President Obama commented on Israeli strikes inside Syria Sunday, signaling that his administration was supportive of Israel defending itself against Hezbollah and other terrorist groups.
Attacks Friday and Sunday hit shipments of missiles that Israeli officials said were headed to Hezbollah members in Lebanon.
“[What] I continue to believe is that the Israelis justifiably have to guard against the transfer of advanced weaponry to terrorist organizations like Hezbollah,” Obama said in a televised interview with Telemundo. “And, you know, we coordinate closely with the Israelis recognizing that you know they are very close to Syria, they’re very close to Lebanon. Hezbollah has repeatedly said that they would be willing to attack as far as Tel Aviv. And so the Israelis have to be vigilant and they have to be concerned. And you know we will continue to coordinate with Israel.”
The raid disrupted a shipment of advanced weapons directed from Iran to Hezbollah, The New York Times reported. Israel attacked inside Syria once earlier this year but the latest comes as fears have mounted that Syria’s military command structure is collapsing.
In a statement released Sunday, the rebel Syrian Coalition condemned the strikes, which they said hit the Syrian Center for Scientific Research in Jamaraya. The coalition condemned the regime of leader of Basher Assad.
“The Syrian Coalition is suspicious of the timing of this attack. These strikes have given the regime the necessary time to draw attention away from its crimes and massacres on the Syrian coast. It is not unlikely that as a result of these attacks, and world distraction, more crimes will be committed.”
U.S. officials have said there is evidence that chemical weapons were used recently inside Syria but it remains unclear whether a direct order was given to use them or military officers were acting on their own.
The target of Friday’s Israeli raid was not chemical weapons. An Israeli official in Washington would not comment directly on the assault but said Israel’s concern about Hezbollah’s arsenal was growing.
“Israel is determined to prevent the transfer of chemical weapons or other game-changing weaponry by the Syrian regime to terrorists, specifically to Hezbollah in Lebanon,” an Israeli spokesman in Washington told NBC News’ Andrea Mitchell.
Diplomatic officials told Mitchell that the Obama administration was fully supportive of the Israeli strikes. The strikes targeted Iranian-made Fateh 110 missiles, which are more dangerous than Scud missiles, NBC News reported.
The Obama administration has struggled to find ways to respond to the bloody civil war raging inside Syria. Assad has refused calls from the international community to step aside. He is fighting a string of militant groups determined to bring an end to the multi-decade reign of the Assad family.
President Obama had said that using chemical weapons would be seen as a “red line,” for his administration in an unscripted moment that has now boxed his administration into making a decision over how to proceed in the region, the New York Times reported.
“I do not foresee a scenario in which boots on the ground in Syria, American boots on the ground in Syria, would not be good for America, but also would be good for Syria,” Obama said Friday during a news conference in Costa Rica.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly warned in recent weeks that Israel would be prepared to take military action if chemical weapons or other arms that would upset the balance of power with Hezbollah were to reach the Islamic militant group.
The Israeli officials said the attack took place Friday and was aimed at sophisticated “game-changing” weapons, but not chemical arms.
They did not say where the attack took place, or whether the air force carried out the strike from Lebanese or Syrian airspace.
The Israeli officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose information about a secret military operation to the media. The Israeli press appeared to be under military censorship late Friday and early Saturday with few details about the raid except what U.S. officials told foreign reporters.
U.S. officials had earlier confirmed the airstrike but said only that it appeared to have hit a warehouse.
It’s not the first time that Israel has struck inside Syria since the uprising against Assad began in March 2011.
In January, the Israeli air force is believed to have targeted a shipment of advanced SA-17 anti-aircraft missiles destined for Hezbollah. Israel has not formally admitted to carrying out that airstrike, though officials have strongly hinted they were behind the attack.
U.N-based diplomats estimate that over 70,000 have been killed and many more displaced in Syria’s violent civil war that erupted two years ago.