Israeli jets have reportedly bombed a Syrian government facility in the north-west of the country believed to be associated with Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons programme.
The strikes were initially reported by Hebrew and Arab media sources on Thursday morning. A Syrian military statement appears to confirm the reports.
The air raid on the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Centre near the town of Masyaf was reported to have taken place overnight. Western intelligence reports have linked the centre to Syria’s chemical weapons programme.
A statement from the Syrian military said that the attack had occurred early on Thursday and hit a facility close to the Mediterranean coast. It said Israeli warplanes fired several missiles after entering neighbouring Lebanon’s air space.
“Israeli warplanes at 2:42am today fired a number of missiles from Lebanese air space, targeting one of our military positions near Masyaf, which led to material damage and the deaths of two members of the site,” the army said in a statement.
It warned of the “dangerous repercussions of such hostile acts on the security and stability of the region”.
Syrian opposition sources said four Israeli warplanes were involved in the strike. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, along with other sources, identified the target as al-Talai facility, a site that had been subject to US sanctions for its role in the Syrian non-conventional weapons agency.
The strikes follow a series of statements by Israel in recent weeks accusing Iran of seeking to establish itself in Syria and Lebanon and of building a weapons factory as the six-year Syrian civil war has continued to swing in favour of Assad.
Israel rarely confirms the strikes it conducts inside Syria but it has launched numerous strikes during the country’s civil war, usually against arms convoys and weapons storage sites associated with Hezbollah, a key Assad ally.
An Israeli army spokeswoman declined to discuss reports of a strike in Syria, but Amos Yadlin, a former head of Israeli military intelligence, tweeted that the reported attack was not routine and targeted a Syrian military scientific centre.
“The facility at Masyaf also produces chemical weapons and explosive barrels that have killed thousands of Syrian civilians,” he said.
The reported airstrike comes as Israel conducts its biggest military exercise in 19 years on its northern border, involving tens of thousands of soldiers. It has been widely described as a dress rehearsal for a future war with Hezbollah, including civilian evacuation drills.
Even before the outbreak of the war in Syria, the Masyaf centre was on Israel’s radar. The director of the Israeli national security council’s counter-terrorism bureau called for the destruction of the centre in 2010, alleging it had provided weapons to Hezbollah and Hamas.
Israel’s 10-day military exercise, which began on Tuesday, was described as an exercise in rapid military escalation, requiring forces to defend the country against multiple possible terrorist infiltrations in the north. Israeli officers say Hezbollah has been observing the drill closely.
The strike, if confirmed, follows increasingly bellicose statements from senior Israeli government officials, including the country’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, about the advances Assad has made in the civil war, backed by Iran, Hezbollah and Russia.