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35 Dead Near Golan Heights

Beirut — Syrian regime forces routed rebels in fighting on the edge of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights last week, leaving at least 35 dead, activists said yesterday, as the country’s civil war reached the doorstep of the strategic plateau.

The rebel effort to overrun the Quneitra region along the cease-fire line separating Syria and Israel has heightened worries that Islamic extremists among those fighting President Bashar Assad could take over the front line with Israeli troops and gain a potential staging ground for attacks on the Jewish state.

The frontier has largely been calm in the nearly four decades since the two countries fought a war over the Golan Heights that ended with a U.N.-monitored cease-fire. But Israeli military officials have expressed concern that a rebel takeover could upset the calm maintained by Assad and his predecessor and father the late Hafez Assad.

Those fears have been compounded by increasing influence wielded by extremist groups over the divided rebels and the increasing international isolation of the regime.

“We are seeing terror organizations gaining footholds increasingly in the territory,” said Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, Israel’s military chief at a conference in Israel last week. “For now, they are fighting Assad. Guess what? We’re next in line.”

One of the worst-case scenarios as Syria enters its third year of conflict is that neighboring countries such as Israel or Lebanon could be drawn in.

Israel says it is trying to stay out of Syria’s civil war, but it retaliated for sporadic Syrian fire that spilled into Israeli communities on the Golan Heights on several occasions over the past few months.

When Israel bombed targets inside Syria said to include a weapons convoy headed for Hezbollah in Lebanon in January, Syrian opposition fighters derided Assad for not retaliating.

The Syrian rebels are made up of dozens of groups including the powerful, al-Qaida-linked Jabhat al-Nusra, which has been labeled a terrorist organization by the Obama administration. One of the groups involved in the Golan fighting, the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade, is an Islamic militant group.

The rebels have largely been beaten back since they seized control of at least one Druze village and parts of several others in Quneitra province near the 1974 disengagement line.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it had documented the deaths of 35 opposition fighters and contact had been lost with more than 20 others believed to have died in the fighting Wednesday and Thursday.

At least six pro-Assad fighters were also killed and dozens of others were wounded, according to the activist group.