BEIRUT — Israeli warplanes bombed the outskirts of Damascus early Sunday for the second time in recent days, according to Syrian state media and reports from activists, signaling a sharp escalation in tensions between the neighboring countries that had already been exacerbated by the conflict raging in Syria.
Though there was no official confirmation that Israel had carried out the attack, the Israeli military later announced that it had deployed two of its Iron Dome rocket defense batteries near its northern border in response to what it called “ongoing situational assessments.”
Videos posted on the Internet by activists showed a huge fireball erupting on Mount Qassioun, a landmark hill overlooking the capital on which the Syrian government has deployed much of the firepower it is using against rebel-controlled areas surrounding the city.
The official Syrian Arab News Agency said that a scientific research facility had been struck by an Israeli missile, and a banner displayed on state television said the attack was intended to relieve pressure on rebel forces in the embattled eastern suburbs. The banner was accompanied by martial music and footage of Syrian soldiers marching, descending from helicopters and firing rockets, indicating that Syria may not shrug off the assault, as it has with some Israeli strikes in the past.
Reuters reported that an Israeli military spokeswoman had refused to comment, but the Associated Press quoted an anonymous Middle East intelligence official as confirming the state media reports. The target was Fateh-110 missiles, which have precision guidance systems with better aim than anything Hezbollah is known to have in its arsenal, the official said.
A subsequent video posted on the Internet by activists showed further multiple explosions lighting up the skies over Damascus, suggesting that some form of arms storage facility may have been hit.
Syria’s Foreign Ministry said Sunday that Israel had intervened on behalf of the rebels.
“The Israeli attack on military sites in Syria is proof that there is communication between Israel and the terrorist groups who take their orders from al-Qaeda,” the ministry said in a statement published on Syrian state television.
The network said the Syrian Cabinet would convene an emergency meeting to discuss the attack.
The attack Sunday came hours after U.S., Israeli and Lebanese officials said Israeli warplanes on Friday had struck a shipment of missiles destined for Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement at Damascus International Airport.
The attacks coincided with mounting pressure on the Obama administration to formulate a response to the growing risk of weapons proliferation in the Syrian war, notably the possibility that chemical weapons are being used in the conflict and could fall into the hands of extremists.
It also came amid renewed reports of sectarian violence in the northern coastal region of Latakia, a stronghold of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad where his supporters allegedly killed at least 50 and perhaps as many as 100 Sunni Muslim villagers in recent days, drawing a sharp condemnation Saturday from the State Department.
Israeli officials told the Associated Press and Reuters that the target of the Friday airstrike was a consignment of advanced, long-range, ground-to-ground missiles destined for Hezbollah, the political and military organization that dominates Lebanon’s government and has been designated a terrorist organization by the United States.
The shipment did not contain chemical weapons, but the missiles were potentially “game-changing,” one official told the Associated Press.
A Shiite Lebanese analyst with close ties to Hezbollah said late last month that the war in Syria has failed to slow the movement of arms and other resources to Hezbollah.
“[Hezbollah] still has it coming in from Syria because Damascus is still controlled by the Syrian army, and the airport is theirs,” Mohammed Obeid said in an interview.
Obeid said he communicates with Hezbollah leaders on a daily basis and frequently meets with Syrian officials in Damascus.
Details of that attack were sketchy, but it appeared the target was a storage site at an air defense base on the periphery of the Damascus airport, known to be the chief transshipment point for weapons flown into Syria from Iran, both to aid the Syrian government in its battle against rebels and to supply Iran’s ally Hezbollah in Lebanon.
A senior Lebanese security official who was in Damascus at the time said the strike took place about 4 a.m. and targeted a large quantity of missiles stored at the site. The official, who, like the others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, did not know the origin or the destination of the missiles.