Israel drawn into Syria fighting for first time

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Yiftah Shapir, an analyst at the Institute for National Security Studies, a Tel Aviv think tank, said neither Israel nor Syria has an interest in allowing Sunday’s hostilities to spin out of control.

“I see the warning fire as an attempt to prevent any escalation,” he said. “In Israel, no one wants a war with Syria or even an attempt to intervene in the events. The only thing that worries us is a spillover by this form or another. So I think it’s a warning: ‘Take care.’”

For Assad, a war with Israel could bring the end of his teetering regime. Israeli officials have said for months that it is only a matter of time before he is ousted.

The Israeli air force has repeatedly demonstrated its superiority over Assad’s outdated military, buzzing his residence in one famous instance to protest attacks by Syrian-backed militants and carrying out an airstrike on what the U.S. later said was an unfinished nuclear reactor.

Nonetheless, Israel worries the fall of Assad could have a range of grave consequences.

Officials have repeatedly warned that Assad may attack Israel in a final act of desperation if he fears his days are numbered. Israel also fears Syria could fall into the hands of Islamic extremists or descend into sectarian warfare.

Another lingering fear is that Syria’s chemical weapons and missile could fall into the hands of its Lebanese ally, the Hezbollah guerrilla group, or other anti-Israel militants if Assad loses power. There are also concerns that Syria could become a staging ground for attacks by al-Qaida-linked groups battling Assad.

The aftermath of Egypt’s revolution has provided Israel with reason to worry about its frontier region with Syria: Egypt’s Sinai desert on Israel’s southern border has turned even more lawless since longtime Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was ousted in February 2011, and Islamic militants are now more easily able to use it as a launching ground for strikes against southern Israel.

On Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his Cabinet that Israel is “closely monitoring” the border with Syria and is “ready for any development.”

The violence in Syria has killed more than 36,000 people in the uprising that began in March 2011. Hundreds of thousands have fled the fighting into neighboring Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq. Another 11,000 escaped Friday into Turkey following the surge of fighting at Ras al-Ayn.

Ismail Aslan, the mayor of the nearby Turkish town of Ceylanpinar, said the number of refugees had slowed significantly Sunday. But Turkish soldiers at the border turned back some of the refugees who had arrived late last week and wanted to return to Ras al-Ayn, saying the area was not secure.

In Qatar, Syrian activists said anti-government groups had reached a preliminary deal to form a new opposition leadership under pressure from the international community.

Ali Sadr el-Din Bayanouni, a former Syrian Muslim Brotherhood leader, said a broad agreement has been struck among the opposition factions to form a new group called the Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces.

The new leadership, which was to choose a president later Sunday, will include representatives from the largest current opposition group, the Syrian National Council.

The Syrian opposition has been deeply divided for months despite repeated calls for them to unite.

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