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News, May 2013
Israel Strikes Syria Again,
Pressuring Obama to Enter the War,
May 5, 2013
Israel strikes Syria, says targeting Hezbollah arms
By Dominic Evans and Oliver Holmes
BEIRUT | Sun May 5, 2013 3:51pm EDT, Reuters
Israeli jets devastated Syrian targets near Damascus on Sunday in a heavy overnight air raid that Western and Israeli officials called a new strike on Iranian missiles bound for Lebanon's Hezbollah.
As Syria's two-year-old civil war veered into the potentially atomic arena of Iran's confrontation with Israel and the West over its nuclear program, people were woken in the Syrian capital by explosions that shook the ground like an earthquake and sent pillars of flame high into the night sky.
"Night turned into day," one man told Reuters from his home at Hameh, near one of the targets, the Jamraya military base.
But for all the angry rhetoric in response from Tehran and from the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, it was unclear whether the second such raid in 48 hours would elicit any greater reaction than an Israeli attack in the same area in January, which was followed by little evident change.
The Syrian government accused Israel of effectively helping al Qaeda Islamist "terrorists" and said the strikes "open the door to all possibilities"; but Israeli officials said that, as in January, they were calculating Assad would not pick a fight with a well-armed neighbor while facing defeat at home.
Denying it was weighing in on the rebel side on behalf of Washington - which opposes Assad but is hesitating to intervene - officials said Israel was pursuing its own conflict, not with Syria but with Iran, and was acting to prevent Iran's Hezbollah allies receiving missiles that might strike Tel Aviv if Israel made good on threats to attack Tehran's nuclear program.
What Israel was not doing, they stressed, was getting drawn into a debate that has raged in the United States lately of whether the alleged use of poison gas by Assad's forces should prompt the West finally to give military backing to oust him.
Israel was not taking sides in a civil war that has pitted Assad's government, a dour but mostly toothless adversary for nearly 40 years, against Sunni rebels, some of them Islamist radicals, who might one day turn Syria's armory against the Jewish state.
It is a mark of how two years of killing in which at least 70,000 Syrians have died has not only inflamed a wider, regional confrontation between Shi'ite Muslim Iran and Sunni Arabs, some of them close Western allies, but have also left Israel and Western powers scrambling to reassess where their interests lie.
Egypt, the most populous Arab state and flagship of the 2011 Arab Spring revolts where elected Islamists have replaced a Western-backed autocrat, has no love for Assad. But on Sunday it condemned Israel's air strikes as a breach of international law that "made the situation more complicated".
Israel does not confirm such missions explicitly - a policy it says is intended to avoid provoking reprisals. But an Israeli official told Reuters on condition of anonymity that the strikes were carried out by its forces, as was a raid early on Friday that U.S. President Barack Obama said had been justified.
A Western intelligence source told Reuters: "In last night's attack, as in the previous one, what was attacked were stores of Fateh-110 missiles that were in transit from Iran to Hezbollah."
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said his aim for Israel was to "guarantee its future" - language he has used to warn of a willingness to attack Iran's nuclear sites, even in defiance of U.S. advice, as well as to deny Hezbollah heavier weapons.
He later flew to China on a scheduled trip, projecting confidence there would be no major escalation - though Israel has reinforced its anti-missile batteries in the north.
Syrian state television said bombing at a military research facility at Jamraya and two other sites caused "many civilian casualties and widespread damage", but it gave no details. The Jamraya compound was also a target for Israel on January 30.
Hezbollah's Al-Manar television showed a flattened building spread over the size of a football pitch, with smoke rising from rubble containing shell fragments. It did not identify it.
Syrian state television quoted a letter from the foreign minister to the United Nations saying: "The blatant Israeli aggression has the aim to provide direct military support to the terrorist groups after they failed to control territory."
