JERUSALEM - Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz said Israel is preparing to shelter Alawite refugees fleeing Syria.
"The day the Assad regime falls, this is expected to hurt the Alawite sect," Gantz told members of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Tuesday. "We are getting ready to take in Alawite refugees in the Golan Heights."
Alawites, a sect that broke away from traditional Islam more than 1,000 years ago, believe the Koran should be understood allegorically. Alawites gained control of Syria in 1970, during a coup led by President Bashar al-Assad's father, Hafez. The sect makes up about 12 percent of Syria's 74 percent majority Sunni population.
Meanwhile, Gantz said Assad's internal problems make it unlikely he'll attack Israel at this time, but Syria's massive weapons cache, including Russian SA-117 anti-aircraft missiles, bears monitoring.
The IDF chief also noted the growing threat from Lebanon, where Hezbollah maintains close ties with the Assad regime.
Following the Second Lebanon War with Israel in the summer of 2006, Syria transferred massive amounts of Iranian weapons to Hezbollah.
Gantz said 2012 would be a "critical" year - from "Iran gaining nuclear power, changes in leadership, continuing pressure from the international community" and a myriad of "events that happen unnaturally."
The Jerusalem Post contributed to this report.