IS DETERRENCE working? Smoke rises last year on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights during fighting near the border..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
What is now a nuisance in the Golan Heights threatens to become a big burden, increasingly sucking Israel into the vortex of the six-year-old Syrian Civil War.
More stray shells from fighting in Syria landed in the Israeli-annexed part of the Golan Heights Sunday, a day after the IAF struck two Syrian army tanks and a heavy machine gun in response to earlier spillover of projectiles from inner-Syrian fighting.
There were no casualties but the IDF issued instructions to farmers and civilians to avoid open fields nearby and backpackers and hikers were also evacuated. Leaders made tough statements that Israel will hold the Syrian regime responsible for any fire at Israeli-held territory.
But there should be no illusions that the trouble on the Golan border will recede any time soon.
It is the Assad regime and its Iranian and Hezbollah allies that have the overall momentum now in the war. The regime is determined to press ahead in the Golan and retake positions that were captured by the rebels.
"In the overall map Bashar, the Iranians and the Russians are more successful but where things will head it is difficult to know," says Tel Aviv University Syria specialist Eyal Zisser. He says that while it was rebels who launched an attack Saturday on a Syrian army position in the Golan "it doesn't change the strategic picture. The concern is that the regime will return [to control of the Golan]. It has the upper hand in all of Syria so there is concern that it will also return to the area next to the [Israeli] Golan."
That would mean Iranian and Hezbollah troops along the Israeli-annexed part of the Golan, an intolerable situation in the view of decision-makers and analysts. "Hezbollah and the Iranians are deadly enemies of Israel,they don't recognize Israel's right to exist,"says former Mossad director Ephraim Halevy. "Therefore they don't adhere to any international, bilateral relations and agreements to which Israel is involved."
Israel strikes Syrian targets in response to earlier cross-border fire, June 24, 2017. (IDF Spokesperson's Unit)
"The [Golan] separation line was created in 1974 with Israeli and Syrian agreement and it was for many years the most quiet border Israel had. Now, if on the other side of the divide you don't have an entity that respects agreement on the separation line because its policy is to not agree with Israel on anything, that Israel doesn't exist, than this is something Israel need not and should not tolerate," Halevy stressed.
Israel signaled this in January 2015 when an airstrike against two cars on the Syrian side of the Golan killed six Hezbollah fighters and a general of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Mohammed Ali Allahdadi.
To stop the regime from making gains in the Golan, Israel has for years supplied Syrian rebels near its border with food, fuel, medical supplies and cash, according to a recent report in the Wall Street Journal. The report said that a special Israeli army unit has been set up to supervise the transfer of this aid, which reportedly helps rebel groups pay salaries and buy weapons.
There is even Israeli cooperation in the Golan with Fath al-Sham, formerly known as the Nusra Front, the local affiliate of al-Qaeda, according to Moshe Maoz, a Syria specialist and emeritus professor at the Hebrew University. "Israel supports them logistically and by admitting wounded warriors into Israeli hospitals and maybe also with the supply of arms," he said.
An IDF spokeswoman responded by referring to a written statement that said "the IDF is not a side to and is not involved in the internal Syrian fighting but at the same time views with gravity every attempt to harm the sovereignty of the State of Israel and its residents and views the Syrian regime as responsible for what is done in its territory."
Asked whether Israel should support Fath al-Sham, Halevy, the former Mossad chief, responded: "Israel should do everything that is necessary to further its policy that Iranian and Iranian supported forces should not be deployed along the Golan Heights."
Given the priority of preventing that, it seems axiomatic that if Syrian regime forces and their allies make significant gains Israel will have to escalate its involvement.
At the least this will mean closer coordination with the rebel groups and more airstrikes not just to deter fire into Israeli-annexed territory but to support their operations.
Establishing a security zone with ground troops entering the Syrian side of the Golan is not a preferred option, Maoz said. "It may be more convenient to help proxies and intervene only occasionally because a security zone is dangerous," he continued. "We know what happened in Lebanon so Israel is careful not to do it again."