Israel hints at responsibility for airstrike in Syria
An Israeli official on Sunday discussed for the first time an airstrike on Syria last week, hinting that his government had been behind the attack.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak did not directly claim responsibility for an airstrike that Western officials have said hit a convoy in Syria carrying weapons toward the border with Lebanon. But he said that the international community should take seriously Israel’s assertions that it will protect itself if it feels threatened by the bloody two-year conflict in Syria.
In the days ahead of the strike Israeli officials had repeatedly warned that they would not allow chemical weapons to fall into the hands of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militant group in Lebanon or to Islamist rebels inside Syria. The Syrian government has said that Israeli jets bombed a defense research center near Damascus.
“That’s proof when we said something we mean it,” Barak said, speaking at a security conference in Munich. “We say that we don’t think it should be allowed to bring advanced weapons systems into Lebanon.” But he said that he could not add information to what had already been reported on “what happened in Syria several days ago.”
The attack heightened long-standing fears that the violence in Syria that has claimed more than 60,000 lives could spill over into the rest of the volatile region. Syrian state TV ran images Saturday of damaged vehicles and a building with blown-out windows that it said was the research center.
Syrian state TV said Sunday that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad told an Iranian official that his military could “confront any aggression” toward his country, the Associated Press reported.
The head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, said Sunday that his government hoped Syria would retaliate, Iran’s official IRNA news agency reported.
In Munich, though, Iran’s words were more peaceful. Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi said Sunday that he welcomed the offer by Syrian opposition chief Mouaz al-Khatib to engage in direct talks with Assad’s government, with certain preconditions.
“I was very happy when I heard his remark that he is ready to enter into a negotiation with the representatives of the government,” Salehi said, speaking shortly after Barak, echoing praise that came a day earlier from both Vice President Biden and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Khatib met individually with all three officials in Munich, as well as with U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi.
But Khatib’s offer does not have the unified backing of other Syrian opposition leaders, and there were few apparent breakthroughs despite the round of meetings. Khatib has come under fire for his suggestion last week, first made on his Facebook account and repeated Friday in Munich, that the opposition engage in talks with Damascus if Assad releases political prisoners and renews the passports of Syrians living abroad.
The airstrike in Syria last week was “just an indication of how rapidly this situation could escalate into a regional conflict,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said Sunday in Munich.
Separately, Salehi said Sunday that he welcomed Biden’s offer a day earlier of direct negotiations over Iran’s nuclear ambitions. But he gave no indication that Iran was immediately prepared to take it up.
“Yes, we are ready for negotiation,” Salehi said. But he said Iran was “very firm” that “the other side this time comes with authentic intention, with a fair and real intention to resolve the issue.” He said broader talks with world powers over the nuclear issue would be held in Kazakhstan on Feb. 25.