Syria accuses Israel of declaring war after further air strikes
Israel's night raid on 'missiles destined for Hezbollah' deepens fears of conflict spreading beyond Syrian border across region
Julian Borger and Joel Greenberg in Jerusalem
The Guardian, Monday 6 May 2013
Link to video: Syria: China calls for restraint following Israeli air strikeshttp://www.guardian.co.uk/world/video/2013/may/06/syria-china-israeli-strikes-video
The Syrian government said that Israeli air strikes against military targets around Damascus amounted to a "declaration of war" and threatened retaliation, in the latest sign that the fighting is spilling across the Syrian border and risks sparking a wider regional conflict.
Israel made no official comment on the strikes early on Sunday, which were the second in two days and the third and heaviest this year. Security sources said they were aimed at preventing the transfer of advanced Iranian-made missiles to Hezbollah in Lebanon for possible use against Israel.
After the attack, Israel deployed two batteries of Iron Dome anti-ballistic missiles, designed to intercept incoming enemy missiles, to the north of the country, and the prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, delayed a trip to China to chair a meeting of his security cabinet.
The Iranian army's ground forces commander, Brigadier General Ahmad-Reza Pourdastan, said Iran was ready to train the Syrian army if necessary, something Israeli and western officials say has been going on for some time, but observers said that the increasingly public and bellicose declarations from Syria's neighbours showed the conflict's potential for spreading.
In a further development, UN human rights investigators have said they have "strong suspicions" that Syrian rebel forces might have used the nerve agent sarin.
Carla del Ponte, one of the lead investigators, said the UN independent commission of inquiry on Syria has not yet seen evidence of government forces having used chemical weapons, which are banned under international law. But she told Swiss-Italian television: "Our investigators have been in neighbouring countries interviewing victims, doctors and field hospitals and, according to their report of last week, which I have seen, there are strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof of the use of sarin gas, from the way the victims were treated. This was use on the part of the opposition, the rebels, not by the government authorities."
Del Ponte gave no details as to when or where sarin may have been used. The report followed claims last month that president Bashar al-Assad had used sarin gas in the conflict, but there has so far been no proof of its use.
The Damascus regime's deputy foreign minister, Faisal al-Miqdad, told CNN the Israeli air strikes at the weekend represented "a declaration of war" and betokened an alliance between Islamist terrorists and Israel. He said Syria would retaliate in its own time and in its own way.
Omran Zoabi, the information minister, said: "Syria is a country that does not accept insults and it doesn't accept humiliation."
Israeli military analysts said the missiles had been fired from outside Syrian airspace to avoid engaging Syria's reportedly formidable air defences. The Lebanese army said that Israeli planes had flown above Lebanon, an act that drew condemnation from the country's president, Michel Suleiman.
The office of the Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi, also denounced the attack, declaring it illegal and a threat to "security and stability in the region". Meanwhile, Nabil Elaraby, chief of the Arab League, appealed to the UN security council to "move immediately to stop the Israeli aggressions on Syria".
The air strikes lit up the night sky above west Damascus in the early hours of Sunday. Witnesses described a string of blasts that caused fiery clouds in the sky above Mount Qassioun, from where government artillery has been pounding rebel-held areas. "The explosion was very, very strong," a Damascus-based activist, Maath al-Shami, told the Associated Press.
Mohammed Saeed, another activist who lives in the Damascus suburb of Douma, said: "The explosions were so strong that earth shook under us." He said the smell of the fire caused by the air raid near Qasioun was detectable kilometres away.
Syrian state media reported that Israeli missiles had hit a military and scientific research centre in Jamraya near Damascus and caused casualties. Syrian officials had claimed that the first Israeli missile strikes in January had hit the same target, but that was denied at the time by US officials, who said the raids had been aimed at a missile shipment intended for Hezbollah.
While avoiding direct confirmation that Israel had struck, Shaul Mofaz, a former defence minister, told Israel Radio: "The policy of preventing leakage of significant weaponry and advanced systems to Hezbollah is right, otherwise we could encounter it here in Israel."
A senior Israeli official was quoted by AP as saying the air strikes were aimed at destroying Fateh-110 missiles, a solid-fuelled Iranian weapon with a 200 mile range and precision guidance systems, far more effective than anything in Hezbollah's existing arsenal. Its Farsi name means "conqueror".
Michael Herzog, a retired Israeli brigadier general, said: "The context according to reports I have seen is similar to January: a shipment of strategic weapons which would be a game-changer in a conflict with Hezbollah. There is great concern here about the spillover from Syria and particularly about strategic weapons – not just chemical weapons, but also missiles.
