JERUSALEM | Israel was drawn into the Syrian civil war for the first time on Sunday, firing warning shots into the neighboring country after a stray mortar shell from across the border hit an Israeli military post.
“A short while ago, a mortar shell targeted an [Israel Defense Forces] post in the Golan Heights,” said army spokeswoman Lt. Col. Avital Leibovich. “We answered with a warning shot toward Syrian areas. We understand this was a mistake and was not meant to target Israel, and then that is why we fired a warning shot in retaliation.”
The Israeli military also said it filed a complaint through U.N. forces operating in the area, stating that “fire emanating from Syria into Israel will not be tolerated and shall be responded to with severity.” Israel returned fire with an anti-tank missile.
Nineteen months of fighting and the mounting chaos engulfing the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad have already spilled across borders with Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan.
The danger of drawing in Israel as well to a wider regional conflagration is one of the worst-case-scenarios for the civil war.
Violence also flared Sunday on Syria’s northern border with Turkey, a common flash point. Syrian army forces backed by helicopter gunships and artillery attacked a border area with Turkey after rebels captured a crossing point, activists said.
The Britain-based activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the Ras al-Ayn border area in Syria’s northeast was “under siege” as dozens of rebels tried to hold onto the border crossing.
Still, Israel worries that Syria’s civil war could spill across into the Golan — a concern made more immediate by multiple cases of errant fire in recent weeks and Israel’s claim that three Syrian tanks entered the demilitarized zone on the plateau this month for the first time in 40 years.
Israeli officials do not see Mr. Assad trying to intentionally draw Israel into the fighting, though they have raised the possibility of his targeting Israel in an act of desperation. Israeli officials repeatedly have said it is only a matter of time before Mr. Assad’s regime collapses.
Earlier, Defense Minister Ehud Barak warned: “If a shell falls, we will respond.”
It also is afraid that Syria’s arsenal of chemical weapons and missiles could fall into the hands of its Lebanese ally, the Hezbollah militant group, or other anti-Israel guerrillas if Mr. Assad loses power.
The aftermath of Egypt’s revolution also has provided Israel with reason to worry about its frontier 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.