Israeli tanks hit inside Syria, but Israel not eager to enter conflict

Israel is likely to stick with its policy of just rooting for the downfall of President Bashar Assad while refraining from throwing its lot in with any of the opposition groups.

Ariel Schalit/AP
An Israeli tank in a firing position in the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights overlooking the Syrian village of Bariqa, Monday. The Israeli military says "Syrian mobile artillery" was hit after responding to stray mortar fire from its northern neighbor.

Israeli tanks on the Golan Heights fired on and hit a Syria artillery battery on Monday in response to cross-border mortar fire, marking the first time after 18 months of watching the Syrian conflict from the sidelines that the Jewish state has allowed itself to participate.

The Israeli fire, the first hit inside Syrian territory since the 1973 Israel-Arab war, follow weeks in which the Israeli army held its fire as the civil war increasingly spilled across the border with mortar and bullet fire. Syrian tanks also have been entering a United Nations patrolled buffer zone.

But because the Golan spillover is still viewed as the result of errant fire rather than intentional, the conflict hasn’t yet reached a tipping point that will force Jerusalem to become embroiled like Turkey and Jordan, say analysts.

Instead, Israel is likely to stick with its policy of just rooting for the downfall of President Bashar al-Assad – seen here as the link between Iran and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah – while refraining from throwing its lot in with any of the opposition groups, many of whom are seen as Islamist radicals that could destabilize their border.

“Israel would like to stay out. There is nothing we can gain from being involved,’’ says Shlomo Brom, a fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies and a former military strategic planning chief. “What is happening on the border is the beginnings of a chaotic situation. If Syria was in full control of the border territory, [the fire] wouldn’t happen.’’

In recent weeks, mortar fire from Syria has come close to an Israeli kibbutz while errant bullets have damaged a jeep. Meanwhile, Syrian tanks entered the United Nations enforced demilitarized zone between the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights and Syria. In all cases, Israel has complained to the United Nations.

Warning shots fired

Yesterday, Israel finally fired a warning shot in response to a mortar that an army outpost. Mr. Brom sees the fire as an effort by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – who is starting a reelection campaign – to show Israelis that the military isn’t standing idle amid the violations.

"We are watching the developments closely and will respond accordingly," Mr. Netanyahu said in a statement on Monday. “We won’t allow our borders to be breached or our citizens to be fired on."

In the early days of the uprising, Israeli officials preferred the survival of Syrian President Assad for fear that the alternative would destabilize its northern border. Eventually, however, Israeli officials came to see the fall of the Syrian leader as a strategic blow to Iran and its allies, especially Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militant group.

Israel wary of helping rebels

Though some Israeli politicians and public figures have called on Jerusalem to offer humanitarian assistance and embrace the Syrian rebels, the government’s attitude is that Israeli intervention won’t help the opposition and could even backfire.

Moshe Maoz, a Hebrew University professor who is an expert on Syria, says the fire into Israel in recent weeks is accidental and that Assad doesn’t seek to draw Israel into a conflict for fear that Israel could topple him.

Israeli policy makers, should consider following other Arab states in the region and helping the rebels, he says. It shouldn’t fear Muslim Brotherhood affiliates of Syria, he said, because they are liable to be pragmatic actors.

“Israel should ally itself with the Sunni Muslim actors in the region,’’ he says. “They have a common enemy: Iran. If Syria falls, its an important link in the chain.’’

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