BEIRUT – Israel conducted a rare airstrike on a military target inside Syria near the border with Lebanon, foreign officials and Syrian state TV said Wednesday, amid fears President Bashar Assad’s regime could provide weapons to the Islamic militant group Hezbollah.
Regional security officials said Israel had been planning in the days leading up to the airstrike to hit a shipment of weapons bound for Hezbollah, Lebanon’s most powerful military force and a sworn enemy of the Jewish state.
Among Israeli officials’ chief fears is that Assad will pass chemical weapons or sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles to Hezbollah – something that could change the balance of power in the region and greatly hinder Israel’s ability to conduct air sorties in Lebanon.
The regional officials said the shipment Israel was planning to strike included Russian-made SA-17 anti-aircraft missiles, which would be strategically “game-changing” in the hands of Hezbollah by enabling the group to carry out fiercer attacks on Israel and shoot down Israeli jets, helicopters and surveillance drones.
A U.S. official said the strike hit a convoy of trucks but did not give an exact location.
The Syrian military confirmed the strike in a statement read aloud on state TV, but it said the jets bombed a military research center in the area of Jamraya, northwest of the capital, Damascus, and about 10 miles from the border with Lebanon.
The statement said the center was responsible for “raising the level of resistance and self-defense” of Syria’s military. It said the strike destroyed the center and a nearby building, killing two workers and wounding five others.
The Syrian army statement denied the strike had targeted a convoy headed from Syria to Lebanon, instead portraying the strike as linked to the civil war pitting Assad’s forces against rebels seeking to push him from power.
“This proves that Israel is the instigator, beneficiary and sometimes executor of the terrorist acts targeting Syria and its people,” the statement said.
The Israeli military declined to comment, and the location could not be independently confirmed because of reporting restrictions in Syria.
Hezbollah has committed to Israel’s destruction and has gone to war against the Jewish state in the past. Syria has long been among the militant group’s most significant backers and is suspected of supplying with funding and arms, as well as a land corridor to Iran.
This strike also comes as Syria is enmeshed in a civil war. The rebels have seized a large swath of territory in the country’s north and established footholds in a number of Damascus suburbs, though Assad’s forces still control the city and much of the rest of the country.
While Assad’s fall does not appear imminent, analysts worry he could grow desperate as his power wanes and seek to cause trouble elsewhere in the region through proxy groups such as Hezbollah.
Syria’s government portrays the crisis, which started with political protest in 2011 and has since become a civil war, as a foreign-backed conspiracy meant to destroy the country.
Top Israeli officials have recently expressed worries that Assad’s regime could pass chemical weapons to Hezbollah or other militant groups.
President Obama has called Syria’s use of chemical weapons a “red line” whose crossing could prompt a tougher U.S. response, but U.S. officials say they are tracking Syria’s chemical weapons and they still appear to be under regime control.
The strike, carried out either late Tuesday or early Wednesday, appears to be the latest move in a long-running race by Hezbollah to increase its military power while Israel seeks to limit it.
Israel suspects that Syria obtained a battery of SA-17s from Russia after an alleged Israeli airstrike in 2007 that destroyed an unfinished Syrian nuclear reactor.
The airstrike was the first inside Syria in more than five years. In September 2007, Israeli warplanes destroyed a site in Syria that the U.N. nuclear watchdog deemed likely to be a secretly built nuclear reactor. Syria has denied the claim, saying the building was a non-nuclear military site.
Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 war, and Syria demands the area back as part of any peace deal. Despite hostility between the two countries, Syria has been careful to keep the border quiet since the 1973 Mideast war and has never retaliated to Israeli attacks since.
Associated Press writers Zeina Karam in Beirut, Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, and Lolita C. Baldor in Washington contributed to this report.