BEIRUT - Israeli warplanes struck areas in and around the Syrian capital Sunday, setting off a series of explosions as they targeted a shipment of highly accurate, Iranian-made guided missiles believed to be bound for Lebanon's Hezbollah militant group, officials and activists said.
The attack, the second in three days and the third this year, signaled a sharp escalation of Israel's involvement in Syria's bloody civil war. Syrian state media reported that Israeli missiles struck a military and scientific research center near Damascus and caused casualties.
Syria's government called the attacks against against its territory a "flagrant violation of international law" that have made the Middle East "more dangerous."
Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi, who read a Cabinet statement to reporters Sunday in Damascus following an emergency government meeting, claimed the Israeli strikes are evidence of the Jewish state's links with Islamic extremist groups trying to overthrow President Bashar Assad's regime.
He added that Syria has the right and the duty "to defend its people by all available means."
While the government tried to use the airstrikes to taint the rebels by linking them to Israel, Syria's arch rival, the attacks still pose a dilemma for an Assad regime already battling a relentless rebellion at home. If it fails to respond, it looks weak and opens the door to such airstrikes becoming a common occurrence. But any military retaliation against Israel would risk dragging the Jewish state and its powerful army into a broader conflict.
The tempo of the new strikes added a dangerous dynamic to the conflict, fueling concerns that events could spin out of control and spark a regional crisis.
Israel's military on Sunday deployed two batteries of its Iron Dome rocket defense system to the north of the country. It described the move as part of "ongoing situational assessments."
A senior Israeli official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to disclose information about a secret military operation to the media, confirmed that Israel launched an airstrike in the Syrian capital early Sunday but did not give more precise details about the location. The target was Fateh-110 missiles, which have precision guidance systems with better aim than anything Hezbollah is known to have in its arsenal, the official told The Associated Press.
The airstrikes come 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.
Iran, a close ally of the Assad regime, condemned the airstrikes, and a senior official hinted at a possible response not from Terhan, but rather Hezbollah.
Gen. Masoud Jazayeri, assistant to the Iranian chief-of-staff, told Iran's state-run Arabic-language Al-Alam TV that Tehran "will not allow the enemy (Israel) to harm the security of the region." He added that "the resistance will retaliate to the Israeli aggression against Syria."
Israel has said it wants to stay out of the Syrian war, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly stated the Jewish state would be prepared to take military action to prevent sophisticated weapons from flowing from Syria to Hezbollah or other extremist groups.
Israel and Hezbollah fought a monthlong war in mid-2006. The militant group fired thousands of rockets at Israel, while Israeli warplanes destroyed large areas of southern and eastern Lebanon during a conflict that ended in stalemate.
Earlier this year, the Iron Dome system was credited with shooting down hundreds of rockets during a round of fighting against Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip.
Israel 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.
Syria's state news agency reported explosions at the Jamraya military and scientific research center near Damascus and said initial reports indicate they were the "result of Israeli missiles." It said there were casualties but did not give a number.
Damascus-based activist Maath al-Shami said the strikes occurred around 3 a.m. "Damascus shook. The explosion was very, very strong," said al-Shami adding that one of the attacks occurred near the capital's Qasioun mountain that overlooks Damascus.
He said the raid targeted a military position for the elite Republican Guards that is in charge of protecting Damascus, Assad's seat of power.
Mohammed Saeed, another activist who lives in the Damascus suburb of Douma, said "the explosions were so strong that earth shook under us." He said the smell of the fire caused by the air raid near Qasioun was noticeable miles away.