BEIRUT – Israeli warplanes attacked a shipment of Russian missiles inside a Syrian government stronghold, officials said Thursday, a development that threatened to add another volatile layer to regional tensions from the Syrian civil war.
The revelation came as the government of President Bashar Assad met a key deadline in an ambitious plan to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile by mid-2014 and avoid international military action.
The announcement by a global chemical weapons watchdog that the country has completed the destruction of equipment used to produce the deadly agents highlights Assad’s willingness to cooperate, and puts more pressure on the divided and outgunned rebels to attend a planned peace conference.
An Obama administration official confirmed the existence of the Israeli airstrike overnight but provided no details.
Another security official said the attack occurred late Wednesday in the Syrian port city of Latakia and that the target was Russian-made SA-125 missiles.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the attack. There was no immediate confirmation from Syria.
Since the civil war in Syria began in March 2011, Israel has carefully avoided taking sides but has struck shipments of missiles inside Syria at least twice this year.
The Syrian military, overstretched by the civil war, has not retaliated, and it was not clear whether the embattled Syrian leader would choose to take action this time.
Assad may decide to again let the Israeli attack slide, particularly when his army has the upper hand on the battlefield inside Syria.
Israel has never officially confirmed taking action inside Syria to avoid embarrassing Assad. But foreign officials say it has done so several times when Israeli intelligence determined that sophisticated missiles were on the move.
The announcement Thursday that Syria had completed the destruction of equipment used to produce chemical weapons came one day ahead of a Nov. 1 deadline set by the Hague-based watchdog, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
With the initial stage of verification and destruction of weapons machinery completed, the hard task now begins. The executive committee of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has until Nov. 15 to decide how best to permanently destroy Syria’s chemical weapons program and its stockpile of deadly mustard gas, sarin and precursor chemicals.