MUNICH — Israel's defense minister strongly signaled Sunday that his country was behind an airstrike in Syria last week, telling a high profile security conference that Israeli threats to take pre-emptive action against its enemies are not empty. We mean it, Ehud Barak declared.
Israel has not officially confirmed its planes attacked a site near Damascus, targeting ground-to-air missiles apparently heading for Lebanon, but its intentions have been beyond dispute. During the 22 months of civil war in Syria, Israeli leaders have repeatedly expressed concern that high-end weapons could fall into the hands of enemy Hezbollah, the powerful Lebanese militants.
For years, Israel has been charging that Syrian President Bashar Assad and Iran have been arming Hezbollah, which fought a monthlong war against Israel in 2006.
U.S. officials say the target was a convoy of sophisticated Russian SA-17 anti-aircraft missiles. Deployed in Lebanon, they could have limited Israel's ability to gather intelligence on its enemies from the air.
Over the weekend, Syrian TV broadcast video of the Wednesday attack site for the first time, showing destroyed vehicles and a damaged building identified as a scientific research center. The U.S. officials said the airstrike hit both the building and the convoy.
In his comments Sunday in Munich, Barak came close to confirming that his country was behind the operation.
I cannot add anything to what you have read in the newspapers about what happened in Syria several days ago, Barak told the gathering of top diplomats and defense officials from around the world.
Then he went on to say, I keep telling frankly that we said — and that's proof when we said something we mean it — we say that we don't think it should be allowed to bring advanced weapons systems into Lebanon. He spoke in heavily accented English.
While Israel has remained officially silent on the airstrike, there seemed little doubt that Israel carried it out, especially given the confirmation from the U.S., its close ally.
Israel has a powerful air force equipped with U.S.-made warplanes and has a history of carrying out air raids on hostile territory. In recent years, Israel has been blamed for an air raid in Syria in 2007 that apparently struck an unfinished nuclear reactor and an arms convoy in Sudan believed to be delivering weapons to Hamas.