An Israeli soldier at a training ground in Israel's Golan Heights, near the increasingly volatile border with Syria.
An Israeli soldier at a training ground in Israel’s Golan Heights, near the increasingly volatile border with Syria.
By Jodi Rudoren / NYTimes.com

JERUSALEM — For more than two years, Israeli leaders have insisted they had no intention of intervening in the civil war raging in neighboring Syria, but they vowed to stop sophisticated weapons from being transferred to Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia group, and to respond to intentional fire into their territory.

Now, having followed through with a pair of airstrikes on weapons shipments this month and, on Tuesday, the destruction of a Syrian Army position, Israelis are asking what their options are, as if they feel it has become impossible to avoid deeper involvement.

Already, the language has grown more heated on both sides, with Syrian officials declaring they are prepared for a major confrontation with Israel — and Israel’s military chief warning of dire consequences.

“Clearly, a policy that functioned successfully for more than two years for Israel, that policy is not working because Syria, Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia have all upped the ante,” said Itamar Rabinovich, Israel’s former chief negotiator with Syria, mentioning that Russia continues to send advanced weaponry despite American and Israeli protests. “They created new rules of the game that Israel needs to figure out. It’s a policy in formation; the answers are not definitive.”

Several senior government officials, as well as half a dozen experts on Syria and the Israeli military, said on Wednesday that there was no new policy in Jerusalem, but there was a growing awareness that continuation of the current policy was likely to yield different results.

The next time Israel strikes a weapons convoy, they say, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria is much more likely to retaliate, given the recent statements from Damascus. That could lead to further Israeli reaction, and a spiraling escalation.

“I think we’re being very measured and very cautious in a very volatile situation,” one Israeli official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly. Another, speaking under similar restrictions, said, “Up until now there is no change,” hinting that there could be one any day — or any minute.

Israel and Syria remain in a technical state of war, but have maintained a wary calm along the 43-mile cease-fire line between the two countries since it was established in 1973. Tuesday was the first time Syria acknowledged it had intentionally attacked an Israeli target, a military vehicle. Officials said the jeep had crossed into its territory near the Golan Heights, something Israel vehemently denied.

Analysts on Wednesday dismissed the possibility of Israel’s establishing a new buffer zone on the Syrian side of the line, and not just because doing so would be seen as a major incursion into Syrian territory.

Two rivers that are close to the line in the southern Golan Heights create geographical challenges, they said, and in other areas there are several key Syrian Army positions.

“A buffer zone doesn’t work there,” said Ehud Yaari, an Israel-based fellow for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “If you would try to create a buffer zone, it immediately gets you into proximity and friction with main Syrian military forces and camps.”

Another idea being discussed here is Israel’s establishing a sort of proxy force inside Syria, by arming or otherwise supporting residents of villages close to the cease-fire line, perhaps led by the Druse, a minority sect in Syria that also has some 20,000 members living in Israeli-controlled territory.

Several Israelis 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.

But they said any notion of arming such villagers was far off if not far-fetched, noting that the main Druse leadership in Syria has so far stayed steadfastly out of the conflict.

“Much, much premature,” Mr. Rabinovich, who is now vice chairman of the Institute for National Security Studies, said of a proxy force. “This is what you do if the state collapses and you have to deal with anarchy on the border. We’re not there yet.”

But while those ideas have been discounted, there is little consensus about what Israel might do next. Most here agree that the landscape has shifted, if only because of the newly heated threats from all sides. “The Syrians are tying their own hands with their own tongues,” Mr. Yaari said.

For Mr. Assad, engagement with Israel could distract attention from his massacre of his own people and win him support at home and across the Arab world. On the other hand, Mr. Assad would be risking severe retaliation by Israel that could devastate his military, possibly shifting the balance of power in his fight against the rebels.

For Israel, deeper involvement in the Syrian conflict could lead to an unwanted result: hastening the fall of the Assad government, leaving areas close to the cease-fire line in the hands of radical jihadi groups.

It could also have dire diplomatic consequences for Israel’s complicated relationship with Russia. And many here believe Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants to conserve his military resources and public support for the continuing possibility of an attack on the Iranian nuclear program.

“Whenever we tried in the past to influence the internal problems of a neighboring country, the results were very poor,” said Giora Eiland, a former Israeli national security adviser, citing Israel’s gambit in South Lebanon in 1982, which led to a two-decade occupation and the creation of Hezbollah. “Sometimes there is a tension between two things. First is the situation that might affect your important interest, and second is your inability to do something in order to change it. Sometimes the only thing you can do is to do nothing.”


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