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|Egypt condemns Israeli attack on Syria
(Reuters) - Egypt condemned an Israeli attack on Syria on Sunday, saying it complicated a crisis that Cairo was trying to help resolve.
Israel carried out its second air strike in days on Syria, targeting Iranian-supplied missiles headed for Lebanon's Hezbollah, a Western intelligence source said.
In a statement, Egypt's presidency said the attack was a violation of international law and a threat to regional security and stability that "made the situation more complicated".
Egypt's Islamist leaders came to power last year after a popular uprising in 2011 and have been critical of the Syrian government's efforts to put down an insurgency that erupted weeks after Egypt's street revolt.
Although Egypt stood opposed to the Damascus government's use of military force against its people, it also rejected "the attack on Syrian assets (and) the violation of Syria's sovereignty", the statement said.
Cairo tried last year to end the Syrian crisis through coordination with Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia, but it failed to gain traction from the start as the Saudis did not attend the negotiations.
Late last month, Egypt's president, Mohamed Mursi, sent two senior aides to Shi'ite Islamist Iran - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's main regional ally - for talks on a peaceful solution to the civil war. Mursi said in December that the Assad administration had no place in Syria's future.
Arab League Secretary General Nabil Elaraby called upon the United Nations Security Council to move immediately to halt "the Israeli attacks on Syria", Egyptian state news agency MENA reported on Sunday, citing an Arab League official.
(Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Tom Pfeiffer)
Israel's Syria hit sends warning to Iran, Hezbollah: Pundits
JERUSALEM: Israeli air strikes near Damascus send a clear message to Iran and Syria that it will not allow arms shipments to Hezbollah, pundits said, playing down fears it would spark a major response.
Although Israel maintained official silence on the strikes, one at dawn on Friday and the second about 48 hours later, a senior Israeli source said they had both targeted "Iranian missiles destined for Hezbollah".
If confirmed, it would be the third time this year Israel has bombed Syrian targets, drawing anger from Tehran and causing the Israeli air force to move to its highest level of alert in years, the source said.
Israel, he told AFP, would not hesitate to act again.
"Any time Israel learns about he transfer of weapons from Syria to Lebanon, it will attack."
Eyal Zisser, a Syria expert at Tel Aviv University, said the raids sent a clear message Israel would no longer allow the transfer of Iranian weapons to Hezbollah.
"If Israel did indeed act in Syria then the message to Bashar (al-Assad) is clear... We are not after you, we are after Hezbollah, after Iran," he said on army radio of the Syrian president who has been fighting a bloody two-year insurgency aimed at toppling his regime.
"Bashar understands this message."
The Jewish state has frequently warned it would not tolerate the transfer of chemical agents or advanced arms to Hezbollah, and although the weapons targeted would not have affected the strategic balance in the region, Israel was showing a tough new line, he said.
"Israel is actually changing the equation and saying: 'From now on, I won't allow what's being going on for 20 years -- the transfer of weapons (from Iran) to Hezbollah," Zisser said.
Israel was exploiting Assad's weakness to do what it was unable to in the past by "attacking Iranian weapons en route to Lebanon while they are still on Syrian territory," he said, describing it as an effective "blockade" on Hezbollah.
"That's the strategic meaning -- it's not about Syria, or Bashar, but about Hezbollah and Iran."
Tzahi HaNegbi, an MP from the ruling Likud party who is known as a close confidant of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said Israel been warning for years it would not tolerate advanced arms reaching Hezbollah.
"Israel warned, even before the start of the Syrian civil war, that it will act to prevent the supply of advanced weapons to Hezbollah," he told army radio.
"What we want is mainly to ensure that with all the chaos in Syria, we don't see Hezbollah getting stronger... which could result in us being dragged into a conflict with Hezbollah in which we absorb losses as we did in the past because we didn't act in time to damage its growing capabilities."
Israel fought a major 34-day war with Hezbollah in 2006 which killed 1,200 people in Lebanon, mainly civilians, and 160 Israelis, mostly soldiers.
Despite fears the raids could spark flare-up, Israel did not appear to be gearing up for a major confrontation, although it shifted two batteries of its vaunted Iron Dome anti-missile system to the north.
And Netanyahu made no immediate move to cancel his five-day trip to China, but his office confirmed his departure had been "delayed by two hours" without confirming reports it was for a security cabinet meeting.
Although commentators largely ruled out any armed Syrian response, they warned Israel could be playing with fire.
"If we continue with this policy, it require caution," said Zisser. "The question is what Iran and Hezbollah will do over time in light of the new reality Israel is creating."
"We are not on the eve of a war, for the moment," said Giora Eiland, a former Israeli general and head of national security, noting it was "not in the interest of Assad or Hezbollah".
"The risk of war is low but we never know if reality is changing before our eyes," he said. "It may be that we're treading a very fine line."
The fall of the Assad regime would benefit Israel because it would halt weapons transfers, he said.
"It is now in Israel's interest to speed up the downfall of Assad who is being blackmailed by Hezbollah and Iran who demand that he continue transferring weapons to Hezbollah in exchange for their support in the civil war," he said.
"If Assad falls tomorrow... with all the problems this would cause, at least it would mean there would be no more transfers of weapons to Hezbollah."
Airstrikes Tied to Israel May Be Message to Iranians
by Jodi Rudoren and Isabel Kershner
JERUSALEM — The twin airstrikes in Damascus on Friday and Sunday attributed to Israel appear to be more about Jerusalem’s broad, mostly covert battle with Iran and Hezbollah than about the bloody civil war raging in Syria.
