Israel raid stirs threat of Syrian revenge

Feb. 1, 2013 at 3:16 PM
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TEL AVIV, Israel, Feb. 1 (UPI) -- Syria has threatened to retaliate against Israel for an airstrike that Damascus says destroyed a chemical weapons research center.

However, since President Bashar Assad's regime is fighting for survival, it's unlikely a new Middle East war's about to erupt.

Even so, as Israeli commentator Boaz Bismuth observed in the Yisrael Hayom daily Friday, after nearly two years of civil war Assad "does not have much to lose. A wounded lion is a dangerous lion."

Assad's forces are fighting an increasingly effective rebel force and taking on such a powerful foe as Israel would be suicidal. But it's a rough neighborhood and never wise to discount any threat, however unlikely, as the Israelis know only too well.

Meantime, the actual target of the airstrike Wednesday near Syria's border with Lebanon remains unclear.

U.S. and Arab sources say it was a truck convoy taking Russian-built SA-17 anti-aircraft missiles or other advanced weapons to Hezbollah, a key ally of Syria and Iran, into nearby Lebanon. Syrian authorities say the Israelis blasted a "scientific research center" near Damascus.

Details are sketchy but Western and Arab security sources identified it as the Scientific Studies and Research Center, known by the French acronym CERS, at Jarmaya, 15 miles northwest of Damascus. The sources said the complex is known to have conducted research in chemical and biological weapons.

Syrian transfers of conventional weapons to Hezbollah have either been carried out there, or at a nearby location, for transportation to Hezbollah's heartland in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley.

It's still not possible to determine which claim is true.

The Jerusalem Post reported that CERS has tagged a major security threat and potential Israeli target for several years.

In 2004, Israel's Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center warned that CERS was developing deadly ricin-based weapons. The following year, U.S. President George Bush designated the Syrian center a weapons proliferator.

In 2010, Israelis reserve Brig. Gen. Nitzan Nuriel, a former director of the National Security Council's Counter-terrorism Bureau, warned that CERS would be demolished if it continued to arm terrorist organizations.

It could take some before the truth of what happened Wednesday emerges.

When Israeli F-15s destroyed a North Korean-built nuclear reactor in Syria Sept. 6, 2007, it took months before a clear picture emerged of what had taken place.

Israel, which rarely publicly acknowledges such operations, still doesn't discuss the 2007 airstrike. In that night-time raid, an electronic warfare aircraft blinded Syrian air defenses so that the F-16s, looping out over the Mediterranean, weren't detected until they bombed the unfinished reactor near the Iraqi border.

The Israelis view weapons like the SA-17, which operate as road-mobile batteries, or new Russian anti-tanks missiles, as highly dangerous, because in Hezbollah's hands they pose a critical challenge to the Jewish state's air and armor supremacy.

"These are no less troubling than chemical weapons," said Giora Eiland, a former Israeli national security adviser.

"They're more widespread and not as tightly controlled by the regime, so they can fall into the hands of Hezbollah."

Hezbollah's providing hundreds of seasoned fighters to help the Syrian regime fight the rebels.

But the movement faces an uncertain future if Assad, its key ally and patron, is toppled, not only in its conflict with Israel but also in Lebanon itself where its power comes from its guns.

The Shiite organization would be targeted by Sunni rivals in Syria who would dominate any successor regime in Damascus and it would also be cut off from its supply route from Iran.

So, the Israelis surmise, Hezbollah may well be accelerating its acquisition of advanced weapons from Syria while it can.

These could be used against Israel if Iran, Hezbollah's creator and ideological mentor, is attacked. If that is the case, the target Wednesday wasn't the Syrians, but Hezbollah. So there could be further airstrikes.

The worse Assad's position grows, the more attempts Hezbollah will make to grab whatever weapons it can get its hands on," observed Israeli analyst Amos Harel in the Haaretz daily.

And here there be dragons. Ali Akbar Velayati, a former Iranian foreign minister and now a key adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, warned Saturday that "an attack on Syria is considered an attack on Iran and Iran's allies."

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