A couple watches the fighting in Syria from Tel Saqi. The Syrian regime and its Russian backers launched numerous artillery and air strikes on ISIS positions 2018.
(photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
The Syrian regime and its Russian backers launched widespread air and artillery strikes against ISIS-held positions near the Golan Heights on Saturday.
Over the course of 24 hours, the Syrian regime carried out an offensive against an Islamic State affiliate that holds a section of the southern Golan in Syria. Since 2015, ISIS has been able to attract hundreds of followers to a group called Jaysh Khalid bin-Walid and take over a dozen villages near the southern Golan and Jordan. Until this year, the terrorist group skirmished with Syrian rebels, but after the rebels retreated from a Syrian regime offensive earlier this month, ISIS has been fighting the Syrian regime.
Initially, the Syrian regime and its Russian backers focused on defeating the rebels near Dara’a and Quneitra in southern Syria. However, on Friday, the rebels indicated they would accept a “reconciliation” agreement with Damascus.
On Saturday morning, ISIS detonated a car bomb in the town of Hayt. Syrian forces launched a dozen air and artillery strikes in the morning against areas along the border with Israel, including the villages and towns of Tasil, Saidah, Sahyun and Shabraq. Puffs of smoke could be seen and explosions heard in the distance from the Golan Heights. By early afternoon, the Syrian regime had increased its strikes, targeting ISIS positions along the entire front line of some dozen kilometers. Clouds of smoke from the strikes could be seen far in the distance and within two kilometers of the 1974 cease-fire line. At least 30 air strikes were clearly audible within a period of three hours. At Tel al-Jamou, a strategic hill and former Syrian army base, ISIS repelled repeated Syrian attempts to take the hill and the regime resorted to heavy artillery bombardment that lasted into the night Saturday.
At Tel Saqi, on the Israeli side of the Golan – the site of a 1973 battle – tourists and locals watched the air strikes in the distance. Some were oblivious to the complexities of the war on the other side and were surprised to find themselves next to a war zone.
Other locals said they had been here since the 1970s and recalled the 1973 war. They debated whether it would be good to have Bashar Assad’s regime back at the border after seven years of instability in which a multiplicity of groups have occupied areas of the Golan border. These have included moderate Syrian rebels as well as extremist groups like ISIS. The Israeli side of the border near the ISIS-held positions has been quiet for almost two years, since a skirmish there in 2016.
On Saturday, as the Syrian regime’s offensive unfolded, dozens of Syrians gathered near the border in tents. They are among the tens of thousands who have clustered near Quneitra and other points along the cease-fire line in recent weeks. With the offensive hitting previously quiet ISIS-held areas, civilians are increasingly fleeing to the border. Despite the fighting, the border area was still open to tourists and there was no visible emergency on the Israeli side or along the fence.