News Column

Israeli Closes Airspace After Reprisal Warning

May 6, 2013

Israeli airspace near Syria was closed to all but military aviation Monday after Syria warned of "all possibilities" after Israeli airstrikes near Damascus.

At the same time, two Iron Dome missile defense batteries were positioned near Israel's northern border in response to "ongoing situational assessments," an Israeli military spokesman said amid reports of Israeli airstrikes into Syria Sunday for the second time in three days.

There was also a late report Syrian rebels were found to have used the chemical weapon sarin in the war against the Assad regime.

Israel's air-defense system was placed in Haifa, northern Israel's biggest city, and Safed, Israel's highest-elevated city and considered one of Judaism's four holy cities, officials said.

Arkia Israeli Airlines, Israel's second-largest airline, said its flights in the northern district were canceled on military orders until Thursday.

The moves came as Syria vowed painful retaliation for the attacks, which Israel did not publicly acknowledge.

"The Israeli aggression opens the door to all possibilities and confirms the organic correlation between expiatory terrorist groups and the Israeli enemy," Information Minister Omran Zoubi said in a report carried by the state news agency SANA, monitored by United Press International.

Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al-Mekdad said the attacks amounted to a formal act by which one nation goes to war against another.

"When they attack, this is a declaration of war," he told CNN. "This is not something that is [new]," al-Mekdad said. "We dealt with this on several occasions, and we retaliated the way we wanted, and the retaliation was always painful to Israel, and they will suffer again."

The actions and rhetoric followed a second set of powerful explosions deep inside Syria early Sunday that Syria said came from Israeli missile attacks on a Syrian military installation -- the second set of airstrikes by Israel in three days.

Israeli officials wouldn't confirm or deny any details or whether it was responsible.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu made no mention of them at a public appearance Sunday, but spoke pointedly about a commitment to keeping Israel secure.

"[My father] taught me that the greatest responsibility we have is to ensure Israel's security and guarantee its future," he said, dedicating a highway interchange named after his father, Benzion Netanyahu, a historian who died a year ago.

The Sunday attacks -- which U.S. officials privately said was aimed at surface-to-surface missiles bound for the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah from Iran -- followed one Thursday and another in January in the same area.

The missiles were being stored in a warehouse at Damascus International Airport when they were struck, a U.S. official told The New York Times.

The officials said Washington was not part of the attacks.

The regime of President Bashar Assad said Sunday Israel launched a missile attack against the military complex at Jamraya just outside Damascus.

In late January, Israel carried out a similar airstrike in Syria, which it also refused to publicly confirm, that used similar tactics, including a route over Lebanon, U.S. officials said.

U.S. and European diplomats told The Wall Street Journal Israeli officials had privately told U.S. and European counterparts Israel would take action if needed to stop advanced rockets from reaching Hezbollah.

The White House Sunday reiterated a position Obama stated Saturday that Israel had a right to defend itself.

"The Israelis are justifiably concerned about the threat posed by Hezbollah obtaining these advanced weapon systems," spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters, adding Obama believed Israel, "as a sovereign government, has the right to take the actions they feel are necessary to protect their people."

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned against escalating the situation into a regional conflict.

"The secretary-general calls on all sides to exercise maximum calm and restraint, and to act with a sense of responsibility to prevent an escalation of what is already a devastating and highly dangerous conflict," a Ban spokesman said.

"The secretary-general urges respect for national sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries in the region, and adherence to all relevant Security Council resolutions," he said.

Israel's reported airstrikes and Syria's threat of retaliation will probably speed up the Obama administration's decision-making on possible military assistance in the 2-year-old Syrian war, senior officials told The Washington Post before the sarin comment from a U.N. investigator was reported.

The U.S. officials said U.S. troops would likely not be deployed to Syria, but a decision about sending weapons to the Syrian rebels and the possible use of U.S. aircraft and missiles to destroying Syrian army planes, runways and missile sites could be made within weeks, the Post said.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told "Fox News Sunday" the Israeli airstrikes should "put more pressure" on the White House to aid rebel forces.

He called for "game-changing action" by the Washington rather than incremental steps.

At the same time, a U.N. commission member said Sunday night Syrian rebels appear to have used the chemical weapon sarin in their warfare.

"We have evidence of the use of chemical weapons, in particular sarin, not from the government, but opponents," reported Carla Del Ponte of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Syria under the U.N. Human Rights Council told Swiss Italian public broadcaster RSI.

De Ponte is the former general prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

"There are strong suspicions that are concrete, but not yet compelling evidence", she said. "Our investigations will be later verified and confirmed through new evidence."

Sarin gas has been considered a weapon of mass destruction by the United Nations since 1991.

Source: Copyright UPI 2013

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