Fox News on May 21, 2013, published an AP report on Israeli and Syrian troops exchanging fire across their tense cease-fire line in the Golan Heights on Tuesday, prompting an Israeli threat that Syria’s leader will “bear the consequences” of further escalation and raising new concerns that the civil war there could explode into a region-wide conflict. Excerpts below:
The incident marked the first time the Syrian army has acknowledged firing intentionally at Israeli troops since the civil war erupted more than two years ago. President Bashar Assad’s regime appears to be trying to project toughness in response to three Israeli airstrikes near Damascus in recent months.
In the exchange, an Israeli jeep came under fire during an overnight patrol in the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau which Israel captured from Syria in 1967 and later annexed. Syria claimed it destroyed the vehicle after it crossed the cease-fire line.
Israel said the jeep was on the Israeli side of the line and suffered minor damage, and no one was hurt. It said it returned fire at the source and scored a “direct hit.” It gave no further details.
Israel’s military chief, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, accused the Syrian leader of encouraging and directing operations against Israel. He said the Israeli patrol was targeted several times by a “clearly marked Syrian position.”
In his speech, he clearly alluded to the possibility that hostilities could erupt between Israel and Syria, which have fought several full-scale wars over the years and are bitter enemies.
“We will not allow the Golan Heights to become a comfortable space for Assad to operate from,” Gantz told a conference at the University of Haifa. “If he escalates (the situation on) the Golan Heights, he will have to bear the consequences.”
Gantz said the situation is extremely combustible, and “a day doesn’t go by” where there could be a “sudden uncontrollable deterioration.” He warned, “Instability will be the only stable thing that will happen here.”
Israel has been warily watching the Syrian civil war since it broke out in March 2011, fearing the conflict could spill across its borders at any time.
Israel is concerned that Assad, if he is facing defeat, might try to draw Israel into the fighting to divert attention away from his internal struggles.
Israel is also concerned that Assad’s arsenal of advanced arms, including chemical weapons, anti-aircraft systems and sophisticated missiles, could be transferred to Iranian-backed Hezbollah militants in Lebanon or fall into the hands of radical rebel groups.
Israeli expert on Syria, Moshe Maoz, said Israel’s powerful military is capable of toppling Assad while an outbreak of hostilities could potentially drag in Syria’s key allies, Iran and Iranian proxy Hezbollah in Lebanon. Hezbollah is already active in Syria, sending hundreds of fighters to back Assad’s troops.