In the incident that took place at the beginning of the week, for the first time, publicly and intentionally, Islamic State opened hostilities against an IDF force in the Southern Golan Heights. The IDF response was clear and unequivocal: the force returned fire, and the Israel Air Force attacked the squad that executed the fire and killed the four terrorists.
However, this is not how the matter ended. The following morning the IDF made another attack on the ISIS operations center in the southern Golan Heights. According to an IDF spokesman’s announcement, the center, which is located in an abandoned UN post, was the base from which the ISIS attackers had set out.
Since the beginning of the civil war in Syria, and as the battles have encroached on the Israeli border, the period of utter calm along the Syrian-Israeli border, which has persisted for 40 years, has come to an end. Nowadays, mortars are falling into Israeli territory alongside sporadic gunfire at the forces patrolling the border. In some cases, this is the result of the overflow of the battles from Syria, while in other cases groups primarily affiliated with the Shi’ite side, mainly Hezbollah, have launched intentional operations in the central and northern Golan Heights.
Over recent years, the IDF has been preparing for the possibility that, despite the fact that ISIS is engaged in combat inside Syria against both the Shi’ites and rebel organizations, including al-Qaida, it would initiate an attack against Israel, even if this option appeared to be contrary to the organization’s current interests. However, the attack that occurred in the beginning of the week is an unusual incident with respect to its location, manner and the organization responsible for it.
The group that executed the shooting is known as Jeish Khalid Ibn al-Walid.
The group consists of three organizations that united under one name.
All three have previously joined ISIS and, in fact, created an enclave of the Islamic State in the Syrian southern Golan Heights, on the border with Israel and Jordan. The tripartite union, which took place in May 2016, did not eventuate without internal rivalry. The previous commander had been killed, probably by people from within the group, and then Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, a man of Palestinian-Syrian origin, was appointed. Obviously, the question arises as to whether the origin of the commander is the reason behind the organization’s light finger on the trigger, which led to this week’s attack.
A video clip of the organization, which was published by ISIS last September, made no mention of Israel. In the video, the organization indicates a number of enemies, the most prominent being the US, which is depicted as the cradle of Western culture. The video emphasizes that in the year 636 CE, the Battle of Yarmouk took place in the same region in which the organization now operates. In fact, this is also the region from which the shooting against the IDF took place. The Battle of Yarmouk was a massive confrontation between the Romans and the Muslims, with the Muslim victory marking the commencement of Muslim control over the region, and the Byzantine Empire’s loss of control in the Middle East. This region is considered to be the gateway into Israel from the center of the Levant (Bilad al-Sham), located in Damascus.
Why now, of all times? The civil war in Syria is reaching a crucial point. Over recent days, the Assad-Russian alliance has recorded gains in Aleppo. It is clear to ISIS that, once Assad gains control over this large city, he will turn his attention to ISIS with greater severity.
Moreover, in recent months ISIS has lost extensive territories in both Syria and Iraq.
Simultaneously, in the Syrian Golan Heights, a three-pronged battle has been raging. In the wake of a renewed attack by the rebels (ISIS’s rivals) against the Assad regime in the northern region, ISIS has exploited the opportunity to attack the rebels from south, only a few miles from the location in which the shooting against Israel took place. Thus, the rebels have to cope with two operational fronts: in the south, they fight against ISIS, while in the north they fight the Assad regime and Hezbollah. This raises the question as to whether in certain situations there is a common interest between the Shi’ite Assad regime and the Sunni ISIS. Could my enemy at night become my partner during the day?
Therefore, the current timing of the ISIS attack on the IDF force is not necessarily opening up an additional front against Israel; on the contrary, this might be a clear message to Israel to avoid intervening in the battles taking place on the other side of the border.
On the other hand, the Israeli response reflects the complex reality and dilemmas with which the IDF has had to cope over recent years. On the one hand, Israel needs to maintain deterrence, which sends a clear message to ISIS: Israel is a strong power in the arena and you shouldn’t mess with it. On the other hand, Israel wants to avoid escalation and maintain the silence for the Golan inhabitants and the many tourists that visit the region.
The IDF’s rapid and pinpoint response is the result of long preparations for the possibility that ISIS would attempt to operate against Israel from the region under its control along the border, despite the fact that these groups are busy with internal conflicts. Simultaneously, Israel’s policy to aid the population on the Syrian border and treat the wounded Syrians has longterm investment aspects, despite the criticism this policy has earned from various parties. The Syrian casualties who have been treated in Israel have learned, for the first time, that Israel is not necessarily an enemy and, just maybe, after this chaotic period ends, will exhibit a desire to conduct a dialogue with it.
Consequently, Israel’s policy vis-à-vis the civil war in Syria is that of limited activities that send clear messages.
Israel avoids taking sides with any of the warring parties. However, it is not standing idle in view of the humanitarian situation on the other side of the border, and is making sure that its red lines are not been crossed.
The author, a major in the IDF reserves, served for 15 years in the military specializing in intelligence and holds an M.A in Middle East Studies from Ben-Gurion University. She is the founder and CEO of Alma, an organization specializing in research and analysis of Israel’s security challenges on the northern border.