Israel Defense Forces Director of Military Intelligence Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi on Tuesday warned that global jihadists have moved into Syrian territory bordering the Golan Heights and could soon use the area to stage attacks on Israel.
In a briefing to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Kochavi said that Islamic terrorists have taken advantage of the chaos created by the Syrian civil war to approach the Golan area.
He said Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has pulled troops out of the Golan to fight rebels in other parts of the country, after concluding that the likelihood of war with Israel at this time is low.
Kochavi's comments were echoed on Wednesday by Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe (Bogie) Ya'alon, himself a former head of military intelligence. Speaking on Army Radio, Ya'alon said Israel should prepare for instability in Syria to reach the Golan Heights.
"Assad is living on borrowed time, he cannot reconstitute his legitimacy to rule, he's crossed the point of no return," Ya'alon added.
Kochavi told lawmakers that a power vacuum has created a possible arena in the Golan Heights for anti-Israel operations, similar to what was happening in Egypt's Sinai region, where the government in Cairo is finding it hard to impose its authority on the desert peninsula.
"The Golan area is liable to become an arena of operations against Israel in much the same way the Sinai is today, and that's a result of the increasing entrenchment of global jihad in Syria," he said.
An increase in suicide bombings and other signature attacks in Syria has led experts to conclude that al-Qaida is taking a role in the uprising against Assad's regime. Though al-Qaida's main targets have been the West and secular Arab regimes, the group has also tried to attack Israel.
Since the overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak early last year, terrorists based in Egypt's Sinai have carried out two deadly cross-border raids into Israel and fired several rockets at Israeli territory, and more than 10 terrorist networks based in the Sinai Peninsula have been destroyed recently, Kochavi said.
While Kochavi did not reveal who the terrorists were or who disrupted their networks, he warned the Knesset committee that Islamic terrorists operating out of Sinai would continue in their efforts to create geopolitical crises.
Kochavi said that for Egypt's newly-elected president, Mohammed Morsi, the security situation in Sinai was only a secondary priority, coming after his need to establish his leadership.
"In Egypt there is a clear power struggle between the military and the Islamists. The fact that Egyptian President Morsi is considered the number two man in the Muslim Brotherhood there hurts his confidence to make decisions and obligates him to seek advice from the [Brotherhood's] leadership, which has been kept outside of the president's sphere of power," said Kochavi.
The Israel-Syria border has been mostly quiet since 1974.
Israel, which captured the Golan Heights in the 1967 Six-Day War, has closely monitored the civil war in Syria. While Israel has been careful not to get involved, Israel fears that Assad's formidable arsenal of missiles and chemical weapons could slip into the hands of Hezbollah or other terrorist groups.
Kochavi, repeating the assessment of other Israeli officials, judged Assad's days to be numbered, but he did not estimate how long he would be able to cling to power. "Assad could be in power from anywhere between two months and two years," Kochavi said.
Kochavi showed the panel satellite photographs that he said showed Syrian troops "brutally" firing artillery indiscriminately into an unidentified populated urban area, the meeting participant said. He did not say when or where the attack took place. Kochavi reportedly told the MKs that the Syrian army's brutality was a sign of its frustration at not having better military options against the rebels.
During the civil war in neighboring Syria, Lebanon-based Hezbollah has been supporting the Assad regime, which Israel says has boosted Hezbollah over the years by allowing shipment of Iranian arms through Syrian territory to the Lebanese organization.
Kochavi warned that Hezbollah is preparing for the aftermath of Assad's fall by amassing Iranian weapons.
He estimated Hezbollah now possesses 70,000 to 80,000 missiles and rockets capable of striking Israel — up to six times the number the group possessed before the Second Lebanon War in 2006.