Israeli airstrike toll put at 42-plus in Syria; fate of 100 soldiers unknown
A Syrian opposition group said Monday that more than 42 soldiers were killed and 100 remained unaccounted for in reported Israeli airstrikes on Sunday outside Damascus, providing the first unofficial accounting of casualties in attacks that raised concerns about an escalation of the more-than-2-year-old Syrian conflict.
The casualty estimates were given by the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a pro-opposition monitoring organization. Syrian authorities have released no official casualty figures from Sunday's huge pre-dawn bombardment outside the capital.
The Syrian Foreign Affairs Ministry has said there was “widespread destruction” of both military and civilian areas when Israeli airplanes struck three military sites. Footage on state television has shown smoldering ruins, gutted buildings and charred vehicles, all said to be the result of the attack.
Israeli officials stressed that their nation is not taking sides in Syria's bloody civil war and acted strictly to disrupt the Hezbollah arms pipeline from Syria.
Well before the attacks, some Israeli defense experts had been urging the government to take advantage of President Bashar Assad's weakened position by destroying his arsenal of sophisticated weapons, including those not earmarked for Hezbollah. “For the past few months, various security officials have been toying with the idea that the chaos in Syria has created a one-time opportunity to get rid of its problematic arsenal without having to pay with all-out war,” wrote Alex Fishman, defense analyst for Israel's leading newspaper Yediot Aharonot.
Danny Yatom, former chief of the Israeli spy agency Mossad, warned against an Israeli “euphoria” that might lead commanders to believe they can strike Syria at will, expanding targets beyond advanced weapons heading for Hezbollah.
“If we exploit the chaos in Syria and try and do a few other things,” Yatom told Israel Radio, “that would be a mistake because the greater the quantity, the more Assad and Hezbollah will have to respond.”
Meanwhile, the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Syria sought to distance itself from comments made by one of its members that there was evidence of the nerve gas sarin being used by rebels, the BBC reported.
Carla Del Ponte on Sunday said testimony from victims and doctors had given rise to “strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof.”
But the commission stressed that it had not reached any “conclusive findings.”
Del Ponte did not rule out the possibility that Assad's government may also have used chemical agents on the battlefield.
Battles flared on several fronts. Rebels said their forces shot down a military helicopter in the east, killing eight soldiers.