Obama defended Israel's right to block "terrorist organizations like Hezbollah" from acquiring weapons after Friday's raid, and a White House spokesman said on Sunday: "The president many times has talked about his view that Israel, as a sovereign government, has the right to take the actions they feel are necessary to protect their people."
It was unclear that Israel had sought U.S. approval for the strikes, although the White House spokesman said: "The close coordination between the Obama administration, the United States of America, is ongoing with the Israeli government."
Obama has in recent years worked to hold back Netanyahu from making good on threats to hit facilities where he says Iran, despite its denials, is working to develop a nuclear weapon.
On Sunday, some Israeli officials highlighted Obama's reluctance to be drawn into new conflict in the Middle East to explain Israel's need for independent action.
Syria restricts access to independent journalists. Its state media said Israeli aircraft struck three places between Damascus and the nearby Lebanese border. The city also lies barely 50 km (30 miles) from Israeli positions on the occupied Golan Heights.
Tehran, which has long backed Assad, whose Alawite minority has religious ties to Shi'ite Islam, denied the attack was on armaments for Lebanon and called for nations to stand firm against Israel. A senior Iranian commander was quoted, however, as saying Syria's armed forces were able to defend themselves without their allies, though Iran could help them with training.
Hezbollah, a Shi'ite movement that says it is defending Lebanon from Israeli aggression, declined immediate comment.
Analysts say the Fateh-110 could put the Tel Aviv metropolis in range of Hezbollah gunners, 100 km (60 miles) to the north, bolstering the arsenal of a group that fired some 4,000 shorter-range rockets into Israel during a month-long war in 2006.
"What we want is to ensure that inside the Syrian chaos we will not see Hezbollah growing stronger," Israeli lawmaker Tzachi Hanegbi, a confidant of Netanyahu, told Army Radio.
"The world is helplessly looking on at events in Syria, the Americans in particular, and this president in particular," he added of Obama. "He has left Iraq, Afghanistan and has no interest in sending ground troops to Syria ... That is why, as in the past, we are left with our own interests, protecting them with determination and without getting too involved."
Video footage uploaded onto the Internet by Syrian activists showed a series of blasts. One lit up the skyline of Damascus, while another sent up a tower of flames and secondary blasts.
Syrian state news agency SANA said Israeli aircraft struck in three places: northeast of Jamraya; the town of Maysaloun on the Lebanese border; and the nearby Dimas air base.
"The sky was red all night," one man said from Hameh, near Jamraya. "We didn't sleep a single second. The explosions started after midnight and continued through the night."
Central Damascus was quiet on the first day of the working week, and government checkpoints seemed reinforced. Some opposition activists said they were glad strikes might weaken Assad, even if few Syrians have any liking for Israel: "We don't care who did it," Rania al-Midania said in the capital. "We care that those weapons are no longer there to kill us."
(Additional reporting by Mariam Karouny in Beirut, Marwan Makdesi in Damascus, Maayan Lubell, Dan Williams, Jeffrey Heller and Crispian Balmer in Jerusalem, Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Amman, Roberta Rampton Aboard Air Force One and Arshad Mohammed and Phil Stewart in Washington; Writing by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Will Waterman)***
Israeli strikes in Syria could put more pressure on Obama: McCain
By Deborah Charles and Caren Bohan
WASHINGTON | Sun May 5, 2013 2:28pm EDT
(Reuters) - Israel's air strikes on Syria could add pressure on the Obama administration to intervene in Syria, a key Republican said on Sunday, but the U.S. government faces tough questions on how it can help without adding to the conflict.
Hours after Israeli jets bombed Syria on Sunday for the second time in 48 hours, several top U.S. lawmakers voiced concern over the cascading uncertainty in the Middle East where a civil war has been raging in Syria for more than two years.
Republican Senator John McCain said the latest Israeli air strikes, described by a Western source as attacks on Iranian missiles bound for Lebanon's Hezbollah, will just put more pressure on the administration to act although President Barack Obama has said he has no plans to send ground troops to Syria.
