IDF chief issues stern warning to Assad over rapidly heating border

Damascus will ‘bear consequences’ of further gunfire, says Gantz, after cross-border shooting; tensions ‘several times more explosive than they were this morning,’ says top Israeli analyst

Aaron Kalman is a former writer and breaking news editor for the Times of Israel

Israel's Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz looks across Israel's border with Syria, in May. (photo credit: IDF Spokesperson)
Israel's Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz looks across Israel's border with Syria, in May. (photo credit: IDF Spokesperson)

Israel’s military chief issued a severe warning to Bashar Assad on Tuesday, saying the Syrian leader would “bear the consequences” of any more attacks on Israeli forces near the Syrian border.

Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz issued his threat hours after an Israeli jeep came under fire during a patrol in the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights.

Syria claimed it destroyed an Israeli vehicle that crossed the ceasefire line in the Golan Heights overnight. A statement issued by the Syrian Armed Forces said its troops destroyed the vehicle “with those in it.” It did not elaborate, but said any attempt to infiltrate Syria’s territory will face “immediate and firm retaliation.”

The IDF said the vehicle, which had not entered Syrian territory, suffered light damage. It said that the Israeli troops reported a “direct hit” from their return fire — a Tamuz missile, fired seven minutes after the Syrian fire.

Gantz said there was no doubt whatsoever that the routine IDF patrol was inside Israeli territory, and no doubt either that it was deliberately fired upon by Assad’s forces — “from a clearly marked Syrian position… not once, not twice, but three times.” Israel, he said, “cannot allow the Golan Heights area to become a comfortable space for Assad to operate from. If he causes [the situation on] the Golan Heights to deteriorate, he will have to bear the consequences.”

Although Israeli analysts said Tuesday’s incident was apparently a local initiative, “Assad encourages and directs the widening of different operations against Israel, including the Golan Heights,” Gantz told a conference at the University of Haifa.

Tuesday’s was the latest in a string of incidents in which gunfire and mortar shells have struck the Golan in recent months. Israel believes that most of the fire has been spillover from the Syrian civil war, but that several cases, including Tuesday’s, were intentional.

That was bolstered by the fact that Tuesday marked the first time the Syrian army has acknowledged firing at Israeli troops across the frontier, in what appeared to be an attempt by Assad’s regime to project toughness following three Israeli airstrikes near Damascus this year.

Ehud Ya’ari, a leading Arab affairs analyst, told Channel 2 news on Tuesday night that the situation between Israel and Syria was now “several times more explosive than it was this morning.”

He noted that a Syrian member of parliament, Sharif Shehadeh, warned after the Golan exchange of fire that Syria would respond to any future Israeli attacks; Shehadeh also spoke of “other regional forces” allied with Syria — in reference to Iran and Hezbollah.

“This marks a serious change of policy by Assad,” said Ya’ari. Assad has  now “tied his own hands… committing himself to respond” to any future Israeli attacks.” This was something the Syrian president had avoided doing for two years, because he didn’t want direct confrontation with Israel.

Israel has warily watched the Syrian civil war, fearing the two-year-old conflict could spill across its borders.

Israel is concerned that Assad, in an act of desperation, could try to escalate tensions on the border to draw in Israel and divert attention away from his struggles against the rebel groups seeking his ouster. Israel also fears that Assad’s sophisticated weapons could be transferred to Iranian-backed Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon or fall into the hands of the rebels, including Islamic extremists connected to al-Qaeda who Israel believes will turn their attention to the Jewish state if they topple Assad.

Tensions have been rising between Israel and Syria in recent weeks, particularly following two airstrikes executed by Israel earlier this month that targeted Iranian arms shipments bound for Hezbollah via Syria. Israel has not confirmed carrying out the attacks.

The strikes marked a sharp escalation of Israel’s involvement in the Syrian civil war and raised fears that the conflict could turn into a full-fledged regional war.

Syria vowed to retaliate after the strikes and Assad said Syria was “capable of facing Israel” and would not accept violations of its sovereignty. Firing at an Israeli target seems to be in line with the tougher rhetoric that followed the airstrikes.

Gantz visited the area after the cross-border incident Tuesday and told soldiers stationed there to “stay alert during these challenging times.”

Speaking earlier at a conference in the north of the country Gantz described the precarious security situation that Israel faces in an unstable and volatile region, and said things could spiral out of control at a moment’s notice.

“A day doesn’t go by in which we don’t have to make decisions that could lead us to a sudden and uncontrollable deterioration,” he said. “That is something that will be with us for the near future. We need to be more alert.”

Later in the day, meanwhile, Home Front Defense Minister Gilad Erdan warned that rockets raining down on densely populated areas in Israel “are only a matter of time” and could happen at any moment.

“The question is no longer will rockets be fired at the large populated areas in Israel, the question is when it’ll happen,” Erdan told reporters during a briefing ahead of a large drill scheduled for southern Israel Wednesday. He said the battles being fought no longer distinguish between the front line and the home front, as missiles and rockets allow strikes far from the battlefield.

“it could happen tonight, it could happen next week,” Erdan said of the next escalation. “Flare-ups along our borders aren’t something dependent only on the IDF or its will.”

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