BEIRUT (AP) — Israel’s air force launched a rare airstrike on a military site inside Syria, the Syrian government and U.S. officials said Wednesday, adding a potentially flammable new element to regional tensions already heightened by Syria’s civil war.
The strike appeared to be the latest salvo in Israel’s long-running effort to disrupt the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah’s quest to build an arsenal capable of defending against Israel’s air force and spreading destruction inside the Jewish state.
U.S. officials said the target was a convoy of trucks that Israel believed contained anti-aircraft weapons bound for Hezbollah in Lebanon. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about the operation.
Regional officials said the shipment included sophisticated Russian-made SA-17 anti-aircraft missiles, which if acquired by Hezbollah would be ‘‘game-changing,’’ enabling the militants to shoot down Israeli jets, helicopters and surveillance drones.
Regional security officials said the strike, which occurred overnight Tuesday, targeted a site near the Lebanese border, while a Syrian army statement said it destroyed a military research center northwest of the capital, Damascus. They appeared to be referring to the same incident.
The Israeli military and a Hezbollah spokesman both declined to comment, and Syria denied the existence of any such weapons shipment. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media.
The strike follows decades of enmity between Israel and allies Syria and Hezbollah, which consider the Jewish state their mortal enemy. The situation has been further complicated by the civil war raging in Syria between the forces of President Bashar Assad and rebel brigades seeking his ouster.
The war has sapped Assad’s power and threatens to deprive Hezbollah of a key supporter, in addition to its land corridor to Iran. The two countries provide Hezbollah with the bulk of its funding and arms.
Many in Israel worry that as Assad loses power, he could strike back by transferring chemical or advanced weapons to Hezbollah, which is neighboring Lebanon’s most powerful military force and is committed to Israel’s destruction.
Israel and Hezbollah fought an inconclusive 34-day war in 2006 that left 1,200 Lebanese and 160 Israelis dead.
While the border has been largely quiet since, the struggle has taken other forms. Hezbollah has accused Israel of assassinating a top commander, and Israel blamed Hezbollah and Iran for a July 2012 attack on Israeli tourists in Bulgaria. In October, Hezbollah launched an Iranian-made reconnaissance drone over Israel, using the incident to brag about its expanding capabilities.
Israeli officials believe that despite their best efforts, Hezbollah’s arsenal has markedly improved since 2006, now boasting tens of thousands of rockets and missiles and the ability to strike almost anywhere inside Israel.
Israel suspects that Damascus obtained a battery of SA-17s from Russia after an alleged Israeli airstrike in 2007 that destroyed an unfinished Syrian nuclear reactor.
Earlier this week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned of the dangers of Syria’s ‘‘deadly weapons,’’ saying the country is ‘‘increasingly coming apart.’’
The same day, Israel moved a battery of its new ‘‘Iron Dome’’ rocket defense system to the northern city of Haifa, which was battered by Hezbollah rocket fire in the 2006 war. The Israeli army called that move ‘‘routine.’’
Syria, however, cast the strike in a different light, linked to the country’s civil war, which it blames on terrorists carrying out an international conspiracy.
A Syrian military statement read aloud on state TV Wednesday said low-flying Israeli jets crossed into Syria over the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and bombed a military research center in the area of Jamraya, northwest of Damascus.
The strike destroyed the center and damaged a nearby building, killing two workers and wounding five others, the statement said.
The military denied the existence of any convoy bound for Lebanon, saying the center was responsible for ‘‘raising the level of resistance and self-defense’’ of Syria’s military.
‘‘This proves that Israel is the instigator, beneficiary and sometimes executor of the terrorist acts targeting Syria and its people,’’ the statement said.
Despite its icy relations with Assad, Israel has remained on the sidelines of efforts to topple him, while keeping up defenses against possible attacks.Continued...