Two American officials have claimed that the main target of the Israeli raid on Syria last Wednesday was a military convoy travelling towards Lebanon, but it hit a scientific research and study centre by accident instead. Images shown on Syrian television showed the damage done to some of the centre's buildings. According to the Washington Post, US and Western intelligence services have tied the centre to biological and chemical research, and say that it is linked to Syria's nuclear programme and the nuclear reactor that Syria was in the process of establishing near Deir Al-Zour before it was bombed by Israel in 2007.
Although the Israeli Minister of Defence, Ehud Barak, implied Israel's responsibility for the operation, when he said in Munich that if Israel says it will do something it generally does it, the damage does not suggest that the bombs were aimed directly at the centre. The US officials said that the main target was a weapons convoy on its way to "the wrong people".
Moreover, the officials claim that the damage done to the research centre was not the result of direct bombing but the ammunition in the convoy which exploded. Most reports agreed that the convoy was carrying the advanced "SE-17" type missiles, understood to be part of Syria's arsenal. This was apparently confirmed by pictures on Syrian television.
The New York Times quoted an American official who appeared to confirm the story. He said that the damage done to the centre was definitely a result of the explosion caused when the weapons that were the target of the attack exploded. He also pointed out that the Israeli aircraft which infiltrated the Syrian defences were small and specialized for such a mission; if the centre and the convoy were both the target, there would have been a risk that the raid wouldn't have a lasting effect on either. This, claimed the official, confirmed that the main target was the weapons being sent to Lebanon.
The raid indicates Israel's willingness to risk military intervention in order to prevent any advanced weaponry reaching Hezbollah, Syria's ally in Lebanon. Furthermore, the ease with which Israeli air force jets flew into Syrian airspace is a message to the Syrian regime, as well as an indirect message to Iran, which is the main supporter of the Syrian president and Hezbollah.
Despite Barak's statements, there are a number of reasons to doubt the claim that the target was the weapons' convoy, not the research centre.
According to Ruslan Aliev, a strategy and technology analyst in Moscow, the transportation of Russian made SE-17 missiles to Hezbollah would be embarrassing for Russia. In any case, such missiles are very advanced and would be difficult for Hezbollah to use, and they are hard to identify. He added that Hezbollah's possession of such weapons would have humiliated Moscow and made it hard for Russia to continue supporting Bashar Al-Assad in Damascus.
The attack was a message to Iran that Israel is willing to hit nuclear facilities if and when it is confirmed that Iran is close to producing a nuclear bomb. However, Tehran will be a harder target than Syria due to the fact that the nuclear facility of concern to Israel and the West is 300 feet underground. The Iranian issue is at the heart of Benjamin Netanyahu's policies; he said that the incoming coalition government must be focused on preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
This, however, does not mean that Israel is not concerned with the more immediate threat, Syria. The centre that the government said was hit was under observation by the US and its allies; the US Treasury froze the assets of companies associated with it in 2005. Moreover, specialists say that it has been linked to military, chemical and biological research for the Syrian army for more than 40 years. Security experts also believe that the centre has contact with North Korea. However, the question about the nature of the damage to the centre remains, because the picture isn't clear. According to researchers, though, the centre is a main complex for the Syrian military's manufacture and development of chemical and biological agents.
Whatever the case, the campaign led by Al-Assad on Sunday will not be enough to counter the damage to the system caused by the raid. Hence, the Syrian president has accused the opposition of working with Israel to destabilise the country. Despite a threat to retaliate, no one believes that his regime is in any state to engage with an enemy like Israel, especially since his Russian-supplied air defences were unable to prevent the Israeli raid.
A report in Britain's Daily Telegraph quoted a Syrian opposition figure in Washington who is in contact with the US State Department; according to him, the centre was bombed repeatedly for 4 to 5 hours. He pointed out that it is a large complex with heavy security and defence systems in place, so he was surprised that the attackers got through.
It is noticeable that while threats came from Damascus invitations for dialogue emanated from Munich. At the time that the commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, Mohammad Ali Ja'afari, expressed his hope that Syria would retaliate, Ali Akbar Salehi, the Iranian Foreign Minister, was inclined to negotiate with Muath Al-Khateeb, Chairman of the National Syrian Coalition, who also met with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov and American Vice-President Joe Biden on Saturday. Although the invitation for dialogue is still in its early phase and hasn't progressed beyond being welcomed by the parties, the Russian and Iranian meeting with Al-Khateeb shows that Tehran and Moscow desire to resolve the crisis. Indeed, the two countries are now talking about the negative repercussions if Al-Assad is overthrown.
The meetings in Germany took place as the conflict in Syria is stumbling towards a stalemate. The number of Syrians killed in January was 5,000; that figure is likely to rise in the months ahead if a resolution is not found soon.
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