"Israel did act and will act whenever it feels its national security interests are threatened, be it on the joint border with Syria – which has been quiet until now but may not remain that way – or with the transfer of strategic weapons to Hezbollah."
When Barack Obama visited Israel in March, Netanyahu asked for US help in stopping the spread of Syrian missiles and chemical weapons. "These missiles are not just a problem for Israel," a senior Israeli official told the Guardian.
Israeli officials also acknowledged that such air strikes could spark a new, highly destructive cross-border war with Hezbollah.
Emile Hokayem, a regional analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said there were credible reports that, following the Israel-Hezbollah war of 2006, advanced Iranian missiles intended to help rearm the Lebanese Shia militia had been stockpiled in Syria under a joint custody arrangement.
"In 2006-07 Hezbollah was restocking obviously and the Syrians had an interest in a conflict-management role to keep some control," Hokayem said. "This quality weaponry was prepositioned in Syria, under some kind of joint custody. We don't know the exact mechanisms, but it would clearly have been a very dangerous sovereignty for Assad to allow the Hezbollahis and Iran to do this without Syrian control."
Amos Yadlin, a former chief of military intelligence who heads the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, told Army Radio that Syria risked serious damage to its already battered military capabilities if it responded to the latest air strikes.
"Assad knows that the rebels have made him the primary target, and if he tries to deflect the fire towards Israel, chances are that he will be attacked by both the rebels and Israel," Yadlin said.
The air strikes were also a signal to Iran, Yadlin said, making it clear to Tehran that "when at least some of the players define red lines, and they are crossed, they take it seriously".
Netanyahu has urged the US and other nations to set a "red line" for Iran's nuclear programme, beyond which it could face military strikes on facilities Israel says are developing the components of a nuclear weapon
May 5, 2013Airstrikes 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.
****************Turkish PM blasts ‘butcher’ Assad in scathing speech on Syria
By Agence France-Presse
Sunday, May 5, 2013 16:31 EDT
AFP – Turkey’s prime minister on Sunday delivered his most virulent attack so far on Bashar al-Assad, calling the Syrian president a “butcher” and warning that he will be held to account for the deaths of tens of thousands of his citizens.
“If God permits, we will see this butcher, this murderer receive his judgement in this world … and we will praise (God) for it,” Recep Tayyip Erdogan said.
“You will pay a very, very heavy price for showing your courage to the babies in the cradle, the courage you cannot show others,” he told a cheering crowd of lawmakers and party activists in a town near Ankara.
Erdogan’s harsh words came after reported Israeli air strikes on a military target near Damascus, which Israeli sources said hit Iranian weapons destined for the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, an ally of the Syrian regime.
Ankara’s first open challenge to Damascus to respond to Israeli operations came in February, when the Jewish state implicitly confirmed that its warplanes had hit a military complex near Damascus.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu then mocked the Syrian army for its failure to retaliate.
“Why doesn’t it throw even a pebble?” he said.
Ankara cut contact with Damascus after its calls for a peaceful resolution of the conflict, which is now in its third year and has killed more than 70,000 people, went unheeded.
Turkey has sided with the rebels fighting to topple Assad’s regime, taken in around 400,000 refugees as well as army defectors and repeatedly called on the international community to act on the unfolding crisis.
May 5, 2013Attacks Fuel Debate Over U.S.-Led Effort
By DAVID E. SANGER
WASHINGTON — The apparent ease with which Israel struck missile sites and, by Syrian accounts, a major military research center near Damascus in recent days has stoked debate in Washington about whether American-led airstrikes are the logical next step to cripple President Bashar al-Assad’s ability to counter the rebel forces or use chemical weapons.
That option was already being debated in secret by the United States, Britain and France in the days leading to the Israeli strikes, according to American and foreign officials involved in the discussions. On Sunday, Senator John McCain, who has long advocated a much deeper American role in the Syrian civil war, argued that the Israeli attacks, at least one of which appears to have been launched from outside Syrian airspace, weakens the argument that Syria’s air defense system would be a major challenge.
“The Israelis seem to be able to penetrate it fairly easily,” Mr. McCain said on “Fox News Sunday.” He went on to say that the United States would be capable of disabling the Syrian air defenses on the ground “with cruise missiles, cratering their runways, where all of these supplies, by the way, from Iran and Russia are coming in by air.” Patriot missile batteries already installed in Turkey, he argued, could defend a safe zone to protect rebels and refugees.
