WASHINGTON -- The Israeli attack last week on a Syrian convoy of anti-aircraft weapons appears to have also hit the country's main research center for work on biological and chemical weapons, according to U.S. officials who are sorting through intelligence reports.
While the main target of the attack Wednesday appears to have been the weapons and their launchers -- which the Israelis feared were about to be moved to Hezbollah forces in Lebanon -- video shown on Syrian television appears to back up assertions that the research center north of Damascus was also damaged.
That complex, the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center, has been the target of U.S. and Western sanctions for more than a decade because of intelligence suggesting that it was the training site for engineers who worked on chemical and biological weaponry.
A senior U.S. military official, asked about reports that the research center had been damaged, said, "My sense is that the buildings were destroyed due to the bombs which targeted the vehicles" carrying the anti-aircraft weapons, and from "the secondary explosions from the missiles."
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity in order to discuss intelligence reports, said "the Israelis had a small strike package," meaning that a relatively few fighter aircraft slipped past Syria's air defenses and that targeting both the missiles and the research center "would risk doing just a little damage to either."
"They clearly went after the air defense weapons on the transport trucks," the official said.
There is still much that is not known about the attack, and there have been contradictory descriptions of it since it was carried out. Initial reports suggested that the anti-aircraft missiles were hit near the Lebanese border. Subsequent reports, both in Time magazine and the Israeli press, suggest there were multiple attacks conducted at roughly the same time.
The Israelis had been silent on the issue until Sunday, when Ehud Barak, the departing Israeli defense minister, gave the first indirect confirmation of the attack at a security conference in Munich. While Mr. Barak said he could not "add anything to what you have read in the newspapers about what happened in Syria," a moment later he referred to the events as "another proof that when we say something we mean it."
"We say that we don't think it should be allowed to bring advanced weapon systems into Lebanon, to Hezbollah, from Syria when Assad falls," Mr. Barak told fellow defense ministers and other officials, referring to Syria's President Bashar Assad.
The ease with which Israeli planes reached the Syrian capital appeared to send a message -- both to Syria and, indirectly, to Iran.
Israel has said that if it saw chemical weapons on the move, it would act to stop them. By hitting the research center, part of a military complex that is supposed to be protected by Russian-made anti-aircraft defenses, Israel made it clear it was willing to risk direct intervention to keep weapons and missiles out of Hezbollah's hands.
Israel has done so before, in September 2007, when it destroyed a Syrian nuclear reactor that was under construction with North Korean help. The facility hit last week was also believed to be a center for study on nuclear issues, officials say.
The strike also appeared to be a signal to the Iranians that Israel would be willing to conduct a similar attack on above-ground nuclear facilities if it seemed that Iran was near achieving nuclear weapons capability. But Iran would be a far harder target -- much farther away from Israel, much better defended, and with facilities much more difficult to damage. The nuclear enrichment center that worries Israel and Western governments the most is nearly 300 feet under a mountain outside Qom, largely invulnerable to the weapons that Israel is seemed to have used in last week's raid.