IDF on the Hermon.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
As tourists take to the slopes on Israel’s only ski hill, Mount Hermon, IDF soldiers nearby are keeping a watchful eye – on the border with Lebanon and Syria.
“On a nice day, you can see Damascus from here,” Commander Oz Azarzar of the IDF’s Combat Engineering Corps Battalion 603 told The Jerusalem Post from the top of the mountain that rises 2,200 meters above sea level.
The Syrian capital is just 40 kilometers away, a shorter drive than going to the beaches of Tel Aviv, a distance of 221 kilometers. But with Israel and Syria still officially at war, one can only gaze across the border.
Israel seized most of the strategically located Golan Heights from Syria in the Six Day War in 1967 and later annexed the territory in a move never recognized by the international community.
On Tuesday, the fog in the distance kept Syria out of sight.
But what a civilian may not be able to see, the soldiers of Battalion 603 have advanced technology allowing them to overcome any type of weather that might obscure their vision of the enemy.
“There is nothing that we cannot see,” Azarzar said as he motioned to keep walking in order to keep warm.
Walking just a few meters from the noise made by tourists enjoying their winter wonderland, silence reigns.
The only thing one sees are snow-covered mountains and the imprints of soldiers’ boots and all-terrain vehicles, including those clearing the snow.
The soldiers of Battalion 603, who came to Mount Hermon a few months ago after spending eight months in the desert, are now acclimating to the winter conditions in the northern Golan Heights. Despite having winter boots, fleece jackets and warm gloves, the cold and the snow remain challenges.
Although there is currently relative silence and calm across the border in Syria, the soldiers know this could be the calm before the storm.
“The civil war has reduced enemy movement in the area, but we do not live in a vacuum and we are always training, we are building a wall of defense,” Azarzar told the Post, stressing that his soldiers are like “a family that fights together,” and are ready for anything.
While there is no Islamic State or al-Qaida presence near the border, there are a few thousand rebel fighters fighting Syrian regime forces and their allies, including Druse militias from the nearby village of Khadr.
And heavy fighting between the Assad regime and rebels in the Golan can always break out.
With the Syrian regime gaining back significant territory from rebel groups since the Russian intervention, the possibility that Assad may want to retake the border area with Israel is a real possibility.
The IDF also knows that the threat of a terrorist attack by Assad regime allies such as Hezbollah or Iran remains a very real threat. There also have been several incidents involving residents from Khadr, including two years ago when four terrorists crossed into Israel and planted explosives near an abandoned IDF post.
While it may be one of Israel’s quietest borders, Azarzar said the boundary with Syria is “very dynamic.”
“There is no one main threat, it doesn’t matter if it’s the Assad regime, or Hezbollah, or the rebels. If they are coming to hurt an Israeli civilian or soldier, they are my main enemy.
“I have a red line,” Azarzar stressed. “If someone tries to cross from Syria with the intent of carrying out an attack, they will not succeed. Period. We know how to respond. And, in a way, that will hurt them.”
So while Israel does not want to be dragged into the Syrian civil war, the IDF and the soldiers of Azarzar’s Combat Engineer Brigade are keeping a close eye on the ever-changing situation from the mountain peaks above and are ready for anything.