Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, left, and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pose for photographers before their meeting Monday, July 16, 2012 in Jerusalem, Israel. (AP Photo/Lior Mizrahi, Pool)
JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel's top defense officials convened for emergency meetings on Wednesday to discuss the deteriorating security situation in Syria, reflecting growing concerns that violence sweeping Israel's northern neighbor could spill across the border.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak summoned top security and intelligence officials after Syrian rebels claimed responsibility for a bombing that killed three senior Syrian officials, including the brother-in-law of President Bashar Assad and his defense minister.
In a statement, Barak called the explosion a "huge blow to the Syrian regime" that will "hasten the fall of the Assad family."
He said Israel is watching the situation closely, "particularly the possibility of a collapse of the central command that could lead to an attempt by Hezbollah to take control of advanced fighting systems or chemical weapons."
That was a reference to Lebanon's powerful Hezbollah, backed by Iran closely allied to the Assad regime and a bitter enemy of Israel.
Hezbollah battled Israel to a stalemate during a bruising monthlong war in 2006.
Barak's military commander, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, also was huddling with his intelligence chief and commander for the northern border area, the army said, reflecting the urgency with which Israel sees the developments inside the borders of its longtime enemy.
Israeli officials have been careful to keep their distance from the Syrian civil war, fearing that even the perception that Israel is involved could somehow influence the fighting. Activists say more than 17,000 people have been killed since the uprising began in March 2011, and Assad's position has begun to look precarious.
Israeli defense officials have long asserted that it is only a matter of time before Assad is ousted.
While Syria and Israel are bitter enemies, the border has been mostly quiet since 1974. Some Israeli officials believe the departure of the four-decade Assad dynasty could destabilize the region by bringing radicals or Islamists to power, or leaving a vacuum during a prolonged power struggle.
Israel also fears that militant groups said to be operating in Syria, including al-Qaida, might try to take advantage of any power vacuum to stage attacks on Israel.
On Tuesday, Israel's military intelligence chief said that Assad has diverted his troops away from the Israeli border area toward Damascus, reflecting Assad's worsening position. He said jihadist groups have moved into the border region and might try to exploit the situation.
Israeli military officials are also concerned that Assad himself may decide to attack Israel to divert attention from the civil war. Officials believe Assad has been reluctant to do so at a time when he is preoccupied with his internal problems, but that he could change his mind if he believes he is under imminent threat of being overthrown.