Syrian state television reported Israel struck an area near Damascus early Sunday morning, the second such strike reported in as many days.
The report claimed Israeli rockets hit a military research site on the outskirts of the capital at about 2 a.m., and smoke could be seen rising from the area. An intelligence official in the Middle East said the target was a shipment of Iranian made Fatah-110 missiles that were on their way from Syria to Hezbollah terrorists.
Syrian state-run news agency SANA said explosions went off at the Jamraya research center near Damascus, causing casualties and blackouts. “Initial reports point to these explosions being a result of Israeli missiles that targeted the research center in Jamraya,” SANA said.
The Jamraya site was the same one reportedly hit by Israeli planes in January.
A Syrian activist group, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, also reported large explosions in the area of Jamraya.
Other activists reported that the blast hit an ammunition depot in Qassiyoun mountains near the city. According to a Syrian official who spoke to Al Arabiya, the Syrian regime uses its bases on the mountain to fire missiles at rebel targets in Damascus.
“The mountain is a very strategic site that oversees all of Damascus,” said the source. “There is a heavy presence of the Assad forces in the mountain because they are always on-call to launch any possible attack towards the people of the city.”
Reuters quoted activists who said they saw jets in the sky over Damascus and that a missile brigade and troop battalions loyal to Assad had been hit.
Loud explosions shook the city and video put online claiming to be from the incident shows a series of large fireballs rising into the sky.
“Everything was quiet and suddenly we saw this bright orange light in the sky followed by a very loud explosion,” Tarek Hillnawi told the Al-Arabiya satellite television station. “I felt that it was over for us, that all of Damascus is set on fire.”
A spokesperson for the Free Syrian Army, speaking from Istanbul, told Al-Arabiya that 6 sites around Damascus had been hit.
Hezbollah’s al-Manar TV claimed an Israeli plane had been shot down over Damascus. [I don’t believe that for one minute. It’s typical empty bragging from terrorists. -Ed.]
The Israel Defense Forces declined to comment on the reports and no special activity was recorded on Israel’s northern borders.
Former IDF Chief of Staff Sahul Mofaz declined to comment on Sunday’s attack, but said he supported Israel’s policy of preventing weapons from reaching Hezbollah.
“One thing is clear, Syria is falling apart before our eyes. Iran and Hezbollah are deeply involved in the Syrian civil war and the transfer of weapons may be the regime’s way of thanking Hezbollah for siding with it in its fight against rebel groups,” Mofaz told Israel Radio.
“This is a very sophisticated network of Iranian arms, Syrian collection, storage, distribution and transportation to Hezbollah,” said Salman Shaikh, director of The Brookings Doha Center and in 2007 involved in U.N. weapons monitoring in Lebanon.
Shaikh said Israel had detailed knowledge of weapons shipments to Hezbollah at the time and most likely has good intelligence now. “The Israelis are watching like hawks to see what happens to these weapons,” he said.
What are the possible implications for Israel after these bombings?
With Israel apparently enforcing its red lines, much now depends on the response from Hezbollah and Syria, analysts said.
Israeli officials have long feared that Assad may try to draw Israel into the civil war in hopes of diverting attention and perhaps rallying Arab support behind him.
But retaliation for Israeli airstrikes would come at a high price, said Moshe Maoz, an Israeli expert on Syria.
“Bashar has his own problems and he knows that conflict with Israel would cause the collapse of his regime,” Maoz said. “He could have done that long ago, but he knows he will fall if Israel gets involved.”
Hezbollah, which is fighting alongside Assad’s troops, appears to have linked its fate to the survival of the Syrian regime. Nasrallah, the Hezbollah chief, said this week that Syria’s allies “will not allow Syria to fall into the hands of America or Israel.”
On the other hand, Hezbollah could endanger its position as Lebanon’s main political and military force if it confronts Israel, and it’s not clear if the militia is willing to take that risk.
Hezbollah isn’t Israel’s only concern. Israeli officials believe it is only a matter of time before Assad’s government collapse, and they fear that some of the Islamic extremist groups battling him will turn their attention toward Israel once Assad is gone.
Reflecting Israel’s anxiety, the Israeli military called up several thousand reservists earlier this week for what it called a “surprise” military exercise on its border with Lebanon.
I wouldn’t go so far as to call it “anxiety”. I prefer to call it watchfulness, alertness, or “being prepared”. Unlike our enemies, we can be confident that our government cares what happens to its civilians as well as to the regime itself.