Jerusalem: Tensions have risen along Syria’s now-volatile southern border with Israel after an exchange of artillery fire in the Golan Heights. The flare-up came as Syrian forces battled to regain control of the strategic border town of Qusayr inside Syria.
The Israel Defence Force returned fire into Syria after a military jeep was damaged by shots fired by Syrian armed forces overnight, prompting both countries to lodge a complaint with the UN.
Violence rages in Syria amid hopes for peace
Violence rages in Syria while efforts continue for peace talks between parties at war.
It is the latest in a string of cross border incidents that have led to rising tensions in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, peaking earlier this month when Israel launched air strikes inside Syria, allegedly on advanced weapons bound for Hezbollah.
Both Israel and the Syrian regime issued warnings to each about further fighting.
The head of Israel's armed forces has warned Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of "consequences" if fire continues from Syrian territory against Israeli troops in the occupied Golan Heights.
"If he disturbs the Golan Heights, he will have to bear the consequences," Lieutenant General Benny Gantz said in an address at Haifa University broadcast on Israeli television.
"We cannot and shall not allow the Golan Heights to become a comfort zone for Assad."
Earlier, a senior Syrian minister, Halef al-Muftah, said Syria was ready for a conflict with Israel.
‘‘We have strategic weapons. The Syrian army is ready to answer any threat, the rules have changed,’’ he said to the Hezbollah-owned Al Manar station.
The tensions on the Golan Heights, came as a battle over the strategic city of Qusayr in Syria raged between the Free Syrian Army and the government-backed forces.
Lying on a valuable parcel of land that links Damascus with Tartus and the Alawite stronghold of Latakia on the Mediterranean coast, Qusayr has also been a key supply route for weapons and medications smuggled from Lebanon to rebel forces inside Syria.
Videos filmed by activists showed the now familiar images of streets reduced to a sea of grey rubble, shocked residents digging for survivors and the bloodied bodies of dead children, while airstrikes and heavy artillery fire continued to rain down on the 25,000-strong city.
Held by the FSA since February, Syrian forces backed by Hezbollah fighters continued their ariel offensive in Qusayr for a third day, killing at least 64 civilians and wounding hundreds, local activists said.
Although Syrian state media claimed government forces had made major gains in the city, it was clear that there were also significant losses on the government side, with the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights indicating at least 31 Hezbollah fighters had died in the clashes, drawing the Lebanon-based militant group deeper into the conflict.
And while some analysts say the Syrian Government has made significant progress in its attempt to regain as much opposition-held ground as possible before US and Russia-backed peace talks scheduled for next month, others say it is simply part of the constantly shifting fortunes of the conflict.
‘‘The Assad regime is regaining ground,’’ said one Syria analyst who did not want to be named. ‘‘If things continue as they are now it is quite possible that Assad will stay in power.’’
Others urged caution in analysing the last three days of battle, with Mona Yacoubian, a senior Middle East advisor at the Washington-based Stimson Centre warning Syria would likely continue to be trapped in a ‘‘deadly stalemate’’.
‘‘To view this as a turning point where the revolution will wither on the vine ... would be wrong — this is offensive and counter-offensive and what this means is more misery and more death,’’ she said.
‘‘The regime is consolidating control in Damascus and along strategic corridors mainly through Homs and to the coast, there is no doubt about it... however, I do not see opposition-controlled areas in north and east going back to regime control.’’
Some were using the regime’s gains to argue for urgent military intervention by the West — a move she said would only result in more civilian deaths and casualties.
The obvious presence of Hezbollah fighters engaged in active combat alongside Assad regime forces did, however, mark a turning point in the conflict, said Shlomo Brom, a senior research associate at the Institute for National Security Studies and a retired Israel Defence Force brigadier general.
‘‘Hezbollah have been helping the regime for a long time but ... this is a new thing, their involvement earlier was not so blatant,’’ he said.‘‘Whether [the battle for Qusayr] means that now the regime has passed its lowest point and can move forward again, it is too early to say.
’’Like Ms Yacoubian, General Brom insists all parties to this conflict should have a vested interest in a political solution and says the talks in Geneva next monthpresent such an opportunity.But both warn conditions are ripe for the Syrian civil war to broaden into a wider regional conflict.
‘‘The hope — however slim it is — is the US-Russia initiative could gain some traction in the region,’’ Ms Yacoubian says.
‘‘The stakes are so high ... and the conflict has become so destabilising that an attempt to find a political solution must at least be tried.’’
Yet even if both the Syrian Government and the fragmented Opposition do come to the table, there was no guarantee that the Opposition held any sway over the FSA or the more Islamist brigades fighting against the regime on the ground in Syria, she warned.
More than 80,000 people have been killed in the Syrian conflict, according to the UN, and 1.5 million people have fled the country since the uprising began with a series of peaceful protests in March 2011.
The US Secretary of State John Kerry is due to arrive in Amman today for a Friends of Syria meeting.
The United States also expressed concern about the involvement of Hezbollah militants in the battle for Qusayr.
‘‘It is the most visible effort we have seen of Hezbollah to engage directly in the fighting in Syria as a foreign force. We understand there are also Iranians up there,’’ a senior state department official said.
‘‘We have heard from the Syrian opposition that when the regime forces go into Qusayr, if they do capture it, that there will be retaliation against the civilian population, and there are still thousands of civilians in the city. They’re especially nervous about this after the massacres committed by regime militias in Banias, ... where several hundreds were killed.’’