JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel sought to persuade Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Monday that its recent air strikes around Damascus did not aim to weaken him in the face of a more than two-year-old rebellion.
Officials say Israel is reluctant to take sides in Syria’s civil war for fear its actions would boost Islamists who are even more hostile to Israel than the Assad family, which has maintained a stable stand off with the Jewish state for decades.
But Israel has repeatedly warned it will not let Assad’s ally Hezbollah receive hi-tech weaponry. Intelligence sources said Israel attacked Iranian-supplied missiles stored near the Syrian capital on Friday and Sunday that were awaiting transfer to Hezbollah guerrilla group in neighboring Lebanon.
Syria accused Israel of belligerence meant to shore up the outgunned anti-Assad rebels - drawing a denial on Monday from veteran Israeli lawmaker Tzachi Hanegbi, a confidant of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Interviewed on Israel Radio, Hanegbi said the Netanyahu government aimed to avoid “an increase in tension with Syria by making clear that if there is activity, it is only against Hezbollah, not against the Syrian regime”.
Hanegbi noted Israel had not formally acknowledged carrying out the raids in an effort to allow Assad to save face, adding that Netanyahu began a scheduled visit to China on Sunday to signal the sense of business as usual.
The Assad government has condemned the air strikes as tantamount to a “declaration of war” and threatened unspecified retaliation.
But Hanegbi said Israel was ready for any development if the Syrians misinterpreted its messages and was ready “to respond harshly if indeed there is aggression against us”.
As a precaution, Israel deployed two of its five Iron Dome rocket interceptors near the Syrian and Lebanese fronts and grounded civilian aircraft in the area, although an Israeli military spokesman said the airspace would reopen on Monday.
Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel’s biggest-selling newspaper, said the Netanyahu government had informed Assad through diplomatic channels that it did not intend to meddle in Syria’s civil war.
Israeli officials did not immediately confirm the report, but one suggested that such indirect contacts were not required.
“Given the public remarks being made by senior Israeli figures to reassure Assad, it’s pretty clear what the message is,” the official told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
Military analysts say Syria would be no match for Israel, a U.S. defense ally, in any confrontation. But Damascus, with its leverage over Hezbollah, could still consider proxy attacks through Lebanon, where Israel’s conventional forces fought an inconclusive war against the Iranian-backed guerrillas in 2006.
Tehran, which has long backed Assad, whose Alawite minority has religious ties to Shi‘ite Islam, denied Israel’s attack was on arms. Shi‘ite Hezbollah did not comment.
Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Jon Boyle