Syria said Israeli airstrikes targeted a military position in the west of the country on Thursday, killing two soldiers at a site where Syrian scientists are believed to have developed chemical weapons.
The attack hit a site near the town of Masyaf, which hosts a branch of the government agency responsible for developing and producing nonconventional weapons and the means to deliver them, known as the Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC).
Syria’s army command said the attack took place at 2:42 a.m. and involved missiles fired from Lebanese airspace. It made no mention of the research center, describing the strikes instead as an attempt to hamper Syria’s fight against the Islamic State and warning of “serious repercussions of such acts of aggression on the security and stability of the region.”
An Israel Defense Forces spokesman declined to comment on the strike, which comes at a time of heightened tension on Israel’s northern borders with Syria and Lebanon.
In recent weeks, rhetoric has significantly sharpened as Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has accused Iran of building sites to produce missiles in both Syria and Lebanon. He has said that is something Israel cannot accept.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said that a military storage camp next to the research center was used to store ground-to-ground rockets and that personnel of Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah movement had been seen there more than once.
Israel has watched nervously in recent years as its enemies Hezbollah and Iran have expanded their presence over the border where they are providing military assistance to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Israel has carried out nearly 100 strikes in Syria since the beginning of the civil war there — many against convoys attempting to transfer precision weapons to Hezbollah, the country’s air force chief told local media last month.
But Thursday’s strike marked an escalation.
“This is the first time that the target which was attacked was a formal Syrian facility,” Maj. Gen. Yaakov Amidror, a former national security advisor to Netanyahu, said on a conference call. The facility is a center for research and development and as well as producing chemical weapons, it also has produced rockets which have been transferred to Hezbollah, he said.
While the strike was in the framework of Israel’s policy of preventing arms transfers to Hezbollah but “it’s another level of interference,” he added.
He said that the strike could lead to an escalation.
The United States Treasury sanctioned 271 of SSRC employees in April, weeks after a nerve agent was used to kill 83 people and wound dozens more in the opposition-held town of Khan Sheikhoun.
On Wednesday, United Nations investigators formally accused the Syrian government of involvement in that attack.