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Israel says Syrian rebels using borders to limit government’s ability to respond

Syrian rebels are using their country’s northern and southern borders as a strategic fighting position, forcing the Syrian military to limit its response to rebel gains in an effort to avoid triggering a confrontation with neighboring countries, an Israeli military officer said Tuesday.

Speaking from a hilltop overlooking the Syrian border, the officer, who serves in the country’s northern command, told McClatchy that in the last three weeks there has been a sharp increase in fighting between the Syrian military and rebel forces just a few miles from the Israeli border.

"They know that near the Israeli border the Syrian army is limited in how they can hit them," said the officer, who under military rules spoke only under the condition of anonymity. He described a cat-and-mouse game being played between rebels and the Syrian army. "The Syrian army doesn’t want to start a new front with Israel, they can’t maneuver as they’d like once the rebels get too close to the border," he said.

The official said well-publicized incidents earlier this week in which Syrian mortar rounds fell inside Israel were accidents, the inevitable result of the Syrian army trying to engage rebels who’d taken up positions near Israel.

To illustrate the point, the official indicated on a map how close rebels who’d recently taken up positions between the villages Beerajam and Bariqa were to Israel. He noted that Syrian forces targeting the rebels were using "very basic, not very accurate" artillery and that any slight miscalculation would send a shell into Israel. He shrugged off rhetoric by Israeli politicians earlier this week that Israel was ready to escalate with Syria if need be.

The same rebel tactics are also on display on Syrian’s northern border with Turkey. There, however, the Turkish government, which supports the rebels who are fighting to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad, has retaliated by opening fire on Syrian military positions every time a Syrian shell lands in Turkey. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has cautioned Damascus not to test his country’s "limits and determination.”

The delicacy of the rebel strategy has been on display recently in fighting for the Syrian border town of Ras al Ayn. On Tuesday, Syrian planes bombed rebel positions there, shaking buildings in the neighboring Turkish town of Ceylanpinar.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, speaking to reporters in Rome, said Ankara had formally protested the bombings near the border, saying the attacks were endangering Turkey’s security, state-run TRT television reported. He said Turkey had reported the incident to NATO allies and to the U.N. Security Council.

Syrian rebel commanders speaking to McClatchy by phone said that the area near the Turkish border was "strategic, for every reason possible."

"In addition to giving us border access, the border area is a haven for us and a very, very important strategic point," said Abu Muhammed, a rebel commander in the Idlib area who identified himself by a pseudonym. "We have focused a lot of attention on borders. We now have access along the border with Turkey and Iraq – we are on our way to choking off the regime."

The Israeli officer said he had noticed that the rebels had formed a strategic position around the Syrian village of Quneitra.

"They are above and below. They will, I think, move into Quneitra, allowing them to choke off the access road the Syrian regime has to Damascus," he said. "Rebel groups are using this area as a foothold, they are using whatever advantage they can get against the regime," he said.

Israeli intelligence on the Syrian rebels has increased since the start of 2012, when intelligence officers admitted they knew little to nothing about the rebel units in Syria.

Now, however, the officer speaking about the rebels identified them by their unit names and religious affiliations and said Israel was collecting information on their units’ size and movement.

"These groups are the size of battalions at most,” he said, indicating fewer than 1,000 fighters.

“They are all Islamists and one group, the Eagles of the Golan, are Salafists," he said, referring to a conservative branch of Sunni Islam. He identified the other two groups as al Furqan and Descendent of the Prophet and said all three spoke in “Islamic tones.”

"We find this worrying because we have heard them say that after their first priority of dealing with the Syrian regime, the second thing will be to deal with Israel,” he said.