TEL HAZEKA OUTPOST, Golan Heights — On this wind-swept hill overlooking Syria, Israeli soldiers are keeping a careful watch, scouring the landscape for signs of how the revolt against Syrian President Bashar Assad might affect the taut quiet along the frontier.
From the Israeli observation post, the adjacent Syrian villages of Bir Ajam and Bariqa looked deserted on a recent morning, weeks after they were the scene of fighting between government troops and rebels.
Some stray shells and bullets flew into Israeli-held territory during those clashes in November, drawing retaliatory fire that killed two Syrian soldiers. It was the first shooting across cease-fire lines since a disengagement accord that followed the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.
Israeli officials say they have two main concerns should Assad be overthrown: that Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons could fall into the hands of Islamist militants, such as the Iranian-backed Hezbollah group in Lebanon, and that a breakdown of security in Syria, particularly near the Golan frontier, could lead to militant attacks against Israeli targets across the cease-fire line.
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In public remarks Sunday at the weekly meeting of his cabinet, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Syrian forces had pulled back from the frontier area, replaced by radical Islamist groups. While those militants are for now fighting against the Syrian regime, Israeli officials are concerned that once Assad is ousted, they could turn their attention to Israel.
Netanyahu also expressed concern about Syria’s chemical weapons, saying that because “the Syrian regime is very unstable, the question of its chemical weapons worries us.” He said Israel was “coordinating our intelligence and assessments with the United States and others with the aim of being prepared for any scenario and possibilities that could develop there.”
Netanyahu met recently with Jordan’s King Abdullah for discussions on Syria’s chemical weapons, according to a report last month in the London-based newspaper Al-Quds al-Arabi. Israeli media said the meeting was confirmed by Israeli officials, though Netanyahu’s office declined to comment on the reports or on suggestions that Israel was weighing military action against the chemical weapons stockpiles.
Amos Gilad, a top Israeli defense ministry official, recently told Israel Army Radio that for now the Syrian chemical weapons “are under control.”
On the Golan front, Israeli officials are concerned that conditions there could follow a pattern that developed along Israel’s border with Egypt after the toppling of former President Hosni Mubarak. A breakdown of security in Egypt’s Sinai peninsula, where jihadist groups have gained a foothold, has led to several cross-border shooting and rocket attacks on Israel, including one infiltration by gunmen that left eight Israelis dead in August 2011.
In his remarks Sunday, Netanyahu said that on the Syrian side of the Golan frontier “the Syrian army has moved away, and in its place, global jihad forces have moved in.”
“Therefore, it is incumbent upon us to defend this border against both infiltration and terrorist elements, just we are successfully doing on the Sinai border,” Netanyahu said.
Yaalon said that Islamist militants, identifiable by their green Islamic banners, had taken over several Syrian villages in a buffer zone near Israeli lines, attacked Syrian army bases and assaulted a Syrian armored battalion.