With a second airstrike against Syria in four months, Israel enforced its red line of not allowing game-changing weapons from Iran to reach Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Israeli officials said Saturday.
The New York Times explains:
Iran and Hezbollah have both backed President Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian civil war, now in its third year. But as fighting in Syria escalates, they also have a powerful stake in expediting the delivery of advanced weapons to Hezbollah in case Mr. Assad loses his grip on power.
Israel, for its part, has repeatedly cautioned that it will not allow Hezbollah to receive “game changing” weapons that could threaten the Israeli heartland after a post-Assad government took power.
And as Washington considers how to handle evidence of chemical weapons use by the Syrian government, a development it has described as a “red line,” Israel is clearly showing that it will stand behind the red lines it sets.
“The Israelis are saying, ‘O.K., whichever way the civil war is going, we are going to keep our red lines, which are different from Obama’s,’ ” said Ehud Yaari, an Israel-based fellow of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
But the strike, which one official said targeted a shipment of advanced surface-to-surface missiles, also raises new concerns that the region’s most powerful military could be dragged into Syria’s civil war and spark a wider conflagration.
Israel has said it wants to stay out of the conflict, but could inadvertently be drawn in as it tries to bolster its deterrence and prevent sophisticated weapons from flowing from Syria to Hezbollah or other extremist groups.
Israel believes that Hezbollah has restocked its arsenal with tens of thousands of rockets and missiles since the two fought a month-long war in 2006, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly stated the Jewish state would be prepared to take military action to prevent the Islamic militant group from obtaining new weapons that could upset the balance of power.
It is especially concerned that Hezbollah will take advantage of the chaos in neighboring Syria and try to smuggle advanced weapons into Lebanon. These include anti-aircraft missiles and advanced Yakhont missiles that are used to attack naval ships from the coast.
While Israeli officials on Saturday portrayed the latest airstrike as the continuation of Israel’s deterrence policy, more Israeli attacks could quickly lead to an escalation, leaving open the possibility of retaliation by Hezbollah or even the Assad regime and Syria ally Iran.
In January, Israeli aircraft struck a shipment of what was believed to be Russian-made SA-17 anti-aircraft missiles bound for Hezbollah, according to U.S. officials. Israeli officials have strongly hinted they carried out the airstrike, though there hasn’t been formal confirmation.
In a warning to Israel earlier this week, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah said his militia “is ready and has its hand on the trigger” in the event of an Israeli attack on any targets in Lebanon.
Details about Friday’s strike are still scarce. U.S. officials said the airstrike hit a warehouse, but gave no other details.
Israeli officials did not say where in Syria the Israeli aircraft struck or whether they fired from Lebanese, Syrian or Israeli airspace.
Obama said Saturday it was up to Israel to confirm or deny any strikes, but that the U.S. coordinates very closely with Israel.
“The Israelis, justifiably, have to guard against the transfer of advanced weaponry to terrorist organizations like Hezbollah,” Obama told the Spanish-language TV station Telemundo.
With Israel enforcing its red lines, much now depends on the response from Hezbollah and Syria, analysts said.
And Hezbollah is far from Israel’s only concern. Israeli officials believe it is only a matter of time before Assad’s government collapses, and they fear that some of the Islamic extremist groups battling him will turn their attention toward Israel once Assad is gone.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.