Syria’s army command said the attack occurred at 2:42 a.m. near the western town of Masyaf, which military analysts say hosts a branch of the government agency responsible for developing and producing non-conventional weapons and precision missiles. Syria said two soldiers were killed when missiles were fired from Lebanese airspace. It warned of “serious repercussions of such acts of aggression on the security and stability of the region.”
Israel has previously struck weapons convoys it has suspected of carrying arms to Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shiite militia that is fighting in Syria in support of the government of President Bashar al-Assad. Israel has said repeatedly that it sees the transfer to Hezbollah of advanced weaponry such as guided rockets as a red line.
But tensions along Israel’s northern borders with Lebanon and Syria have significantly sharpened in recent weeks, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has accused Iran, Hezbollah’s main backer, of building facilities in Syria and Lebanon to produce precision-guided missiles. He has said that is something Israel cannot accept.
Israel has watched nervously in recent years as the tide of the Syrian civil war has shifted in favor of Assad, and as Iran and Hezbollah have become increasingly entrenched over the border.
In a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin last month, Netanyahu said Israel was prepared to act unilaterally to curb Iranian expansion in Syria. Israel has vehemently opposed a cease-fire in parts of Syria, brokered by the United States and Russia, on grounds that it does not do enough to keep Iran and its proxies away from Israel’s borders.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group, said that a military storage camp next to the research center near Masyaf was used to store ground-to-ground rockets and that personnel from Iran and Hezbollah had been seen there more than once.
Maj. Gen. Yaakov Amidror, a former national security adviser to Netanyahu, said rockets from the production facility had been transferred to Hezbollah in the past.
“It’s another level of interference,” he said on a conference call, pointing out that it was the first time that Israel had targeted a research and development facility. Israel has carried out nearly 100 strikes in Syria since the beginning of the civil war there, the Israeli air force chief told local media last month.
An Israel Defense Forces spokesman declined to comment on the latest strike.
A U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the situation freely, confirmed that the Israelis carried out the strike. The United States had no involvement in it and was assessing the situation, the official said.
Israel estimates that Hezbollah has a stockpile of more than 150,000 rockets, but it is concerned that Iran will help boost the group’s capacity to build more accurate precision missiles.
In 2006, Israel fought a bloody month-long war with Hezbollah, whose founding mission is to fight Israel. During that conflict, Hezbollah fired more than 4,000 rockets into Israel, and Israeli jets devastated areas of southern Lebanon.
The Thursday attack may be a signal to Russia and the United States that Israel wants its security interests taken into account, Amos Harel, an Israeli defense analyst, wrote in the newspaper Haaretz. Amid deep disgruntlement over the Syrian cease-fire, Israel is saying that “we’re capable of disrupting the process of a future settlement in Syria if you insist on leaving us out of the picture,” he wrote.
As tensions on its northern border rise, Israel is carrying out its biggest military exercises in nearly two decades, involving about 30,000 troops who are simulating a ground invasion against Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Amidror said that the strike at the Syrian research center could lead to an escalation and that Israel’s armed forces should be “prepared.” Analysts say that although neither Hezbollah nor Israel is likely to want to wage an all-out war, a conflagration could develop as Israel attempts to limit Iran and Hezbollah’s expansion.
“Now it’s important to keep the escalation in check and to prepare for a Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah response and even opposition from Russia,” Amos Yadlin, executive director of Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies and a former Israeli military intelligence chief, wrote on Twitter. He described the facility as a “military-scientific center” that develops precision missiles, “among other things.”
In April, the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned 271 employees of the Syrian government agency responsible for chemical weapons production, weeks after a nerve agent was used to kill 83 people and wound dozens in the opposition-held town of Khan Sheikhoun.
On Wednesday, United Nations investigators formally accused the Syrian government of involvement in that attack and 20 others, most of them targeting civilians.