JERUSALEM — Syrian rebels control almost all the villages near the frontier with the Israel-held Golan Heights, the Israeli defense minister said Wednesday, bringing the conflict dangerously close to the Jewish state and raising the possibility of an armed clash with the region's strongest power.
During a tour of the Golan Heights, Defense Minister Ehud Barak gave a scathing assessment of Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces and said Israel will remain "vigilant and alert."
The civil war in Syria has renewed tensions over the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau that Israel captured from Syria in 1967. Despite hostility between the two countries, Syria has been careful to keep the border quiet since the 1973 Mideast war. But in recent days, Israeli troops have fired into Syria twice after apparently stray mortar shells flew into Israel-held territory.
While it is widely believed that Assad does not want to pick a fight with Israel, there are fears the embattled Syrian leader may try to draw Israel into the fighting in a bout of desperation. Israeli officials think it is only a matter of time before Syrian rebels topple the longtime leader.
The violence in Syria, which has killed more than 36,000 people since the uprising against Assad began in March 2011, threatens to inflame an already combustible region. The fighting already has spilled into Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.
On Wednesday, Syrian troops used aircraft and artillery to try to dislodge rebels from a town next to the border with Turkey, as Ankara warned it would retaliate against any airspace violations.
Over the weekend, Syria's splintered rebel factions agreed to a U.S.-backed plan to unite under a new umbrella group that seeks a common voice and strategy against Assad's regime.
President Barack Obama said he's encouraged the opposition has formed a more representative leadership council, but the United States isn't ready to recognize the group as a "government in exile" or to arm it. He also said it isn't considering sending weapons to the opposition for fear they might fall into the hands of extremists.