Despite intensifying concern over the future of Syria, Israeli political and military leaders steadfastly maintain that they have no interest in entangling themselves in their neighbor’s conflict. But the airstrikes on military warehouses and other military installations underscore their determination to prevent advanced weapons from falling into the hands of Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia allied with Iran.
The increased frequency and intensity of the attacks also demonstrates Israel’s desire to take advantage of the chaotic situation, security experts say, as well as its calculation that Syria, Hezbollah and Iran are too preoccupied and weakened by the raging conflict in Syria to retaliate strongly against even a brazen escalation.
But several warned there was a risk of Israeli overreach, particularly given the fiery rhetoric with which Damascus, Tehran and Hezbollah responded, a stark contrast to the silence that greeted some earlier attacks.
“The real question is how much humble pie can Assad eat and still keep his svelte figure,” said Nathan Thrall, a Jerusalem-based analyst for the International Crisis Group, speaking of the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. “The risks of action in Israel’s perception are lower today than they have been in the past. Everybody’s now testing each other and gauging what each one can get away with.”
Analysts said they did not see the airstrikes as the opening of a new war front, or as an attempt to prop up the Syrian rebels against the Syrian government of Mr. Assad. Rather, they tended to see it more as an extension of the long-running “shadow war” against Iran and Hezbollah, a tit-for-tat of terror attacks and assassinations that has stretched over decades and around the world.
“This shouldn’t be seen as Israel intervening on behalf of the rebels or against Bashar,” said Jonathan Spyer, a senior research fellow at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzilya. “This is an escalation in a conflict we know about, and that is the conflict between Israel and Iran.”
Israeli officials contacted in the prime minister’s office, military command and defense and foreign ministries refused to discuss the strikes on Sunday, strictly following a protocol designed to give adversaries face-saving room to avoid a response. But wire services cited anonymous Israeli sources who confirmed Israel’s responsibility.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu left Sunday night for a six-day mission to China, which many interpreted as a sign that Israel did not plan to step up its campaign in coming days — or expect a serious attack.
But Mr. Netanyahu delayed his departure for two hours to meet with his security cabinet, as Israel deployed two Iron Dome missile-defense batteries around northern cities and restricted civilian flights in its northern airspace. Israeli news organizations also reported that the security-alert level was heightened at Israel’s diplomatic missions around the world and that requests for gas masks had quadrupled since the strikes.
“The state of Israel is protecting its interests and will continue doing so,” Danny Danon, the deputy defense minister, said on Army Radio on Sunday. “We will do everything, anywhere in order to protect those interests.”
In apparently targeting weapons warehouses and shipments bound for Lebanon, Israel did exactly what it has been promising since the war began. The back-to-back strikes made an emphatic statement that Israel’s red lines were real, even as the Obama administration debates how to respond to the use of chemical weapons that President Obama had described as a “game-changer” that could trigger American intervention.
Israel may be banking on the idea that Hezbollah is saving its Iranian-provided firepower to attack Israel in retaliation for any Israeli or United States attack on the Iranian nuclear program.
But the circumstances on the ground in Syria have shifted considerably since Israel’s January attack on a convoy of Russian SA-17 surface-to-air missiles, so these strikes may have wider implications for the civil war and beyond.
“This is the kind of thing you know how it begins but not how it ends,” said Eyal Zisser, an expert on Syria and Lebanon at Tel Aviv University. “Israel is still not involved in the war in Syria,” he added, “but it is getting closer.”
Israel and Syria have been in a mostly silent standoff for decades, technically at war but maintaining an uneasy peace along their 43-mile border. A far more significant foe is Hezbollah, Israel’s opponent in a 34-day air-and-ground battle in 2006 that was widely deemed a failure. Determined not to repeat those mistakes, the Israeli Army has been preparing for what it sees as an inevitable next round in Lebanon, including a huge surprise drill last week in which 2,000 reservists were summoned to Israel’s north.
“There hasn’t been a week in the last several months that didn’t deal with something that might take us to a place of escalation and a war that comes from there,” a top general said in a recent interview, speaking on the condition of anonymity, following military protocol. “We are trying to be as responsible as we can, to limit the use of force as much as we can, but we live in a neighborhood where it’s needed.”
As Mr. Assad’s grip on Syria has loosened in the last year, Israeli fears have mounted that he would become increasingly dependent on Iran and Hezbollah while controlling a shrinking piece of territory, with the rest of the country in the hands of jihadists and other groups Israel feels less confident of containing.
Emile Hokayem, an analyst with the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said that the timing of the attacks suggested that the Israelis had seen a confluence of “operational necessity and strategic convenience.”
“The strike sends a clear message to Hezbollah and Iran that we know you have these capabilities and we’ll go after you if you try to change the military balance,” Mr. Hokayem said. “It adds clarity, where the American dithering over chemical weapons added confusion.”
Ehud Yaari, an Arab affairs analyst for Israel’s Channel 2 news and a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said Sunday that all the targets in Damascus were Hezbollah-controlled (though reports from the ground indicate that as many as 100 Syrian soldiers were killed, perhaps inadvertently). That underscored the view that these strikes were part of the shadow war with Iran and Hezbollah.
Michael Herzog, a retired brigadier general and former chief of staff to Israel’s minister of defense, said response to the airstrikes is more likely to come in the form of a bombing of Israeli interests abroad than missiles fired at Tel Aviv from the north. Moshe Maoz, a Hebrew University professor of Middle Eastern Studies, said Iran was now the crucial actor regarding what might happen next.
“Israel may be testing Iran,” Professor Maoz said. “Iran is the key. If Hezbollah gets a green light from Iran to retaliate, or if Syria does, Israel won’t be idle. It could lead to a regional war.”
Kareem Fahim contributed reporting from Cairo.
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