the capital.
Western officials said both strikes were intended to take out Fateh-110 missiles from Iran bound for Hizbollah in Lebanon. Israel has stressed that it considers the transfer of such advanced weaponry as "game changing".
Israeli intelligence officials believe Jamaraya may have also served as a Syrian base for Hizbollah. They estimate the Lebanese Shia militant group to have more than 7,500 fighters on the ground supporting the Syrian regime.
Faisal al-Mokdad, Syria's deputy foreign minister, told CNN the operation was a "declaration of war" by Israel.
Both Israeli and Syrian top-level security figures were locked in meetings assessing the weekend's events and discussing possible reactions.
Iran reacted with fury, and threatened to increase its military involvement in the Syrian war.
Analysts said there was no immediate danger of retaliation by either Syria or Hizbollah.
"For the moment, I don't see this escalating," Ephraim Kam, deputy head of Israel's Institute for National Security Studies, said. "War with Israel is the last thing the Syrian regime needs now."
The attacks are likely to strengthen Hizbollah's determination to defend the Assad regime to the bitter end. In Hermel, a Shia town near Lebanon's border with Syria, Mustafa Taha, the Hizbollah mayor, said: "Protecting Syria is not such a big challenge because we have the support of so many allies: Iran, Russia, China, and the Arab regimes who support the resistance in Palestine." (© Daily Telegraph, London)