OC Northern Command Maj. Gen Yair Golan, the man who is staring down the barrel of a disintegrating Syria, so to speak, has assessments that point to the possibility that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's army has already used small amounts of chemical weapons against rebel forces.
"He hasn't crossed the Rubicon yet. What I think he has done, if he has done it, is make use of chemical weapons in a way that leaves a small enough signature that doesn't paint him as having used WMD in a significant way," Golan tells Israel Hayom in an interview.
"He will use whatever he has," Golan adds ominously, pointing to the eventuality that the beleaguered Assad could make use of his chemical weapons stockpile, believed to be the largest such stockpile in the world.
Golan's assessment, that Assad will eventually use his most lethal weapons if he feels he needs to do so to survive, is a signal that the Israel Defense Forces, together with forces from the U.S. and other regional allies such as Turkey and Jordan, may eventually have to intervene in the Syrian quagmire, either if Assad makes massive use of his weapons of mass destruction, or, if he loses control over his stockpiles and they fall into the hands of rebel groups. Israel and the U.S. have already said that either scenario is a red line that Assad should not cross.
Assad's inner circle is still holding strong, and so is the main command of the army and Syrian Baath Party, Golan says, predicting that despite this, Assad's demise should come about "in months, not weeks." However strong his command structure is, Assad has "lost his borders," Golan says. "Everything is wide open. The northern border is split between Sunni and Kurd zones. The borders with Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan are wide open. This makes it hard for Assad to isolate the rebels, who in turn are receiving massive outside assistance in manpower and munitions."
Apart from WMD, Assad is throwing the kitchen sink at the rebels, firing "an incredible amount" of heavy rockets into populated areas, Golan says.
"There are daily flights landing in Syria from Iran with aid," Golan says, touching a topic that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke about to the Iraqi government on Monday. Iraq is allowing Iranian jets to use Iraqi airspace to resupply Assad's forces.
Golan said that Syria's disintegration "could bring Iran to our very doorstep" via terror groups along the Golan Heights border, and that "one of the defensive measures that we of course cannot rule out is creating a defensive buffer zone on the other side of the border, together with interlocutors who will have an interest in cooperating with us against other elements who threaten them too."
In 1985, Israel created a buffer zone in southern Lebanon to fight Hezbollah, a deployment that lasted until the IDF withdrawal in 2000. "There is a lot one can say about the experience in Lebanon. At the end of the day, many Lebanese lost their lives for the sake of Israel [South Lebanon Army soldiers] and I don't think that there is anyone complaining about that. We can only complain about the way [the SLA members] were treated after the Israeli withdrawal. Bottom line, [the buffer zone] was one of the most worthy security investments ever made by the State of Israel," Golan says.
The lesson from the Lebanese experience, Golan says, is that if the opportunity presents itself — which as yet it has not — Israel shouldn't hesitate to take it.
"It needs to be done smartly, in secret, with a comprehensive understanding of the interests of the people on the other side of the border. These kinds of relationships have their ups and downs. There are horrible disappointments as well as victories, and it needs to be approached with much patience," Golan says.
On the Syrian Golan there are already hundreds of jihadists who are "very active," Golan says, adding that the IDF believes that these terrorist forces will begin carrying out attacks against Israel from the area. The IDF is preparing for this by constructing a new security fence on the border, bolstering forces, and establishing new barriers and intelligence gathering measures.
"We have to prepare for the scenario that there will be forces trying to steal into the Golan Heights area. There is some logic to this, as we are fighting over a piece of territory over which there is no international consensus that it belongs to Israel," Golan says. There is also the danger of rocket fire from the Syrian Golan into Israeli territory.
"As we have seen from the Gaza experience, a territory over which there is no legitimate, strong authority is developing on the Golan, with terror that tries to cut through the fence, and terror that bypasses the fence," Golan says.