Israeli warplanes carried out a strike deep inside Syrian territory on Wednesday, U.S. officials reported, saying they believed the target was a convoy carrying sophisticated anti-aircraft weaponry on the outskirts of Damascus that was intended for the Hizbollah in Lebanon.

The U.S. officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Israel had notified the United States about the attack, which the Syrian government condemned as an act of “arrogance and aggression”. Israel’s move demonstrated its determination to ensure that Hizbollah — its arch foe in the north — is unable to take advantage of the chaos in Syria to bolster its arsenal.

The predawn strike was the first time in more than five years that Israel’s air force had attacked a target in Syria. While there was no expectation that the beleaguered Assad government had an interest in retaliating, the strike raised concerns that the Syrian civil war had continued to spread beyond its border.

In a statement, the Syrian military denied that a convoy had been struck. It said the attack had hit a scientific research facility in the Damascus suburbs that was used to improve Syria’s defences, and called the attack “a flagrant breach of Syrian sovereignty and airspace”.

One U.S. official said the trucks targeted on Wednesday were believed to have been carrying sophisticated SA-17 anti-aircraft weapons.

Israeli officials would not confirm the airstrike, a common tactic here. But it came after days of intense security consultations with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu regarding the possible movement of chemical and other weapons around Syria, and warnings that Israel would take action to thwart any possible transfers to Hizbollah.

Thousands of Israelis have crowded gas-mask distribution centres over the last two days. On Sunday, Israel deployed its Iron Dome missile defence system in the north, near Haifa, which was heavily bombed during the 2006 war with Lebanon.

Syria and Israel are technically in a state of war but have long maintained an uneasy peace along their decades-old armistice line. Israel has mostly watched warily and tried to stay out of Syria’s raging civil war, fearful of provoking a wider confrontation with Iran and Hizbollah. In November, however, after several mortars fell on Israel’s side of the border, its tanks struck a Syrian artillery unit.

Several analysts said that despite the increased tensions, they thought the likelihood of retaliation for the airstrike was relatively low.

''It is necessary and correct to prepare for deterioration that scenario exists," Danny Yatom, a former chief of the Mossad, Israel's intelligence agency, told Ynet, a news website. "But in my assessment, there will not be a reaction, because neither Hizbollah nor the Syrians have an interest in retaliating."

Syria's president, Bashar Assad, "is deep in his own troubles”, Yatom said, "and Hezbollah is making a great effort to assist him, in parallel with its efforts to obtain weapons, so they won't want to broaden the circle of fighting”.

In the U.S., the State Department and Defence Department would not comment on reports of the strike.

— New York Times News Service

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