DAMASCUS, Syria – A top Iranian official visiting Damascus said Monday that Israel will regret its "latest aggression" on Syria and urged the entire Muslim world to be ready to defend the Syrian people.
Israel has all but confirmed it was behind the airstrike near Damascus last week. U.S. officials said the Israelis struck a military research center and a convoy next to it carrying anti-aircraft weapons destined for the Islamic militant group Hezbollah in neighboring Lebanon.
"Just as it regretted its aggressions after the 33-day, 22-day and eight-day wars, today the Zionist entity will regret the aggression it launched against Syria," Saeed Jalili, the head of Iran's National Security Council, told a news conference in Damascus. He was referring to past wars between Israel and Hezbollah or the Palestinian Hamas rulers of Gaza.
Syria said has vowed to retaliate for the airstrike.
Iran is Syria's closest regional ally and Jalili used his 3-day visit to pledge Tehran's continued support for the President Bashar Assad's regime.
"The Islamic world will not allow aggression against Syria," he said. "Syria stands on the front line of the Islamic world against the Zionist regime. ... The Islamic world must react appropriately to the Israeli aggression."
Israel has been growing increasingly concerned that Assad, fighting a civil war with rebels who want to overthrow him, is losing his grip on power and on his country's arsenal including chemical weapons.
The strike was apparently meant to prevent Syrian and Iranian ally Hezbollah from acquiring more sophisticated defenses that could have limited Israel's ability to gather intelligence on its enemies from the air.
For years, Israel has been charging that Assad and Iran have been arming Hezbollah, which fought a monthlong war against Israel in 2006.
Syrian Defense Minister Gen. Fahd Jassem al-Freij, said Israel attacked the research center near Damascus because rebels were unable to capture it. He called the rebels Israel's "tools."
He was asked in an interview with Syrian state TV why Damascus does not retaliate against Israel. Excerpts of the interview were broadcast Sunday and the full interview is to air later on Monday.
"The Israeli enemy retaliated. When the Israeli enemy saw that its tools are being chased and did not achieve any (of their) goals, they interfered," he responded. "It was a response to our military acts against the armed gangs," al-Freij added. "The heroic Syrian Arab Army, that proved to the world that it is a strong army and a trained army, will not be defeated."
But Syrian opposition leaders and rebels have criticized Assad for not responding to the airstrike, calling it proof of his weakness and acquiescence to Israel.
As Jalili was speaking in Damascus, activists said Syrian warplanes hit several opposition strongholds in the city's outskirts, from where rebels have been threatening the capital, the seat of Assad's power.
The Britain-based activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said fighter jets carried out airstrikes on the neighborhood of Kfarbatna, Harasta and Zamalka, south of Damascus. Regime troops shelled other towns and villages around the capital with artillery as soldiers and rebels fought in street clashes, the Observatory said. The group relies on reports from anti-regime activists on the ground.
There were no immediate reports on casualties from airstrikes and shelling, but the Observatory said at least five rebels were killed in clashes with troops.
Elsewhere in Syria, army troops also battled rebels in oil-rich Deir el-Zour in the east, along Syria's border with Iraq. In the north fighting was concentrated around the battlefield city of Aleppo, particularly along the road that links the city with its airport.
The Observatory said there was heavy fighting near Aleppo international airport as regime troops tried to dislodge rebels from Sheik Said area, southeast of the city that is Syria's largest urban center and its main commercial hub.
Rebels captured the strategic Sheik Said neighborhood on Saturday. It was a significant blow to regime forces that have been battling rebels for control of Aleppo since last summer. The army used the road to supply troops.
Another activist group, the Local Coordination Committees, said regime fighter jets carried out several airstrikes on Sheik Said on Monday in an effort to reverse rebels' advance in Aleppo. There were no reports of casualties from the bombing.
Rebels hold large parts of the city and its outskirts, including several army bases, but they have been unable to capture Aleppo in seven months of a deadly stalemate due to regime's far superior firepower.
Also Monday, Russia's Foreign Ministry said two Russians and an Italian kidnapped by Syrian rebels have been freed.
Viktor Gorelov and Abdessattar Hassun are in the Russian Embassy in Damascus and in good health, the ministry said, adding that Italian Mario Belluomo, will be handed over to Italian envoys by Syria's Foreign Ministry. The three were abducted together on Dec. 12.