BEIRUT – Israeli warplanes struck areas in and around the Syrian capital Sunday, setting off a series of explosions as they targeted a shipment of highly accurate, Iranian-made guided missiles believed to be on their way to Lebanon's Hezbollah militant group, officials and activists said.
The attack, the second in three days, signaled a sharp escalation of Israel's involvement in Syria's bloody civil war. Syria's state media reported that Israeli missiles struck a military and scientific research center near the Syrian capital and caused casualties.
An intelligence official in the Middle East, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to disclose information about a secret military operation to the media, confirmed that Israel launched an airstrike in Damascus early Sunday but did not give more precise details about the location. The target was Fateh-110 missiles, which have very precise guidance systems with better aim than anything Hezbollah has in its arsenal, the official told The Associated Press.
The airstrikes come as Washington considers how to respond to indications that the Syrian regime may have used chemical weapons in its civil war. President Obama has described the use of such weapons as a "red line," and the administration is weighing its options – including possible military action.
Israel has said it wants to stay out of the brutal Syria war, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly stated the Jewish state would be prepared to take military action to prevent sophisticated weapons from flowing from Syria to Hezbollah or other extremist groups.
Israel and Hezbollah fought a monthlong war in mid-2006 that ended in a stalemate.
Syria's state news agency SANA reported that explosions went off at the Jamraya military and scientific research center near Damascus and said "initial reports point to these explosions being a result of Israeli missiles." SANA said there were casualties but did not give a number.
Israel has said it will not allow sophisticated weapons to flow from Syria to the Lebanese Hezbollah militia, an ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad and a heavily armed foe of the Jewish state.
An airstrike in January also targeted weapons apparently bound for Hezbollah, Israeli and U.S. officials have said. The White House had no immediate comment on Sunday's reported missile strikes.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group, also reported large explosions in the area of Jamraya, a military and scientific research facility northwest of Damascus, about 10 miles from the Lebanese border.
Hezbollah's al-Manar TV said the research center in Jamraya was not hit. It added that an army supply center was targeted by the strike.
Al-Manar quoted unnamed Syrian security officials as saying that three sites including military barracks, arms depots and air defense center were targeted by the strike.
Lebanon's Al-Mayadeen TV, that has several reporters around Syria, said one of the strikes targeted a military position in the village of Saboura, west of Damascus and about 6 miles from the Lebanon border.
An amateur video said to be shot early Sunday in the Damascus area showed fire lighting up the night sky. The video appeared genuine and corresponded to other AP reporting.
Uzi Rubin, a missile expert and former Defense Ministry official, told the AP that if the target were Fateh-110 missiles as reported then it is a game changer as they put almost all Israel in range and can accurately hit targets.
Rubin emphasized that he was speaking as a rocket expert and had no details on reported strikes.
"If fired from southern Lebanon they can reach Tel Aviv and even (the southern city of) Beersheba." He said the rockets are much five times more accurate than the scud missiles that Hezbollah has fired in the past. "It is a game changer because they are a threat to Israel's infrastructure and military installations," he said.
Israel's first airstrike in Syria, in January, also struck Jamraya.
At the time, a U.S. official said Israel targeted trucks next to the research center that carried SA-17 anti-aircraft missiles. The strikes hit both the trucks and the research facility, the official said. The Syrian military didn't confirm a hit on a weapons shipment at the time, saying only that Israeli warplanes bombed the research center.
Israeli lawmaker Shaul Mofaz, a former defense minister and a former chief of staff, declined to confirm the airstrike but said Israel is concerned about weapons falling into the hands of the Islamic militant group amid the chaos of Syria's civil war.
"We must remember that the Syrian system is falling apart and Iran and Hezbollah are involved up to their necks in Syria helping Bashar Assad," he told Israel Radio. "There are dangers of weapons trickling to the Hezbollah and chemical weapons trickling to irresponsible groups like al-Qaida."