JERUSALEM – Israeli and Syrian troops exchanged fire across their tense cease-fire line in the Golan Heights on Tuesday, prompting an Israeli threat that Syria's leader will "bear the consequences" of further escalation and raising new concerns that the civil war there could explode into a region-wide conflict.
The incident marked the first time the Syrian army has acknowledged firing intentionally at Israeli troops since the civil war erupted more than two years ago. President Bashar Assad's regime appears to be trying to project toughness in response to three Israeli airstrikes near Damascus in recent months.
In the exchange, an Israeli jeep came under fire during an overnight patrol in the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau which Israel captured from Syria in 1967 and later annexed. Syria claimed it destroyed the vehicle after it crossed the cease-fire line.
Israel said the jeep was on the Israeli side of the line and suffered minor damage, and no one was hurt. It said it returned fire at the source and scored a "direct hit." It gave no further details. Syria did not comment on the Israeli fire.
It was the latest in a string of incidents in which gunfire and mortar shells have struck the Israeli side of the Golan in recent months. Israel believes that most of the fire has been incidental spillover from the Syrian civil war, but that several cases, including Tuesday's, were intentional.
Israel's military chief, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, accused the Syrian leader of encouraging and directing operations against Israel. He said the Israeli patrol was targeted several times Tuesday by a "clearly marked Syrian position."
In his speech, he clearly alluded to the possibility that hostilities could erupt between Israel and Syria, which have fought several full-scale wars over the years and are bitter enemies.
"We will not allow the Golan Heights to become a comfortable space for Assad to operate from," Gantz told a conference at the University of Haifa. "If he escalates (the situation on) the Golan Heights, he will have to bear the consequences."
Gantz said the situation is extremely combustible, and "a day doesn't go by" where there could be a "sudden uncontrollable deterioration." He warned, "Instability will be the only stable thing that will happen here."
Israel has been warily watching the Syrian civil war since it broke out in March 2011, fearing the conflict could spill across its borders at any time.
Israel is concerned that Assad, if he is facing defeat, might try to draw Israel into the fighting to divert attention away from his internal struggles. More than 70,000 people have been killed in the civil war, and rebels now control large swaths of Syrian territory.
Israel is also concerned that Assad's arsenal of advanced arms, including chemical weapons, anti-aircraft systems and sophisticated missiles, could be transferred to Iranian-backed Hezbollah militants in Lebanon or fall into the hands of radical rebel groups.
Islamic extremists linked to al-Qaida are among the groups trying to oust Assad, and Israel is concerned they could turn their attention toward the Jewish state if they overthrow Assad. Although Assad is a sworn enemy of Israel, he is also a known quantity, and his family has been careful to keep the border with Israel quiet for most of the past 40 years.
But tensions have been rising between Israel and Syria in recent weeks, particularly following the airstrikes, which targeted alleged Syrian arms shipments bound for Hezbollah. Israel has not confirmed carrying out the attacks.
The airstrikes marked a sharp escalation of Israel's involvement on the periphery of the Syrian civil war.
Syria vowed to retaliate, and Assad said Syria is "capable of facing Israel" and would not accept violations of its sovereignty. Firing at an Israeli target, like the incident Tuesday, appears to be in line with the tougher rhetoric that followed the airstrikes.
Gantz visited the area after the exchange and told soldiers stationed there to "stay alert during these challenging times."
Downplaying the immediate dangers, Moshe Maoz, a Hebrew University expert on Syria, described Tuesday's events as "mostly rhetoric," saying neither Syria nor Israel has an interest in sparking a region-wide war.
Israel's powerful military is capable of toppling Assad, he said, while an outbreak of hostilities could potentially drag in Syria's key allies, Iran and Iranian proxy Hezbollah in Lebanon. Hezbollah is already active in Syria, sending hundreds of fighters to back Assad's troops.
"At this stage, neither side wants it, not Israel and not Syria," Maoz said. "It's rhetorical escalation, not strategic escalation. It's more talk. Each side is flexing its muscles."