Syria Israel graphic 224.
(photo credit: Rendering by Jonathan Beck)
Israeli warplanes targeted weapons destined for Hizbullah in a strike last week in northeastern Syria, a US government official said Wednesday, even as Israel remained silent over the incident.
The official said the target in the strike last Thursday was a site where Israel believed Syria was storing weapons from Iran heading for the Lebanese terrorist group.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the information involves intelligence gathering and because of the sensitivity of the situation.
Officials in Washington declined for several days to say whether they were aware of the strike, then on Tuesday confirmed they had intelligence indicating it had taken place.
Meanwhile, Syria's UN Ambassador, Bashar Ja'afari, denied the reports on Wednesday, claiming the Israeli jets escaped without hitting their target.
"This is, as we say in French, blah blah," Ja'afari told reporters. "This is nonsense. This is unfounded statement. It is not true because they have already violated the airspace of a country, a member state of the United Nations."
"It's not up to the Israelis or anybody else to assess what we have in Syria and what we don't have," he said.
Ja'afari said it was also "totally wrong" because the Israelis could not find any target in Syria. That is because they were "running away" after coming under fire from Syrian air defenses and dropped their ammunition and extra fuel tanks to lighten the load, he said.
The Syrian ambassador sent identical letters to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the president of the Security Council accusing Israel of "flagrant defiance of international law," the UN Charter and council resolutions.
While Syria has repeatedly affirmed its desire for "a just and comprehensive peace in the region," Ja'afari accused Israel of "choosing aggression and escalation instead of espousing the option of peace" and committing "war crimes."
"In warning the Israeli government of the consequences of such blatant aggression, Syria emphasizes that if the international community persists in disregarding these Israeli actions in breach of international law, that is likely to subject the region and international peace and security to serious consequences that may be difficult to control," he said in the letter, circulated Wednesday.
Ja'afari told reporters Wednesday that Israel carried out the "provocative act ... in the middle of the huge momentum with regard to the peace process in the Middle East."
"We think the Israeli purpose behind doing such an aggressive act is to torpedo the peace process, to torpedo the idea of holding an international conference with the idea of having a comprehensive peace," he said. "So the issue in itself might not be a pure military one, but having a very important diplomatic and political background."
The letters did not ask the Security Council to take any action, but Ja'afari said Syria expects both the council and the secretary-general to react.
"What's happened is a violation of the Charter, a violation of the sovereignty of a member state of United Nations, and bout the secretary-general and Security Council should assume their responsibilities by reaction to such an aggressive act," he said. "They should react because this is their duties, this is their job. It's not up to me to dictate to them what to say."
When Israeli aircraft attacked a Syrian village in October 2003, Ja'afari recalled that the secretary-general denounced the attack and the Security Council condemned it.
"We are waiting for serious outcomes, equal, at least, to the gravity of what happened," he said.
France's UN Ambassador Jean-Maurice Ripert said the letter was circulated to all 15 members but it was not discussed at a meeting on Wednesday. Diplomats said this was because the Syrians did not ask for any action.
On Tuesday, CNN reported that Israel Air Force jets that allegedly infiltrated Syrian airspace early last Thursday apparently bombed an Iranian arms shipment that was being transferred to Hizbullah, Tuesday.
A ground operation may also have been part of the foray, according to the network. Jerusalem refused to confirm or deny the report.
CNN said the operation involved ground forces and that the aerial strike left "a great hole in the desert." Although it did not name a specific source, the network cited "US government officials." The jets have been identified by the Turkish authorities as IAF F15Is, Israel's long-range bomber, after fuel tanks were found in Turkish territory.
The CNN report said the IAF's targets were likely weaponry delivered to Syria that was possibly intended for use by Hizbullah.
CNN's chief international correspondent, Christiane Amanpour, delivered the report and quoted sources saying that Israel was "very happy" with the results of the operation.
A US military official described the Israeli incursion as an air strike "deep into Syria" that succeeded in hitting a target. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because it was an intelligence issue, said he did not know what that target was.
Syria has called the incursion a "hostile act," but has been largely silent on the details of what happened. Israeli officials have refused to comment.
On Thursday, Syria said its air defense systems had fired on IAF aircraft that had infiltrated its airspace near the coastal city of Latakia.
The government, including the Prime Minister's Office and the IDF, maintained their policy of refusing to comment on the incident following the CNN report.
Syria has been known to be transferring weapons of its own, as well as arms from Iran, to Hizbullah.
During the Second Lebanon War, the IDF discovered a wide range of antitank missiles and short-range rockets being used by Hizbullah that had originated in Syria. Several Iranian-made missiles were also in Hizbullah hands before the war, but these were mostly destroyed by the IDF before being fired at Israel.
Over the upcoming holidays, the IDF will continue to maintain a high level of alert along the Syrian border amid fears that Damascus will respond to the alleged flyover. Defense officials said earlier this week that tensions between the countries had begun to subside, but that there was a need to maintain a high alert "just in case."
AP contributed to this report.