The former head of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency is warning that Israel and Iran may be headed to war over Iran’s increasing military aid to Syria.
In an exclusive interview with The Daily Beast, Ephraim Halevy said Iran has extended its patronage to the embattled regime of President Bashar al-Assad, sending weapons and soldiers to help quash an 18-month-long revolt against Assad’s regime.
Israel shares a 45-mile long border with Syria that has been quiet for decades. But Halevy said the presence of Iranian troops just across that border heightens tensions between the two countries—tensions that are already elevated over Iran’s nuclear program.
“The Iranians are becoming ever more involved in Syria and it’s reaching proportions beyond the imagination,” said Halevy, who headed Mossad from 1998 to 2002 and later served as director of Israel’s National Security Council.
“This brings Israel and Iran in danger of a direct military confrontation in Syria,” he said. “It’s not to say that Israel seeks it, or Iran seeks it, but when you have such hatred spewed from Tehran towards Jerusalem, I don’t trust the Iranian capability to control what’s going on there.”
The Syrian conflict, which has spiraled into a civil war with sectarian overtones, has already claimed the lives of more than 26,000 people, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Halevy would not specify what events in Syria could lead to war. But Israeli analysts have raised concerns about everything from a Syrian attack on Israel—aimed at deflecting attention from Assad’s brutal crackdown on protesters—to the transfer of Syrian chemical weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Both scenarios take into account the possibility that Iranian troops or advisers in Syria might direct the events.
Iran has denied helping Assad. But American officials have also raised concerns about aid flowing from Iran to Syria, with three U.S. senators saying last week that Iraq was allowing its airspace to be used for the transfers.
“The Iranians have been so explicit, so clear about their unyielding support for the murderous Assad regime,” State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said last week. “All of this destructive assistance should stop, whether it’s materiel, whether it’s direct training and assistance to help stage manage the repression.”
Israel has fought three wars with Syria since 1948 and continues to occupy the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau it captured from Damascus in 1967. But the border between the two countries has remained calm since the separation of forces agreement that followed the 1973 war.
Syrian leaders have generally preferred to lash out at Israel through proxies like Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Halevy’s remarks are especially worrying given that Israel is already contemplating a possible strike on Iran’s uranium enrichment facilities, where much of the world believes the Islamic republic is developing nuclear weapons.
Iran describes its nuclear program as peaceful.
Halevy said the aid to Syria adds a possible trigger point for conflict. “The nuclear issue is compounded now,” he said.
The Obama administration has raised the pressure on Israel in recent weeks not to strike at Iran, arguing that increasingly harsh sanctions could still persuade the country to dismantle the program.
But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu describes the sanctions as ineffective and wants assurances from Obama that the U.S. will use military force if Iran continues enriching uranium.
“The world tells Israel ‘wait, there’s still time.’ And I say, ‘Wait for what? Wait until when?’” Netanyahu told reporters today. “Those in the international community who refuse to put red lines before Iran don’t have a moral right to place a red light before Israel.”
The Iran issue has further strained relations between Netanyahu and Obama. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported on Tuesday that Obama declined an Israeli request to meet Netanyahu at a U.N. conference in New York later this month.
Netanyahu says Iran is quickly moving its nuclear facilities deep underground and, in a matter of weeks or months, would no longer be vulnerable to an Israeli attack. But an Israeli source familiar with security assessments at the highest levels, said some top intelligence officials dispute Netanyahu’s estimate, believing the window for an Israeli attack extends well into next year. The source, who did not want to be named discussing sensitive deliberations, said top intelligence officials have debated the issue at recent meetings.
Several key Israeli political and military figures—including President Shimon Peres—have spoken out against attacking Iran without American support. Most rank and file Israelis agree, according to opinion polls.
Among Americans, some 70 percent think Washington should not strike at Iran without approval of the U.N. Security Council, according to a poll (PDF) published this week.