BEIRUT—Huge explosions were reported in Damascus early Sunday, just two days after a reported Israeli airstrike in Syria targeting surface-to-air missiles possibly destined for neighboring Lebanon and the militant group Hezbollah.
Syrian state media also blamed Israel for Sunday’s predawn onslaught, saying that Israeli jet fighters had launched rockets on the capital.
The site targeted was a military research facility in Jamraya, just outside Damascus, state media reported. That was the same complex targeted Jan. 30, when Israel launched its first known airstrike into Syria since the onset of that nation’s civil war.
Unverified video released early Sunday showed balls of fire soaring into the night sky. Witness accounts from Damascus indicated there was a thunderous explosion about 2 a.m., heard throughout the city, that was followed by smaller explosions.
There were no immediate reports of casualties from the reported blasts, and no immediate comment from Israel or the United States.
Opposition social media networks reported that several sites were targeted in the Damascus area, including the Jamraya research complex, several bases of the elite Republican Guard and rocket emplacements on heavily fortified Mount Qasioun. The mountain overlooks the capital and is studded with artillery and rocket batteries that regularly fire on rebels.
The reported aerial attack Friday by Israel is believed to have targeted SA-17 antiaircraft missiles that may have been en route to the armories of Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement, Syria’s close ally, a senior U.S. official said. Syrian authorities may be moving the missiles to prevent them from falling into the hands of rebels or to safeguard them from possible airstrikes, the official said.
The Friday strike was launched from outside Syria airspace, said the official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about the matter. Some reports indicated that the Israeli warplanes may have fired from Lebanese airspace.
Lebanon and Syria share a long border and Damascus is only an hour’s drive from the border.
In Israel, government and military officials declined to comment publicly on reports of attacks on Syria.
Reuters news service, however, quoted an unnamed Israeli official as saying that the strike Friday was aimed at destroying a shipment of conventional ground-to-ground missiles bound for Lebanon.
If confirmed, the weekend air assaults would bring the number of attacks launched by Israel against targets in Syria this year to three.
In January, Israel bombed a target outside Damascus that Western sources identified was a truck convoy believed to be carrying antiaircraft weapons bound for Hezbollah. But Syria said the target was the Jamraya military research facility.
Hezbollah, which is based in Lebanon, is backing the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad in its fight against a 2-year-old rebellion.
The type of research done at the Jamraya complex is unclear. Syrian officials have described the facility as a scientific defense research center and have not linked it to the nation’s chemical weapons arsenal.
A senior Israeli military official said Saturday that his nation was closely monitoring unrest in the neighboring country but remained confident that militants in Lebanon had not gained possession of Syria’s chemical weapons.
Israeli Maj. Gen. Amos Gilad, director of the Defense Ministry’s policy and political affairs, also questioned media reports quoting an anonymous Israeli official as confirming the country’s involvement in an airstrike.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly warned that Israel would take military action to prevent Syria’s chemical weapons and other dangerous munitions from falling into the hands of Hezbollah or other militant groups.
During a speech Saturday, Gilad said Israel had not detected any loss of Syrian government control over chemical stockpiles and that he doubted whether Hezbollah was actively seeking such weapons.
“Everything there is under (government) control,” he said. “Hezbollah does not have chemical weapons. We have ways of knowing.
“The organization is keen to get its hands on the rockets but not on the chemical weapons, for fear that those who don’t know how to operate them could be killed too,” he said.
The reported attacks come as U.S. officials have been trying to figure out how to respond to the ongoing bloodshed in Syria. The U.S. has refused to rule out the possibility of targeted military strikes, though President Obama said Friday that he did not foresee sending U.S. ground forces into the country.
A senior U.S. Defense Department official Saturday played down the prospect of American military action soon against Syria, noting that the White House had not formally asked the Pentagon for options for an attack.
The White House “is aware, of course, of the range of U.S. military options, but none have been specifically requested to my knowledge,” the official said.
A series of Israeli airstrikes, if confirmed, would appear to reflect an Israeli assessment that it can avoid becoming entangled in Syria’s civil war while preventing Hezbollah from benefiting from the chaos.
In recent weeks, the Netanyahu government has raised the level of rhetoric against Assad, accusing him of using chemical weapons against rebels and warning him against arming Hezbollah.
Israel recently conducted a massive military drill along the Syrian border. Lebanese officials have complained that Israeli jets have repeatedly violated their airspace by conducting surveillance and other operations.
“With these ... strikes, Israel has set a red line and is showing that it intends to enforce it,” said Jonathan Spyer, senior research fellow at the Center for Global Research in International Affairs in Herzliya, Israel.
Although Israel risks getting dragged into the conflict, Spyer said, it was likely that Hezbollah and the weakened Assad government would be hesitant to strike back militarily against Israel, particularly when the Syrian regime is fighting for its survival.
“I suspect Israel knows they will think twice about retaliating,” Spyer said. “The regime in Syria hasn’t taken open action against Israel since the mid-1970s, and they are not going to start now.”
The reported Israeli air assaults come days after Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah warned in a televised address that “friends” of Damascus would not let Syria “fall into the hands” of the United States or Israel. The comment seemed to be a threat that Hezbollah and its patron, Iran, were prepared
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In recent years the Lebanese group is widely believed to have bolstered its arsenal of Iranian-made rockets, including long-range models capable of striking deep inside Israel. Syria has long been a transshipment point for Iranian weapons destined for Hezbollah, according to Western and Israeli officials.
Also on Saturday, thousands of Sunni Muslims fled a Syrian coastal town a day after reports circulated that dozens of people, including children, had been killed by pro-government gunmen in the area, activists said.
The violence in Syria’s coastal region underscores the growing sectarian nature of the conflict that has killed tens of thousands.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a pro-opposition group, said about 4,000 people were fleeing from the predominantly Sunni southern parts of the Mediterranean city of Baniyas amid fear that pro-government gunmen would “commit a massacre.”
The reported exodus from Baniyas came after activists said Friday that government troops and gunmen from nearby Alawite areas beat, stabbed and shot at least 50 people in the Sunni Muslim village of Baida, near Baniyas.
(McDonnell and Sanders write for the Los Angeles Times Cloud for the Tribune Washington Bureau Brian Bennett of the Tribune Washington Bureau in Washington and special correspondent Lava Selo in Beirut contributed to this report.)
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