- - Tuesday, January 10, 2012

JERUSALEM — Israel is preparing to absorb Syrian refugees when President Bashar Assad is ousted, the Israeli armed forces chief of staff said Tuesday, adding that he expects the Assad regime to fall in coming weeks.

“He cannot continue holding onto power,” Gen. Benny Gantz said of Mr. Assad.

Gen. Gantz told a legislative committee that Syrian refugees would be provided at least temporary refuge in the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Six Day War.

The Golan Heights were annexed by Israel in 1981, but the international community still regards it as Syrian territory.

The largely undeveloped region contains a small number of Israeli settlements and four villages whose Druze residents did not flee in 1967 and whose loyalty lies with Syria even though they live under Israeli rule.

Gen. Gantz noted that Syria’s small Alawite community, of which Mr. Assad is a member, would likely flee if that country’s Sunni Muslim majority targets it for violence and reprisals in a post-Assad regime.

His reference to Alawite refugees puzzled analysts, who note that the Alawites reside mostly in northern Syria. If they have to flee hostility, it is unlikely they would choose to make their way through Syria’s Sunni heartland to reach the Golan.

The Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shiite Islam. There are nearly 3 million Alawites in Syria, about 12 percent of the population. Despite their relatively small numbers, they dominate the security forces.

Gen. Gantz said he expects Mr. Assad to within the next few weeks, echoing a prediction by Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

But several Israeli military and regional experts say such assessments are premature.

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