Here’s the Latest on Israel’s Reported Airstrike in Syria and What the U.S. Knew Beforehand

Russian-made SA-17 antiaircraft missiles (Photo from Wikipedia)

The New York Times and CNN are reporting that Israeli officials briefed the Obama administration before carrying out an airstrike Wednesday deep inside Syrian territory.

CNN’s Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr tweeted: “US official: Israel had warned the US and Russia it would strike weapons from Syria coming to Lebanon. US not surprised by Israeli attack.”

The New York Times on Thursday morning also spoke to U.S. officials who confirmed they had been notified by the Israelis about the intended attack.

Quoting Middle East and U.S. officials, media reports say the target was a convoy just outside Damascus carrying sophisticated antiaircraft weapons making its way to Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon.

But the Syrian Army in a statement Wednesday claimed Israel bombed a “scientific research center” in Jamraya, just northwest of Damascus.

The Wall Street Journal quotes a U.S. official who said the account of two separate targets hit, a weapons convoy and a military research center, weren’t mutually exclusive.

This would mark the first major Israeli military involvement in Syria since the bloody civil war began almost two years ago.

The Wall Street Journal and New York Times report the convoy included Russian-made SA-17 missiles bound for Iranian-backed Hezbollah, the Shiite terrorist group based in next-door Lebanon and a close ally of embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The New York Times explains why that weapon poses such a threat to Israel:

Hezbollah’s possession of such weapons would be a serious worry for the Israeli government, said Matthew Levitt, a former intelligence official who is at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“Israel is able to fly reconnaissance flights over Lebanon with impunity right now,” Mr. Levitt said. “This could cut into its ability to conduct aerial intelligence. The passing along of weapons to Hezbollah by the regime is a real concern.”

Israel Army Radio interviewed officials Thursday morning who warned of the dangers should the present balance of power be altered. Were Hezbollah to obtain the ability to knock Israeli fighter jets out of the sky, that would be considered a game-changing battlefield shift.

Jonathan Spyer, a senior research fellow at the Center for Global Research in International Affairs in Israel told the Los Angeles Times: “The initial speculation was about chemical weapons, but Israel is deeply concerned about Hezbollah acquiring this kind of advanced antiaircraft missile.”

“It would transform Hezbollah’s game and potentially end Israel’s air superiority over Lebanon. This is entirely about Hezbollah, not about Syria,” Spyer added.

In December, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly held a secret meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah to discuss possibilities of how to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile. Both Israel and Jordan are concerned about the threats to their populations should non-conventional weapons fall in terrorist hands. Israeli media later confirmed the report which appeared originally in the Arabic paper Al Quds Al Arabi.

The Israeli government continues to maintain its silence about Wednesday’s airstrike, neither confirming nor denying it was involved, while U.S. officials will not comment on the record, referring questions to Israeli officials.

Earlier this week, Israeli media reported that there had been intense consultations regarding Syria, even while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was engaged in equally intense efforts to build his new government after last week’s elections.

Syria, Russia, and Hezbollah are condemning the attack.  Calling the attack as one of “arrogance and aggression,” and “a flagrant breach of Syrian sovereignty and airspace,” the Syrian government denies the target was a convoy for Hezbollah’s benefit.

Russia – a close ally of embattled President Bashar Assad – issued a statement Thursday which read: “If this information is confirmed, this is an unprovoked attack on the territory of a sovereign nation, which blatantly violates the U.N. charter and is unacceptable and unjustified whatever its motives.” Russia adamantly opposes Western intervention in Syria.

Hezbollah issued a statement condemning the “Israeli attacks on the scientific research center in Syria,” adding “the attack is in line with Israel’s aggressive and criminal ways and was made in accordance to a policy which attempts to prevent any Arab or Muslim force to develop its military and technological capabilities.”

“An attack of any kind is a major escalation,” Timor Goksel, an American University in Beirut expert on Hezbollah told the Wall Street Journal. “Why would Israel do this out of the blue?” he asked.

On Sunday, Israel moved Iron Dome batteries to the north including to Israel’s third largest city Haifa, presumably to prepare for any potential Syrian or Hezbollah retaliation to its airstrike.

Israeli media report that thousands are arriving at gas-mask distribution centers to collect government-issued gas masks, nearly triple the amount reported last month.

Beyond that, Israelis continued their daily lives with no sense of panic being reported. Schools were open on Thursday, and Israelis went to work as usual.

Though Israel has mostly stood by silently while its northern neighbor has been engaged in conflict, in November Israeli forces fired at a Syrian army position after errant mortar shells from Syria landed on the Israeli side of the Golan Heights.

Even while it stands on the sidelines of its neighbor’s internal conflict, the threats to Israel are significant. This was driven home by an unconfirmed report in the Saudi paper Al-Watan on Thursday which quoted Syrian opposition sources who said that in early 2012, Syria had transferred about two tons of mustard gas to Hezbollah.

The paper also reported that Syria had transferred long-range missiles with a range of about 200 miles capable of carrying chemical warheads.