BEIRUT (AP) — The Syrian regime on Tuesday dispatched an obscure proxy, a Damascus-based Palestinian militant group, to threaten retaliation for two Israeli airstrikes over the weekend.
The relatively tepid response to Israel's breach of Syrian sovereignty highlighted Syrian President Bashar Assad's limited options as he, along with allies Iran and Lebanon's Hezbollah, is bogged down at home in a fight for survival against armed rebels.
Assad and visiting Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi denounced Israel on Tuesday, but stopped short of promising retaliation. Commenting on the airstrikes for the first time, Assad said Syria is "capable of facing Israel's ventures" while Salehi said "it's high time to deter the Israeli occupation" from launching more attacks.
The airstrikes, which Israeli officials say targeted advanced Iranian missiles intended for Hezbollah, marked a sharp escalation of Israel's involvement in the Syrian civil war. They also raised fears that a conflict that has repeatedly spilled over Syria's borders in the past 26 months could turn into a full-fledged regional war.
Assad's regime might be reluctant to open a new front against Israel with his army already stretched thin in the deadlocked fight with the rebels, but he has a history of operating through proxies such as Hezbollah. One Iranian official hinted the Islamic militant group might take the lead.
Hezbollah has in the past struck Jewish or Israeli targets abroad.
On Tuesday, the pro-government newspaper al-Watan also said the Syrian leadership is now permitting Syrian-based Palestinian factions to "carry out anti-Israel attacks from the Golan and announced its readiness to provide the Lebanese resistance (Hezbollah) with all kinds of weapons."
The newspaper said the Syrian army has a list of potential Israeli targets and they "would be bombarded in the event of any new Israeli aggression."
Israel's government also appears to be steering away from broader confrontation. It has not confirmed officially that it was behind the attacks, but officials have said the strikes were meant to deprive Hezbollah of Iranian weapons shipped via Syria, not to target the Assad regime.
Still, Israel raised the risk of getting drawn into the fighting by striking three times: once in January and then again on Friday and Sunday. Israel also signaled it will keep hitting shipments of guided missiles and other advanced weapons if it suspects they are meant for Hezbollah, a militia it has fought repeatedly, including in a 2006 war.
Since the weekend, Syrian and Iranian officials have repeatedly condemned the Israeli attacks, but have not said what they would do in response. Hezbollah's deputy chief, Sheik Naim Kassem, said in a speech at a Hezbollah rally on Tuesday that Israel's strikes "aim to boost the morale of terrorists," a reference to the rebels.
"At the end of the day, it's an issue of survival (for Assad) and retaliation will further endanger that survival," said Bilal Saab, director of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, North America. "The most existential threat (to the regime) is the rebels, not Israel."
Assad and his late father and predecessor, Hafez, rarely engaged Israel directly in the last four decades. They kept Syria's frontier with Israel largely quiet, even though Israel captured and later annexed Syria's Golan Heights. Syria also held its fire when Israeli jets bombed a suspected Syrian nuclear reactor site in 2007.
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