(photo credit: AP [file])
Syrian President Bashar Assad told the BBC on Monday that Israeli warplanes attacked an "unused military building" in his country last month and that Damascus reserves the right to retaliate.
But Assad said his country was not about to attack in response, suggesting he did not want to hurt chances at peace talks with Israel.
Assad said Israel's air raid on northern Syria showed Israel's "visceral antipathy towards peace," according to excerpts posted on the BBC's Web site.
The comments were the first by the Syrian leader about an alleged September 6 IAF incursion over Syria that raised speculation that warplanes had hit weapons headed for Hizbullah or even a nascent nuclear installation, reports Damascus has repeatedly denied.
"Retaliate doesn't mean missile for missile and bomb for bomb," Assad told the BBC in an interview in Damascus. "We have our means to retaliate, maybe politically, maybe in other ways. But we have the right to retaliate in different means."
"But if we wanted to retaliate militarily, this means we're going to work according to the Israeli agenda, something we don't look for. That doesn't mean we squander any opportunity for peace in the near future," he added in the interview.
One of Israel's leading experts on Syria, Prof. Eyal Zisser of Tel Aviv University's Dayan Center, suggested that Assad may have felt the need to speak in public at this juncture following the almost daily media speculation over what was targeted and how Syria might respond.
According to Zisser, the interview was an attempt by Assad to allay fears - primarily among his own constituents - that war is imminent.
The tone and content of the interview, he said, are restrained and relatively moderate. The more realistic approach [of Assad's response] is in sharp contrast to his bellicose comments following the Second Lebanon War.
Regarding the Syrian president's remarks on the US-sponsored Middle East peace conference next month, Zisser said Assad essentially ruled out Syrian participation, because there is no way that the future of the Golan Heights will be placed on the meeting's agenda.
Prior to Assad's BBC interview, Syrian officials had said only that the Israeli warplanes entered the country's airspace, came under fire from anti-aircraft defenses and dropped munitions and fuel tanks over northeastern Syria to lighten their loads while they fled.
The BBC quoted Assad in the interview as saying the attack was on an "unused military building." The BBC did not air that part of the interview.
US officials have said Israeli warplanes struck a target, with some saying it was a cache of missiles headed for Hizbullah.
But a senior American nonproliferation official said that North Korean personnel were in Syria at the time of the strike, helping its nuclear program, resulting in speculation nuclear installations had been targeted.
Syria and North Korea both denied the reports and accused US officials of spreading the allegations for political reasons.
Asked in the BBC interview whether Syria was rearming and strengthening its missile capabilities, Assad said: "This is very normal and self-evident that we're going to prepare ourselves for that."
Assad also said Syria needed to know details of an international peace conference on the Middle East planned in the United States next month before it decided whether to participate.
"This conference or any conference is going to be an opportunity but it should be purposeful. It should be substantive," he said. "I don't see where is the purpose and what is the substance of this conference. What are they going to talk about?"
"It needs more clarifications for Syria to take a decision," he said.
But he made it clear Syria's concerns need to be addressed - primarily the return of the Golan Heights, captured by Israel in the Six Day War.
"So far we didn't have the invitation and we didn't have any clarification about anything," he said in comments carried on the BBC Web site.
"If they don't talk about the Syrian occupied territory, no, there's no way for Syria to go there. It should be about comprehensive peace, and Syria is part of this comprehensive peace. Without that, we shouldn't go, we wouldn't go."
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said that key Arab nations, including Syria, would be invited to a peace conference expected to be held in the United States in November to provide the foundation for peace talks to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.