BEIRUT (Reuters) - Foreign forces destroyed advanced Russian anti-ship missiles in Syria last week, rebels said on Tuesday - a disclosure that appeared to point to an Israeli raid.
Qassem Saadeddine, spokesman for the Free Syrian Army’s Supreme Military Council, said a pre-dawn strike on Friday hit a Syrian navy barracks at Safira, near the port of Latakia. He said that the rebel forces’ intelligence network had identified newly supplied Yakhont missiles being stored there.
“It was not the FSA that targeted this,” Saadeddine told Reuters. “It is not an attack that was carried out by rebels.
“This attack was either by air raid or long-range missiles fired from boats in the Mediterranean,” he said.
Rebels described huge blasts - the ferocity of which, they said, was beyond the firepower available to them but consistent with that of a modern military like Israel’s.
Israel has not confirmed or denied involvement. The Syrian government has not commented on the incident, beyond a state television report noting a “series of explosions” at the site.
According to regional intelligence sources, the Israelis previously struck in Syria at least three times this year to prevent the transfer of advanced weaponry from President Bashar al-Assad’s army to Iranian-backed Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon.
Such weaponry, Israeli officials have made clear, would include the long-range Yakhonts, which could help Hezbollah repel Israel’s navy and endanger its offshore gas rigs. In May, Israel and its U.S. ally complained about Moscow sending the missiles to Syria. Israel said they would likely end up with Hezbollah. The Lebanese group has said it does not need them.
Asked about the Latakia blasts, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon told reporters: “We have set red lines in regards to our own interests, and we keep them. There is an attack here, an explosion there, various versions - in any event, in the Middle East it is usually we who are blamed for most.”
A former senior Israeli security official, who declined to be named, told Reuters that the area of Latakia in question was known to have been used to store Yakhont missiles.
Technically at war with Syria, Israel spent decades in a stable standoff with Damascus while the Assad family ruled unchallenged. It has been reluctant to intervene openly in the two-year-old, Islamist-dominated insurgency rocking Syria.
But previous air strikes near Damascus, on January 30, May 3 and May 5, made little attempt to conceal Israel’s involvement.
Reporting by Mariam Karouny, Khaled Oweis and Dan Williams; Editing by Alastair Macdonald