On the border with Syria, the land of war

The ‘Post’ joins the commander of a Nahal Reconnaissance Company on the Syrian frontier and witnesses clashes between rebels and forces loyal to Assad.

By
October 25, 2013 15:08
A SOLDIER from the Nahal Reconnaissance Company looks out at the border with Syria.

IDF soldier Golan 370. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)

 
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Beyond the IDF’s Bustar outpost on the Golan Heights lies a land of war. The small base, situated on a mound right on the Syrian border, is flanked by tanks and dusty hills. It is home to a Nahal Infantry Brigade Reconnaissance Company, whose members place themselves in harm’s way every day to ensure that the raging battles of Syria do not spill over into Israel.

The post overlooks a Syrian valley, which is hemmed in by a lake to its east. This is a part of the Quneitra district, an area containing villages, fields, sporadic concentrations of trees, large Syrian flags flying atop tall masts, and heavily armed combatants from the Syrian army and rebel forces engaged in a life-and-death struggle.

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In the middle of it all are Syrian civilians, hoping to survive another day.

On top of a mosque, not far from the Israeli border, a solder of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime manned a heavy machine gun nest, which, like a gun introduced in the first act of a play, was destined to be fired soon after our arrival.

Maj. Amos Shor, the highly alert yet calm commander of the Nahal Reconnaissance Company, agreed to take The Jerusalem Post on a tour of the tense border.

A tall man with a shaved head, Shor is the Israeliborn son of Australian immigrants. He explained that in this neck of the woods, “the things that are hidden are greater than that which is visible.”

“Like every day, today is wild,” he said. “This morning there was in incident involving shots fired on [Israeli] civilian contractors working on the border fence. We can get bullets or mortars flying at us from over the border.”



“The days here are characterized by intense drills, and us being scrambled to incidents. I hope that everything will be calm for our tour,” Shor added.

Seconds later, an explosion tore through the earth a few hundred meters away, just outside of a Syrian village, and a plume of black smoke rose up into the air. Shor and his soldiers barely blinked. “At first, the soldiers were very affected by this, but now we are all used to it,” Shor said.

“It’s a matter of habit. We’ve had a mortar shell fall in this post.

We get used to hearing these sounds, but we are not complacent,” he stressed.

“There are rebels and the Syrian army here. We know the villages very well. Here,” he gestured, “is a Syrian army position. Over there are rebels. They’re fighting all the time. This mortar was just fired by the Syrian army at the rebels.”

For newcomers, the exchanges of fire look like pitched battles, but Shor explained that the situation is very fluid.

“It looks static, but things here are moving,” he said.

“Look at these guys approaching the border,” the commander said, nodding towards a few men walking in our direction. “They look like they’re on an innocent stroll, but nothing here is innocent.

We’ll get to the bottom of that – if not now, then later.

“Innocent civilians are being killed. The hardest part is seeing that, mortars slamming into homes that we know have families inside,” Shor said quietly.

The Reconnaissance Company has been stationed at this border post for five months, and witnessed firsthand the most active war zone in Israel’s vicinity.

In the middle of our conversation, Shor often used his gun sight to track developments on the other side of the border, while communicating with others on his encrypted cell phone.

His unit is primarily a reaction force that quickly responds to any incident.

Every infantry brigade in the IDF has a battalion made up of of special forces. The Nahal Reconnaissance Battalion is made up of companies that specialize in reconnaissance (Shor’s unit), combat engineering and surface-to-surface missile warfare.

“We are here because of the sensitive situation. The army invested special resources to defend the country,” Shor said.

On the other side of the border, in addition to battle-hardened Syrian army forces, rebels, some of them jihadis, roam freely.

“We know they’re on the other side, sometimes just 150 meters away.

“We get all kinds of intelligence warnings, that they intend to strike our forces here or there. All of the sides have access to every weapon imaginable,” noted Shor.

