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Syria's News Agency Blames Israel For Damascus Blasts


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.


MARTIN: A series of explosions shook the Syrian capital Damascus overnight. Syria's state news agency accused Israeli jets of carrying out the attack on a military research facility. There has been no official confirmation from Israel's government, though officials there have warned they will act to stop weapon transfers from Syria to Hezbollah. That's the Shiite guerilla movement based in Lebanon which is a staunch ally of the Syrian regime.

Our correspondents in the region are following developments. NPR's Deborah Amos is in Amman, Jordan. And Emily Harris is in Jerusalem. Thanks so much to both of you for joining us.


EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: Glad to be here.

MARTIN: Deb, let me begin with you. What can you tell us about the airstrikes?

AMOS: Well, for starters, we have confirmation from Syrian state TV that it was a hit on a military research facility that Israeli jets hit in January. There are videos coming out of Damascus, so we see columns of fire and smoke coming out of the Qasioun Mountains, which is behind Damascus. We also have reports from rebel sources that say there may have been as many as three strikes. Analysts in the region are saying that the targets were surface-to-air missiles that Syrians have either - and there's some confusion here. Either they were Iranian missiles or may have been Russian missiles.

MARTIN: This is at least the second apparent Israeli attack in Syria in the past three days. It seems to represent a significant escalation.

AMOS: Indeed, and it raises so many questions about spillover which we've already seen in Lebanon. We've seen it in Iraq. Jordanians are under the crushing weight of refugees. So this kind of story really makes people very nervous here.

MARTIN: What is this likely to trigger in terms of a response from Iran or Hezbollah, Deb?

AMOS: Almost immediately we had a condemnation from the Iranian Foreign Ministry. They didn't go any further in talking of response. But it is very likely that Iran and Hezbollah will deepen their involvement inside Syria. Last week, the head of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, said in a public speech that he would not allow Bashar al-Assad to fall.

We know from reports that the Iranians are supporting the Syrian regime with billions of dollars. There are Arab analysts here who call it Iran's Vietnam. This kind of strike, an Israeli strike, so sensitive in the region, is very likely to pull both countries deeper into Syria.

MARTIN: Emily, so far there hasn't been any official confirmation from Israeli leaders on any of this. But what position has the Israeli government taken?

HARRIS: That's right, the official response is no comment. But anonymously a senior Israeli defense official has confirmed Israel's involvement, anonymously to the Israeli press. But consistently the Israeli government has said that they will do anything necessary to stop weapons that they feel threaten Israel from getting into the hands of Hezbollah. And there's concern here that Hezbollah maybe trying to increase the number of weapons that it takes out of Syria, speed up that process. And it may draw Israel into a more regular series of this type of airstrike.

MARTIN: What do these strikes say more broadly about the kinds of calculations Israel is making right now?

HARRIS: Well, Israel is watching its northern border very, very carefully. Its border with Syria, it has built a brand-new, huge fence up there this year. There was an exercise - this happening this week - where 2,000 Israeli troops were called up for a practice session along the Lebanese border. The Israeli government has made known that they've deployed now a couple of batteries of Iron Dome, their missile defense system, in the north.

And so, really, all eyes here are on Syria and Lebanon in the north and trying to figure out what may happen. And, of course, thinking like how is this going to affect Israel.

MARTIN: Deb, this isn't I would imagine necessarily good for the Syrian rebels to be seen as having support from Israel, which is how Syrians state TV is characterizing these strikes, right?

AMOS: I think that is why you Syrian state TV immediately made a connection, saying that this was due to Syrian military gains against the rebels - which is true enough. But they said that Israel was supporting what they called the terrorists. And today, rebel sources said they want to topple the regime but they don't want the help of the Israelis. So it's a sensitive escalation. Whether it helps the rebels or not, I think is not clear militarily. But they are uncomfortable with being connected to the Israelis.

MARTIN: NPR's Deborah Amos in Amman, Jordan. And NPR's Emily Harris in Jerusalem. Thanks to you both.

AMOS: Thanks, good to be here.

HARRIS: Thank you.

MARTIN: And tomorrow on MORNING EDITION, Deb Amos reports on what the UNHCR - the U.N.'s refugee agency - is learning about the situation in Syria from the refugees who have fled the country.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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