Syrian rebels have achieved “relative control” over the border area with Israel, a senior military source told The Jerusalem Post this week.
The development appears to mark yet another milestone in the gradual collapse of the Assad regime.
The rebel control of the border area has been in place since around mid-November, according to IDF evaluations.
As a result, the IDF is facing unknown armed groups, some of which are identified with the global jihad, sitting just across the Syrian border.
“This doesn’t change our plans. We’ve been ready for this development for a long time,” the source said.
“The rebel control of the area does not require changes on our part.”
The IDF has no intention of accepting attack from rebels. In recent weeks and months, some of the jihadi component of the rebels have vowed to turn their guns on Israel after overthrowing Assad, with some declaring that they’re “on the way to Jerusalem.”
The IDF Northern Command has a clear policy on enforcing Israeli sovereignty along the Golan Heights, which was exhibited recently when IDF ground forces fired back at Syrian army cannons that had fired shells into Israel.
The rebels solidified their control of the border between mid-October and mid-November.
The IDF is closely monitoring events across Syria, including tracking the country’s large arsenal of chemical weapons, which could fall into the hands of hard-line Islamist rebel elements following the collapse of the regime.
The risk of Al-Qaida-affiliated groups coming into possession of strategic weapons in Syria appears to be equal to that of Hezbollah attempting to seize them.
Military Intelligence is concerned not just by chemical weapons, but by the risk of long-range missiles and other powerful weapons passing into rebels hands, as one Syrian army base after another falls into rebel hands.
A video uploaded by the rebels to the Internet in recent weeks shows heavily armed bearded men shouting, “Allah hu akbar” while standing next to large missiles after having conquered a Syrian army base. This pattern is set to increase as the Syrian state continues to crumble.
“If the need arises, we’ll respond. Our finger is on the pulse,” IDF sources said this week.
Intelligence reports circulating within the IDF mention, among other developments, the ongoing and heavy involvement of Iran and Hezbollah in Syria and their involvement in the massacre of Syrian civilians.
As part of the effort to involve field commanders in the ever-changing intelligence picture coming from Syria, commanders from the Armored Corps and Infantry Corps have received detailed briefings on the new threats emanating from Syria.
This intelligence is set to play an important part in shaping the deployment of IDF forces on the Syrian border, as forces may need to adopt new tactics to face the jihadi threat.
The traditional threat posed by a hierarchical, organized Syrian military is being replaced by smaller cells of gunmen armed with shoulder-held missiles, automatic weapons and a variety of explosives.
Aside from the preparations, though, few dare guess how the civil war in Syria could end. According to one possible scenario, Syria could split up into ethnic statelets, with the ruling Allawite minority retreating to its heartland along the mountainous area of the Mediterranean coast.
Another possibility foresees Syria falling under the control of the Muslim Brotherhood.
This would make Syria the new Sunni axis in the region, currently composed of Egypt, Turkey, and Hamas.
Whichever way the war ends, Syria’s role as a central player in the Iranian Shi’ite bloc, and its ability to connect Tehran to Hezbollah in Lebanon, is drawing to an end.
Despite the escalated global concern over the use of chemical weapons by Bashar Assad, Israel’s defense community is not exhibiting major concern that unconventional weapons will be directed this way.
This, despite messages sent throughout the civil war by Syrian figures aligned with the Assad regime who have explicitly threatened to attack “enemies of Syria” with chemical weapons as a response to outside intervention.
Ahmad Slash, a Syrian member of parliament and deputy chairman of the foreign affairs committee, told Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV in July, “These biological and chemical weapons are intended for a confrontation with the country’s enemies.”
He added, “Let me tell you something. I cannot tell a lie. We have biological weapons. What’s the problem? We have advanced weapons. Why lie to the people? We have them. That is what’s known as the balance of power. You have nuclear weapons and we have advanced biological weapons. We counter might with might, but we’re keeping this for the end. If you consider using nuclear weapons, we will use something equivalent, or something that causes similar damage... Let them bear in mind and take into consideration that Syria has both chemical and biological weapons.”
Soon afterwards, Syrian MP Issam Khalil told Al-Dunya TV, “I’d like to say to those [Israelis]: The missiles of Hezbollah which defeated you in the 2006 war were nothing more than extremely simple fireworks compared with the firepower that Syria has in stock, which could burn you to ashes. This is well-known. I’m not revealing any secret.”
Yet, this week, Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Feisal Mekdad took a more cautious line during a Sky News interview, saying that he “did not know” whether Syria possessed chemical weapons.
Either way, he said, they would never be used against Syrian civilians.
Despite the more careful formulation, there is no contradiction between Mekdad’s comments and the belligerent words of the MPs. Both signal an intent to use chemical weapons to deter direct foreign intervention in Syria.
The larger security threat, however, stems from the question of what will happen to the chemical weapons after Assad’s collapse.
Intelligence and security officials are working around the clock to set up contingencies in Israel, the US, Jordan and Turkey.
Another key question that arises from the crumbling of Iran’s only regional ally is whether this strategic blow will affect its nuclear program.
Will a more isolated Iran increase the rate of its uranium enrichment and try to break through to nuclear weapons possession? Or will its growing isolation in the face of a Sunni rising tide, together with sanctions and the threat of an Israeli strike, help push Tehran to negotiate with the West and give up on the nuclear project?
So far, there are no encouraging signs coming out of Tehran. The Islamic Republic is projecting confidence in its ability to manipulate the regional turmoil to its advantage, to survive the sanctions and to at least reach the nuclear breakout stage.