Israel is following events in Syria warily. The Arab country's arsenal of chemical weapons could prompt Israel to military intervention to prevent them falling into the hands of militants.
Israel is following the Syrian civil war with growing concern. Israeli media outlets are leading almost daily with news from the conflict engulfing its Arab neighbor. For one thing, the country is scared of a flood-wave of refugees into the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. But more than this, Israel fears that in the ensuing chaos, some of Syria's biological and chemical weapons could fall into the wrong hands. For days, Israel has now been publicly considering military intervention to prevent this from happening.
Following statements from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, President Shimon Peres made unusually clear warnings in a recent interview with US broadcaster CNN. Israel, he said, cannot look on impassively while chemical weapons are being passed around that could one day be used on Israelis.
Israel's red line
A transfer of weapons to the pro-Iranian Hezbollah, who have positions not far from the demarcation line to the north of Israel, would be a particular threat to Israel. There is already speculation about possible Israeli air attacks on secret Syrian weapons bases. But any attempt to stop weapons transports would effectively be an act of war, and many Israeli media commentators have said that any attack on Hezbollah could start a new war with Lebanon.
The US, Jordan, and Turkey all share Israel's fears about Syria's arsenal of poison gases, and commentators are already working on the assumption that all these states are already cooperating secretly to prevent weapons deliveries.
"The declarations of Netanyahu and Barak can be seen as attempts to exert pressure on the international community," says Eyal Zisser, Syria expert at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at the University of Tel Aviv. He added that at the moment, Israel's only option is to wait and see how the situation develops, but it would be a good idea to work together with regional and international players to try to find a solution.
Currently, the assumption is that President Bashar Assad's regime still controls Syria's chemical weapons, at least according to an anonymous Israeli security adviser quoted in the Israeli media. But that could change quickly.
The Golan Heights - a new hotspot?
But Israel has other headaches, too. Though the Golan Heights have been relatively peaceful for years, that could soon change if Assad falls. "That would mean that instead of a relatively quiet border, we could soon have an unstable border, and the Golan Heights could become a new Sinai," said Zisser, referring to the uncertain situation on Israel's southern border with Egypt.
Since the fall of Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak, Israeli security officials believe that militant and radical groups have begun to gather in the Sinai region. A number of attacks on Israeli targets have already been launched from there, and the looming fear is that should the regime in Damascus fall from power, global Islamist terrorists could use the ensuing political chaos to become active in northern Israel.
Winner and loser
"The fall of Assad would be both a victory and a defeat for Israel," says Zisser. Assad's removal could mean that the military alliance between Iran and Syria would be broken, and Damascus would no longer be Iran's gate to the Middle East.
For even if Israel's current worries are all focussed on Syria - the nuclear threat from Iran still remains the big, underlying fear. As commentator Amos Harel said in Israel's daily Haaretz newspaper recently, the situation is becoming more complicated, and more dangerous, by the minute.
Author: Tania Krämer / bk
Editor: Rob Mudge