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President Assad says Syria able to face Israel

BEIRUT (AP) — In his first response to Israel’s weekend airstrikes, President Bashar Assad said Tuesday that Syria is capable of facing Israel, but stopped short of threatening retaliation for the strikes near the Syrian capital of Damascus.

Assad spoke after a meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, who paid an unexpected visit to Damascus.

Iran, one of Syria’s closest allies, and Hezbollah, a Lebanese militia allied with both Assad and Tehran, have become increasingly involved in Syria’s civil war, supporting the regime with fighters, military advisers and weapons. Syria and Hezbollah have been key to Iran’s expansion of influence into the Arab world, and a collapse of the Assad regime would be a major blow to Tehran.

“We are fully confident that Syria will emerge victorious from the crisis,” Salehi said about the more than 2-year-old battle between fighters loyal to Assad and rebels trying to oust him.

However, Israel’s airstrikes on Friday and Sunday put Syria and Iran in a difficult position because if they retaliated, they would run the risk of drawing Israel’s powerful army into the war. At the same time, inaction further weakens Assad’s already shaky claims to being the leader of the Arab world’s hard-line, anti-Israeli camp.

Israel has not formally acknowledged the strikes, but Israeli officials have said they targeted shipments of advanced Iranian weapons possibly bound for Hezbollah. The officials have said the aim was to deprive Hezbollah of weapons that could someday be used against Israel, not to raise tensions with Syria.

Israel has largely stayed on the sidelines since the uprising against Assad, which erupted in March 2011, turned into an armed insurgency and finally a civil war.

But on Tuesday, Assad accused Israel of supporting “terrorists” — the Syrian government’s name for the anti-regime rebels — and boasted that Syria was “capable of facing Israel’s ventures.” He did not say what action he would take, if any.

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