JERUSALEM — Fears about a possible escalation of violence between Israel and Syria grew Sunday amid renewed Israeli threats to destroy Syrian weapons caches and Syria's warnings of retaliation.
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 Yom Kippur war.
During a Cabinet meeting Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel would continue to act to prevent Syria’s advanced weapons from falling into the hands of the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah or other organizations deemed to be terrorists.
“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 Bashar Assad, whose regime did not retaliate for the previous three attacks, has signaled that he will not tolerate a fourth strike.
His government has reportedly trained advanced surface-to-surface missiles on the Israeli city of Tel Aviv, with instructions to fire in the event of another Israeli attack, according to information from reconnaissance satellite imagery reported Sunday by the Times of London.
Israeli military officials have insisted that they do not wish to interfere in the Syrian civil war or topple Assad’s regime, and that they would limit military actions toward halting the arms pipeline from Iran to Hezbollah.
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.
Russia, which has maintained strong ties to the Assad regime, also made a strong statement of support last week, vowing to proceed with the sale of advanced S-300 air-defense missiles to Syria despite a personal appeal from Netanyahu. Israel fears such weapons will hinder its ability to launch air strikes over Syria and Lebanon.
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 Israel Defense Forces, told Israel Radio on Friday. He said Syria “has become a battleground in which the defense of Assad and his regime has become a central pillar of Russian policy. That hasn’t changed and it has been the case throughout the entire duration of the period. That is a very tenaciously held position.”
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 Hamas, his survival was preferable because he had proved to be something of a paper tiger when it came to militarily confronting Israel. Even after Israel reportedly bombed a Syrian nuclear facility in 2007, Assad did not respond.
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.”
News researcher Batsheva Sobelman in The Times’ Jerusalem Bureau contributed to this report.