WASHINGTON — The air strike that Israeli warplanes carried out in Syria early Friday was directed at a shipment of advanced surface-to-surface missiles from Iran that Israel believed was intended for Hezbollah, the militant Lebanese organization, the New York Times reported Saturday, citing unnamed U.S. officials.
It was the second time in four months that Israel has carried out an attack in Syria intended to disrupt the pipeline of weapons that runs from there to Hezbollah, which the United States considers a terrorist organization. And the raid highlighted the mounting stakes for Hezbollah and Israel as Syria becomes more chaotic.
Early today, the Syrian state news agency SANA reported that Israeli missiles had targeted a military research center near Damascus. Israeli officials were not available for comment. On Saturday, the officials confirmed that Israeli aircraft targeted the weapons shipment apparently bound for Hezbollah.
Iran and Hezbollah both back President Bashar Assad in the Syrian civil war, now in its third year. But as fighting in Syria escalates, they also have a powerful interest in expediting the delivery of advanced weapons to Hezbollah in case Assad loses his grip on power and Syria ceases to be an effective channel for funneling weapons from Iran.
The missiles that were the target of the Israeli raid had been shipped from Iran and were being stored in a warehouse at Damascus International Airport when they were struck, according to a U.S. official.
Iran has sought to use the threat of a Hezbollah missile attack against Israeli territory as a means of building up its ally and deterring Israel from conducting air strikes on Iranian nuclear installations that Israeli and U.S. officials believe are part of an Iranian nuclear weapons program.
In Lebanon, some analysts said they believed that a strong Hezbollah could also emerge as a powerful ally for Assad if he is forced to abandon Damascus, the Syrian capital, and take refuge in a rump Iranian-backed state on the Syrian coast, a region that abuts the Hezbollah-controlled northern Bekaa Valley in Lebanon.
"The relationship between Hezbollah and the Assad regime is stronger now," said Talal Atrissi, a professor at Lebanese University in Beirut who has good relations with Hezbollah. If Assad falls, Hezbollah knows the axis of Syria, Hezbollah and Iran will be greatly weakened, he said.
Israel, for its part, has repeatedly cautioned that it will not allow Hezbollah to receive "game changing" weapons that could threaten the Israeli heartland.
On Friday, the SANA news agency reported an attack on the Damascus airport by Syrian rebels firing rockets at an aircraft and fuel dump — an account that U.S. officials say may have been intended to obscure the fact that the target was a warehouse full of missiles. The U.S. officials asked not to be identified because they were discussing intelligence reports.
A U.S. official said the targeted shipment consisted of Iranian-made Fateh-110s — a mobile, accurate, solid-fueled missile that has the range to strike Tel Aviv and much of Israel from southern Lebanon, and that represents a considerable improvement over the liquid-fueled Scud missile. Two prominent Israeli defense analysts said the shipment included Scud D's, a missile Syrians have developed from Russian weapons with a range of up to 422 miles — long enough to reach Eilat, in southernmost Israel, from Lebanon.
Syrian forces loyal to Assad have used Fateh-110 missiles against the Syrian opposition. Some American officials are unsure whether the new shipment was intended for use by Hezbollah or by the Assad government, which is believed to be running low on missiles in its bloody civil war. But one American official said the warehouse that was struck in the Israeli attack was believed to be under the control of operatives from Hezbollah and Iran's paramilitary Quds Force.
Hezbollah is believed to have more missiles and fighters than it had before its 2006 battle with Israel, when Hezbollah missiles forced a third of Israel's population into shelters and hit as far south as Haifa. A Pentagon official said in 2010 that Hezbollah's arsenal was believed to include a small number of Fateh-110s, and additional shipments would add to Hezbollah's striking power.
In carrying out Friday's raid, Israeli warplanes fired air-to-ground weapons, apparently staying clear of Syrian airspace and operating in the skies over neighboring Lebanon.
In January, Israel carried out a similar air strike in Syria that used similar tactics, including a route over Lebanon, according to a former senior U.S. official. The January attack was against a convoy carrying SA-17 antiaircraft weapons, which were supplied by Russia. The transfer of those weapons to Hezbollah would jeopardize the Israeli air force's ability to operate over Lebanon.
President Barack Obama, who was traveling in Central America on Saturday, declined to comment on the Israeli air strike. He told the Spanish-language network Telemundo in an interview that he will defer to the Israeli government for comment.
He also repeated his view that the Israelis justifiably have to guard against the transfer of advanced weapons to organizations like Hezbollah.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.