Israeli Chief of Staff: Syria 'Could Blow Up at Any Moment'

Obama on his way to a region on the brink.

One doesn’t know what to make of murky reports this week about the U.S., Britain, and France training a small force of purportedly moderate Syrian rebels in Jordan—especially with the Obama administration taking the official line that it does not directly aid the Syrian opposition.

If there was ever a time to build a coherent, more or less trustworthy, genuinely moderate Syrian opposition to replace the Assad regime—and it is a questionable proposition—that time would appear to have passed, as the Syrian chaos worsens and the radicals gain strength by the day.

How badly the situation has deteriorated was evident from a report in Israel Hayom on Monday that “Syrian rebels…near the border with Israel threatened…to fight to regain the Golan Heights from Israel following the toppling of Syrian President Bashar Assad.”

The report includes a video in which a “rebel fighter” in the Syrian part of the Golan—just across from the Israeli part—declares:

These lands are blessed and the despicable Assad family promised to liberate them, but for 40 years the Syrian army did not fire a single bullet. We will open a military campaign against Israel. We will fire the bullets that Assad did not and we will liberate the Golan.

The report also quotes Yigal Palmor of the Israeli Foreign Ministry acknowledging Israel’s “great concern that uncontrolled elements at the service of extremist ideas will manage to take over smaller or bigger separate territories inside the Syrian borders…. The ‘Somalization’ of Syria is a great concern….”

That the worries go to the top of the Israeli defense establishment was clear from an Israel Hayom report on Tuesday about a talk given by Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz.

Gantz told the prestigious annual Herzliya Conference that

the threat of the situation in Syria spiraling out of control is quite high…. Every week there is an incident that has the potential to…ignite a regional conflagration….

The situation in Syria has become…extraordinarily dangerous. Even though the probability of a conventional war with Syria is low, the terrorist organizations fighting against Assad could see us as their next challenge. The Syrian army’s substantial arsenal of strategic weapons could fall into the hands of terrorist organizations…. What we have here is a strategic detonator that could blow up at any moment.

A few days earlier—while 21 Filipino UNDOF soldiers were still being held by rebels on the Golan—David Schenker and others warned that UNDOF was in trouble. Though the 21 have since been released, Schenker and colleagues noted that their abduction was only “the latest in a series of assaults on the UN peacekeepers” and that

Already, the deterioration in security has prompted Japan, Canada, and Croatia to withdraw their longstanding personnel contributions from UNDOF. If the trend continues, the remaining contributors are all but certain to curtail their commitments as well, ending the only effective international monitoring mechanism along the Israel-Syria border.

UNDOF—the UN Disengagement Observer Force—has been in place since just after the 1973 Yom Kippur War. For those claiming that international forces were one of the keys to solving Israel’s conflict with its neighbors, UNDOF was about the only purported success story they could point to.

Israel, for its part, while it has never had illusions about the Assad (père et fils) regime, knew it was a rational actor that had been deterred for forty years. Since the Syrian revolt broke out exactly two years ago, the Israeli authorities’ attitude has ranged from skepticism to trepidation. Of late, fears threaten to materialize.

For that matter, Israel was never optimistic about the revolution in Egypt or the “Arab Spring” generally. Going back to President George W. Bush’s first term ten years ago, Israel was deeply skeptical about democratizing Iraq and warned that Iran posed a much greater threat.

President Obama will be visiting Israel in exactly a week. He should try respecting its knowledge of the region it inhabits and stop treating its prime minister as an annoying fool.

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