The U.S. intelligence community has determined that Israeli jets bombed a Hezbollah weapons depot containing advanced Russian weaponry inside Syria earlier this month.
“Oh, God, every time something happens in the Middle East, Israel is accused. Most often, it's accused—and I'm not in the habit of saying what we did or we didn't do,” Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu said July 14 on CBS’s Face the Nation. “I'll tell you what my policy is. My policy is to prevent the transfer of dangerous weapons to Hezbollah and other terror groups, Hezbollah in Lebanon and other terror groups as well. And we stand by that policy.”
But a July 10 assessment by the Defense Intelligence Agency, reported here for the first time, found that Israel was in fact responsible for the explosions in the Syrian coastal town of Latakia on July 5—the third known Israeli strike inside Syria since the civil war there began in 2011. The DIA used U.S. satellite imagery and other kinds of technical intelligence to determine that Israeli jets firing precision-guided munitions destroyed a Russian shipment of Yakhont anti-ship missiles, according to a U.S. official who had seen the intelligence.
The State Department has objected to shipments of the Yakhont missile since December 2011, when reports first surfaced of Russian transfers of the weapon. The U.S. Navy has taken a keen interest in the missile in recent years because the missiles are equipped with instruments capable of jamming air-defense radars.
On May 17, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the department had "consistently raised concerns" about prior shipments of the anti-ship missiles. On Monday Psaki refused to comment on the speculation that Israel was behind the Latakia bombing.
The U.S. official who relayed the intelligence said the DIA assessment found no evidence that any Russians were killed in the Israeli strikes. When President Obama visited Israel in March, Netanyahu said publicly and in private meetings, according to Israeli officials, that his country would prevent the transfer of advanced conventional weapons from Syria to Hezbollah, the fundamentalist political party and militia based in southern Lebanon.
It remains unclear whether the airstrikes were launched from Israel or Turkey. The Turkish foreign ministry adamantly denies that it allowed Israel to use Turkish airspace to carry out the raids.
Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Jim Miller and Joint Chiefs of Staff vice chairman Adm. James Winnefeld briefed members of the Senate Armed Services Committee behind closed doors in the Capitol on Tuesday morning.
Committee member Lindsey Graham (R-SC) told The Daily Beast on Tuesday that the latest Israeli strike is another sign the two-plus-year Syrian civil war is spilling over into the region in dangerous and unpredictable ways.
“Here’s what the Israeli strikes show us. If we don’t do something about Syria, it’s going to spread quickly,” said Graham. “Six more months from now, if nothing changes, that’s going to require Israel to do more, not less, and every time Israel has to take military action in the Middle East, that’s not a good thing.”
The Obama administration’s reluctance to get more involved in the Syrian conflict is creating a security vacuum the Israelis have no choice but to fill, he said.
“This is the result of us not leading a coalition of many willing people,” Graham said.
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) said that the multiple Israeli raids in Syria without resistance or response from Bashar al-Assad’s regime show that targeted airstrikes against the Syrian military are doable, despite warnings from the Obama administration about the dangers of Syrian air defenses. But the Pentagon is still hyping up the Syrian capabilities, McCain said, due to its desire to not intervene.
“Again, it’s an example of the way our military continues, with political direction, to find ways of not acting to stop the massacre,” McCain said.
In May Assad promised retaliation for any further Israeli airstrikes inside Syria, but no Syrian government response has yet materialized.
A growing chorus of senators, now including Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin (D-MI), is calling on the Obama administration to consider the use of limited airstrikes against the Syrian military.
“The United States should join with our international partners to comprehensively plan additional steps to up the military pressure on the Assad regime,” Levin said July 12. “Such plans could include options for limited, targeted strikes at Assad’s apparatus of terror, including his air power and artillery. Such strikes could degrade Assad’s military capabilities and bring some relief to the embattled Syrian people.”
For the Syrian opposition and its friends in Washington, the Israeli strike on Latakia shows the gap between Israel’s commitment to enforce its red lines and the Obama administration’s unclear policy toward Assad. Despite announcing increased military aid to the Syrian rebels last month as a response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons—crossing Obama’s red line—very little if any increased U.S. military support has been delivered.
“Israel has very clear red lines, and they are sticking to them 100 percent. Every time the Syrian government gets even close to it, the Israelis act. They have clearly articulated what their red lines are and then they follow through on the ground,” said Elizabeth O’Bagy, policy director at the Syrian Emergency Task Force, an American NGO that works with the rebels’ Supreme Military Command. “Meanwhile, the U.S. has been pushing back its red line, and even when the U.S. says a red line has been crossed, it turns out to be just statements.”
Pentagon spokesman George Little declined to comment for this article.