Watchful eyes on a volatile border

A crew of dedicated IDF women soldiers use sophisticated observation systems to pinpoint Syrian trouble spots and avert attacks against Israel.

Members of the IDF’s field intelligence corps from the observation unit of ‘Eagle’ Battalion 595, work a command center not far from the border with Syria (photo credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)
Members of the IDF’s field intelligence corps from the observation unit of ‘Eagle’ Battalion 595, work a command center not far from the border with Syria
Cpt. Noam Boymayster heads a group of women soldiers glued to their computer systems in a command center buzzing with energy, just a short drive from the Syrian border.
One soldier spots a suspicious truck approaching close to the border. With two computer screens giving the soldier clear and precise details on the vehicle as well as the individual inside, she zooms in and within seconds understands that the truck and its driver pose no threat to Israel.
It’s a scene repeated over and over again in the center.
With a civil war raging for more than seven years on the other side of the border, a number of projectiles have landed in Israeli territory due to the fighting in Syria.
The Jerusalem Post joined field intelligence troops from the IDF’s observation unit of Eagle Battalion 595, which responds to all operational challenges the military faces from Syria.
While the IDF has various surveillance and intelligence gathering techniques, nothing can replace the troops of its electronic observation unit, made up solely of women who spend all day, every day, watching Syria.
The unit’s soldiers must be able to locate any terrorist infiltration, alert troops to it, and then communicate with them once they are in the field.
And that, Boymayster said, is something her troops must always be ready for.
Dozens of errant projectiles have landed in Israel due to fighting on the Syrian side of the border in Quneitra, as the Assad regime fights against the al-Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and other rebels groups. Several offensives have been launched by the warring groups attempting to take control of villages and cities in the area.
The IDF troops are helped by one of the most advanced observation systems: the “Mars” multisensory system developed by Elbit Systems and Rafael Advanced Defense Systems.
The next-generation thermal imager operates using uncooled sensor technology and combines a laser range-finder, GPS, compass, day channel and recording system. Due to its advanced observation and target acquisition capabilities, as well as being a lightweight system, Mars is especially suited for the infantry and special units.
BEYOND THE command center, it was a sunny and quiet day on the border, with tourists and locals enjoying a peaceful view of a country that for 70 years has been one of Israel’s fiercest enemies.
As dozens of tourists descended on the quiet lookout post where several moments earlier two Druse men and an Israeli family asked to pose for pictures with her, Boymayster told the Post that after eight years of civil war on the other side of the border, she wants the peace enjoyed by the residents of the North to continue.
“I want the border to be safe and quiet. It doesn’t matter to me who controls the border on the Syrian side. I want to allow our citizens to live their lives in safety.”
Israel and Syria have been in a state of war since the founding of the State of Israel and have fought three major conflicts in addition to other confrontations.
Israel has admitted to carrying out hundreds of strikes in Syria against weapons convoys destined for Hezbollah.
Just days after the establishment of the state, Syria, along with several other neighboring Arab countries, attacked Israel with an overwhelming superiority in heavy equipment – armor, artillery and air force.
It was Israel’s costliest war, with over 6,000 Israelis killed and another 15,000 wounded, but by the end of the war, Israel had succeeded in repelling the invading Arab troops and captured some 5,000 square kilometers of territory.
With the war in Syria entering a new chapter of the conflict, Israeli officials have repeatedly voiced concerns over the growing Iranian presence on its borders and the smuggling of sophisticated weaponry to Hezbollah from Tehran to Lebanon via Syria, stressing that both are redlines for the Jewish state.
Since the intervention of the Russians and the Iranian- backed Shi’ite militias, including Hezbollah, the tide has turned in favor of Syrian President Bashar Assad, who has become more brazen as he regains control over more and more territory.
In February an advanced Iranian drone, believed to be a copy of a US stealth drone that was downed in Iran in 2011, took off from the T4 Air Base deep in the Syrian province of Homs and crossed into Israeli territory.
The drone was spotted by Israel and was intercepted near Beit She’an by an Apache attack helicopter.
According to Boymayster, while the drone did not fly through the territory under her watch, it was an event soldiers from the neighboring command center watched in real time.
In response, Israeli jets took off to strike the launch site of the drone and were met by massive Syrian antiaircraft fire, over 20 missiles launched from SA-5 and SA-17 batteries. Pilots of one of the Israeli F-16s ejected from their jet, which crashed in the Lower Galilee after being hit by shrapnel from the Syrian antiaircraft fire.
It was the first time in 30 years that an Israeli jet was lost in a combat situation and led to extensive retaliation by Israel, with additional strikes against Syrian missile batteries and Iranian military targets in the wartorn country.
There has also been deliberate fire toward Israel from Syria, both by Hezbollah and Islamic State-linked Khalid ibn al-Walid Army (formerly known as Yarmuk Martyrs Brigade), whose territory is also watched by the soldiers under Boymayster’s command.
In November 2016 forces from the IDF’s Golani Brigade operating on the Golan Heights came under attack by small arms fire and a mortar shell from the terrorist operatives in Syrian territory.
The IDF returned fire, and in the ensuing exchange an Israel Air Force aircraft targeted the terrorist cell along with a vehicle and weapons being used by the terrorists, killing all four of its occupants.
It was the first clash ever between the IDF and an ISIS linked group.
In October five projectiles were fired into Israel by a Hezbollah- affiliated cell. Israel responded by hitting three Syrian regime artillery positions.
“It was not a leakage but a deliberate attack by a local cell operated by Hezbollah,” Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said at the time, adding that it was “carried out by Hezbollah with Assad’s permission, in an attempt to draw us into the Syrian conflict.”
WITH THEIR eyes focused on their screens, Boymayster’s soldiers are able to pinpoint exactly where projectiles were launched, and with the help of the Mars system are able to watch the movements of the troops responsible for them.
But no matter the group responsible for the projectile, the IDF holds the Syrian government responsible for any and all errant projectiles, retaliating only against Assad regime positions.
And while Syria’s army has been almost decimated over the course of the deadly civil war, it is propped up by some 80,000 fighters belonging to Hezbollah and by 10,000 other Shia militia fighters.
As these troops continue to march back to Israel’s border, winning battles with local rebels and al-Qaeda-linked groups, Israel watches with concern.
Once the Assad regime re-cements its hold on the entirety of the country, these fighters, who have been trained and equipped by Iran, are unlikely to return to their homes in Lebanon, Afghanistan or Iran. Their sights will likely turn toward Israel, Syria’s old foe.
The IDF believes that the next war on the northern border will not be contained to one front, but will stretch along the entire northern border with both Lebanon and Syria. In January, Col.
Golan Wach of the IDF Home Front Command told the Knesset that in the areas closest to the northern borders, between zero and nine kilometers from Lebanon or Syria, there is a major shortage of adequate bomb shelters.
The military also expects that during the next war with Hezbollah the terrorist group will try to bring the fight to the home front by infiltrating Israeli communities to inflict significant civilian and military casualties.
For Boymayster and her soldiers, the proximity of communities to the Syrian border is of major concern.
“The safety of the citizens of these communities is paramount.
We are here to make sure that they are safe,” she said, adding that the military “works hand in hand” with security officials in every one of the communities.
As we stand to leave the now boisterous lookout over war-ravaged Quneitra, Boymayster stressed that while the area is one of Israel’s quietest, the risk for conflict is always there.
“I prepare myself and my soldiers for war,” she said. But, she stressed, “war or no war, we are here.”