WASHINGTON -- The airstrike that Israeli warplanes carried out in Syria overnight Thursday was directed at a shipment of advanced surface-to-surface missiles from Iran that Israel believed was intended for Hezbollah, the militant Lebanese organization, U.S. officials said Saturday.
It was the second time in four months that Israel has carried out an attack in Syria intended to disrupt the pipeline of weapons that runs from there to Hezbollah. And the raid highlighted the mounting stakes for Hezbollah and Israel as Syria becomes more chaotic.
Iran and Hezbollah have both backed President Bashar Assad in the Syrian civil war, now in its third year. But as fighting in Syria escalates, they also have a powerful interest in expediting the delivery of advanced weapons to Hezbollah in case Mr. Assad loses his grip on power and Syria ceases to be an effective channel for funneling weapons from Iran.
The missiles that were the target of the Israeli raid had been shipped from Iran and were being stored in a warehouse at Damascus International Airport when they were struck, according to a U.S. official.
Iran has sought to use the threat of a Hezbollah missile attack against Israeli territory as a means of building up its ally and deterring Israel from conducting airstrikes on Iranian nuclear installations that Israeli and U.S. officials believe are part of an Iranian nuclear weapons program.
In Lebanon, some analysts said they believed that a strong Hezbollah could also emerge as a powerful ally for Mr. Assad if he is forced to abandon Damascus, the Syrian capital, and take refuge in a rump Iranian-backed state on the Syrian coast, a region that abuts the Hezbollah-controlled northern Bekaa Valley.
"The relationship between Hezbollah and the Assad regime is stronger now," said Talal Atrissi, a professor at Lebanese University in Beirut who has good relations with Hezbollah. If Mr. Assad falls, Hezbollah knows the axis of Syria, Hezbollah and Iran will be greatly weakened, he said.
Meanwhile, hundreds of people were reportedly fleeing a coastal area in northwest Syria on Saturday, in the wake of an alleged massacre by government forces.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported the exodus from the city of Baniyas after alleged execution-style killings in Ras al-Naba district.
The opposition watchdog said it had documented the names of at least 62 civilians, including 14 children, killed in the purported massacre.
Baniyas is also located near the Sunni Muslim village of al-Bayda, where the opposition said troops had killed at least 100 people on Thursday.
Syria's state-run media said the army was carrying out an operation in the area to cleanse it of what it called "terrorists."
Damascus has repeatedly branded as "terrorists" the rebels fighting to oust Mr. Assad.
Opposition activists have reported a clampdown by troops, backed by paramilitaries from Syria's Alawite minority, on the mostly Sunni areas in Baniyas over the past two days.
Sunnis are thought to make up the majority of rebel forces fighting troops loyal to Mr. Assad, who is an Alawite.
The opposition Syrian National Coalition accused the regime of pursuing "ethnic cleaning" in the rebel-held areas.
The Israeli airstrike against the weapons cache wasn't a complete surprise. Israel, for its part, has repeatedly cautioned that it will not allow Hezbollah to receive "game changing" weapons that could threaten the Israeli heartland even if a new Syrian government takes power.
As the Obama administration considers how to dissuade Mr. Assad from ordering a chemical weapons attack -- the use of such weapons, the White House has said, would cross a "red line" -- Israel, by striking the warehouse, is clearly showing that it is prepared to stand behind the red lines it has set.
"The Israelis are saying, 'OK, whichever way the civil war is going, we are going to keep our red lines, which are different from Obama's,' " said Ehud Yaari, an Israel-based fellow of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
On Friday, SANA, the official Syrian news agency, reported an attack on the Damascus airport by Syrian rebels firing rockets at an aircraft and fuel dump -- an account that U.S. officials say may have been intended to obscure the fact that the target was a warehouse full of missiles.
A U.S. official, who asked not to be identified because he was discussing intelligence reports, said the targeted shipment consisted of Iranian-made Fateh-110s -- a mobile, accurate, solid-fueled missile that has the range to strike Tel Aviv and much of Israel from southern Lebanon, and that represents a considerable improvement over the liquid-fueled Scud missile. Two prominent Israeli defense analysts said the shipment included Scud D's, a missile Syrians have developed from Russian weapons with a range of up to 422 miles -- long enough to reach Eilat, in southernmost Israel, from Lebanon.
Syrian forces loyal to Mr. Assad have used Fateh-110 missiles against the Syrian opposition. Some American officials are unsure whether the new shipment was intended for use by Hezbollah or by the Assad government, which is believed to be running low on missiles in its bloody civil war. But one American official said the warehouse that was struck in the Israeli attack was believed to be under the control of operatives from Hezbollah and Iran's paramilitary Quds Force.
Hezbollah is believed to have more missiles and fighters than it had before its 2006 battle with Israel, when Hezbollah missiles forced a third of Israel's population into shelters and hit as far south as Haifa.world
McClatchy Newspapers contributed.