RAMALLAH // Israeli warplanes have attacked a lorry convoy in Syria amid fears that the Assad regime is shipping weapons to Hizbollah in Lebanon.
The airstrike overnight on Tuesday followed days of Israeli fighter jet sorties over southern Lebanon, stronghold of the Islamist militant group.
Israel is thought to have been planning to hit a shipment of weapons from Syria, bound for Hizbollah.
The weapons include sophisticated Russian-made SA-17 anti-aircraft missiles.
The Syrian army described the attack as targeting a military research centre in Jamraya, near Damascus.
"Israeli fighter jets violated our air space at dawn today and carried out a direct strike on a scientific research centre in charge of raising our level of resistance and self-defence," the army's general command said in a statement carried by state news agency SANA.
Concern that chemical and conventional weapons could be passed to Hizbollah by the regime in Damascus has increasingly alarmed officials in Israel.
Silvan Shalom, Israel's vice premier, warned on Sunday that his country would intervene if Mr Al Assad lost control of Syria's chemical weapon stockpiles amid the uprising against his regime.
Mr Shalom said that "any development which is a development in a negative direction would be something that needs stopping and prevention". Barack Obama, the US president, has issued a similar warning.
This week Israel installed an Iron Dome anti-ballistic missile battery near the northern city of Haifa.
Uzi Arad, a former Israeli national security adviser, said on Monday that Mr Al Assad's forces had at their disposal an estimated 1,000 tonnes of chemical agents. Although the weapons were probably stockpiled as a deterrent to Israel's suspected nuclear arms programme, concern also centres on the Syrian leader's advanced supply of conventional weaponry that includes ballistic missiles and sophisticated radar.
Israel fears those could fall into the hands of Syrian rebels as well as Hizbollah fighters, who are suspected of operating inside Syrian territory with Iranian fighters.
"It's clear that unconventional weaponry is a very grave matter. But when you look at the overall, relevant arsenal, Syria has new, advanced weapons of a kind you don't find elsewhere in the Middle East," an Israeli official said.
Israel has earned a reputation for carrying out clandestine attacks in the region under a policy of neither denying nor confirming them. That includes an air raid on a Sudanese munitions factory in October, and a 2007 air raid on what experts in Israel and abroad believe may have been a nascent nuclear weapons facility in eastern Syria.
An Israeli attack on Syria, a key Iranian ally, could draw in Tehran, which warned on Saturday that such a military strike would force it to intervene.
Iran's special fighting unit, the Quds Force, and Hizbollah have been perfecting their skills after a series of botched terrorist attacks over the past two years, probably making future ones more precise and deadlier, according to a report by the Washington Institute for Near East Studies, a US think tank.
Written by Matthew Levitt, a senior fellow at the organisation, the report warned that the groups posed a greater threat to the West and Israel and cautioned their officials to maintain "heightened vigilance against what is sure to be sharper operational performance by two 'strategic partners' whose prolific working relationship dates back three decades".
* Additional reporting by the Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters