Israeli soldiers stand atop tanks in the Israeli Golan Heights, close to Israel's frontier with Syria November 22, 2017.
(photo credit: REUTERS/AMMAR AWAD)
For the last five years Israel has been on the front line of the Syrian civil war as clashes between rebel groups and the Damascus regime of Bashar Assad unfolded near the Golan.
In the last few weeks the regime has opened a small offensive to isolate and retake several villages located near Mount Hermon. This is seen as the first in a series of moves that will eventually bring the regime and its backers in Iran and Hezbollah back to the border, raising major concerns for Israel.
The following are the major challenges:
Rebel groups control dozens of villages that separate the area of Israeli control on the Golan from the Syrian regime. Many of those are located in an area covered under a cease-fire agreement signed in July by the US, Russia and Jordan.
At the moment, the rebels’ hold is most precarious on the village of Beit Jinn and the nearby Mazra’at Beit Jinn and Mugh al-Mir, which are located in a small finger of rebel-controlled territory near Mount Hermon. These villages are flanked on three sides by the regime and its allies. If they fall, which is expected to happen soon, some of the wounded and civilians from the villages may seek shelter in Israel.
This is because Israel has treated thousands of Syrians over the past years. The total was estimated at around 3,000 by July 2017, including 1,000 children. They have not sought to remain in Israel. That could change, however, if they cannot return to their villages, or if they fear reprisals. The Syrian regime has attempted to “reconcile” with villages it is retaking, encouraging locals to accept Damascus rule in return for not being persecuted. Some of the armed rebels have been allowed to leave on buses in agreements in other areas of Syria.
However, years of Israeli fostering relations with locals, treating them, and sending aid across the border may have created some kind of dependency. When the day comes that the villages fall to the regime, Israel will have to monitor what happens closely and craft a policy for any refugees seeking a haven.
Terrorists and ISIS
Mixed in among the rebels on the Syrian side of the Golan have been elements of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, which was originally al-Qaida in Syria and was known as the Nusra Front for a while. This extremist organization could pose a threat to Israel if it felt that pressure on it by the regime might be lessened by getting Israel involved in the conflict.
The problem is that Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham does not operate within clear boundaries and is not part of the cease-fire agreement on the Golan. As such it can carry out operations, such as the bombing against Druse in the village of Khadr which is controlled by the regime. Attacks on Khadr have created controversy in Israel because Druse on the Israeli side of the Golan feel sympathy for their co-religionists.
In addition, Islamic State controls a section of the southern Golan near Jordan. This is an ISIS affiliate named the Khalid ibn al-Walid Army. It is also not part of the cease-fire agreement and has spent the last years fighting the Syrian rebels. Eventually the regime or the rebels will seek to destroy this ISIS pocket, and that will involve battles next to Israeli forces. There has only been one Israeli clash in the past with this ISIS group, in 2016. But changes on the ground in Syria could encourage more.Iran
Israel has repeatedly stressed the need to prevent Iran from establishing permanent bases in Syria, especially anywhere near the Golan. The foreign media outlet Asharq al-Awsat reported that Israel had requested in July via Russia that Assad keep Iranian forces at least 40 km. away from the border. On December 2, Syrian regime media accused Israel of bombing an Iranian base at Kiswah, south of Damascus. This is only one of many alleged air strikes, often reported in Syrian or other media.
In November, Russia, the US and Jordan recommitted to the southwest Syrian cease-fire. Initially Israeli media reported that Russia had committed to expel Iranian-backed forces near the Golan, but Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov disputed those claims, describing the Iranian presence as “legitimate.” Iran’s support has been invited by the Syrian government. Any moves toward the Golan by the regime raise the issue of what role Iran and its proxies are playing and increase the chance for clashes and tensions.
In early December, President Vladimir Putin flew to Syria and announced that Russian troops were beginning a withdrawal from Syria. Moscow has declared victory over ISIS. Its support for the regime in 2015 was a key reason Assad remained in power. Since then Russia has hosted conferences in Astana and Sochi designed to seek a more peaceful resolution to the conflict. It has supported “de-escalation” zones in Syria, one of which is in southwest Quneitra Governorate. The idea is to freeze parts of the conflict. However, Damascus has vowed to take back the entire country. In 2017 it made major gains in this respect, taking back a huge swath of desert from ISIS near the Euphrates.
The question for Israel is whether Russia’s alliance with the regime will ever come up against an Israeli redline concerning the Iranian presence. Moscow doesn’t appear prepared to defend Iranian forces in Syria, and the reduction of the Russian presence leads to reduced concerns. This is buoyed by the close relationship between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Putin. However, there may come a time with any Syrian advance near the Golan where Israel and Russia do not see eye to eye.The cease-fire
The truce agreement in southwest Syria was signed in early July and a Memorandum of Principles was drawn up in early November. The cease-fire is expected to last for many more months, at least until it is a year old. For the regime the more serious fighting is likely to be in the north in Idlib with more extremist rebel groups. Also, Damascus wants to recover from six years of war. It wants international aid and support for rebuilding cities, and it still has to police large parts of the country only recently liberated from ISIS. It has relied on support from Iran and Hezbollah, the latter of which is also exhausted by war.
The cease-fire is the main instrument of quiet on the Golan. If the rebels or the regime see an interest in changing it, then Israel will be on alert. At the moment the complex situation is quiet. This includes areas where the regime is very close to Israel, such as near Khadr. The maintenance of this quiet has been an achievement of Israel, Syria, Russia, the US and Jordan.
IDF soldiers in the Golan Heights transfer injured Syrians from Syria into Israel for medical treatment on April 6, 2017 (IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)