JERUSALEM (AP) — Syrian rebels have taken control of nearly all villages near the frontier with the Israel-held Golan Heights, according to Israel's defense minister who said Wednesday that Bashar Assad's forces were "displaying ever-diminishing efficiency."
Fighting in the area this past week has already drawn Israeli retaliatory fire into Syria twice after apparently stray mortar shells flew into Israel-held territory. That raised fears that Syria's civil war could take a new and even more dangerous twist, widening further into an armed conflict with the region's strongest military power.
"Almost all of the villages, from the foot of this ridge to the very top, are already in the hands of the Syrian rebels," Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Wednesday during a tour of the Golan Heights, the strategic plateau that Israel captured from Syria in 1967 and later annexed. "The Syrian army is displaying ever-diminishing efficiency."
Barak said Israel will remain "vigilant and alert."
Israel's frontier with Syria is the Golan Heights. The border area on the Syrian side is a buffer zone, with some villages where fighting has flared over the past week. The 46-mile-long buffer zone is governed and policed by the Syrian authorities, and no military forces other than U.N. forces are permitted within it.
The Syrian civil war threatens to enflame an already combustible region. The fighting already has already spilled into Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.
While many doubt President Assad wants to pick a fight with Israel, they fear the embattled Syrian leader may try to draw Israel into the fighting in a bout of desperation. Israeli officials believe it is only a matter of time before Syrian rebels topple the longtime leader.
On Wednesday, Syrian troops used aircraft and artillery in an attempt to dislodge rebels from a town next to the border with Turkey, as Ankara warned it would retaliate against any airspace violations.