Feb 3 2013
Israel's defence minister Ehud Barak has strongly signalled that his country was behind an air strike in Syria last week, warning that Israeli threats to take pre-emptive action against its enemies are not empty.
Israel has not officially confirmed its planes attacked a site near Damascus, targeting ground-to-air missiles apparently heading for Lebanon, but its intentions have been beyond dispute.
Syrian president Bashar Assad warned that his country would confront any aggression. During a meeting with a top Iranian official, he said: "Syria, with the awareness of its people, the might of its army and its adherence to the path of resistance, is able to face the current challenges and confront any aggression that might target the Syrian people."
During the 22 months of civil war in Syria, Israeli leaders have repeatedly expressed concern that high-end weapons could fall into the hands of enemy Hezbollah, the powerful Lebanese militants. For years, Israel has been charging that Mr Assad and Iran have been arming Hezbollah, which fought a month-long war against Israel in 2006.
US officials say the target was a convoy of sophisticated Russian SA-17 anti-aircraft missiles. Deployed in Lebanon, they could have limited Israel's ability to gather intelligence on its enemies from the air.
Over the weekend, Syrian TV broadcast video of the attack site for the first time, showing destroyed vehicles and a damaged building identified as a scientific research centre. The US officials said the air strike hit both the building and the convoy.
Speaking to a security conference in Munich, Mr Barak came close to confirming that his country was behind the operation. "I cannot add anything to what you have read in the newspapers about what happened in Syria several days ago," he told the gathering of top diplomats and defence officials from around the world. Then he went on to say: "I keep telling frankly that we said - and that's proof when we said something we mean it - we say that we don't think it should be allowed to bring advanced weapons systems into Lebanon."
In recent years, Israel has been blamed for an air raid in Syria in 2007 that apparently struck an unfinished nuclear reactor and an arms convoy in Sudan believed to be delivering weapons to Hamas. In the days preceding the air strike, the Israeli warnings were heightened. Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a series of dire comments about the threat posed by Syria's weapons. Israel considers any transfer of these advanced weapons to be unacceptable "game changers" that would change the balance of power in the region.
Israel has grown increasingly jittery as the Arab Spring has swept through the Middle East, bringing with it a rise of hostile Islamist elements. While Mr Assad is a bitter enemy, Israel's northern front with Syria has remained quiet for most of the past 40 years. If Mr Assad is toppled, the threat of al Qaida forces operating along Israel's frontier with Syria would pose a new and unpredictable threat. Israel has been racing to reinforce its fences along its northern frontiers with Lebanon and Syria. In addition, Israel fears that its arch-enemy Iran, the close ally of Syria and Hezbollah, is moving closer to developing a nuclear weapon. Israeli leaders have vowed to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear arms, making veiled threats to use force if international diplomacy and sanctions fail.
Israeli defence officials tried to play down Mr Barak's comments, saying that he was voicing a general policy that Israel is ready to defend its interests and not discussing a specific incident. They also noted that he was not speaking in his native Hebrew. Even so, it seemed that Mr Barak, a former prime minister, military chief of staff and regular participant on the world stage, was sending a message that Israel's warnings are not hollow and that further military action should not be ruled out.