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Israeli Warplanes Make Strike on Weapons Convoy in Syria

January 30, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Though Israel has not confirmed the news, Syrian media and an U.S. official say that Israeli war planes struck a convoy carrying missiles or missile parts inside Syria. Gwen Ifill talks to Margaret Warner reporting from Jerusalem about tensions and complicated relationships between Israel, Iran, Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon.
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GWEN IFILL: Now to the Middle East and new tensions along the between Israel and Syria.

The NewsHour has confirmed reports that Israeli warplanes struck a convoy inside Syria today. Syrian officials have confirmed some details of those reports and disputed others. Israel wouldn’t confirm or deny the strike.

Margaret Warner has been reporting on the developments from Jerusalem. I spoke with her a short while ago.

Margaret, it’s good to see you.

Based on your reporting, what can you tell us about this attack today?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Gwen, Israeli officials are completely mum about this, but I have been able to confirm from a U.S. official that, in fact, the attack took place, that hit was a convoy of trucks carrying SA-17 anti-missile components or the missiles themselves headed toward Lebanon.

My — the official I talked to said it actually occurred fairly near Damascus, but that the missiles or missile parts were already in Hezbollah’s hands, in other words, that this wasn’t a Syrian army convoy taking the weapons to Hezbollah, the militant Shiite group in Lebanon, but Hezbollah already had possession of them. If that turns out to be the case, it says a lot about Hezbollah’s actions and activities in Syria right now.

GWEN IFILL: So, a U.S. official has confirmed this to you. The Syrian state television has said this happened. But Israel’s been awfully mum on this. What is — why are they being so quiet about it?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Gwen, there’s no percentage in it for Israel to confirm this, first of all, to confirm that they violated Syrian airspace.

Secondly, they don’t want to become the issue. In other words, they wanted to prevent these weapons from getting into Hezbollah’s hands in Lebanon. But they certainly didn’t want to do it in a way or crow in a way that either Syria feels it has to respond or Hezbollah feels it has to respond.

As one analyst said to me, if it was intended to send a message also to the two parties that, look, don’t try transferring any chemical weapons or anything else, because we have our eyes on you and we can take everything out, that message was received. Syria and Hezbollah know what happened.

But, you know, from Israel’s perspective, they do not want to become, as I said, the issue. They are watching the demise of one of their — of their nemesis in the region, one of them, Syria, and they just prefer to stand back and let it happen.

GWEN IFILL: Is there any risk for Israel in Assad’s fall, should he fall?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Israeli officials think there is.

And there’s been an evolution in the thinking on this. Initially, there was concern that, you know, Assad’s the devil we know. Who knows what’s going to happen? They certainly are concerned about jihadi elements in the rebel forces. They’re concerned about the transfer potentially of chemical weapons to Hezbollah.

But they have come around to the view that, in fact, it would be very good for Syria, because it will take the key link out of this arc that goes from Iran through Syria to Hezbollah. And I went in actually to see the minister of intelligence and atomic energy last week, Dan Meridor. And he said to me, if the Assad regime falls, it will be bad for the Iranian regime. And he said, Iran needs to lose this game in Syria.

So, whether the Israelis are correct or not, whether it will turn out that the devil they knew was better, they don’t think so, and they think that, in fact, Iran will be less emboldened, have the reverse of emboldened, if they lose Assad, their key Arab ally in the region.

GWEN IFILL: So, is it fair to say, Margaret, that whether we’re talking about Turkey’s role or Jordan’s role, the U.S. role or Israel’s role, all of this circles back to Iran?

MARGARET WARNER: You know, it does, Gwen. It really does.

All these countries, one, are concerned about Iranian influence in the region, two, are concerned about Iran’s nuclear weapons program, and three, some would say there’s the sort of the Sunni/Shiite divide which seems to become more and more a fault line in this Arab and Persian world.

So it is very interesting that, for instance, as you know, the Israelis and the Turks have not been getting along at all ever, since the flotilla incident a couple of years ago. And yet my understanding from both the Israeli and U.S. officials is that there’s intense planning going on now among the U.S., Israel, the Jordanians, and the Turks about a kind of division of labor, how to handle the chemical weapons, the potential dispersal of chemical weapons.

Who does the airpower? If some kind of special forces or ground forces are needed, who does that? So I think that, on this issue, unlike, say, on the Iran issue, Israel and the U.S. are very much in tandem. At least they understand one another. And I’m told that Netanyahu had recently — and I’m reading — described his relationship with the Obama White House on this as an intimate relationship, which is certainly not the way one would describe their relationship over Iran.

GWEN IFILL: And so far tonight, nothing about retaliation from Syria for this attack?

MARGARET WARNER: No, not, though it is interesting, as you pointed out, that just really within I think the last half-hour Syrian television did — well, what they — I think what they confirmed was that someone — that planes did hit a facility near Damascus.

Now, was that the facility where the SA-17s are coming from? We don’t really know if the two are connected or it’s all one incident. And we have to remember, you know, after the Benghazi attack how incomplete and scattered early reports are. But Syrians have confirmed the Israelis hit.

GWEN IFILL: Well, fortunately, we have you on the ground to keep up with the story.

Margaret Warner, thanks so much.

MARGARET WARNER: Thanks, Gwen.

GWEN IFILL: You can find a link to Margaret’s dispatches from Israel and posts from the rest of our reporting team there on our home page, including a story about an underground hospital built to withstand bombs and chemical attacks.