BEIRUT — The leader of Hezbollah, the powerful Lebanese militant group, escalated tensions with Israel on Thursday over the recent Israeli airstrikes near Damascus, suggesting that the Syrian government would respond by providing Hezbollah fighters with the same weapons that Israel wants to keep out of their hands.
While the Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, did not specify the type of arms, he said they were “unique weapons that it never had before” that would “change the balance” of power with Israel, which regards his group’s alliance with Syria and Iran as one of its most potent security threats.
In a televised speech, Nasrallah said the transfer of the weapons would be Syria’s “strategic response” to the airstrikes that hit the outskirts of Damascus on Sunday.
Israel has not publicly acknowledged responsibility for those strikes. But Israeli leaders have said they would take military action to prevent Hezbollah from obtaining “game changing” weapons like chemical arms, which Syria is believed to possess in large quantities, and sophisticated long-range missiles that could hit anywhere in Israel from Hezbollah-controlled areas of southern Lebanon.
Analysts close to Hezbollah said they believed Nasrallah was referring to long-range missiles, not chemical munitions. But the Israelis have expressed growing concern about the possible use of chemical weapons in Syria’s civil war, suggesting that the transfer of such weapons to groups hostile to Israel was more and more likely.
The airstrikes believed to have been carried out by Israel last Sunday heightened fears that Syria’s war could lead to a regional conflagration.
Syrian officials said Thursday that they would respond forcefully to any future Israeli attacks and that they planned to retaliate for Sunday’s strikes, possibly by authorizing Syria-based militant groups to attack in the Golan Heights, the disputed border region captured by Israel from Syria in the 1967 war.
Syria’s deputy foreign minister, Faisal Mekdad, said in an interview with Agence France-Presse in Damascus that any new Israeli attack would bring a “harsh and painful” response from Syria’s military.
“Instructions were given to respond immediately to any Israeli attack,” he said in the interview, which was also published on the website of Press TV, an Iranian satellite channel. “Syria will not allow this to be repeated.”