Feb. 3, 2013 – WASHINGTON — The Israeli attack last week on a Syrian convoy of antiaircraft weapons appears to have damaged the country’s main research center for work on biological and chemical weapons, according to American officials who are sorting through intelligence reports.
A Free Syrian Army fighter was wounded by a sniper in Damascus on Sunday. An Israeli airstrike last week showed cracks in Syria’s system of defense.
While the main target of the attack on Wednesday seems to have been SA-17 missiles and their launchers — which the Israelis feared were about to be moved to Hezbollah forces in Lebanon — video shown on Syrian television backs up assertions that the research center north of Damascus also suffered moderate damage.
That complex, the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center, has been the target of American 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 United States military official, asked about reports that the research center had been targeted, said that any damage was likely “due to the bombs which targeted the vehicles” carrying the antiaircraft weapons, and from “the secondary explosions from the missiles.”
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity in order to discuss intelligence reports, said that “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 antiaircraft 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 President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.
Mr. Assad also made his first public comment on the airstrike, saying on Sunday that Syria would confront any aggression against his country, according to The Associated Press.
The ease with which Israeli planes reached the Syrian capital appeared to send a message both to Mr. Assad 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 antiaircraft 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.
But there are reasons to doubt whether the antiaircraft equipment was truly heading to Hezbollah. Outside experts like Ruslan R. Aliyev, an analyst with the Center for the Analysis of Strategy and Technologies, a defense research group in Moscow, said the SA-17’s were too sophisticated for Hezbollah to use and would be easily detected. He also said such a transfer would alienate Russia and make it impossible for Moscow to sustain its support for Mr. Assad’s government.
The strike last week also appeared to be a signal to the Iranians that Israel would be willing to conduct a similar attack on aboveground 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 Qum, largely invulnerable to the weapons that Israel seemed to have used in last week’s raid.
Mr. Netanyahu himself spoke about Iran rather than Syria on Sunday as he reiterated his call for a broad “national unity government” to “unite the public at a decisive time in our history.”
“The supreme mission that a national unity government will face is stopping Iran from arming itself with nuclear weapons,” Mr. Netanyahu said at the start of Israel’s weekly cabinet meeting, according to a release from his office. “This is all the more complicated because Iran has equipped itself with new centrifuges that shorten the enrichment time. We cannot countenance this process.” He was referring to an Iranian announcement last week that it was about to install a new generation of uranium enrichment equipment.
But if Mr. Netanyahu’s long-term objective is Iran, his immediate problem is Syria. And the research center thought to have been damaged has been on the radar of the United States and Israel for decades.
According to information compiled by the Nuclear Threat Initiative, which analyzes the facilities of countries seeking unconventional weapons, the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center, which is portrayed by Syria as an independent study organization, has operated closely with the Syrian military for 40 years.
In 2005, the center was placed on a Treasury Department list that prohibited Americans from doing business with the organization; two years later, the Treasury froze any assets of the organization and its subsidiaries. In announcing that order, Stuart Levey, the Treasury’s under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence at the time, said that the research organization and its subsidiaries “develop nonconventional weapons and the missiles to deliver them.”
Intelligence officials also believe that the center has links to North Korea, a source of much of Syria’s missile technology.
Assessing the damage to the facility is difficult. Cellphone videos shot by Syrian rebels show burning buildings at what is described at the research center, but the damage seen on those videos is somewhat light.
Dany Shoham, a senior research fellow at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies who is an expert on unconventional weapons, said the Syrian center’s “efforts concentrated first of all in upgrading chemical and biological war agents and, second, upgrading dispersal and delivery systems for those agents.”
“It’s a very large compound,” Dr. Shoham said. “You can imagine that it’s the principal facility of the whole Syrian Army that is responsible for developing, testing, upgrading, pilot production of a vast variety of weapons.”
Amir Rapaport, editor and publisher of the magazine Israel Defense, said that the video broadcast Saturday on Syrian television showed an armored vehicle that seemed to belong to the SA-8 missile system. He suggested that the Syrians may have put the SA-8s at the scene after the fact because they had promised the Russians not to transfer newer SA-17s to Lebanon.
David E. Sanger and Eric Schmitt reported from Washington, and Jodi Rudoren from Jerusalem. Steven Erlanger contributed reporting from Munich.