Israeli officials are discussing establishing a proxy force inside Syria made up of residents of villages close to the cease-fire line, perhaps led by the minority Druze sect in Syria, which also has some 20,000 members living over the border in Israeli-controlled territory, The New York Times reported on Thursday.
According to the paper, several Israeli officials who follow Syria closely said Israeli security forces had already been quietly working with villagers who support neither the government nor the rebels, supplying moderate humanitarian aid and maintaining intense intelligence activity.
However, The Times reported that its sources said any notion of arming such villagers was remote if not far-fetched, noting that the main Druze leadership in Syria had so far stayed steadfastly out of the conflict.
Amid the growing tension with Syria, Israel Air Force chief Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel said on Wednesday that Israel was poised for a large-scale assault on Syria to prevent advanced weapons reaching jihadist rebels or Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon if President Bashar al-Assad was toppled.
Addressing a security conference, Eshel said Israeli warplanes could be repelled by Syria's formidable, Russian-supplied anti-aircraft systems.
"If Syria collapses tomorrow we could find ourselves very quickly inside this cauldron, and on a very large scale, because this enormous arsenal is parked there, just waiting to be looted, and could be turned [against Israel]," he told the Fisher Institute for Air and Space Studies near Tel Aviv.
"We may find ourselves having to take action, on a very broad scale, within a very short period of time," Eshel said. "It does not mean we will act, but that we have to be ready to."
He said fighting could escalate to include attacks on Israel by Hezbollah and by Iran, who both back Assad, and that the air force might have to employ "the full spectrum of its might."
Beset by the more than two-year insurgency that Hezbollah been helping his army battle, Assad has not retaliated to Israel's reported airstrikes. But there are signs his restraint may wane, seen in a shooting attack by Syrian troops at an Israeli patrol in the Golan Heights on Tuesday.
While militarily superior to Syria, Israel fears this edge will be blunted by Assad's Russian-made air and coast defenses, especially if Israeli forces are stretched over three fronts.
Eshel said the most formidable of the Russian anti-aircraft systems available, the S-300, was "on its way" to Syria, without elaborating on where he was getting his information.
"Air superiority is critical, and we must contend with a new generation of [Syrian] capabilities," Eshel said.
In separate remarks about Syria to the conference, Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon said: "There are those who are trying to bring weapons systems into the area that are liable to harm our aerial and naval supremacy ... and this must be prevented in a responsible and considered manner."
Ya'alon said that despite recent gains against the Syrian rebels by Assad and Hezbollah forces, Damascus was in decline.
"Assad is losing Syria," he said. "There is a sense that he is charging ahead because of the Russian support, but that story is not over -- it could end suddenly, or continue for years as a bloody civil war."
Ya'alon played down the prospect of anyone on the Syrian side starting a war with Israel, "because they understand the heavy price they would pay."
But Israelis should also not anticipate an easy victory, Eshel told Reuters on the sidelines of the conference.
"People are looking for a knockout, for things to be surgical and sterile, but they won't be," he said. "The homefront will be hit, no matter how much we defend it."
Meanwhile, Washington threatened on Wednesday to increase support for Syria's rebels if Assad continues to refuse to discuss a political end to the civil war.
Rebels called for reinforcements to combat an "invasion" by Hezbollah and its Iranian backers, days after Assad's forces launched an offensive against a strategic town that could prove to be a turning point in the war.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said several thousand Hezbollah fighters were taking part in the conflict, with Iranian support on the ground.
Forces loyal to Assad have made gains in recent days, but these were "very temporary," Kerry told a news conference in Amman before a meeting of the Friends of Syria group, made up of Western and regional countries lined up against Assad.
"Just last week, obviously, Hezbollah intervened very, very significantly," Kerry said. "There are several thousands of Hezbollah militia forces on the ground in Syria who are contributing to this violence, and we condemn that."
Speaking before the meeting, Kerry told reporters, "In the event that the Assad regime is unwilling to negotiate ... in good faith, we will also talk about our continued support and growing support for the opposition in order to permit them to continue to be able to fight for the freedom of their country."
In a boost to the rebels, the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted on Tuesday for legislation that would send arms to moderate members of the Syrian opposition, the first time U.S. lawmakers have approved such action. There is less enthusiasm for arming the rebels in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, and it is not clear whether a Senate bill would get through Congress.