- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 11, 2012

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.

The Israeli military said the mortar fire caused no injuries or damage at the post in the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Mideast war and then annexed.

But in recent weeks, incidents of errant fire from Syria to the north have multiplied, leading Israel to warn that it holds Syria responsible for fire on Israeli-held territory.

“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.

The upheaval has largely had no direct impact on Syria’s bitter foe Israel, and their shared border has remained mostly quiet, as it has been since a 1974 cease-fire.

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.

Over the weekend, Vice Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon said Israel recently conveyed several messages to Syria and that Damascus had “conducted itself appropriately.” He did not elaborate.

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

Earlier, Defense Minister Ehud Barak warned: “If a shell falls, we will respond.”

Israel fears that if Mr. Assad’s regime is toppled, the country could fall into the hands of Islamic extremists or descend into sectarian warfare, destabilizing the region.

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.

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