The Pentagon developed such options months ago, but in recent weeks, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Central Command, which runs military operations in the Middle East, have been asked to refine them and explore how strikes would be coordinated with allies, much as they were in the opening days of the attacks on Libya that ultimately drove Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi from power, according to several senior administration officials.
But President Obama has been reluctant to follow the course he took in that case, aides say, partly because of concerns about the strength of air defenses in Syria and partly because the opposition forces include so many jihadist elements.
So far, Mr. Obama has said he would intervene only if it turned out that Syria had used chemical weapons — the current investigation into the use of sarin gas focuses on Aleppo and Damascus, the capital, in March — or if such use was imminent. Now, one adviser to Mr. Obama said, “it’s become pretty clear to everyone that Assad is calculating whether those weapons might save him.”
The result is that the narrow goal of preventing the use of chemical weapons is beginning to merge with the broader goals of toppling Mr. Assad and seeking an end to a carnage that is already far greater than what took place in Libya, when Mr. Obama justified American intervention on humanitarian grounds.
“We have to work even harder with our allies and the opposition to accelerate Assad’s exit while there is still a Syria to save,” William J. Burns, the deputy secretary of state, said at a symposium at Princeton University on Saturday, as accounts of the Israeli strikes were beginning to emerge.
“There is a mounting urgency to this effort as both the human and strategic costs grow,” he said. Mr. Obama, in Costa Rica on Friday, all but ruled out placing American forces into Syria, which seemed to eliminate the option of parachuting in Special Forces to secure the 15 to 20 major chemical weapons sites. That has led to a more intense examination of offshore strikes, similar to those conducted by Israel, but aimed at the delivery vehicles for chemical weapons: missiles and aircraft.
Laurent Fabius, the foreign minister of France, did not specifically address on Monday the possibility of military intervention in Syria, saying at a scheduled news conference in Hong Kong that, “There is only one solution, it is to get back to a political solution, and we French ask now to the secretary general of the United Nations, Mr. Ban Ki-moon, to be involved himself.”
Mr. Fabius said France was in continuing discussions with Russia about Syria. “We are urging our American friends to be more involved” in diplomatic efforts to find a political solution, he said.
On Sunday, a senior administration official said that “there are many options short of American boots on the ground, and there hasn’t been a lean in any particular direction to this point.”
“If there’s a decision to intervene, it’s pretty darn easy to suggest airstrikes if U.S. troops aren’t going to jump in to the conflict,” he added. “But the reality is that any number of options — to include airstrikes — would probably be combined with other measures if more direct engagement is where we’re heading. This isn’t exactly a pick-one-from-the-menu scenario.”
These issues are certain to come up on Secretary of State John Kerry’s two-day visit to Moscow this week, one that Mr. Burns said would be used to argue that Russia’s long allegiance to Mr. Assad is now turning against its government’s interests, with a prolonged conflict only worsening the chances that the Syrian conflict will widen and promote extremism, including in the Caucasus region.
But Russia would almost certainly veto any effort to obtain United Nations Security Council authorization to take military action. So far, Mr. Obama has avoided seeking such authorization, and that is one reason that past or future use of chemical weapons could serve as a legal argument for conducting strikes, assuming they were limited to crippling Mr. Assad’s ability to drop those weapons on Syrian cities.
So far among the most reluctant members of the administration to intervene heavily in Syria has been Mr. Obama himself. He declined to arm the rebels last fall, despite urging from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and the C.I.A. director at the time, David H. Petraeus.
On Sunday, Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, said he believed the administration was getting closer to a decision. “The idea of getting weapons in — if we know the right people to get them, my guess is we will give them to them,” Mr. Leahy said on “Meet the Press.” Last week, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said that arming the rebels was under consideration.
In fact that debate has begun to shift in favor of more action, administration officials say. Mr. Obama’s legalistic parsing of whether his “red line” for intervention was crossed when evidence arose of a limited use of sarin gas has prompted many of his allies — led by Israeli officials — to question the credibility of his warnings.
One administration official acknowledged late last week that the critique had “begun to sting,” but said that Mr. Obama was determined to go slowly, awaiting a definitive intelligence report on who was responsible for the presence of sarin before deciding on a next step.
Keith Bradsher contributed reporting from Hong Kong.
May 6, 2013Syrian Rebels Say They Downed Helicopter Amid New Claims on Chemical Weapons
By ANNE BARNARD and ALAN COWELL
BEIRUT, Lebanon — Syrian rebels said on Monday that they had shot down a government helicopter in the east of the country, killing eight security troops, as new accusations emerged that insurgents seeking to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad may have used an illegal nerve agent in the country’s grinding civil war. The rebels denied the assertion.
