WASHINGTON – Israel launched an airstrike into Syria, apparently targeting a suspected weapons site, U.S. officials said Friday night.
The strike occurred overnight Thursday into Friday, the officials told the Associated Press. It did not appear that a chemical weapons site was targeted, they said, and one official said the strike appeared to have hit a warehouse.
The Israeli military aircraft, as in previous strikes against Syria, re portedly fired the missiles from outside Syrian airspace against targets on Syrian soil.
Israeli Embassy spokesman Aaron Sagui would not comment Friday night specifically on the report of an Israeli strike into Syria. “What we can say is that Israel is determined to prevent the transfer of chemical weapons or other game-changing weaponry by the Syrian eSSyrian regime to terrorists, specially to Hezbollah in Lebanon,” he said. In the past, Israel has targeted weapons that it believes are being delivered to the Lebanon-based militant group Hezbollah. Earlier this week, Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah said his group would assist Syrian President Bashar Assad if needed in Assad’s effort to put down a 2-year-old uprising.
In 2007, Israeli jets bombed a suspected nuclear reactor site along the Euphrates River in northeastern Syria, an attack that embarrassed and jolted the Assad regime and led to a buildup of the Syrian air defense system, with the help of Russia. Word of the new strike, first reported by CNN, came hours before President Obama told reporters at a news conference in Costa Rica that he didn’t foresee a scenario in which the U.S. would send troops into Syria.
The Israeli strike also follows days of renewed concerns that Syria might be using chemical weapons against opposition forces. Obama has characterized evidence of the use of chemical weapons as a “game-changer” that would have “enormous consequences.”
While the U.S. has been providing nonlethal aid to opposition forces in Syria, stepping up that form of support in recent days, the Obama administration has resisted calls from some American lawmakers to arm the rebels or to work to establish a no-fly zone to aid the insurgency.
But Thursday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the administration is rethinking its opposition to providing arms to the rebels. He said it was one of several options as the U.S. consults with allies about steps to be taken to drive Assad from power. Officials in the administration who spoke on condition of anonymity said earlier this week that arming the opposition forces was seen as more likely than any other military option.
Obama followed Hagel’s comments by saying options will continue to be evaluated, though he did not cite providing arms specifically. Concerns that U.S. weapons could end up in the hands of al-Qaida-linked groups helping the Syrian opposition or other extremists, including Hezbollah, have stood in the way of that change in strategy.
“We want to make sure that we look before we leap and that what we’re doing is actually helpful to the situation as opposed to making it more deadly or more complex,” Obama said Thursday at a news conference in Mexico.
Meanwhile, in the Syrian civil war’s latest alleged mass killing, activists said Friday that regime troops and gunmen from nearby Shiite Alawite areas beat, stabbed and shot at least 50 people in the Sunni village of Bayda.
The slayings highlighted the sectarian overtones of a conflict that has killed more than 70,000 people in two years. Details of the killings came to light as the Obama administration said it was again weighing whether to arm the rebels.
Syria’s civil war has largely broken along sectarian lines: The Sunni majority forms the backbone of the rebellion, while President Bashar Assad’s minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, anchors the regime’s security services and military officer corps. Other minorities, such as Christians, largely support Assad or stand on the sidelines, worried that the regime’s fall would bring about a more Islamist rule.
Tucked in the mountains outside the Mediterranean coastal city of Banias, the village of Bayda is predominantly Sunni but is located in the Alawite ancestral heartland centered in the rugged region along the sea.
Activists say that fighting broke out in Bayda early Thursday and that at least six government troops were killed. Syrian forces backed by Alawite gunmen known as shabiha from the surrounding area returned in the afternoon and stormed the village, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
It added that it has documented the names of at least 50 dead in Bayda but that dozens of villagers are still missing and that the death toll could rise to as high as 100.
Syria’s state news agency said late Thursday that the army conducted a raid in Bayda, killing several “terrorists” – the term it uses for those trying to oust Assad – and seizing machine guns, automatic rifles and other weapons.