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Israeli warplanes strike Syria in escalation

Israel’s Iron Dome defense system fires to intercept an incoming missiles from Gaza in the port town of Ashdod, Israel. (AP Photo /Tsafrir Abayov, File; Nov. 2012)
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Israeli officials said Sunday they believe that Iran is stepping up its efforts to smuggle weapons through Syria to Hezbollah because of concerns that Assad's days are numbered.

They said the Fateh-110s reached Syria last week. Friday's airstrike struck a site at the Damascus airport where the missiles were being stored, while the second series of airstrikes early Sunday targeted the remnants of the shipment, which had been moved to three nearby locations, the officials said.

None of the Iranian missiles are believed to have reached Lebanon, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were discussing a classified intelligence assessment.

The attacks pose a dilemma for the embattled Assad regime.

If it fails to respond, it looks weak and opens the door to more airstrikes. But any military retaliation against Israel would risk dragging the Jewish state and its powerful army into a broader conflict. With few exceptions, Israel and Syria have not engaged in direct fighting in roughly 40 years.

The airstrikes come as Washington considers how to respond to indications the Syrian regime may have used chemical weapons in its civil war. President Barack Obama has described the use of such weapons as a "red line," and the administration is weighing its options.

The White House declined for a second day to comment directly on Israel's air strikes in Syria, but said Obama believes Israel, as a sovereign nation, has the right to defend itself against threats from Hezbollah.

"The Israelis are justifiably concerned about the threat posed by Hezbollah obtaining advanced weapons systems, including some long-range missiles," said White House spokesman Josh Earnest. He said the U.S. was in "close coordination" with Israel but would not elaborate.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague also seemed to back Israel, telling Sky News that "all countries have to look after their own national security."

Iran condemned the airstrikes, and a senior official hinted at possible retribution from Hezbollah.

Gen. Masoud Jazayeri, assistant to the Iranian chief of staff, told Iran's state-run Arabic-language Al-Alam TV that Tehran "will not allow the enemy (Israel) to harm the security of the region." He added that "the resistance will retaliate to the Israeli aggression against Syria." ''Resistance" is a term used for Hezbollah and the Palestinian Hamas, another anti-Israel militant group supported by Iran.

Iran has provided both financial and military support to Hezbollah for decades and has used Syria as a conduit for both. If Assad were to fall, that pipeline could be cut, dealing a serious blow to Hezbollah's ability to confront Israel.

Israel appears to be taking a calculated risk that its strikes will not invite retaliation from Syria, Hezbollah or even Iran.

But Salman Shaikh of the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar warned: "All this could lead us into a wider conflict."

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