- Associated Press - Sunday, February 3, 2013

MUNICH (AP) — Israel‘s defense minister indicated Sunday that his country was behind an airstrike on Syria that U.S. officials said targeted anti-aircraft weapons bound for the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.

It was the first public comment by an Israeli government official on the Wednesday strike.

“I cannot add anything to what you have read in the newspapers about what happened in Syria several days ago,” Defense Minister Ehud Barak said in Germany at a security conference with top diplomats and defense officials from around the world.

But then he went on to say: “I keep telling frankly that we said — and that’s proof when we said something we mean it — we say that we don’t think it should be allowed to bring advanced weapons systems into Lebanon.” He spoke in English.

Israeli leaders in recent weeks have expressed a growing concern that Syria‘s civil war has led to President Bashar Assad losing his grip on the country and on its arsenal, including chemical weapons.

In Syria, Mr. Assad said during a meeting with a top Iranian official that his country could confront any aggression, his first comment on the airstrike.

Syria, with the awareness of its people, the might of its army and its adherence to the path of resistance, is able to face the current challenges and confront any aggression that might target the Syrian people,” Mr. Assad was quoted as saying by the state news agency, SANA.

He made the remarks during a meeting with Saeed Jalili, Iran’s top nuclear negotiator. Iran is Syria‘s closest regional ally, and Mr. Jalili, on a three-day visit to Syria, has pledged Tehran’s continued support for Mr. Assad’s regime.

Syria has vowed to retaliate for the airstrike.

The chief of Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guards said Sunday that Tehran also hopes Syria will strike back against Israel. The report by the official IRNA news agency quoted Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari as saying, “We are hopeful that Syria gives an appropriate response to the strike in the proper time.”

The Syrian military has denied that the target of the attack was a weapons convoy. It said low-flying Israeli jets crossed into the country over the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights to target a military research center in the village of Jamraya, near Damascus.

U.S. officials have said the strike hit both the research center and a convoy of anti-aircraft weapons that was next to it. They said the weapons were bound for the Islamic militant group Hezbollah in neighboring Lebanon, an ally of Syria and Iran.

Syrian television station Al-Ikhbariya TV on Saturday aired the first purported images of the targeted site, showing the twisted and battered remnants of cars, trucks and military vehicles.

A building appeared to have broken widows and damaged interiors but no major structural damage. The caption said, “Consequences of the Israeli aggression on the Jamraya center.”

In the days ahead of the attack, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other top officials repeatedly warned of the dangers of Syrian weapons falling into the hands of Hezbollah and other hostile elements in the region.

Hezbollah from Lebanon and the Iranians are the only allies that Assad has left,” Mr. Barak told the security conference. He also said that in his view, Mr. Assad’s fall “is coming imminently,” and when it happens, “this will be a major blow to the Iranians and Hezbollah.”

“I think that they will pay the price,” he said.

Syrian opposition leaders and rebels have criticized Mr. Assad for not responding to the airstrike, calling it proof of his weakness and acquiescence to the Jewish state.

Since the outbreak of the uprising against Mr. Assad 22 months ago, Israeli leaders repeatedly have expressed fears that if Syria were to disintegrate, Mr. Assad could lose control of his chemical weapons and other arms.

On Saturday night, Mr. Netanyahu, who is in the process of forming a new ruling coalition, said his new government would have to deal with weapons “being stockpiled near us and threatening our cities and civilians” — an apparent reference to the deteriorating situation in Syria.

• Josef Federman in Jerusalem and Barbara Surk in Beirut contributed to this article.

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