Ever since the internal Syrian fighting spread right up to Israel’s border, the IDF has been busy implementing a code of conduct in the area, according to which those who fire on Israel – intentionally or accidentally – can expect a devastating reply in the form of return fire, which often takes the form of guided Tamuz missile strikes.

“We don’t always know if we’re fired on intentionally or not. It doesn’t interest us. If someone fires on us, it’s not okay,” Shor said.

At the same time, he emphasized, “the IDF works in a very calculated, restrained way. We hit the sources of fire to send a very strong message. But we’re also restrained in many instances, because we don’t want to ignite a new front.”

The Reconnaissance Company is aided by the Armored Corps, electronic border surveillance and new frontier fence that provides some protection against direct incoming missiles and shooting attacks.

Such measures, combined with the grueling training his unit has undergone, gives Shor the confidence to manage this troubled sector.

In September, a live-fire war drill was held by Nahal’s Reconnaissance Battalion, in which surprised troops were mobilized without prior warning from around the country to a staging area in the North.

At the time, Lt.-Col. Menny Liberty, commander of the battalion, told the Post he had not seen an exercise on that scale before.

Members of the Reconnaissance Company, who form a central plank of the battalion, spent many months training in navigation under fire, covert ground movement, setting ambushes, intelligence gathering and engaging enemy forces. The enemy might hail from an organized army, or belong to a small guerrilla-terrorist attack cell.

The result of all this training, Shor said, is that “the soldiers know what to do. Our battalion commander communicates with us, and we, the company commanders, coordinate with one another and speak to the platoon commanders.”

Earlier this month, two soldiers were lightly injured in the area by shrapnel from a Syrian mortar. The Syrian artillery post that fired the projectile was destroyed by the IDF soon after. “That incident could have easily ended far worse,” Shor said.

In the distance, pickup trucks and jeeps containing civilian contractors moved along the barrier, working under the protection of the army to complete the fence.

“When we first arrived, the barrier did not exist. We saw it spring up during our time here,” Shor said, as a call from a muezzin in a Syrian village faintly echoed around the hills.

“The fence doesn’t defend you against everything. We must do special activities, lookouts and ambushes,” Shor stressed. “The fact that Israelis came to the Golan during the recent holidays gave us the feeling that we are succeeding.

Israelis feel confident about walking around here, and rightly so.”

We left the post and set off on a tour of the border in a Wolf armored vehicle.

The vehicle proceeded along the fence and drove down a winding dirt road, bordered by Syria on one side and minefields on the other.

We soon arrived at the Quneitra crossing, used by the UN Disengagement Observation Force to cross back and forth between Lebanon and Israel.

Just as we arrived, two white UN jeeps crossed into Israel, after being searched thoroughly by IDF soldiers. The searches include making the jeeps drive over a cavity in the ground that enables soldiers to inspect the vehicles from beneath.

The UN staff drove on to an adjacent UN complex.

The IDF views the crossing as a vulnerable spot and a possible target for terrorists.

Our patrol continued onward before pulling up at a location overlooking a Syrian village.

After exiting the vehicle, we stood in a trench and looked through binoculars at the Syrian army machine gunner standing on the roof of a white mosque. The gunner wore blue civilian clothing.

“He belongs to the Syrian army. They’re not all in uniform,” Shor explained.

Suddenly, voices from the village shouted what appeared to be orders, before the gunner unleashed bursts of heavy automatic fire, the sounds ricocheting powerfully throughout the valley.

“He’s firing eastwards, towards rebel positions,” Shor said. The bursts continued, growing in intensity and piercing the air. Shor decided it was time to move us along.

Shor’s unit is expected to leave this place, to be replaced by units from the Givati Brigade, which will set up camp at the post for the winter.

The Nahal Reconnaissance Company will enter a six-week training period, before being deployed to a new trouble spot.

“We will go to the most problematic places, this is our mission,” Shor said. “To defend the country.”

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