Israel vows to deny Hezbollah as details of Syria raid emerge

Reuters

* Israel declines to confirm it attacked Syria

* Syrians describe explosions at naval base; media blackout

* Annoyance in Israel over repeated U.S. leaks

By Crispian Balmer

JERUSALEM, Nov 1 (Reuters) - Israel said it would not allowadvanced weapons to fall into the hands of Hezbollah, after araid on Syria that opposition sources said had hit an air forcegarrison believed to be holding Russian-made missiles destinedfor the militant group.

Israel has a clear policy on Syria and will continue toenforce it, officials said on Friday, after U.S. sources saidIsrael had launched a new attack on its warring neighbour.

Israel declined to comment on leaks to U.S. media that itsplanes had hit a Syrian base near the port of Latakia, targetingmissiles that it thought were destined for its Lebanese enemy,Hezbollah.

"We have said many times that we will not allow the transferof advanced weapons to Hezbollah," said Home Front DefenceMinister Gilad Erdan, a member of the inner security cabinetwhich met hours before the alleged Israeli attack.

"We are sticking to this policy and I say so without denyingor confirming this report," he told Israel Radio.

Israel is believed to have attacked targets in Syria on atleast four occasions this year, the last time in July, withPrime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saying he would not letsophisticated anti-aircraft, anti-ship and long-range missilesmove from the hands of Syria to its Hezbollah ally.

A Latakia activist told Reuters that an explosion had rockeda garrison area that houses an air force brigade loyal to SyrianPresident Bashar al-Assad near Snobar Jableh villagemid-afternoon on Oct. 30.

Ambulance sirens were heard rushing to the scene, however,the activist, who calls himself Khaled, said there was a "totalmedia blackout" about the incident.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights quotedsources as saying there were four or five explosions at thebase, but only limited damage reported. Al-Arabiya news networksaid SAM 8 anti-aircraft missiles were destroyed.

Former Syrian intelligence agent Afaq Ahmad, a defector nowin exile in France, told Reuters on Thursday that contacts ofhis inside Syria, including in Latakia province, told himRussian-made ballistic missiles had been kept at the site thatwas attacked.

Assad's forces, backed by Hezbollah and Iran, are battlingrebels in a civil war that has killed well over 100,000.

Khaled said Assad loyalists were frustrated about Israel'sapparent impunity, recalling that the Syrian president hadpreviously indicated Syria would respond to further attacks.

"Yet Israel keeps hitting us and there's no retaliation. Soeven the staunchest loyalists are getting very upset," he said.

IRRITATION BETWEEN ALLIES

Israel deliberately remains silent over its actions in Syriato keep a lid on tensions and try to avoid pushing Assad into acorner where he would feel compelled to respond.

Locals said they did not hear warplanes at the time of theblasts and there was initial confusion about who was behind theattack. One source, who declined to be named, said the limiteddamage on the ground suggested pin-point missile strikes.

A foreign diplomat said that in the past the Israelis hadsucceeded in creating such confusion by using stand-off ordnance-- missiles or gliding bombs that can be released many milesfrom the target.

There was clear irritation in Israel about the U.S. leaks,which analysts said might signal irritation in Washington overIsraeli action at a time when Syria had bowed to internationalpressure and was dismantling its large chemical weapons arsenal.

"Washington is selling our secrets on the cheap," said top-selling Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth.

Israel has grown increasingly frustrated by U.S. policy inthe Middle East, worried that President Barack Obama had beentoo soft on Assad and anxious over his rapprochement with Iran.

Uzi Rabi, director of the Moshe Dayan Center for MiddleEastern Studies at Tel Aviv University, said Israel had to makemany calculations before approving attacks on Syria.

"Israel is sending a message to Assad, saying 'don't playgames with us'. But Israel must also realise that the situationis becoming much more delicate than ever before because this isgoing against the U.S. diplomatic agenda," he said.

Rabi said the "working assumption" in Israel was that Assadwas so focused on battling rebels that he could not afford toretaliate. However, he expected that Syria would seekinternational support to prevent Israeli air strikes.

A senior Israeli official, while declining to confirm anyIsraeli attack, did not expect Syria to respond.

"Assad is disarming (his chemical weapons) out of his owninterests. He knows how to make the necessary distinctions,"said the official, who declined to be named.

Technically at war with Syria, Israel spent decades in astable standoff with Damascus while the Assad family ruledunchallenged. It has been reluctant to intervene openly in the33-month Islamist-dominated insurgency rocking Syria, however isdetermined not to see Hezbollah profit from the unrest.

Hezbollah fought Israel to a standstill in a 34-day war sixyears ago. Israel has warned that any future conflict will bemuch more brutal.

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