JERUSALEM – Israel would "have to act" if the Syrian regime collapses and there's a risk Syria's chemical weapons and missiles could fall into the hands of militant groups, Israel's prime minister warned Sunday.
The deteriorating situation of President Bashar Assad's regime is stoking Israeli fears that militants affiliated with Lebanon's Hezbollah group or the al-Qaida terror network could raid Syrian military arsenals for chemicals weapons or missiles that could strike Israel.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel hasn't considered specifically trying to cross the border to seize the weapons. "There are other possibilities," he said in an interview on "Fox News Sunday."
Over the weekend, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Israel would be prepared to attack Syrian weapons arsenals should the need arise.
Netanyahu said preventing Syria's weapons from falling into the wrong hands is key to Israeli security.
"Could you imagine Hezbollah, the people who are conducting with Iran all these terror attacks around the world — could you imagine them having chemical weapons? It would be like al-Qaida having chemical weapons," he said. "It's something that is not acceptable to us, not acceptable to the United States and to any peaceable country in the world."
"So I think that this is something we'll have to act to stop if the need arises. And the need might arise if there's a regime collapse, but not a regime change," he said.
When asked whether Israel was prepared to act alone, Netanyahu said Syria's stockpile was a "common concern" and that "we'd have to see if there was a common action to address that concern."
Netanyahu said he believes the fall of the regime is inevitable, but that it could take days, weeks or months.
Also Sunday, Amos Gilad, a senior Israeli Defense Ministry official, told Israel's Army Radio that "right now, they (the Syrian regime) are maintaining control of these arsenals as best they can."
Barak made it clear that Israel is preparing for the worst. "I've ordered the Israeli military to prepare for a situation where we would have to weigh the possibility of carrying out an attack" against Syrian weapons arsenals, he told Channel 2 TV on Friday.
On Sunday, he told reporters, "the state of Israel cannot accept a situation where advanced weapons systems are transferred from Syria to Lebanon."
The possibility that the bloodshed in Syria could spill over Israel's frontier has become an even more tangible worry as the fighting intensifies in Assad's strongholds and near the frontier with the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights. Israel captured the territory from Syria in the 1967 Mideast war.
Barak warned last week that Israel would stop Syrian refugees from entering the Golan should they try to flee there.
The head of military intelligence voiced concern that Syrian territory bordering the Golan could become a haven for militant groups, much like Egypt's Sinai desert has become a launching pad for attacks on southern Israel.
Defense officials have said Israeli troops in the Golan have not been put on a war footing.
Caught in the middle are Druse Arab students from the Golan Heights. Druse families have asked the International Committee of the Red Cross to evacuate their children studying in universities in the Syrian capital — but the agency cannot do that because of the fierce fighting there, according to Ran Goldstein, a spokesman for the Red Cross in Tel Aviv.
Officials estimate that 100 to 200 Druse students remain in Syria. They say about 40 returned to the Golan last month.
Druse Arab students receive permits to cross into Syria for university studies that the Syrian government underwrites.
One Druse father in the Golan said other parents had pleaded with the Red Cross to evacuate their children, but his son refused to leave Damascus, saying he was a few months short of finishing his theater studies there.
"I want him by my side," said the father, who requested anonymity because he feared Syrian officials might take revenge against his 22-year-old son.
Associated Press writers Tom Strong in Washington and Diaa Hadid in Jerusalem contributed reporting.