"We need to have a game-changing action, and that is no American boots on the ground, establish a safe zone and to protect it and to supply weapons to the right people in Syria who are fighting, obviously, for the things we believe," McCain said on "Fox News Sunday."
"Every day that goes by, Hezbollah increases their influence and the radical jihadists flow into Syria and the situation becomes more and more tenuous," he said.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said last week that Washington was rethinking its opposition to arming the Syrian rebels. He cautioned that giving weapons to the forces fighting President Bashar al-Assad was only one option, which carried the risk of arms finding their way into the hands of anti-American extremists among the insurgents.
Obama said on Saturday that Israel has the right to guard against the transfer of advanced weapons to Hezbollah, but his administration has not commented further on the air strikes.
The United States has said it has "varying degrees of confidence" that chemical weapons have been used by Syria's government on its people, which violates a "red line" that Obama had established against such action.
The United States is seeking more evidence to determine whether and how chemical weapons have been used. Obama, who has said he does not envision sending U.S. troops to Syria regardless of whether chemical weapons use is determined, has said he has a number of other options under review.
Obama has repeatedly shied away from deep U.S. involvement in the Syrian conflict, which erupted in 2011 and has killed an estimated 70,000 people and created more than 1.2 million refugees.
White House deputy spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters on Air Force One on Sunday that the White House was "horrified" by reports that more than 100 people were executed on May 2 in Baida, Syria.
State forces and militias loyal to Assad stormed the coastal village on Thursday and a pro-opposition monitoring group said many of those killed appeared to have been executed by shooting or stabbing.
McCain criticized Obama for failing to intervene to stop that massacre and for not acting when the chemical weapons red line was crossed.
Republican Representative Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, described the situation in the Middle East as "deteriorating by the day" because of the massive influx of foreign fighters pouring into Syria that could reach more than 10,000 this year.
"Hezbollah is now moving troops - Hezbollah troops, financed by Iran - across Syria. They're engaged in the fight to protect the Assad regime," Rogers said on CBS's "Face the Nation." "You have the al-Nusra Front, which is an al Qaeda front organization in the thousands showing up."
He said all fighters were trying to get their hands on chemical weapons and more sophisticated conventional arms. In addition, refugees were fleeing the country and threatened to add more instability to the region.
"This is as bad a situation I have seen in a long time that has an opportunity to cascade," Rogers said.
He said the United States needed to provide leadership through intelligence and training to the opposition, and work with the Arab League to help stabilize the situation in Syria.
(Reporting by Deborah Charles and Caren Bohan; Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton and Eric Beech; Editing by Eric Beech)***
Israel pursues war-within-war in Syria air strikes
By Jeffrey Heller
JERUSALEM | Sun May 5, 2013 10:14am EDT
Allegations of Syrian government forces using chemical weapons have grabbed headlines and driven new calls for U.S. President Barack Obama to intervene in Syria's civil war.
But when it took military action over the weekend while Washington stayed on the sidelines, Israel was homing in on targets with strategic significance for its own possible war with Iran rather than for Syria's internal fighting.
In both Israeli attacks, on Friday and Sunday, long-range, Iranian-supplied missiles destined for Lebanon's Hezbollah guerrilla group were hit, Israeli and Western sources said.
Such weapons, along with what Israel believes to be a Hezbollah arsenal of about 60,000 other rockets, could pose a significant threat to Israeli cities in any future conflict.
Although the militant group could opt to strike any time, Israeli officials are particularly concerned about Hezbollah missile barrages as proxy retaliation should Israel carry out long-threatened attacks against Iranian nuclear facilities.
"We have very clear guidelines. We will not let game-changing weaponry reach the hands of Hezbollah. We will do whatever is necessary to stop that," said Ofer Shelah of the Yesh Atid party, a member of Israel's governing coalition.
