Israel Has Yet To Confirm Aistrikes On Syria

Israel has been watching its northern borders with Syria and Lebanon very carefully as the civil war in Syria rages on. The weekend strikes are seen as a step-up in Israel's long-stated determination to stop weapons that threaten Israel from getting into the hands of Hezbollah.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene. A story we have been closely following for months, the bloody war in Syria has taken a fresh turn. Syria is blaming Israel for a series of air attacks that rocked the Syrian capital, Damascus, over the weekend.

Israel has not officially taken responsibility for these attacks, but the explosions - one Friday night and several early yesterday - appear to be part of Israel's effort to stop weapons from getting into the hands of its enemies. From Jerusalem, here's NPR's Emily Harris.

EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: Israel has been watching its northern borders with Syria and Lebanon very carefully as the civil war in Syria rages on. Israel says it doesn't take sides but is concerned that chaos in Syria could lead to chemical or other weapons falling into the hands of Israel's enemies, including the militant Shiite group, Hezbollah, based in southern Lebanon.

Israeli analyst, Jonathan Spyer, says the attacks on targets in Damascus over the weekend do not mean Israel is getting involved in the Syrian conflict.

JONATHAN SPYER, ISRAELI ANALYST: This does not represent an Israeli intervention into the Syria Civil War or a general declaration of war against Syria. It represents a known agenda that Israel has regarding the transfer the weapon systems outside of Syria to Lebanon.

HARRIS: The target of the weekend attacks appear to be long-range missiles that could reach anywhere in Israel from southern Lebanon. Israel carried out a similar one off strike several months ago, and Israeli officials have repeatedly said they will do whatever necessary to keep certain weapons out of Hezbollah's hands. Spyer says these attacks always carry a risk of retaliation, but he assumes Israel thought this was a good time to strike.

ANALYST: I presume that Israeli planners would've made the following calculation. Hezbollah and Iran are currently deeply engaged in a war for the survival of a vital ally from the camp. That is the effort that deployed a ship in Syria, and therefore, at such a time, it is perhaps less likely that they will have the inclination to open up a second front against an enemy far more powerful and able than the Syrian Sunni rebels who they're currently fighting against.

HARRIS: In Damascus, Syria sharply criticized the attacks, calling them a violation of international law.

OMRAN AL-ZOUBI: (Foreign language spoken)

HARRIS: Syrian Information Minister, Omran Al_Zoubi, held a news conference to say this aggression opens the door to all possibilities, and he suggested that this shows a link between Israel and rebel groups fighting Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. Officially, Israel is not likely to confirm any involvement in the attacks, although an unnamed Israeli defense official has said the targets were Iranian-made missiles.

International relations professor Eytan Gilboa says it's a smart policy for Israel to not publicly acknowledge involvement.

EYTAN GILBOA: Because if you do, it may force the other side to retaliate, and then you have retaliation for the retaliation, and this could flare up into regional warfare. The most convenient escape from that trap is simply to keep silent.

HARRIS: Israel deployed two batteries of its anti-missile Iron Dome system in the north yesterday, and there are reports of more people here getting gas masks. Still, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stuck with his plans to visit China and left Israel Sunday. If there were retaliation, analysts say it could be indirect, such as last year's bombing of a bus carrying Israeli tourists in Bulgaria.

The Bulgarian government blamed that attack on Hezbollah. Professor Gilboa says that with Syria's future uncertain, Hezbollah wants to be prepared.

GILBOA: There are about 10,000 Hezbollah fighters in Syria helping Bashar al-Assad to fight the rebels. Hezbollah wants compensation and wants sophisticated weapons to be transferred to Lebanon itself, so it might be able to use them some time in the future against Israel.

HARRIS: He says the attacks this weekend are part of a long-term accumulation of accounts to be settled at an unknown time. One commentator in an Israeli paper questioned whether Israel may have gone too far already, writing that the country is walking on a tightrope that could break. Emily Harris, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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