Things are heating up between Israel and Hezbollah in the Golan - analysis

The past week alone saw two deadly attacks against Iranian proxies in southern Syria attributed to Israel.

July 25, 2019 23:11
4 minute read.
An old military vehicle can be seen positioned on the Israeli side of the border with Syria, near th

An old military vehicle can be seen positioned on the Israeli side of the border with Syria, near the Druze village of Majdal Shams in the Golan Heights. (photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)

It’s been a hot summer in the Golan. And it’s not only the weather.

The past week alone saw two deadly attacks against Iranian proxies in southern Syria attributed to Israel. Earlier this week an explosion killed Hezbollah operative Mashour Zidan in southern Syria and a few days later a rocket struck the strategic Tel Haraa site not far from where Zidan was killed.

Israel has remained mum on the attacks, but the Jewish State has made it clear that it won’t accept Hezbollah’s growing presence in the Syrian Golan.

But Assad, along with Iranian backed troops, retook the Golan last summer, so what’s changed?

According to Phillip Smyth, the Soref Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the buildup of local forces by Iran and Hezbollah is a major aspect that has been overlooked.

“Hezbollah doesn’t want to have to execute an entire war on its own in southern Syria. It’s much easier to apply plausible deniability and harder to bust a Hezbollah cell if they are locals,” he told The Jerusalem Post, adding that they have taken a slightly different approach and being very pragmatic in terms of who they recruit.

Zidan, a Druze resident from the village of Hadar, is believed to have been a senior Hezbollah operative responsible for recruiting volunteers from villages near the border with Israel as part of Hezbollah’s Golan File.

Senior intelligence officers in the IDF’s Northern Command said that Hezbollah’s Golan Project began last summer following the reconquering of the Syrian Golan by regime troops. Operatives involved in the clandestine file have weaponry available from the civil war and if needed, will receive additional weaponry from Lebanon or existing arsenals kept by Hezbollah and Iran.

“Hezbollah knows that Israel is watching, so they are being much more covert than in the past,” Smyth said, adding that they are using more local forces rather than sending brigades of Lebanese fighters to the area.

Military success in Syria has also allowed Hezbollah to redeploy senior operatives and troops to the area as well as southern Lebanon. The group’s leader Hassan Nasrallah has said as much himself in a speech in mid-July.

“We are present in every area that we used to be. We are still there, but we don’t need to be there in large numbers as long as there is no practical need,” he said, adding that “if there was a need to return, all those who were there would go back.”

According to David Daoud, a research analyst on Hezbollah and Lebanon at United Against Nuclear Iran, the uptick in Israeli strikes in the area is because “there has been increased Hezbollah presence.”

In mid-March US President Donald Trump announced the formal recognition of the Golan as sovereign Israeli territory, handing Hezbollah a present for their recruitment in the area.

“Recognition of the Golan creates common ground for different factions to agree upon - the same applies to the embassy move, and the ‘deal of the century,” Daoud said, adding that “Different regional groups or axes that might not otherwise agree now have something in common.”

Smyth told The Post that while “Trump’s statement has sent some signals to Iran,” Tehran has “upped the ante because of the situation on the ground, not because of Trump’s statement. They know that their goals will outlast the Trump administration. But if it rallies the troops, they will use it. They are very pragmatic.”

While the “Iranians have been following the same program in southern Syria for years, now they're trying to secure and resecure their gains,” Smyth said. “There’s a lot more opportunity, it’s a net gain no matter how you look at it.”

The attack on Tel Haara on Wednesday was not the first.

The site has been used by the Syrian army for years to observe Israeli movement, and since the Assad regime re-took the area from rebels last summer, there have been several strikes on the site blamed on Israel.

While the base, which has electronic surveillance capabilities, was supposed to be manned solely by regime troops, pro-Iranian militias including Hezbollah are known to be stationed in it.

According to Smyth, Hezbollah and Iran “have been at the forefront of using electronic means to counter their foes, its existed for decades and it wouldn’t shock me if they were testing the waters there.”

The opportunity was there for the taking.

The retaking of the Syrian Golan by Assad also forced Israel to end Operation Good Neighbor, where Israel provided humanitarian and, according to foreign reports, military aid to rebels in the Syrian Golan.

Israel also treated thousands of Syrians who arrived at the border,both combatants and civilians. According to officials some 70% of the wounded treated by Israel were men of fighting age while the other 30% were women and children.

A year later, “times have changed,” Smyth told the Post. “Not everyone has switched over but if your stuck in Syria and you have no options...and you can’t run into have to back the strongest horse.”

And that’s Hezbollah.

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