Israel’s top defense officials convened for emergency meetings on Wednesday to discuss the deteriorating security situation in Syria, reflecting growing concerns that violence sweeping Israel’s northern neighbor could spill across the border.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak summoned top security and intelligence officials after Syrian rebels claimed responsibility for a bombing that killed four senior Syrian officials, including the brother-in-law of President Bashar Assad and his defense minister.
“Israel is closely monitoring all of the developments in Syria,” Barak said. His military commander, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, also was huddling with his intelligence chief and commander for the northern border area, the army said, reflecting the urgency with which Israel sees the developments inside the borders of its longtime enemy.
Israeli officials have been careful to keep their distance from the Syrian civil war, fearing that even the perception that Israel is involved could somehow influence the fighting. Activists say more than 17,000 people have been killed since the uprising began in March 2011, and Assad's position has begun to look precarious.
Israeli defense officials have long asserted that it is only a matter of time before Assad is ousted.
While Syria and Israel are bitter enemies, the border has been mostly quiet since 1974. Some Israeli officials believe the departure of the four-decade Assad dynasty could destabilize the region by bringing radicals or Islamists to power, or leaving a vacuum during a prolonged power struggle.
A chief Israeli concern in those scenarios is that Syria’s formidable military arsenal, believed to include sophisticated missile systems and chemical weapons, could slip into the hands of Hezbollah guerrillas in neighboring Lebanon. Syria is a prime backer of Hezbollah, which battled Israel to a stalemate during a bruising month-long war in 2006.
Israel also fears that militant groups said to be operating in Syria, including al-Qaida, might try to take advantage of any power vacuum to stage attacks on Israel.
On Tuesday, Israel's military intelligence chief said that Assad has diverted his troops away from the Israeli border area toward Damascus, reflecting Assad's worsening position. He said jihadist groups have moved into the border region and might try to exploit the situation.
Israeli military officials are also concerned that Assad himself may decide to attack Israel to divert attention from the civil war. Officials believe Assad has been reluctant to do so at a time when he is preoccupied with his internal problems, but that he could change his mind if he believes he is under imminent threat of being overthrown.