The Associated PressBEIRUT (AP) — Israeli warplanes struck a military position near the Mediterranean coast in western Syria Thursday, killing two soldiers, the Syrian army said, in a stronghold of President Bashar Assad that is also heavily protected by the Russians and Iranians.
The airstrike targeted a facility near the town of Masyaf, in Hama province, described by some as a missile producing factory, amid Israeli outrage over Iran’s growing influence in the war-torn country.
Other reports suggested the facility was tied to Syria’s chemical weapons program.
In a statement, the Syrian army said the Israeli warplanes fired several missiles from Lebanese air space, and warned of the “dangerous repercussions of such hostile acts on the security and stability of the region.”
“We will do everything to prevent the existence of a Shiite corridor from Iran to Damascus,” said Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who declined commenting directly on the strike in an interview with Israel’s 100FM Radio Thursday. He said Israel isn’t “looking for adventures, and we don’t want to be dragged into this fight or another.”
“We are determined to prevent our enemies from harming or even creating the possibility of harming the security of Israeli citizens.”
Israel has carried out several airstrikes against suspected arms shipments it believed to be bound for Lebanon’s Hizbollah militant group, which is fighting alongside President Bashar Assad’s forces, over the course of Syria’s civil war, now in its seventh year. Israel has also struck several Syrian military facilities since the conflict began, mostly near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Assad, not wanting to draw Israel into his country’s war, has never retaliated.
The airstrike comes amid heightened tensions over Iran’s growing reach in Syria. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed recently that Iran is building sites in Syria and Lebanon for the manufacture of “precision-guided missiles” with the aim of deploying them against Israel.
Thursday’s air raid was seen as a message to both Russia and Iran that Israel can strike anywhere in Syria. It was also a rare instance of Israel striking a Syrian government facility rather than an arms shipment and harked back to an Israeli airstrike that destroyed a suspected, partially constructed nuclear reactor in the eastern city of Deir el-Zour exactly 10 years ago.
This week, Israel is conducting a massive drill along its border with Lebanon simulating war with the Iranian-backed Hizbollah.
It was not immediately clear if the facility struck Thursday was used for the production or storage of chemical arms. Syria denies having or using such weapons.
Rami Abdurrahman, who heads the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said two facilities were hit in Thursday’s airstrike, a scientific research center and a nearby military base where short-range surface-to-surface missiles are stored.
“Many explosions were heard in the area after the air raid,” said Abdurrahman, whose group relies on a network of activists across the country.
He said Lebanese Hizbollah fighters and Iranian military officials often visit the site, adding that those killed and wounded were Syrians.
A local opposition media activist said the facility that was struck is a factory that produces missiles under the supervision of Iranian experts. He said those killed and wounded were Syrian soldiers guarding the facility. The activist spoke on condition of anonymity out of security concerns.
Days after the April 4 chemical attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun, the U.S. Treasury sanctioned 271 employees of Syria’s Scientific Studies and Research Center. Washington said the agency is responsible for developing and producing non-conventional weapons and the means to deliver them.