Israel has begun beefing up security as the heads of the defense establishment monitor escalating tensions in Syria with grave concern. The recent assassination of three members of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's inner circle, alongside increasingly bloody clashes between forces loyal to Assad and Syrian rebels, have prompted the Israel Defense Forces to revoke soldiers' scheduled leave in certain units. The main concern in Israel is that the violence could spill across Israel's border with Syria.
Proof that internal Syrian turmoil was inching closer to Israel came Thursday as Defense Minister Ehud Barak toured the border in the Golan Heights. Barak and the soldiers stationed at the border could see the fighting from inside Israel. The tour was punctuated with sounds of explosions and gunfire which continued even after the tour was completed.
The defense minister was briefed on preparations along the border by the commander of the 36th Armored Division, Brig. Gen. Tamir Heyman, and the commander of the Golan Brigade, Col. Eshkol Shukrun. "This indicates just how real, and imminent, [Syria's] disintegration actually is," Barak said at the briefing.
Referring to the bombing at the national security headquarters in Damascus that killed Assad's defense minister, deputy defense minister and former defense minister on Wednesday, Barak said, "What happened in Damascus will significantly accelerate the fall of the Assad family. The people killed were the regime's closest associates."
"The blow was a painful one,” Barak said. “It was also a serious blow to the radical axis, to Iran and Hezbollah, who are the Assad family's only supporters. The rebels are becoming more and more brazen and they control large portions of Syria. We see the world talking and calling for a ceasefire, but not actually doing anything."
Barak also said, "The Assad family is losing its grip over Syria before our eyes. Assad will fall, and no one knows what will happen afterward."
"The concern is that the ensuing chaos will expose sensitive systems. There are a lot of chemical weapons in Syria, dispersed throughout the country,"
Barak said, voicing concerns that the regime's stockpile of chemical weapons could fall into the hands of the rebels or other groups.
"We are closely monitoring two things: potential attempts by Hezbollah to transfer advanced weapons systems or surface-to-surface missiles from Syria to Lebanon, and the potential transfer of chemical weapons. In this arena we must be calm and confident, but also prepared," Barak said.
Also Thursday, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman warned that "Syria has more missiles than NATO has in Europe, and it has chemical weapons on top of that. We have to take all possibilities into consideration. We can't ignore any scenario."
‘Chemical weapons — a last resort’
Also on Thursday, two senior U.S. administration officials told The New York Times that Pentagon officials had discussed the possibility of Israel targeting Syrian weapons stockpiles with Israeli security officials.
"The administration is not advocating such an attack, because of the risk that it would give Assad an opportunity to rally support against Israeli interference," The New York Times quoted the officials as saying.
The report came mere days after a visit by U.S. National Security Adviser Thomas Donilon to Israel last weekend. During his visit, Donilon discussed the Syrian issue with senior Israeli officials, the White House reported. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney stressed on Wednesday that it was Syria's responsibility to secure its chemical weapons.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk told The New York Times that he believed Assad would only use chemical weapons as a "last resort."