BEIRUT — Syria's defense minister signaled Monday that his country won't hit back at Israel over an airstrike inside Syria, claiming the Israeli raid was actually in retaliation for his regime's offensive against rebels he called tools of the Jewish state.
The remarks suggest the regime's military options might be severely constrained after 22 months of fighting an uprising that has depleted its weapons and stretched troops thin.
Israel has all but confirmed it was behind Wednesday's airstrike — a humiliating raid just few miles away from the Syrian capital, Damascus, that added another layer of complication to a chaotic uprising and civil war. U.S. officials said the Israelis struck a military research center and a convoy next to it carrying anti-aircraft weapons destined for the Islamic militant group Hezbollah in neighboring Lebanon.
Syria vowed to retaliate, but the threats of retribution were seen by many as exceedingly mild, drawing criticism and mockery from rebels and opposition leaders who called it proof of President Bashar Assad's weakness and acquiescence to Israel.
In a televised interview Monday, Syrian Defense Minister Gen. Fahd Jassem al-Freij indicated that Syria may not be planning to retaliate at all. He said Israel attacked the research center near Damascus because rebels were unable to capture it. He called the rebels Israel's tools.
He was asked by Syrian state TV why Damascus does not retaliate against Israel.
The Israeli enemy retaliated. When the Israeli enemy saw that its tools are being chased and did not achieve any (of their) goals, they interfered, he responded. It was a response to our military acts against the armed gangs, al-Freij added. The heroic Syrian Arab Army, which proved to the world that it is a strong army and a trained army, will not be defeated.