Israeli warplanes attacked a shipment of Russian missiles inside a Syrian government stronghold, officials said, a development that threatened to add another volatile layer to regional tensions from the Syrian conflict.
The revelation came on Thursday as the government of President Bashar al-Assad met a key deadline in an ambitious plan to eliminate Syria's entire chemical weapons stockpile by mid-2014 and avoid international military action. The announcement by a global chemical weapons watchdog that the country has completed the destruction of equipment used to produce the deadly agents highlights Assad's willingness to co-operate, and puts more pressure on the divided and outgunned rebels to attend a planned peace conference.
But it emerged that Syria's Foreign Minister Walid Muallem has asked international inspectors to spare a dozen of its chemical weapons factories from the wrecking ball. The Syrians say they want to convert the plants into civilian chemical facilities. The move is fuelling concern among some non-proliferation experts that Damascus may be seeking to maintain the industrial capacity to reconstitute its chemical weapons programme at some later date.
The Syrian request - which was contained in a confidential letter from Muallem to Ahmet Uzumcu, the director-general of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) - has also raised concern among some Western governments that Syria may seek to entangle the inspection agency in lengthy negotiations that could drag out the process of destroying Syria's chemical weapons.
Meanwhile Russia said yesterday that most of Syria's chemical weapons may be taken out of the country for destruction because of the violence raging between rebels and the government.
"Much speaks in favour of the idea of moving the predominant majority of the toxic agents that exist in Syria out of this country," the RIA Novosti news agency quoted Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov as saying.
An Obama administration official confirmed the Israeli air strike but provided no details. Another security official said the attack occurred late on Wednesday in the Syrian port city of Latakia and that the target was Russian-made SA-125 missiles.
Since the civil war in Syria began in March 2011, Israel has carefully avoided taking sides, but it has struck shipments of missiles inside Syria at least twice this year.
The Syrian military, overstretched by the civil war, has not retaliated, and it was not clear whether the embattled Syrian leader would choose to take action this time. Assad may decide to again let the Israeli attack slide, particularly when his army has the upper hand on the battlefield inside Syria.
Israel has repeatedly declared a series of red lines that could trigger Israeli military intervention, including the delivery of "game-changing" weapons to the Syrian-backed Lebanese Hezbollah group.
Israel has never officially confirmed taking action inside Syria to avoid embarrassing Assad and sparking a potential response. But foreign officials say it has done so several times when Israeli intelligence determined that sophisticated missiles were on the move.
The announcement on Thursday that Syria had completed the destruction of equipment used to produce chemical weapons came one day ahead of a November 1 deadline set by the OPCW.
With additional reporting by The Washington Post and Agence France-Presse