Shelah, who also sits on parliament's foreign affairs and defense committee, was referring to a "red line" Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has set on the Syrian conflict. "Beyond that, it is a murky situation," Shelah added, pointing to Israeli ambivalence over the fate of President Bashar al-Assad.
A red line that Netanyahu famously drew for Iran's uranium enrichment program, in a cartoon bomb produced during a speech at the United Nations last September, has seemed more flexible.
Last week, Netanyahu, who forecast Iran would cross the line in mid-2013, said it was still short of that mark. This raised further doubts over whether Israel would opt, against long-standing U.S. advice, to launch a unilateral strike against what it believes is an Iranian bid to develop nuclear weapons.
For Israel, the threshold will be reached once Iran, which denies seeking atomic arms, will have amassed enough uranium at 20-percent fissile purity that could quickly be used to fuel just one nuclear bomb.
Amos Yadlin, a former chief of Israeli military intelligence, said Israel's strikes in Syria sent a strong message to Iran that Netanyahu was not bluffing.
"Iran is testing the determination both of Israel and the U.S. regarding red lines, and what it sees in Syria is that at least some of the players take the red lines seriously," Yadlin told Army Radio, appearing to take a dig at Washington's inaction so far.
Obama, in an interview on Saturday with the Spanish-language network Telemundo, said "the Israelis justifiably have to guard against the transfer of advanced weaponry" to Hezbollah.
Uzi Rubin, an Israeli missile expert and former defense official, said the Fateh-110 missile reportedly targeted in the Israeli strikes "is better than the Scud, it has a half-ton warhead". It may also be more accurate than other rockets.
Signaling that Israel was not overly concerned about possible retaliation by Assad's forces or Hezbollah for the air strikes, Netanyahu planned to leave later in the day for a five-day visit to China, Israeli officials said.
But two of Israel's Iron Dome anti-missile batteries were deployed near the northern fronts with Syria and Lebanon - Hezbollah's homeland. Netanyahu also convened a last-minute meeting of his security cabinet before his planned departure.
"Our estimate is that Assad will not respond to this by attacking Israel," one Israeli official said. "He knows that doing so would draw counter strikes that will seriously impair his military capabilities and therefore potentially allow the rebels to even their odds against him."
Technically, Israeli is still at war with Syria following the 1973 Yom Kippur war, but in reality the northern borderlands have been relatively quiet for the past four decades.
The air strikes on Syria caused no immediate political fallout in Israel, where containment of Hezbollah - which fired more than 4,000 rockets into the country during a war in 2006 - is a consensus issue that unites people across party lines.
Illustrating concern over Hezbollah, Amos Gilad, a senior Defense Ministry official, said in a lecture in the southern city of Beersheba on Saturday that the group was "keen to take weapons systems (in Syria), like rockets that can reach, say, all the way here".
Hezbollah portrays itself as arming against aggression by Israel, which occupied southern Lebanon for two decades until 2000 and with which Lebanon still has territorial disputes.
Netanyahu has given no public sign of planning a military intervention in Syria, despite the occasional spillover of fire from the conflict into the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
In the Israeli attack on Friday, Israeli planes did not enter Syrian air space, U.S. officials said, apparently firing at their targets from neighboring Lebanon to avoid any direct confrontation with Assad's military. It was not immediately clear whether the same held true for Sunday's strike.
Taking sides in Syria is problematic: Israelis believe one in 10 of the rebels fighting Assad, who has followed his father in keeping the peace on the Golan since 1974, is a jihadist who might turn his gun on them once the Syrian leader were gone.
Tzachi Hanegbi, a Netanyahu confidant and a legislator from his right-wing Likud party, told Army Radio on Sunday Israel had no position on whether Assad should stay or go, adding that the government did not want to "bet on the wrong horse".
"What we want," he said, "Is to ensure that within the Syrian chaos we will not see Hezbollah growing stronger, in a way that will motivate it to act against us and draw us into a conflict in which we will suffer grave casualties."
(Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell, Crispian Balmer and Dan Williams; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)
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