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Israel Reportedly Attacks Syrian Facility, In An Escalation

Israeli warplanes attacked a military research center near Damascus early Sunday, according to intelligence reports and Syrian state media. The attack prompted Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al Mekdad to deem it a "declaration of war" by Israel, CNN reports.

The facility in question, in the Damascus suburb of Jamraya, was also targeted by Israel in January.

"The night skies turned into day as red and orange flames lit up the outskirts of Damascus in the early hours of Sunday," Rasha Elass reports for NPR's Newscast desk. "Suburban residents say they were startled out of bed around two in the morning, and could not sleep the rest of the night as explosions and the sonic boom of fighter jets rocked the city outskirts."

Videos from activists in Damascus purport to show the explosions. Al Jazeera spoke with one resident who said the blasts felt like "an earthquake." You can hear her account, as told to the agency, and see the amateur footage in this video:

Israel has offered no comment on the raid, which came days after a similar strike that reportedly targeted missiles intended for Hezbollah militants in Lebanon.

In that airstrike, "the target was Fateh-110 missiles, which have precision guidance systems with better aim than anything Hezbollah is known to have in its arsenal," reports The Associated Press citing a senior Israeli official. Produced in Iran, the missiles reportedly have a range of 185 miles and travel at more than three times the speed of sound.

Israel did not officially confirm that the earlier airstrike took place. But according to the AP, an Israeli embassy spokesman said Israel "is determined to prevent the transfer of chemical weapons or other game-changing weaponry by the Syrian regime to terrorists, specially to Hezbollah in Lebanon."

Update at 10:30 a.m. EDT. Worries Over 'Spillover' of Violence:

"There's concern here that Hezbollah may be trying to increase the number of weapons it takes out of Syria, speed up that process," NPR's Emily Harris tells Rachel Martin on Weekend Edition Sunday, "and it may draw Israel into a more regular series of this type of airstrike."

Reporting from Jerusalem, Emily says that Israel has sought to increase security in its northern region, where it has built a large fence along its Syrian border. It has also conducted troop exercises along the Lebanese border.

"The Israeli government has made known that they have deployed now a couple of batteries of Iron Dome, their missile defense system, in the north," Emily says.

As the conflict in Syria has continued, so have fears that instability and violence might spread, with neighboring countries drawn into a prolonged clash.

"It raises so many questions about spillover," NPR's Deborah Amos tells Rachel from Amman, Jordan, adding that the new developments "really makes people very nervous here."

"It is very likely that Iran and Hezbollah will deepen their involvement inside Syria," Deb says, noting that Iran condemned the attack.

Hezbollah has maintained its support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. And "we know from reports that the Iranians are supporting Syria with billions of dollars," she says. "There are Arab analysts here who call it Iran's 'Vietnam.'"

Rebels in Syria are not embracing the alleged Israeli attack, Deb says. Syria's state-run media were quick to say the raid was part of Israel's plan to help the rebels.

"They said that Israel was supporting what they called 'the terrorists,'" she says. "And today, rebel sources said they want to topple the regime — but they don't want the help of the Israelis. So, it's a sensitive escalation."

The U.S. government is considering what role it should play in the conflict — including the option of providing weapons such as shoulder-fired missiles to the Syrian rebels, as NPR's Kelly McEvers reported Saturday.

One concern raised by that possibility has been the chance that U.S.-supplied weapons might find their way into the hands of violent extremists.

The rebel group's chief of staff, Free Syrian Army Brig. Gen. Salim Idris, told Kelly that wouldn't happen.

"All of the members of the Supreme Military Council agreed ... not to share anything with the extremist groups," Idris said.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
Dana Farrington is a digital editor coordinating online coverage on the Washington Desk — from daily stories to visual feature projects to the weekly newsletter. She has been with the NPR Politics team since President Trump's inauguration. Before that, she was among NPR's first engagement editors, managing the homepage for NPR.org and the main social accounts. Dana has also worked as a weekend web producer and editor, and has written on a wide range of topics for NPR, including tech and women's health.