Syria defence minister: Army will beat rebels

Syria's defence minister said on Monday that the army would succeed against rebels trying to overthrow president Bashar al-Assad, and hinted that Syria would not respond to an Israeli airstrike near Damascus last week.

"This heroic Syrian Arab army proved to the world that it is a strong army, a trained army, an army that cannot be broken," Fahed al-Freij told state television.

He portrayed the air raid as a response to the failure of the rebels, who he described as "tools" of Israel.

Diplomats and security sources have said the strike targeted a convoy of weapons destined for Hezbollah in neighbouring Lebanon. But Syria has said Israeli planes struck a military research centre at Jamraya, northwest of Damascus.

"Why does Syria not respond? It's the Israeli enemy which responded ... When the Israeli enemy saw that its tools were being pursued, and they did not achieve their results, it intervened," Freij said.

"It is a response to our military work against the armed gangs," he added, referring to the rebels.

'Gaps in radar coverage'

Syria protested last week to the United Nations over the Israeli raid, saying it considered the strike a violation of a military disengagement accord following their last major war in 1973.

Syria's ambassador to Lebanon also warned that Syria could decide on a "surprise" response to the attack.

Freij admitted that rebels have targeted Syrian air defences over the past few months, and said that the army leadership has positioned them all in one safe place, leading to "gaps in radar coverage."

"These gaps became known to the armed gangs and the Israelis who undoubtedly coordinated together to target the research centre," he said.

He suggested that the army was overstretched and having difficulty retaining control over several positions across the country, adding they had to abandon some areas in order to minimise casualties.

Israeli defence minister Ehud Barak implied that his country was behind the raid but officials have otherwise maintained silence, just as they did when Israel bombed a suspected Syrian nuclear site in 2007.

That attack did not prompt military retaliation.

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