By JOSEF FEDERMAN
and KARIN LAUB
BEIRUT — The Syrian state news agency SANA, citing initial reports, said early Sunday that Israeli missiles struck a military research center near the capital Damascus.
If confirmed, it would be the second Israeli strike on targets in Syria in three days, signaling a sharp escalation of Israel’s involvement in Syria’s bloody civil war.
Israel has said it will not allow sophisticated weapons to flow from Syria to the Lebanese Hezbollah militia, an ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad and a heavily armed foe of the Jewish state.
Two previous Israeli airstrikes, one in January and one on Friday, targeted weapons shipments apparently bound for Hezbollah, Israeli and U.S. officials have said.
Israeli officials were not immediately available for comment on the reports of a new strike Sunday. In Washington, a Pentagon spokeswoman said she had no information relating to the report by Syrian state media.
SANA said explosions went off at the Jamraya research center near Damascus, causing casualties. “Initial reports point to these explosions being a result of Israeli missiles that targeted the research center in Jamraya,” SANA said.
A Syrian activist group, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, also reported large explosions in the area of Jamraya, a research facility northwest of Damascus, about 10 miles from the Lebanese border.
Israel’s first airstrike in Syria, in January, also struck Jamraya.
At the time, a U.S. official said Israel targeted trucks next to the research center that carried SA-17 anti-aircraft missiles. The strikes hit both the trucks and the research facility, the official said. The Syrian military said at the time that Israeli warplanes crossed into the country and bombed the research center.
On Saturday, Israeli officials confirmed that a day earlier, Israeli aircraft targeted a weapons shipment in Syria that was apparently bound for Hezbollah. U.S. officials said they believed the strike hit a warehouse.
The Israeli and U.S. officials spoke anonymously because they had not been given permission to speak publicly about the matter.
President Barack Obama said Saturday, before the latest incident, that it was up to Israel to confirm or deny any strikes, but that the U.S. coordinates very closely with Israel.
“The Israelis, justifiably, have to guard against the transfer of advanced weaponry to terrorist organizations like Hezbollah,” Obama told the Spanish-language TV station Telemundo.The Israeli and U.S. officials spoke anonymously because they had not been given permission to speak publicly about the matter.
Obama said Saturday it was up to Israel to confirm or deny any strikes, but that the U.S. coordinates very closely with Israel.
“The Israelis, justifiably, have to guard against the transfer of advanced weaponry to terrorist organizations like Hezbollah,” Obama told the Spanish-language TV station Telemundo.
The Syrian government said it had no information on an Israeli attack, while Hezbollah and the Israeli military spokesman’s office declined comment.
Amos Gilad, an Israeli defense official, would not confirm or deny the airstrike, but played down cross-border tensions.
Hezbollah has not obtained any of Syria’s large chemical weapons arsenal and is not interested in such weapons, Gilad said. Instead, the militia is “enthusiastic about other weapons systems and rockets that reach here (Israel),” he said Saturday in a speech in southern Israel.
Assad “is not provoking Israel and the incidents along the border (between Syria and the Israeli-controlled Golan) are coincidental,” Gilad said.
After Hezbollah’s military infrastructure was badly hit during the 2006 war, the group was rearmed by Iran and Syria — with Tehran sending the weapons and Damascus providing the overland supply route to Lebanon.
“This is a very sophisticated network of Iranian arms, Syrian collection, storage, distribution and transportation to Hezbollah,” said Salman Shaikh, director of The Brookings Doha Center and in 2007 involved in U.N. weapons monitoring in Lebanon.
Shaikh said Israel had detailed knowledge of weapons shipments to Hezbollah at the time and most likely has good intelligence now. “The Israelis are watching like hawks to see what happens to these weapons,” he said.
With Israel apparently enforcing its red lines, much now depends on the response from Hezbollah and Syria, analysts said.
Israeli officials have long feared that Assad may try to draw Israel into the civil war in hopes of diverting attention and perhaps rallying Arab support behind him.
But retaliation for Israeli airstrikes would come at a high price, said Moshe Maoz, an Israeli expert on Syria.
“Bashar has his own problems and he knows that conflict with Israel would cause the collapse of his regime,” Maoz said. “He could have done that long ago, but he knows he will fall if Israel gets involved.”
Hezbollah, which is fighting alongside Assad’s troops, appears to have linked its fate to the survival of the Syrian regime. Nasrallah, the Hezbollah chief, said this week that Syria’s allies “will not allow Syria to fall into the hands of America or Israel.”
On the other hand, Hezbollah could endanger its position as Lebanon’s main political and military force if it confronts Israel, and it’s not clear if the militia is willing to take that risk.
Hezbollah isn’t Israel’s only concern. Israeli officials believe it is only a matter of time before Assad’s government collapse, and they fear that some of the Islamic extremist groups battling him will turn their attention toward Israel once Assad is gone.
Reflecting Israel’s anxiety, the Israeli military called up several thousand reservists earlier this week for what it called a “surprise” military exercise on its border with Lebanon.
Obama has said the use of chemical weapons would have “enormous consequences,” but has also said he needs more definitive proof before making a decision about how to respond.
Obama said Friday that he didn’t foresee a scenario in which the U.S. would send troops to Syria. Instead, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has said Washington is reviewing its opposition to arming the opposition.
The U.S. so far has balked at sending weapons to the rebels, fearing the arms could end up in the hands of al-Qaida-linked groups or other extremists in the opposition ranks.
Secretary of State John Kerry, meanwhile, is heading to Moscow next week to try to persuade Russian President Vladimir Putin to support, or at least not veto, a fresh effort to impose U.N. penalties on Syria if Assad doesn’t begin political transition talks with the opposition.
Russia, alongside China, has blocked U.S.-led efforts three times at the United Nations to pressure Assad into stepping down.
In Syria, about 4,000 Sunni Muslims fled the coastal town of Banias on Saturday, a day after reports circulated that dozens of people, including children, had been killed by pro-government gunmen in the area, activists said.
Also Saturday, Assad made his second public appearance in a week in the capital Damascus. Syrian state TV said Assad, who rarely appears in public, visited a Damascus campus, and footage showed him being thronged by a large crowd. The report said Assad inaugurated a statue dedicated to “martyrs” from Syrian universities who died in the country’s uprising and civil war.