Google map image showing area of the reported blasts.
Google map image showing area of the reported blasts.
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Israeli defense sources have declined to comment on The New York Times’ report on an alleged Israeli strike in Latakia, Syria; Israel didn’t comment either when the explosions took place on July 5. After three earlier air strikes attributed to Israel – one in January and two in the beginning of May - Israeli officials dropped hints but refused to admit that Israel was responsible.

The details on the Latakia strike have come out gradually. Only two weeks after the attack could the international press paint a clearer picture: It was an air strike targeting a warehouse where Russian-made Yakhont antiship cruise missiles were stored. The fear was that they would be transferred from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The New York Times website reported Wednesday that the strike did not destroy all the missiles. All the paper's reports on Israeli and U.S. military activity in the area are based on reliable sources in the U.S. administration. The reports have yet to be denied.

After the May and July strikes, the Israeli press reported that Israeli officials had criticized the U.S. administration, the Pentagon in particular. The Israelis said the reports on the strikes had increased the tension between Israel and Syria and could push Syrian President Bashar Assad to order a military response. This time The Times went one step further: The U.S. sources say further Israeli strikes are likely. In effect, they warned the Syrians, letting them prepare in advance.

After the first three attacks the administration issued evasive formal statements. It ignored the details and expressed understanding for Israel's need to defend itself. The U.S. approach implied that the decision to strike had been approved by the administration in advance, even if the Americans weren’t aware of the details. The new report seems to indicate that the United States would not sanction another strike.

Apart from Syria’s obvious military inferiority, Assad's failure to react seems to be linked to U.S.-Russian relations and their positions on the Syrian civil war. One could assume that Russia would urge Syrian restraint to prevent a military escalation with Israel. Still, the Russians might change their stance, especially since they intend to supply S-300 anti-aircraft missiles, according to reports in the foreign media, and probably Russian experts to boot. Israel has already warned against sending these missiles to Syria and has implied that they may be attacked.

Senior Israeli officials – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon and his predecessor Ehud Barak - have often said the transfer of Yakhonts to Hezbollah would constitute a red line prompting Israeli action. Israel fears the Russian missile’s high precision, which might damage warships and strategic targets on Israel's coast, even if the missiles were launched from far away in Lebanon or Syria.