BEIRUT -- Israeli warplanes attacked a shipment of Russian missiles inside a Syrian government stronghold, officials said Thursday, a development that threatened to add another volatile layer to regional tensions from the Syrian civil war.
The revelation came as President Bashar Assad's government 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 destruction of equipment used to produce the deadly agents highlights Assad's willingness to cooperate, and puts more pressure on the divided and outgunned rebels to attend a planned peace conference.
The announcement came one day ahead of a Nov. 1 deadline set by the Hague-based watchdog, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. But while some experts portrayed the step as a milestone, others said it has little impact as long as Syria still has its entire remaining stockpile of functioning chemical weapons. "Only after those weapons have been destroyed or removed from Syrian control will the state be demilitarized," said David Reeths, director at HIS Jane's Consulting.
An Obama administration official confirmed the Israeli airstrike overnight, but provided no details. Another security official said the attack occurred late Wednesday in the Syrian port city of Latakia, and that the target was Russian-made SA-125 missiles.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the attack. There was no immediate confirmation from Syria.
Since the civil war in Syria began in March 2011, Israel has carefully avoided taking sides, but 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 unclear whether the embattled Syrian leader would choose to take action this time. Assad may again decide to 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 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.
In January, an Israeli airstrike in Syria destroyed a shipment of advanced anti-aircraft missiles bound for Hezbollah, according to U.S. officials. And in May, it was said to have acted again, taking out a shipment of Iranian-made Fateh-110 missiles at a Damascus airport.
With the initial stage of verification and destruction of weapons machinery completed, the hard task now begins. The executive committee of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has until Nov. 15 to decide how best to permanently destroy Syria's chemical weapons program and its stockpile of deadly mustard gas, sarin and precursor chemicals.
Assad has so far met all required deadlines according to the strict timeline, demonstrating his willingness to go to great lengths to avoid international military action. "This is a clear indication of the Syrian government's wish to cooperate and abide by its commitments," Syrian lawmaker Issam Khalil said. Syria knows "full well that the U.S. has not ceased its hostile policies toward Syria and will attempt to exploit any excuse -- however small and inconsequential -- to carry out a military strike against Syria," he said.
Syria's main opposition group in exile, the Syrian National Coalition, postponed its general council meeting in Istanbul from today to Nov. 10, pending further discussions on the highly divisive talks.
U.N.-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, now in Damascus, has urged both sides to come to the talks without preconditions. But both have placed seemingly unrealistic conditions for attending.
At a Senate hearing in Washington on Thursday, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said Assad, who was about to be toppled a year ago, has "turned the tide" while continuing to slaughter innocent civilians.
Fighting continued at a high pace across many parts of the country, including in the town of Safira, in northern Aleppo province. Experts say the town is home to a chemical weapons production facility, as well as storage sites. Activists said troops were advancing Thursday in the town, capturing several neighborhoods and causing casualties on both sides.
Also Thursday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based Syria watchdog, said more than 120,000 people have been killed since the start of the country's conflict nearly three years ago. In July, the U.N. estimated that 100,000 have died since March 2011. It has not updated that figure since.