BEIRUT -- Syria's Defense Minister Gen. Fahd Jassem al-Freij signaled yesterday that his country won't hit back at Israel over an airstrike inside Syria, claiming the Israeli raid was actually in retaliation for his regime's offensive against rebels he called "tools" of the Jewish state.

The remarks suggest the regime's military options might be severely constrained after 22 months of fighting an uprising that has depleted its weapons and stretched troops thin.

Israel has all but confirmed it was behind Wednesday's airstrike -- a humiliating raid just a few miles away from Damascus that added another layer of complication to a chaotic uprising and civil war. 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.

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Syria vowed to retaliate, but the threats of retribution were seen as exceedingly mild, drawing criticism and mockery from rebels and opposition leaders who called it proof of President Bashar Assad's weakness and acquiescence to Israel.

Al-Freij's remarks came in a televised interview. -- AP