Syrian forces of President Bashar Assad are seen on al-Haara hill in Quneitra area, Syria July 17, 2018.
(photo credit: SANA/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
On Monday, the Quneitra border crossing between Israel and Syria was reopened after four years. The crossing was closed in 2014 during the Syrian civil war and its reopening comes after the Syrian regime under Bashar Assad retook the border areas from Syrian rebels in July.
During those four years, tensions were high because of the proximity of Iranian-supported militias and concerns that Iran would exploit the instability in southern Syria to move its forces close to Israel. Israel warned that Iran must withdraw from Syria and the Syrian regime’s media reported Israeli air strikes in Syria.
In early September, Jerusalem said that it had struck Iranian targets more than 200 times in two years, revealing the scale of the shadow war against Iran in Syria. However, that conflict almost created a major diplomatic incident with Russia in mid-September when a Russian aircraft was struck by Syrian air defense during an air strike in Latakia. Russia sent its S-300 system to Syria and Jerusalem has been more cautious since then.
On Sunday, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman told the cabinet that Israel was prepared for any scenario and that the IDF was in a “top state of readiness.” The opening of the Quneitra crossing indicates that confidence. Security and calm have returned to the Golan after months of fighting earlier this year led to numerous sirens and fears of threats. A missile volley from Syria was intercepted along with drones and one Syrian aircraft. In addition, the chaos in southern Syria caused thousands of refugees to flee to the border fence.
Israel has pulled back its medical support that it once provided the Syrian rebels. Now the border has returned to a normalcy not seen since 2011. The re-opening of the gate will assist in implementing the 1974 Separation of Forces Agreement between Israel and Syria, which mainly focuses on the declaration of an area of separation, a demilitarized zone between the two countries. Israel coordinated the opening with the US and UN and Jerusalem says it is “dedicated to UNDOF’s [United Nations Disengagement Observer Force] mission and aspires to maintain stability in the region.”
The IDF says that the closure of the crossing and the security reality from 2015 to 2018 “did not allow cooperative security measures to be carried out in the Quneitra Crossing, while maintaining quiet and stability in the space.”
This is important because the area along the border between the cease-fire lines of Alpha and Bravo had been violated during the civil war and militants and other threats could have threatened the Golan. In addition, the withdrawal of UNDOF made the situation more chaotic and caused a heightened degree of tension along the fence. Israel has improved the fence and has learned from the previous four years, but for the civilians who live near the border, the last years have been an uncertain time.
The return of the UNDOF forces and the changes at the border, so soon after the July offensive by the Syrian regime, shouldn’t be underestimated. They are important symbols of normalcy in the region after the stability and chaos unleashed by the Arab spring. We now know that the hopes and dreams of that period were dashed and turned into a hell of terrorism and the rise of the Iranian regime. Hezbollah has exploited the chaos in Syria to sink its claws into the landscape.
Now, with the border crossing reopened and the Syrian regime expected to keep the area demilitarized based on the 1974 agreement, there is a chance that the paradigm of relative peace may return. In another sign pointing to that, the Jordan border crossing with southern Syria also reopened.
The reopening of the Quneitra crossing will also benefit the Druze community in the Golan. In years past, they have exported apples to Syria and they have also had joint weddings, crossing the border to marry. This community was threatened during the war, with the village of al-Khader being targeted by jihadists. In addition, Druze in Suwayda were massacred by ISIS. Now the community can recover and reach out to co-religionists on the other side.
The Quneitra crossing is a symbol of the ties that bind Israel to its neighbors. Unfortunately, due to the nature of the Syrian regime and its allies, peace has not prospered, but the reopening represents hope after years of massacre and war.