|Assad's government has cracked down hard on Syrians demanding regime change since March [Reuters]
Israel is preparing to receive Syrian Alawite refugees on the occupied Golan Heights if the Bashar al-Assad government collapses, Israel's army chief of staff has said.
It is the first time that a senior Israeli official has raised the possibility that members of the Alawite minority, which includes the Assad family, could seek refuge in Israel in order to escape an expected backlash in the event the government crumbles.
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"On the day the Assad regime falls, it is expected to harm the Alawite clan. We are preparing to receive Alawite refugees on the Golan Heights," Lieutenant-General Benny Gantz told MPs at the parliamentary committee on foreign affairs and defence on Tuesday, in remarks communicated by a spokesman.
Al Jazeera's Nisreen El Shamayleh, reporting from Jerusalem, said that "it was a very unusual statement," and after contacting the relevant authorities, "no one was commenting on these statements at all".
The Assad family are Alawites, members of a Shia minority group who are strongly represented in the top ranks of the Syrian army and the ruling Baath party.
Since March, the Assad government has been engaged in a crackdown against activists calling for regime change, which UN estimates say killed more than 5,000 last year.
'Cracks in radical axis'
Gantz said Assad's fall was likely to affect its alliance with Iran, Lebanon's Hezbollah and the Palestinian group, Hamas.
"Assad cannot remain in power and his fall could cause cracks in the radical axis," he said.
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Earlier this month, Ehud Barak, the Israeli defence minister, said he believed Assad's family had only "a few weeks" left in control of the country.
"The Assad family has no more than a few weeks to remain in control in Syria," Barak told the same parliamentary committee, and later said such a development could have "implications" for the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
"In the north, there may be possible implications from Syria on the Golan Heights and a broader area as the result of the loss of control," he said.
Barak also said Assad's fall would constitute a "severe blow to the radical axis".
A UN estimate in early December put the death toll in Syria since the start of the crackdown in mid-March, at more than 5,000.
An estimate by the Local Co-ordination Committees network of activists put the number at 5,862, including 395 children and 146 women.
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies