BEIRUT, Lebanon — The Syrian government publicly condemned Israel for a powerful air assault on military targets near Damascus early Sunday, saying it "opened the door to all possibilities," as fear spread in the region that the country's civil war could expand beyond its borders.
The attack, which sent brightly lit columns of smoke and ash into the night sky above the capital, struck several military facilities in some of the country's most tightly secured and strategic areas. It also killed dozens of elite troops stationed near the presidential palace, the New York Times reported, citing an unnamed high-ranking Syrian military official.
Israel refused to confirm the attack, the second in three days, and Israeli analysts said it was unlikely that Israel was seeking to intervene in the Syrian conflict. They said the attacks in all likelihood expanded and continued Israel's campaign to prevent the Syrian government from transferring weapons to Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia and political party in neighboring Lebanon that is one of Israel's most dangerous foes.
Rebels, opposition activists and residents said the strikes hit bases of the elite Republican Guard and storehouses of long-range missiles in addition to a military research center that U.S. officials have called the country's main chemical weapons facility.
A U.S. official said a more limited strike early Friday at Damascus International Airport was also meant to destroy weapons being sent from Iran to Hezbollah.
Concerns flared whether Hezbollah might attack Israel in retaliation, possibly drawing Lebanon into the conflict. Israel deployed two of its Iron Dome missile-defense batteries in its northern cities. Iran's Islamic Republic News Agency said Israel could expect a "crushing" retaliation from Syria or "the resistance," meaning Hezbollah.
Analysts said Syria, weakened by the civil war, and Hezbollah, overstretched as it commits more forces to support the government of President Bashir Assad, were unlikely to act, but cautioned that a miscalculation by either side that sparked an escalation could not be ruled out. And Assad could choose to mount covert attacks against Israeli targets abroad, rather than engage its military directly.
In Washington, the reported Israeli attacks stoked debate about whether U.S.-led airstrikes are the logical next step to cripple Assad's ability to counter the rebel forces or use chemical weapons. That was already being discussed in secret by the United States, Britain and France in the days leading up to the Israeli strikes, according to U.S. and foreign officials involved in the discussions. The model is based on the opening days of the attacks on Libya that ultimately drove Moammar Gadhafi from power.
Lawmakers from both parties urged President Barack Obama to move toward arming the rebels.
"The idea of getting weapons in — if we know the right people to get them — my guess is we will give them to them," Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said on NBC's Meet the Press.
The White House declined to say whether it believed Israel was responsible for the Damascus explosions, though other U.S. officials said there was no plausible alternative cause, given the size and precision of the strikes. Josh Earnest, the deputy press secretary, echoed Obama's statements last week, saying "the Israelis are justifiably concerned about the threat posed by Hezbollah obtaining these advanced weapon systems."
Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al-Mekdad, speaking on CNN, called the strikes "an act of war."
At the military's Tishreen Hospital, a doctor said there were at least 100 dead soldiers and many dozens more wounded, the New York Times reported, without identifying the doctor.
While much of the region debated the military and political effect, Damascus felt like a city on high alert.
Hassan Husseini, 41, said at 4 a.m., two hours after the blasts, he drove a friend home. He was still reeling from the blasts, he said: "The walls were moving and the ground was trembling under us."
Soldiers at the city's ubiquitous checkpoints inspected his car unusually carefully, he said.
"There was tension," he said. "You could sense the alertness in the houses and among people; everybody was awake."
Within hours, the rebel Damascus Military Council declared that it would try to capitalize on the bombing. The council issued a statement calling on all fighters in the area to work together, put aside rivalries and mount focused attacks on government forces.
But Louay Mekdad, a spokesman for the Supreme Military Council, considered the United States' best option for a military ally among the rebels, said the strike by itself would not present an opportunity to tip the balance.
The elite Republican Guard units that were hit are currently believed to have little involvement in the fighting against Syria's rebels, though they are a last-resort line of defense.
"Does this erode the regime's long-term capability? Undoubtedly," said Emile Hokayem, an analyst with the International Institute for Strategic Studies. "Does this create a short-term opportunity for the opposition? It's doubtful."
Some analysts said Israel may have been sending a message to its main rival, Iran, that despite recent gains by Assad's forces, the alliance between Iran, Syria and Hezbollah has waning power to check Israeli action.
Syrian state television said the explosions confirmed what the government has been contending all along: that the rebels are part of a U.S.-Israeli conspiracy to target Assad for his support of Palestinians and opposition to Western policies in the Middle East.
But a long-standing refrain among fighters and activists has been that Assad's anti-Israel stance was a sham. They note that while the government's security forces and military failed to prevent the Israeli strikes — and for that matter have not clashed with Israel since 1973 — they have killed tens of thousands of Syrians and jailed many more in order to hold onto power.
Missiles that are being targeted
Israel has carried out airstrikes against Syria twice in the past three days, targeting what officials say are shipments of highly accurate, Iranian-made guided missiles known as Fateh-110s believed to be on their way to Lebanon's Hezbollah militant group. Here are some details about the missile:
What is the Fateh-110?
The Fateh-110, or "Conqueror" in Farsi, is a short-range ballistic missile developed by Iran and first put into service in 2002. Iran unveiled an upgraded version last year that improved the weapon's accuracy and increased its range to 185 miles. Iranian Defense Minister Gen. Ahmad Vahidi said at the time that the solid-fueled missile could strike with precision, making it the most accurate weapon of its kind in Iran's arsenal.
Why are the missiles important?
Israel worries the missiles could be transferred to Lebanon's Hezbollah, providing a major boost to the Shiite militant group's arsenal. The Fateh-110 is more accurate than anything Hezbollah is currently known to possess. Israel and Hezbollah fought a monthlong war in mid 2006 that ended in a stalemate. The missile would put almost all of Israel in range, and its precision guidance system poses a threat to Israeli infrastructure and military installations.