Terra Incognita: All quiet in the Golan?

Temperatures are rising due to events in Syria, as chaos rushes to fill the vacuum across the border.

By
August 1, 2012 22:59
ISRAELI SOLDIERS keep watch over the Syrian border

ISRAELI SOLDIERS keep watch over the Syrian border 370. (photo credit: seth frantzman)

 
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The Golan in summer suffers from the same mildly oppressive heat that the rest of Israel does. The oven-like temperatures make hiking less agreeable.

The hills are festooned with numerous springs and rivulets. The most fantastic of these is at Banias, where a raging waterfall pours into a narrow stone-cut gorge.

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But while tourists are crowding into these natural treasures, temperatures are also rising in the Golan due to events in Syria.

On July 19, Defense Minister Ehud Barak took journalists on a tour of the Golan Heights. He pointed to fighting that was taking place several kilometers away from Israel’s border with Syria. “The undoing [of the regime] isn’t abstract, it’s real, it’s getting closer,” he explained.

Several newspapers, such as The New York Times showed images of fires in Syrian villages near the demilitarized zone (DMZ) that divides Israeli forces from those in Syria. The fact that fighting could be seen from observation points along the border was evidently the result of the fact that Syria had reportedly withdrawn its forces from the area in order to concentrate on fighting rebels in Damascus.

On July 23 a mortar shell was even fired into the DMZ, falling just shy of the Israeli side of the line. Three days later an Israeli official announced to the press that Israel was upping security in the Golan and had begun to bolster its current fence with barbed wire.

In a tour of the area on July 28, it was clear to me that the soldiers deployed were keenly monitoring events.

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The reality is that the 50-mile border with Syria, unlike the border with Gaza, does not contain a similar style fence, which means vigilance is needed to prevent infiltrators entering Israel. One soldier pointed to old oil drums that mark the border.

The heights contain relics from wars in 1967 and 1973. Ruined Syrian army bases, old tanks and defensive positions dot the countryside. Mine fields are clearly marked. And along the string of hills that encapsulate the upper Golan, from which one can peer into Syria, are a series of 17 historic Israeli forts.

These forts were constructed after 1967 as part of a series of fixed defensive positions, stretching from the heights of Mount Hermon at 9,200 feet to other strategic points, such as Har Bani Rusan (The mountain of the sons of Rusan). In addition, a fifteen foot anti-tank ditch was dug to keep tanks from crossing in the defiles between the fortified positions.

During the Yom Kippur War the forts were overrun and Israel’s forces barely held onto the heights. When Syria had been driven back some of these defensive positions fell into disrepair and were abandoned. The fort on Bani Rusan became a minor tourist attraction when 10 ugly large wind turbines were constructed next to it in 1991.

FOR MANY years, among the dovish community in Israel and abroad, it was de riguer to assume that Israel should return the Golan. Some of those who participated in the negotiations to give it back in the 1990s, like Alon Liel, have claimed that Israel cannot now give back the Golan to the butcher in Damascus. These statements only reveal the childlike blindness with which Israel approached the “Syria track” negotiations in the Oslo period.Syria’s regime then was the same as it is now, the world has just suddenly decided to notice.

In 2009 Maj. Gen. Giora Eiland wrote a prescient piece for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs in which he argued that the Golan still provided Israel with important strategic depth in confronting the Syrians and other threats. “Should a Sunni revolution occur in Syria, particularly if it is carried out by the Muslim Brotherhood, it is totally unclear that the new regime will honor any agreement that was made by the ‘apostate [Alawite]’ Bashar al-Assad.”

Now we know that the apostate’s days may be numbered.

Rumors have Assad decamping to Latakia, where some believe he is arming the local Alawites for a last redoubt against the rebels. Latakia is located in northern Syria, bordering Turkey, and is a majority Alawite. If Assad is so far from the Golan and has withdrawn the major Syrian army units from the border, that means that Israel is exposed to the chaos that rushes to fill any vacuum in the Middle East.

There is fear of “spillover” from Syria. Initially one of the concerns was that masses of people might rush the borders, as happened in May 2011. Yet that Palestinian protest was engineered by the regime. Today the fear is that refugees might crowd up to the border. Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Jordan have already taken in tens of thousands of these types of refugees. Based on interviews and newspaper accounts, Israeli soldiers have been told to actively prevent anyone from committing a massacre of civilians in or around the DMZ.

THUS, THE quiet that followed Assad’s suppression of rebel gains in Damascus in late July masks a new reality.

Anti-regime forces are increasingly Islamist in their orientation.

Foreign fighters, bound for the “Jihad,” are streaming into the country. While some reports only estimate their numbers at 1,000, it is clear that interspersed among them are some who would like to use the chaos to harm Israel.

Even the Iranian octopus, whose tentacles are assumed to be responsible for the bombing in Bulgaria, would like to get agents across the Golan border and test Israel’s defenses, or maybe even try to kidnap an IDF soldier.

This type of infiltration can be carried out by agents disguised as local Druze men or shepherds, or by people feigning to be lost who wander into the border area. An alert was proclaimed in late July to monitor such events.

The fact that Syria attempts to penetrate Israel with agents became clear when it was revealed a Druze, Iyad al- Johari, was arrested in late June. He has been charged with aiding Syrian intelligence between 2005 and 2008.

His activities came about because, although he was born in the Golan, he was studying in Syria for the better part of a decade. Syrian intelligence encouraged him, through some method, to collect information.

According to reports at Ynet, he retired from his spying after being interrogated by the Shin Bet in 2008. He married a pretty Druze woman named Hanadi and settled in Syria. When he went to visit his parents he was arrested at the Quneitra crossing in the Golan.

Johari’s activities were not terror-related, but were designed by Syrian intelligence to provide information on Israel’s conventional forces. Four years later, however, the picture has changed. As illustrated above, with Syrian forces away from their side of the Golan, little prevents all sorts of nefarious groups from inserting themselves into the vacuum.

One piece of the puzzle that remains unchanged is the relative quiet among the Druze in Syria and the Golan.

There are about 20,000 Druze in the Golan, once part of a larger community of 500,000 who live in Syria’s southwestern Hauran region, especially around the Jebel al-Druze (Druze mountain).

Articles published in recent days by CBS, the Arab News and Oman Daily Observer claim the Golan Druze are “starting to turn against Assad.” In addition, Walid Jumblatt, the Lebanese Druze leader, inveighed against Assad on July 28. But Syria’s Druze have a sometimes fractious relationship with their Lebanese brethren, as with their Israeli coreligionists, so it is not clear if the people of the eponymous mountain will move against Assad.

What is clear is that quiet in Golan masks a potentially more sinister situation.

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