Prodded by Iran and Turkey, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Sunday made his first statement about the alleged Israeli air strike on his country last Wednesday.
During a meeting with a top Iranian official in Damascus, Assad was quoted as saying by the state news agency SANA, “Syria…is able to face the current challenges and confront any aggression that might target the Syrian people.”
Last week, Syrian officials threatened a “surprise response.” Likewise, Iran threatened retaliation against Israel.
The chief of Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guards said Sunday that Tehran also hopes Syria will strike back against Israel. The report by the official IRNA news agency quoted Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari as saying: “We are hopeful that Syria gives an appropriate response to the strike in the proper time.”
Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was scathing in his criticism of Syrian inaction.
The foreign minister asked reporters rhetorically, “Why didn’t Assad even throw a pebble when Israeli jets were flying over his palace and playing with the dignity of his country?
“Why didn’t the Syrian army, which has been attacking its own innocent people for 22 months now from the air with jets and by land with tanks and artillery fire, respond to Israel’s operation? Why can’t al-Assad, who gave orders to fire SCUD missiles at Aleppo, do anything against Israel?”
Davutoglu suggested a secret deal between Syria and Israel. “Is there a secret agreement between al-Assad and Israel? Wasn’t the Syrian army founded to protect its country and its people against this sort of aggression? The Assad regime only abuses. Why don’t you use the same power that you use against defenseless women against Israel, which you have seen as an enemy since its foundation?” the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet quoted him as saying.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan weighed in on Sunday with condemnations of both Israel and Iran, Hürriyet reported.
“Those who treated the Israeli government like a spoiled child should know that history will not forgive Israel’s state structure,” he said.
Erdogan also said that Iran should first of all “reconsider its attitude against Syria.”
“What is Iran doing about Syria? While considering the acts of Israel, Iran at the same time needs to allow for common steps to be taken in the region,” he added.
Meanwhile, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak hinted broadly at Israel’s responsibility for the attack.
“I cannot add anything to what you have read in the newspapers about what happened in Syria several days ago,” Barak said in Germany at a security conference with high-ranking diplomats and defense officials from around the world.
But then he went on to say, “I keep telling frankly that we said — and that’s proof when we said something, we mean it — we say that we don’t think it should be allowed to bring advanced weapons systems into Lebanon.
“Hizbullah from Lebanon and the Iranians are the only allies that Assad has left,” Barak told the conference. He also said that in his view, Assad’s fall “is coming imminently,” and when it happens, “this will be a major blow to the Iranians and Hizbullah. I think that they will pay the price,” he added.
Syrian opposition leaders and rebels have also criticized Assad for not responding to the air strike, calling it proof of his weakness and acquiescence to Israel.
After receiving the nomination to form a new government from President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said Israel would have to deal with weapons “being stockpiled near us and threatening our cities and civilians” — an apparent reference to the deteriorating situation in Syria.
Israel’s refusal to officially confirm its role in the attack would be consistent with past policy in similar situations.
In 2007, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert imposed a strict no-comment policy on the government. Olmert “wanted to avoid anything that might back Syria into a corner and force Assad to retaliate,” the U.S. president at the time, George W. Bush, would recall in his memoirs.
A former Olmert aide confirmed that account, telling Reuters the premier also feared for close military ties with Turkey, whose territory the Israeli warplanes crossed en route to Syria.
“We knew the message of what had taken place would be received by the Syrian and Iranian leaderships, and that was enough for us,” the ex-aide told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
The former Olmert aide said Israel’s secrecy policy was a matter of avoiding adding insult to injury for enemies and friends alike. Defending media censorship of sensitive security issues like this in Israel, he explained, “In this part of the world, many people see the messaging from a country’s media as synonymous with the messaging from that country’s government.”
Also on Sunday, there were conflicting reports about the air strike — whether it was against a convoy of trucks carrying weapons to Hizbullah or a military research center in Jamraya, near Damascus.
Reuters cited diplomats and security sources who said the apparently contradictory accounts might refer to the same incident, given Jamraya’s proximity to the border and the fact that vehicles inside the complex were hit as well as buildings.
Syria released footage from the Jamraya base showing extensive damage to buildings and several heavy military vehicles that appeared capable of carrying missiles. At least one vehicle, with light desert khaki markings, was equipped with what looked like a satellite dish.
Several burnt-out cars and lorries — including one with a large hole smashed through the roof of the driver’s cabin — could also be seen in the footage, as well as the badly damaged interior of an office, Reuters said.
Meanwhile on Sunday, IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz traveled to the U.S. for a five-day visit as a guest of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey. The two were expected to discuss regional security issues.
Gantz’s deputy, Maj.-Gen. Gadi Eizenkot, will fill in for him during the visit.