JERUSALEM — Fears about a possible escalation of violence between
After decades of relative calm along the two nations’ borders, some Israeli officials say tensions with Syria have reached one of the highest points since the 1973
During a Cabinet meeting Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister
"The Middle East is in one of its most sensitive periods in decades with the escalating upheaval in Syria,'' Netanyahu said. "We are monitoring the changes there closely and are prepared for any scenario."
Israel has been accused of launching three air strikes this year against Syrian weapons stockpiles and convoys, though officially the Israeli government has not acknowledged its responsibility.
But Israeli officials have said repeatedly they will not hesitate to attack if they fear weapons, including chemical stockpiles, are at risk of falling into the wrong hands.
In response, Syrian President
His government has reportedly trained advanced surface-to-surface missiles on the Israeli city of
Israeli military officials have insisted that they do not wish to interfere in the
At the same time, Israelis have warned Assad that if he strikes back against Israel, he risks losing control of Syria because Israel would respond with less restraint.
So far, the Israeli calculation that Assad is too weak and distracted to respond has been proven correct. But some Israeli defense analysts warn that Israel might be pushing its luck if it attacks again.
"We might think Israel enjoys full freedom of action in Syria because the regime knows what's good for it,'' said Shlomo Brom, analyst at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. "But this is an illusion because it ignores the fact that when you push someone into a corner, they are ultimately forced to react. I am not sure Assad is so far from this mind-set. This could cause an escalation, and the question is whether such an escalation serves Israel's interests."
Assad, who has surprised many by holding on to power for more than two years, struck a defiant tone over the weekend, accusing Israel of helping the rebels.
Many in Israel see the arms sale as a message to Israel and the West that Russia will not tolerate outside intervention in Syria.
“The Russians have shown determined support for Assad,” Maj. Gen. Amos Gilad, head of policy and political affairs strategy for the
For Israel, Russian support for Assad raises the stakes in its evolving military strategy.
Initially Israelis believed Assad could not be toppled and that despite his support for Hezbollah and the Palestinian militant group
Over the past year, Israelis came to believe that Assad could not survive, though they have been reluctant to openly support the rebels. They fear such support might backfire because of the strong anti-Israel sentiments in Syria.
Now Israeli officials appear split on which outcome in Syria will be worse for them: a victorious Assad regime that continues to support Hezbollah with help from Iran, or a takeover by Al Qaeda-affiliated rebels who might be less reluctant to strike Israel.
"Israel really has no clear preference between Assad's regime and that of the gangs who would succeed him and tear the country to pieces," said Mordechai Kedar, a Middle East expert at Bar-Ilan University. "Each has its own dangerous characteristics."