Syrian rebels slam president's inaction on Israeli raid

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BEIRUT -- Syrian opposition leaders and rebels slammed President Bashar Assad on Friday for not responding to a rare Israeli airstrike near Damascus, calling it proof of his weakness and acquiescence to the Jewish state.

The opposition's sharp reaction underlines how those seeking to topple the Syrian leader might be more prepared to tangle with Israel if they came to power.

Wednesday's Israeli airstrike, which U.S. officials say hit a convoy of anti-aircraft weapons bound for the militant Lebanese Hezbollah group, also has fueled rage among many Syrians who say they now must fear warplanes of both Assad forces and Israel.

"Assad never once in his life stood up to Israel," said prominent Syrian dissident Kamal Labwani, a member of the Syrian National Coalition, an umbrella group of those trying to oust Mr. Assad. "All he ever did is 'reserve the right to retaliate,' but he never retaliated against anyone other than the Syrian people and the Free Syrian Army."

Syria's army chief of staff, Gen. Ali Abdullah Ayoub, warned Friday against testing his country's capabilities. That was a day after Syria's ambassador to Lebanon, Ali Abdul-Karim Ali, said Damascus "has the option and the capacity to surprise in retaliation," but that it was up to the relevant authorities to choose the time and place. The comments reflected increased tension between Syria and Israel.

Until now, Israel has refrained from actions that could be interpreted as intervention in Syria's civil war. But the Assad government's overall response to this airstrike was seen as passive, and most Syrians said they did not expect their military to retaliate.

"I am 100 percent sure the regime will not retaliate," rebel fighter Mosab said in a phone interview. The fighter, deployed near Syria's capital, Damascus, wouldn't give his full name or exact location for security reasons.

The uprising against Mr. Assad began in March 2011 with largely peaceful pro-reform protests and developed into a civil war that the United Nations says has killed more than 60,000 people. The Syrian government maintains that there is no uprising in Syria, but instead a conspiracy against the country because of its support for anti-Israeli groups.

Mr. Assad and his late father, Hafez, who together have ruled Syria for four decades, have often tried to draw political legitimacy from their combative stance toward Israel. The Assad regime has long sheltered radical Palestinian groups and has facilitated Iran's assistance to the militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah.

Israel captured the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau, from Syria in the 1967 war, and Syria demands the area's return as part of any peace deal. But despite the hostility between the two nations, Israel and Syria have not gone to war since 1973, and Syria has kept the border area largely calm for decades.

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