Israeli fighter jets strike alleged Syrian weapons convoy; Syria claims science research facility was hit

Wednesday, January 30, 2013 - 9:00pm

Israeli fighter jets struck overnight a suspected Syrian convoy along the Lebanese-Syrian border believed to be moving weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon, a senior U.S. official said Wednesday.

Fighter jets struck the vehicles because they were carrying SA-17 missile parts, a Russian-made medium-range delivery system, and equipment that could have been employed in an attack against Israel, another source told CNN.

But Damascus said the strike had instead targeted a research facility near the Syrian capital.

"Israeli warplanes penetrated our airspace at dawn today and directly bombed one of the scientific research centers responsible for raising the level of resistance and self-defense in the area of Jimraya in the Damascus countryside," the military said in a statement aired on state-run television. "This comes after multiple failed attempts over months by terrorist groups to enter and seize the mentioned site."

A former high ranking Israeli Intelligence official told CNN that Hezbollah likely wants to take hold of all the weapons it can in the event that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is forced to flee. Should al-Assad ultimately decide to leave, he may choose to further arm Hezbollah ahead of time so that militants could better attack Israel, the official said.

In recent years, Syria transferred Scud missiles to Hezbollah, which are capable of carrying chemical weapon warheads. But the senior U.S. official said American authorities do not believe the airstrike was linked to growing concerns about chemical weapons.

"We see no nexus," the official said Wednesday. The strike is thought to have hit a "target of opportunity," he said.

"Whether it was an attack against a supply convoy or a terrorist leader, it's not particularly surprising," senior Brookings fellow Michael O'Hanlon said. "At first glance, it likely won't be seen as a large escalation. Though there's still a possibility for retaliation."

Israeli military and government officials declined to comment about the strike.

The move comes just days after Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev made headlines when he said al-Assad's hold on power was "slipping away."

Russia, considered an influential power broker in the nearly 2-year-old conflict, has criticized Western powers, including the United States, that have recognized the opposition as Syria's rightful leadership.

There have been concerns about the security of Syria's chemical weapons arsenal, as well as the security of its larger conventional weapons.

Last month, NATO said Syria's government is "approaching collapse" and urged al-Assad to stop fighting and accommodate a political transfer of power.

The United States has provided more than $200 million in humanitarian aid and other funding to the Syrian opposition. Tuesday, President Barack Obama approved another $155 million in aid.

The United States has pressed the Syrian opposition to establish a leadership structure, amid a conflict that has already claimed the lives of about 60,000 people, according to United Nations estimates.

But Washington has been hesitant to get too involved in the region. Obama told CBS's "60 Minutes" that "We want to make sure that not only does it (U.S. involvement) enhance U.S. security, but also that it is doing right by the people of Syria and neighbors like Israel that are going to be profoundly affected by it."

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