(Photo: Reuters/Baz Ratner)
After a series of airstrikes near the Syrian capital of Damascus that were apparently meant to target shipments of Iranian-made missiles bound for Hezbollah, Israel increased on Sunday military deployment and strengthened rocket defenses along its northern border as preparation for possible retaliation.
Explosions at the Jamraya military and scientific research center in Damascus on Sunday, being attributed to Israel, were seen by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime as "a declaration of war," a top Syrian official told CNN.
The airstrikes targeted Fateh-110 ("Conqueror" in Farsi language) short-range ballistic missiles developed by Iran that were believed to be destined for Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militant group allied with Iran, across the border.
Sunday's explosions allegedly by Israel were the second set of airstrikes since Friday, and ahead of a possible collapse of Assad's regime. Friday's airstrikes hit near the Damascus airport where the Fateh-110s were being stored.
Israel believes that Iran is seeking to sneak in weapons for Hezbollah via Syria as Assad's regime might fall in the near future. Iran has allegedly backed Hezbollah for years, by way of financial and military support.
Before the latest series of explosions, Israel had carried out a lone airstrike in Syria in January to target anti-aircraft missiles headed to Hezbollah.
Syria said the attacks were a "flagrant violation of international law," and claimed they point to Israel's links with rebel groups fighting against Assad's regime. It is Syria's right "to defend its people by all available means," The Associated Press quoted Syria's information minister, Omran al-Zoubi, as saying while reading a Cabinet statement after an emergency government meeting.
Israel has deployed two batteries of its "Iron Dome" rocket defense system to the north, saying it's part of "ongoing situational assessments." The system was also used in the Gaza Strip last November to shoot down hundreds of rockets launched by Hamas militants.
It is estimated that over 70,000 people have been killed and millions have been displaced in the civil war since March 2011.
The United States has responded to Israeli airstrikes by saying its ally has the right to defend itself.
"The Israelis are justifiably concerned about the threat posed by Hezbollah obtaining advanced weapons systems, including some long-range missiles," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Sunday.
Israel has largely remained away from the Syrian civil war, and its airstrikes are believed to be aimed only at preventing Iran from shipping weapons to Hezbollah.
Syria's civil war is complex. It is estimated that about 10 percent of Syria's 23 million people are Christian, another 10 percent are from the Alawite sect, a Shiite offshoot. Another 10 percent, or more, are non-Arab ethnic Kurds, who are mostly Sunni Muslim but have their own language and culture, and are seen as secular and Western-oriented. The rest, about 70 percent, are largely Sunni Muslims.
While President Assad is an Alawite and is supported by Iran and Hezbollah among other Shi'a groups, the opposition movement is backed by Saudi Arabia and dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and Arab nationalists. It is believed that some of the groups fighting government forces are affiliated with al Qaeda, or receive support from it.
The opposition is not seen as unified or inclusive or having a clearly laid out agenda for political process that would follow Assad's ouster, which is one of the reasons why the United States has avoided direct military action against the Assad regime.