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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
A military confrontation with Syria is likely to occur in the near future, Maj.-Gen. (res.) Amos Gilad, who heads the Defense Ministry's Diplomatic-Security Bureau, warned on Tuesday.
Such a clash almost occurred in the summer of 2006, and Israel was now close to returning to that point, he said.
"We're on a collision course with Syria," Gilad told the ninth annual Herzliya Conference at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya.
"We need to try and reach a peace agreement with Syria," he said, warning that if Israel failed to do so, "there will be rockets in large numbers targeting Tel Aviv."
Israel should not place its faith in the fact that the Syrian border has been quiet since the end of the Yom Kippur War, he went on. Damascus has continued to support Israel's enemies and to send them weapons. The missiles that hit Israel during the summer of 2006 were from Syria, not Iran, he noted.
"In the space of two years, we could face a hostile entity on our eastern border - from a nuclear Iran through Syria and down to Hizbullah and Hamas," Gilad said.
What if Damascus were to acquire nuclear weapons? he asked, stressing that despite what people might be saying, Syria was not weak.
One had to ask whether Israel truly had a military response to the full extent of the Syrian support of terrorism, without which the region would look different, he said.
Israel would have little to gain in a war with Damascus, which could cause the fall of President Bashar Assad's regime, he said. Should this occur, "there might be more extreme forces coming to power in Syria," and Assad could be replaced by a Sunni regime that would join other radical regimes in the region.
"This would put us in a far more difficult situation," Gilad said.
"If I'm right, we need to exhaust all avenues of reaching a potential peace with Syria," he continued, noting that in light of the split between Hamas and Fatah and the inability to make peace with all of the Palestinians at this time, it would be easier to come to an agreement with Syria.
As part of a peace agreement, Israel could demand that it sever its ties to Iran, which would stop the delivery of weapons to Hizbullah, Gilad suggested.
It was hard to imagine how Hizbullah could thrive without these weapons, he said. Terrorist groups such as Hamas would have to leave Damascus. This type of peace, he said, would weaken the hostile coalition in the region.
Israel had much to gain and little to lose by trying to reach such a deal with Syria, he said.