BEIRUT (AP) — Syria will supply “game-changing” weapons to Hezbollah, the chief of the Lebanese militia said Thursday, just days after Israeli airstrikes on Damascus targeted what Israel said were shipments of advanced Iranian weapons possibly bound for the group.
Any attempts to ship advanced Iranian missiles across Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon would likely draw a new Israeli response, and Thursday’s warning by Hezbollah chief Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, if more than rhetoric, could signal a further escalation.
Israel has largely tried to stay out of Syria’s 26-month-old conflict. It never acknowledged the airstrikes, but Israeli officials have signaled Israel’s air force would strike against any shipments of strategic missiles that might be bound for Hezbollah.
Israeli officials said the Lebanese militia has tens of thousands of rockets, but that most of them are unguided. Israeli officials said the shipments targeted twice last week included precision-guided missiles.
Israel and Hezbollah fought repeatedly, including in a month-long war in 2006. During that war, Hezbollah fired thousands of rockets at Israel.
Meanwhile, Hezbollah and Iran have become increasingly involved in Syria’s civil war, supplying troops and military advisers to help Syrian President Bashar Assad fight armed rebels trying to oust him.
Nasrallah spoke Thursday to mark the 25th anniversary of the founding of Hezbollah’s radio station, Al-Nour. His speech was televised to an audience in Beirut, as a security precaution. Nasrallah has rarely appeared in public since the 2006 war, for fear of being targeted by Israel.
Nasrallah said Hezbollah could expect strategic weapons from Syria in the future.
“Syria will give the resistance special weapons it never had before,” Nasrallah said. “We mean game-changing.”
Nasrallah said the shipments of new types of weapons would serve as the Syrian reaction to Israel’s airstrikes.
‘This is the Syrian strategic reaction,” said Nasrallah of future weapons shipments. “This is more important than firing a rocket or carrying out an airstrike in occupied Palestine,” he said. Hezbollah refers to Israel as part of “occupied Palestine.”
The militia chief said the military alliance between Syria and Hezbollah would continue.
“We in the Lebanese resistance declare that we stand by the Syrian popular resistance and give our material and moral support and cooperate and coordinate in order to liberate the Syrian Golan,” he said. Israel captured Syria’s Golan Heights in the 1967 Mideast War and later annexed the strategic plateau.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor, asked to comment on Nasrallah, said: “We don’t respond to words. We respond to action.” The office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declined to comment.
In a related development, Israeli security officials said Thursday they have asked Russia to cancel the imminent sale of an advanced air defense system to Syria.
The officials said Israel shared information with the United States in hopes of persuading Russia to halt the planned deal to provide S-300 anti-aircraft missiles. Disclosing the deal, the Israeli officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief reporters.
Earlier Thursday, the Assad regime said it welcomed efforts by the United States and Russia to try to bring the sides in the civil war to the negotiating table before the end of the month.
Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi said the government is willing to consider any proposals for a political solution of the conflict, while it retains the right to fight “terrorists,” the regime’s term for the opposition fighters and their supporters.
Al-Zoubi did not specifically mention the U.S.-Russian initiative in his brief remarks to reporters in Damascus. The comments were carried by SANA.
The main Western-backed opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, said Wednesday it welcomes the U.S.-Russia effort to reach a political solution but that any transition must begin with the departure of Assad and officials in his regime.
The U.S.-Russian initiative is identical to a plan, set out in Geneva last year, to bring the Damascus regime and opposition representatives together for talks on an interim government. Each side would be allowed to veto candidates it finds unacceptable.
The Geneva proposal also called for an open-ended cease fire and the formation of a transitional government to run the country until new elections can be held.
Even modest international efforts to halt the fighting have failed as neither side in the Syrian civil war has embraced dialogue, underlining their resolve to prevail on the battlefield.
In fighting Thursday, Assad’s forces attacked rebel positions in Aleppo and Idlib in the north, said the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The group said warplanes hit rebels near the Mannagh military air base outside Aleppo.
The rebels stormed the base near the border with Turkey and captured parts of it on Sunday but were later forced to retreat in the face of regime’s superior air power.
In neighboring Idlib province, heavy clashes were underway Thursday outside several army bases near the government-controlled provincial capital, said the Observatory, which relies on a network of informants inside Syria.
In Damascus, the state-run SANA news agency said government troops regained control of one more village and some land near the border with Lebanon on Thursday. The agency claimed troops inflicted heavy losses on the rebels in Aleppo and Idlib.
In Lebanon, a senior security official said several rockets landed Thursday on Lebanese territory, the latest incident of the Syria conflict spilling over the country’s volatile borders. The official spoke on condition of anonymity in line with state regulations. There were no reports of casualties in the incident in the northwestern Lebanese town of Harmel.
Turkey’s state-run agency, meanwhile, said the country has stationed a team of eight experts to screen injured Syrians at the border to ensure they are not victims of any chemical attacks.
The Anadolu Agency said a chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear defense vehicle, manned by the team, has been deployed at the main Cilvegozu border crossing with Syria.
The team would examine Syrians for signs of chemical agents before sending them to nearby hospitals for treatment, the agency reported Thursday.
Officials in Damascus deny claims the Assad regime has used chemical weapons. The rebels also deny similar allegations.
Associated Press writers Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey and Aron Heller in Jerusalem contributed to this report.