Israeli soldiers stand atop tanks in the Golan Heights near Israel's border with Syria.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
On Monday Syrian regime forces and their allies began to close in on a village near Mount Hermon across from Israeli positions on the Golan Heights.
Beit Jinn has been held by Syrian rebels for the last several years, surrounded on three sides by the Syrian regime and its allies, including Hezbollah.
The Beit Jinn pocket stretches east from Mount Hermon toward Damascus. Syrian rebels have held Beit Jinn, the nearby Beit Jinn farms, Mugh al-Mir, Bayt Sabir and two other villages for several years. On December 21 the Syrian regime quietly moved into three of the villages, leaving the village of Beit Jinn isolated.
In early November fighting near Beit Jinn between rebels and the Syrian regime in the village of Khadr led to concerns that Israel would intervene to protect the Druze across the border.
Although Israel has enjoyed amicable relations with the Syrian rebels on the Golan it has also said it would not let them conquer the Druse village to link up with Beit Jinn because Golan Druze sympathize with their coreligionists across the border. In November residents of Beit Jinn reported that the Syrian regime had dropped chlorine barrel bombs on their positions injuring people.
On Christmas eve, Al-Mayadeen News, which is pro-Damascus, claimed that the Syrian army had taken some ground near the Beit Jinn farms. Al-Manar, which is close to Hezbollah, also reported similar accounts on December 25th. Wiam Wahhab, a former Lebanese Minister of the Environment, tweeted congratulations to the Syrian army and “sons of the Hermon” for the “collapse of the terrorists in Beit Jinn.” He said that the areas around Beit Jinn had “raised the white flag.”
Other accounts celebrated the “defeat of the terrorists after five years of fighting,” and claimed the Syrian rebels in Beit Jinn had received “protection from the Zionists.”
Another Arabic website, muraselon.com, claimed that the Syrian rebels in the pocket, including members of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which was formerly Al-Qaeda in Syria, will either be “reconciled” with the regime forces or be bused out to Dar’ar or Idlib province. This is how Damascus has sought to put down the rebellion in recent years, instead of fighting for every village it has a “reconciliation agreement” where the village agrees to come back under the control of the government. Those rebels who do not put down their arms have agreed to be bused to enclaves still in their control.
This happened when Aleppo fell in December 2016 and thousands were bused out to Idlib. According to reports from the area the regime has been trying for four months to take back Beit Jinn and has not succeeded yet.
In July the US, Russia and Jordan signed a ceasefire that included the areas in southwest Syria near Jordan and the Golan. Since then the border area has been relatively quiet. However the Beit Jinn pocket does not appear to have been included in the ceasefire.
The Syrian regime declared victory over ISIS in November and Russia did the same in December and began drawing down its troops in Syria which have support Bashar al-Assad’s government. Now the Syrian regime wants to slowly take back the remaining rebel enclaves after six years of war.
For Israel this presents a challenge because Jerusalem has warned it will not allow an Iranian presence in Syria and has carried out airstrikes to prevent weapons transfers to Hezbollah via Syria. Any Syrian government attack on villages near the Golan raises fears that Hezbollah or Iranian agents could exploit the changes on the ground.