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Israel fires warning into Syria

Military post near borderhit by stray mortar shell


Mortar shell marks are seen on a wall as a person closes a broken window of his house in a community along the Israel Gaza border, Israel, Sunday, Nov. 11, 2012. Israel's prime minister says his country is ready to strike harder against Gaza Strip militants if they don't stop attacking the Jewish state. Hostilities escalated sharply over the weekend, as militants fired rocket salvos from Gaza and Israeli strikes killed six Palestinians. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)


JERUSALEM — Even as Syr­ian anti-gov­ern­ment groups reached a deal to form a new lead­er­ship or­ga­ni­za­tion, Is­rael was drawn into the Syr­ian civil war for the first time Sun­day.

Is­raeli troops fired warn­ing shots into neigh­bor­ing Syria af­ter a stray mor­tar shell from across the bor­der hit an Is­raeli mil­i­tary post.

Is­raeli mil­i­tary of­fi­cials said the mor­tar fire caused no in­ju­ries or dam­age at the post in the Golan Heights, which Is­rael cap­tured from Syria in the 1967 Mideast war and then an­nexed.

But er­rant fire has mul­ti­plied, lead­ing Is­rael to warn it holds Syria re­spon­si­ble.

“A short while ago, a mor­tar shell tar­geted an IDF [Is­rael De­fense Forces] post in the Golan Heights,” Lt. Col. Avi­tal Lei­bo­v­ich said. “We an­swered with a warn­ing shot to­ward Syr­ian ar­eas. We un­der­stand this was a mis­take and was not meant to tar­get Is­rael and then that is why we fired a warn­ing shot in re­tal­i­a­tion.”

Is­rael re­turned fire with an anti-tank mis­sile.

The Is­raeli mil­i­tary said it filed a com­plaint through U.N. forces in the area.

Nine­teen months of fight­ing and chaos en­gulf­ing Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad has spilled across bor­ders with Leb­a­non, Tur­key, and Jor­dan. The dan­ger of draw­ing in Is­rael into a wider re­gional con­fla­gra­tion is one of the worst-case sce­nar­ios.

Is­rael wor­ries Syria’s civil war could spill across into the Golan — a con­cern made more im­me­di­ate by mul­ti­ple re­cent cases of er­rant fire and Is­rael’s claim that three Syr­ian tanks en­tered the de­mil­i­ta­rized zone on the pla­teau this month for the first time in 40 years.

Is­raeli of­fi­cials do not see As­sad try­ing to in­ten­tion­ally draw Is­rael into the fight­ing, but they have raised the pos­si­bil­ity of his tar­get­ing Is­rael in an act of des­per­a­tion.

Is­rael Prime Min­is­ter Ben­ja­min Netan­yahu told his cab­i­net Is­rael is “closely mon­i­tor­ing” the bor­der with Syria and is “ready for any de­vel­op­ment.”

Is­rael and other na­tions fear that if As­sad’s re­gime is top­pled, the coun­try could fall into the hands of Islamic ex­trem­ists or de­scend into sec­tar­ian war­fare, de­sta­bi­liz­ing the re­gion.

Is­raeli of­fi­cials also fear Syria’s ar­se­nal of chem­i­cal weap­ons and mis­siles could fall into the hands of its Leb­a­nese ally, the Hez­bol­lah guer­rilla group, or other anti-Is­rael mil­i­tants if As­sad loses power.

In Qatar, Syr­ian op­po­si­tion fac­tions signed a ten­ta­tive deal Sun­day to cre­ate an um­brella group that could pave the way for in­ter­na­tional dip­lo­matic rec­og­ni­tion, plus more fi­nanc­ing and mil­i­tary aid from for­eign cap­i­tals.

After three days of hag­gling, op­po­si­tion ne­go­ti­a­tors agreed to the new co­a­li­tion and elected as its pres­i­dent Maath al-Khatib, the for­mer Islamic preacher of the his­toric Um­mayad mosque in Da­mas­cus and a re­spected na­tional fig­ure within Syria.

“To­day in Doha is the first time the dif­fer­ent fac­tions of the Syr­ian op­po­si­tion are united in one body,” said Riad Farid Hi­jab, a for­mer Syr­ian prime min­is­ter and the high­est-level de­fec­tor from the Da­mas­cus gov­ern­ment. “So we ask the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity to rec­og­nize the Syr­ian op­po­si­tion as the rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the Syr­i­ans.”

The um­brella group was meant to sub­sume the Syr­ian Na­tional Coun­cil, an ear­lier try at uni­fi­ca­tion that has ap­peared in­creas­ingly mar­gin­al­ized as Syria has fallen into civil war.

The coun­cil’s au­thor­ity was un­der­cut when it failed to draw siz­able sup­port from key mi­nor­i­ties, re­li­gious and tribal fig­ures, busi­ness­men — and most im­por­tant, rebel units fight­ing As­sad’s forces.

The hope in the West is that the new co­a­li­tion — the Na­tional Co­a­li­tion of Syr­ian Revo­lu­tion­ary and Op­po­si­tion Forces — can es­tab­lish it­self and give lo­cal op­po­si­tion coun­cils the le­git­i­macy to bring fight­ers un­der their au­thor­ity.

A key change is that rev­o­lu­tion­ary coun­cils from 14 Syr­ian prov­inces each have a rep­re­sen­ta­tive, though not all live in Syria. The hope is that will bind the co­a­li­tion to those in­side the coun­try.

In ad­di­tion, per­haps the most im­por­tant body the new group is ex­pected to form is a Revo­lu­tion­ary Mil­i­tary Coun­cil, to over­see the splin­tered fight­ing groups and to fun­nel le­thal and non­le­thal mil­i­tary aid to the reb­els. 

It should unite units of the Free Syr­ian Army, var­i­ous mi­li­tias and bri­gades in each city, and large groups of de­fec­tors.

Be­fore the ink was dry on the last draft, ne­go­ti­a­tors hoped that it would bring them the anti-air­craft mis­siles they crave to take on Syria’s le­thal air force. Both the United States and Brit­ain have of­fered only non­mil­i­tary aid to the up­ris­ing.

A sim­i­lar at­tempt by the Syr­ian Na­tional Coun­cil to su­per­vise the mil­i­tary never jelled. Or­ga­niz­ers said fi­nanc­ing was too hap­haz­ard.

Even­tu­ally for­eign gov­ern­ments such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, both of which are fi­nanc­ing and arm­ing the reb­els, found their own fa­vor­ite fac­tions to deal with.

For­eign lead­ers — no­ta­bly in­clud­ing U.S. Sec­re­tary of State Hil­lary Clin­ton — urged this uni­fi­ca­tion largely so they could co­or­di­nate their ef­forts and aid through a group of tech­no­crats. Once the co­a­li­tion gets global rec­og­ni­tion, it is sup­posed to set up a tem­po­rary gov­ern­ment.

Burhan Ghalioun, the old Syr­ian Na­tional Coun­cil’s for­mer leader, praised the co­a­li­tion as vi­tal to­ward get­ting the world more in­volved and Mr. al-Khatib as an im­por­tant ral­ly­ing fig­ure. “He’s a na­tional fig­ure and sym­bol since the be­gin­ning of the rev­o­lu­tion.”

Elected as vice pres­i­dents were Riad Seif, 66, a Syr­ian busi­ness­man and dis­si­dent who or­ga­nized the uni­fi­ca­tion ef­fort, and Suheir Atassi, de­scen­dant of a noted po­lit­i­cal fam­ily and a woman who held one of the last open po­lit­i­cal talk groups in Da­mas­cus.


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