Israeli Strike Into Syria Said to Damage Research Site
WASHINGTON — The Israeli attack last week on a Syrian convoy of antiaircraft weapons appears to have damaged the country’s main research center for work on biological and chemical weapons, according to American officials who are sorting through intelligence reports.
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While the main target of the attack on Wednesday seems to have been SA-17 missiles and their launchers — which the Israelis feared were about to be moved to Hezbollah forces in Lebanon — video shown on Syrian television backs up assertions that the research center north of Damascus also suffered moderate damage.
That complex, the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center, has been the target of American and Western sanctions for more than a decade because of intelligence suggesting that it was the training site for engineers who worked on chemical and biological weaponry.
A senior United States military official, asked about reports that the research center had been targeted, said that any damage was likely “due to the bombs which targeted the vehicles” carrying the antiaircraft weapons, and from “the secondary explosions from the missiles.”
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity in order to discuss intelligence reports, said that “the Israelis had a small strike package,” meaning that a relatively few fighter aircraft slipped past Syria’s air defenses and that targeting both the missiles and the research center “would risk doing just a little damage to either.”
“They clearly went after the air defense weapons on the transport trucks,” the official said.
There is still much that is not known about the attack, and there have been contradictory descriptions of it since it was carried out. Initial reports suggested that the antiaircraft missiles were hit near the Lebanese border. Subsequent reports, both in Time magazine and the Israeli press, suggest there were multiple attacks conducted at roughly the same time.
The Israelis had been silent on the issue until Sunday, when Ehud Barak, the departing Israeli defense minister, gave the first indirect confirmation of the attack at a security conference in Munich. While Mr. Barak said he could not “add anything to what you have read in the newspapers about what happened in Syria,” a moment later he referred to the events as “another proof that when we say something we mean it.”
“We say that we don’t think it should be allowed to bring advanced weapon systems into Lebanon, to Hezbollah, from Syria when Assad falls,” Mr. Barak told fellow defense ministers and other officials, referring to President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.
Mr. Assad also made his first public comment on the airstrike, saying on Sunday that Syria would confront any aggression against his country, according to The Associated Press.
The ease with which Israeli planes reached the Syrian capital appeared to send a message both to Mr. Assad and, indirectly, to Iran.
Israel has said that if it saw chemical weapons on the move, it would act to stop them. By hitting the research center, part of a military complex that is supposed to be protected by Russian-made antiaircraft defenses, Israel made it clear it was willing to risk direct intervention to keep weapons and missiles out of Hezbollah’s hands.
Israel has done so before, in September 2007, when it destroyed a Syrian nuclear reactor that was under construction with North Korean help. The facility hit last week was also believed to be a center for study on nuclear issues, officials say.
But there are reasons to doubt whether the antiaircraft equipment was truly heading to Hezbollah. Outside experts like Ruslan R. Aliyev, an analyst with the Center for the Analysis of Strategy and Technologies, a defense research group in Moscow, said the SA-17’s were too sophisticated for Hezbollah to use and would be easily detected. He also said such a transfer would alienate Russia and make it impossible for Moscow to sustain its support for Mr. Assad’s government.
The strike last week also appeared to be a signal to the Iranians that Israel would be willing to conduct a similar attack on aboveground nuclear facilities if it seemed that Iran was near achieving nuclear weapons capability. But Iran would be a far harder target — much farther away from Israel, much better defended, and with facilities much more difficult to damage.
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David E. Sanger and Eric Schmitt reported from Washington, and Jodi Rudoren from Jerusalem. Steven Erlanger contributed reporting from Munich.