JERUSALEM — Israel’s air force commander, Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel, said yesterday that the sudden collapse of Syria would oblige Israel to undertake a massive attack "within hours."
Missions would include the demolition of the vast stores of conventional and unconventional weapons in Syria to prevent their falling into the hands of militants, he said.
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"If Syria collapses tomorrow we could find ourselves in the thick of it — very fast and in great numbers (of planes)," he said during a security conference at the Institute for Air and Space Strategic Studies in Herzliya. "There is an immense arsenal parked there, just waiting to be looted. It could spread with each gust of wind and you will find yourself having to act very fast."
Eshel said the Assad regime could fall at any moment and many groups were eager to lay their hands on its weapon stockpiles.
Unlike the month-long cross-border war with Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia in 2006, in which Israel used only a small portion of its air strength, the air force would this time use every plane at its disposal in order to achieve its operational goals in a matter of days, he said.
These goals include opening a path for the ground army to advance on targets across the northern border.
Rhetoric in Israel has escalated in recent days with unusual intensity following statements by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that Syria would no longer ignore Israel’s air attacks inside Syria on weapons bound for Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Additionally, the Syrian government took responsibility this week for firing at an Israeli jeep in the Golan Heights. The attack was seen as an attempt to restore injured national pride. Israel said its return fire killed three Syrian soldiers.
Officials in Jerusalem have warned that Israel might be drawn into the Syrian civil war despite its stated desire to stay on the sidelines. If war breaks out, the officials warned, Israeli cities would this time be on the front line.
"The question is no longer whether rockets will be fired at densely populated areas in Israel," Home Front Minister Gilad Erdan was quoted as saying in the Times of Israel and elsewhere Tuesday. "The question is when it will happen."
Maj. Gen. Eyal Eisenberg, in charge of Home Front Command, said Israeli cities would be subjected in the next war to an unprecedented barrage of missiles. It was "a certainty," he said, that Israel would be hit with large warheads in a confrontation that would test the mettle of the civilian sector.
However, he warned Hezbollah and Syria that they would pay a heavy price for any such attack.
"Israel possesses far greater destructive power than our enemies," he said, according to Israeli media reports. "And I would advise them to weigh the odds once more before warming up the engines."