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Israeli strike in Syria damaged weapons lab

Complex under US sanctions

Ehud Barak, the defense minister of Israel

Thomas Kienzle/AFP/Getty Images

“We say that we don’t think it should be allowed to bring advanced weapon systems into Lebanon,” Ehud Barak, the defense minister of Israel, said.

WASHINGTON — The Israeli attack last week on a Syrian convoy of antiaircraft weapons appears to have also hit the country’s main research center for work on biological and chemical weapons, according to US officials who are sorting through intelligence reports.

While the main target of the attack Wednesday appears to have been the weapons and their launchers — which the Israelis feared were about to be moved to Hezbollah forces in Lebanon — video shown on Syrian television appears to back up assertions that the research center north of Damascus was also damaged.

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That complex, the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center, has been the target of US and Western sanctions for more than a decade because of intelligence suggesting that it was the training site for engineers who worked on chemical and biological weaponry.

A senior US military official, asked about reports that the research center had been damaged, said the vehicles carrying the antiaircraft weapons appeared to have been the target and buildings were damaged because of the secondary explosions from the missiles.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity in order to discuss intelligence reports, said relatively few Israeli fighter aircraft slipped past Syria’s air defenses and that targeting both the missiles and the research center ‘‘would risk doing just a little damage to either.’’

‘We say that we don’t think it should be allowed to bring advanced weapon systems into Lebanon.’

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“They clearly went after the air defense weapons on the transport trucks,’’ the official said. US officials previously said the target was a convoy of Russian SA-17 antiaircraft missiles.

The Israelis had been silent on the issue until Sunday, when Ehud Barak, the departing Israeli defense minister, gave the first indirect confirmation of the attack at a security conference in Munich.

While Barak said he could not ‘‘add anything to what you have read in the newspapers about what happened in Syria,’’ a moment later he referred to the events as ‘‘another proof that when we say something we mean it.’’

“We say that we don’t think it should be allowed to bring advanced weapon systems into Lebanon, to Hezbollah, from Syria when Assad falls,’’ Barak told fellow defense ministers and other officials, referring to Syrian President Bashar Assad.

During nearly two years of civil war in Syria, Israeli leaders have repeatedly expressed concerns the sophisticated weapons could fall into the hands of Hezbollah.

The ease with which Israeli planes reached the Syrian capital appeared to send a message — both to Syria and, indirectly, to Iran.

Israel has said that if it saw chemical weapons on the move, it would act to stop them. By hitting the research center, part of a military complex that is supposed to be protected by Russian-made antiaircraft defenses, Israel made it clear it was willing to risk direct intervention to keep weapons and missiles out of Hezbollah’s hands.

Israel has done so before, in September 2007, when it destroyed a Syrian nuclear reactor that was under construction with North Korean help. The facility hit last week was also believed to be a center for study on nuclear issues, officials say.

The strike also appeared to be a signal to the Iranians that Israel would be willing to conduct a similar attack on above-ground nuclear facilities if it seemed that Iran was near achieving nuclear weapons capability.

But Iran would be a far harder target — much farther away from Israel, much better defended, and with facilities much more difficult to damage.

The nuclear enrichment center that worries Israel and Western governments the most is nearly 300 feet under a mountain outside Qom, largely invulnerable to the weapons that Israel seemed to have used in last week’s raid.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke about Iran rather than Syria on Sunday as he reiterated his call for a broad ‘‘national unity government’’ to ‘‘unite the public at a decisive time in our history.’’

‘‘The supreme mission that a national unity government will face is stopping Iran from arming itself with nuclear weapons,’’ Netanyahu said at the start of Israel’s weekly Cabinet meeting, according to a release from his office. ‘‘This is all the more complicated because Iran has equipped itself with new centrifuges that shorten the enrichment time. We cannot countenance this process.’’

He was referring to an Iranian announcement last week that it was about to install a new generation of uranium enrichment equipment. But if Netanyahu’s long-term objective is Iran, his immediate problem is Syria. And the research center thought to have been damaged has been on the radar of the United States and Israel for decades.

According to information compiled by the Nuclear Threat Initiative, which analyzes the facilities of countries seeking unconventional weapons, the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center, which is portrayed by Syria as an independent study organization, has operated closely with the Syrian military for 40 years. It has also been reported to work with Syria’s Atomic Energy Commission.

In 2005, the center was placed on a Treasury Department list that prohibited Americans from doing business with the organization; two years later, the Treasury froze any assets of the organization and its subsidiaries.

It said the research organization and its subsidiaries ‘‘develop nonconventional weapons and the missiles to deliver them.’’

In a separate development Sunday, a former Syrian Parliament member and three members of his family were killed in a rebel-held area near the northern city of Aleppo, the state news agency SANA reported.

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