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Israel enforces 'red line' with Syria airstrike

By Karin Laub

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, May 4 2013 3:01 p.m. MDT

This photo released on the official Facebook page of Syrian President Bashar Assad, shows Syrian president Bashar Assad, right, surrounded by bodyguards as young people, wave at him during the inauguration ceremony on Saturday of a statue dedicated to "martyrs" from Syrian universities who died in the country's two-year-old uprising and civil war, in Damascus, Syria, Saturday, May. 4, 2013.

The Associated Press

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BEIRUT — With a second airstrike against Syria in four months, Israel enforced its own red line of not allowing game-changing weapons to reach Lebanon's Hezbollah, a heavily armed foe of the Jewish state and an ally of President Bashar Assad's regime, Israeli officials said Saturday.

But the strike, which one official said targeted a shipment of advanced surface-to-surface missiles, also raised new concerns that the region's most powerful military could be dragged into Syria's civil war and spark a wider conflagration.

Fighting has repeatedly spilled across Syria's borders into Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights during more than two years of conflict, while more than 1 million Syrians have sought refuge in neighboring countries.

The airstrike, which was carried out early Friday and was confirmed by U.S. officials, comes as Washington considers how to respond to indications that the Syrian regime may have used chemical weapons in its civil war. President Barack Obama has described the use of such weapons as a "red line," and the administration is weighing its options — including possible military action.

Israel has said it wants to stay out of the brutal Syria war, but could inadvertently be drawn in as it tries to bolster its deterrence and prevent sophisticated weapons from flowing from Syria to Hezbollah or other extremist groups.

Israel and Hezbollah fought a monthlong war in mid-2006 that ended in a stalemate.

Israel believes Hezbollah has restocked its arsenal with tens of thousands of rockets and missiles, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly stated the Jewish state would be prepared to take military action to prevent the Islamic militant group from obtaining new weapons that could upset the balance of power.

It is especially concerned that Hezbollah will take advantage of the chaos in neighboring Syria and try to smuggle advanced weapons into Lebanon. These include anti-aircraft missiles, which could hamper Israel's ability to operate in Lebanese skies, and advanced Yakhont missiles that are used to attack naval ships from the coast.

While Israeli officials on Saturday portrayed the latest airstrike as the continuation of Israel's deterrence policy, more Israeli attacks could quickly lead to an escalation, leaving open the possibility of retaliation by Hezbollah or even the Assad regime and Syria ally Iran.

In January, Israeli aircraft struck a shipment of what was believed to be Russian-made SA-17 anti-aircraft missiles bound for Hezbollah, according to U.S. officials. Israeli officials have strongly hinted they carried out the airstrike, though there hasn't been formal confirmation.

Neither Hezbollah nor Syria responded to that strike.

In a warning to Israel earlier this week, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah said his militia "is ready and has its hand on the trigger" in the event of an Israeli attack on any targets in Lebanon.

Details about Friday's strike remained sketchy.

The U.S. officials said the airstrike apparently hit a warehouse, but gave no other details.

Israeli officials did not say where in Syria the Israeli aircraft struck or whether they fired from Lebanese, Syrian or Israeli airspace.

Israel possesses bombs that can travel a long distance before striking their target. The use of such weapons could allow Israel to carry out the attack without entering Syrian skies, which would risk coming under fire from the regime's advanced, Russian-made anti-aircraft defenses.

The Israeli and U.S. officials spoke anonymously because they had not been given permission to speak publicly about the matter.

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