The latest battlefield accounts, focusing on the east and north of the battered country, came after Mr. Assad’s government publicly assailed Israel for an air attack on military targets near Damascus, the capital, early on Sunday, saying the strike “opened the door to all possibilities,” deepening apprehension that the civil war could spill beyond Syria’s frontiers.
Before the Israeli attack, a key question defining outside attitudes to the more than two-year-old conflict was whether chemical weapons had been used, drawing Western powers more directly into the war. Mr. Obama has said he would intervene only if it turned out that Syria had used chemical weapons or if such use was imminent.
But there have been separate claims that the insurgents, backed by many Western and some key Arab nations, have used chemical weapons.
In an interview over the weekend with Swiss-Italian television, Carla del Ponte, one of the leading figures in a Geneva-based United Nations investigation, said there were strong suspicions that the rebels seeking Mr. Assad’s overthrow had themselves used sarin, a nerve agent, but there was no “incontrovertible proof” that they had.
“Our investigators have been in neighboring countries interviewing victims, doctors and field hospitals,” she said, and “according to their report of last week which I have seen, there are strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof of the use of sarin gas, from the way the victims were treated.”
“This was use on the part of the opposition, the rebels, not by the government authorities,” she added. She did not elaborate on where the chemicals might have been used. Ms. del Ponte is one of four investigators mandated by the 47-nation United Nations Human Rights Council in August 2011 to report periodically on the Syrian situation. Their next report is set for publication in late May, officials in Geneva said, but it was not immediately clear whether it would document findings relating to chemical weapons.
It was also unclear whether Ms. del Ponte was speaking on behalf of all four investigators.
The insurgents called the reported findings of the investigation a “big lie.”
Maj. Gen. Adnan Sillo, a defector from the Syrian military who had previously headed a chemical warfare unit, said Ms. del Ponte’s accusation came at a time when Syria had already crossed the “red line” laid down by President Obama as a warning to Mr. Assad not to deploy such weapons.
“This claim is a big lie,” he said.
“The Syrian regime has used the chemical weapons against civilians many times,” most recently near Idlib in the north of the country, he said. “And there is no doubt that the regime will use it more often as this is its strategy in the war since the beginning of oppressing the uprising, to move gradually.”
The dispute over chemical weapons came as the opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which is based in Britain and draws information from a network of activists within Syria, posted video on Monday showing combatants standing in front of what appeared to be the wreckage of a helicopter.
The Observatory said eight government troops were aboard the helicopter when it came down in the east of the country. The claim was significant since air power has given Mr. Assad’s forces a significant edge, prompting the insurgents action against both aircraft and air bases.
On Sunday, the Observatory said, rebel forces occupied part of the Mannagh military air base in northern Syria near the border with Turkey after days of clashes, prompting renewed airstrikes by government forces seeking to dislodge them.
The claims relating to both the use of sarin gas and the shooting down of the helicopter could not be immediately corroborated because of restrictions on independent reporting in Syria.
Anne Barnard reported from Beirut, Lebanon, and Alan Cowell from London. Karam Shoumali contributed reporting from Antakya, Turkey.
************UN chief urges respect for ‘national sovereignty’ after Israeli bombs Syria
By Agence France-Presse
Sunday, May 5, 2013 20:20 EDT
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appealed Sunday for restraint to avoid an escalation in Syria’s civil war, expressing “grave concern” over Israeli air raids.
Israel launched air strikes earlier that hit three military sites near Damascus, the second such reported attack in a 48-hour period targeting the transfer of arms to Lebanon-based Hezbollah, raising fresh concerns of a regional spillover.
“The secretary-general calls on all sides to exercise maximum calm and restraint, and to act with a sense of responsibility to prevent an escalation of what is already a devastating and highly dangerous conflict,” Ban’s spokesman Martin Nesirky said in a statement.
Nesirky said the United Nations was unable to independently verify the raids, and had no details about them, but Ban “expresses grave concern over reports of air strikes in Syria by the Israeli Air Force.”
“The secretary-general urges respect for national sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries in the region, and adherence to all relevant Security Council resolutions,” Nesirky said.
Ban spoke by telephone with Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi about the reports, which have triggered fears of further escalation in a conflict that has already killed more than 70,000 people in just over two years.
The two men “shared their grave concern about the reported air strikes in Syria and the risks for regional security,” Nesirky said.
UN Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson is set to purse the talks on the sidelines of the Somalia conference in London on Tuesday.