Concerns raised southern Syrian regime offensive may spill over to Israel

The offensive, currently 20 kilometers from the border with Syria in the Golan Heights, may lead to clashes or refugees crossing into Israel.

A SYRIAN regime tank and soldiers next to a building in central Syria (photo credit: REUTERS)
A SYRIAN regime tank and soldiers next to a building in central Syria
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Artillery and bombs rained down on Syrian rebel-held areas in southern Syria as the Assad regime ramped up its offensive against the rebels after years of relative quiet and cease-fire. On Saturday, the first Russian air strikes in more than a year were carried out against rebel positions. The offensive, currently 20 kilometers from Israel’s Golan border, has the potential to cause spillover in the form of refugees or clashes. On Sunday, the IDF fired a Patriot missile at a drone near the Golan.
In mid-June, the Syrian regime and its allies, including Shi’ite militias aligned with Iran, began concentrating forces in southern Syria. The rebels hold a U-shaped area in southern Syria. One side runs along the Golan Heights and the other stretches north from the Jordanian border. At the bottom of the “U” is Dara’a, a city next to the Jordanian border that the regime and the rebels have contested since the start of the rebellion in 2011.
On June 21, the US State Department said it was “troubled by reports of increasing Syrian regime operations in southwest Syria.” It reminded Russia of its agreement to a “de-escalation” zone or cease-fire in talks with US President Donald Trump in July and November. Jordan is also part of the agreement. “The US continues to warn both the Russian government and the Assad regime of serious repercussions of these violations.”
However, the US has also warned the Syrian rebels that they should not expect intervention by the US to stop an offensive. Since last year, the US has been seeking to reduce the support and commitments it had previously given to the rebels in southern Syria. A post on Twitter by Syrian journalist Fadi Hussein said the US had sent messages to Syrian rebel groups saying that Washington would not be able to help them.
The unfolding battle in southern Syria begins in the wake of a recent visit to Amman by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and last week’s visit to Jordan by US presidential adviser Jared Kushner and special envoy Jason Greenblatt. All these meetings were expected to deal with the US push for a peace plan regarding Israel and the Palestinians, but the crisis in southern Syria has also been an issue for Washington and Jerusalem.
Eran Lerman of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies and Nir Boms, a research fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center, Tel Aviv University, wrote on Sunday that Israel may soon face a dilemma in southern Syria. “The ‘arrangement’ with Russia as to the future may stave off an Iranian presence but will pose an existential danger to the groups of rebels near the border, groups which have worked closely with the IDF to prevent direct friction with hostile elements.”
They ask what will become of Israel’s Operation Good Neighbor, the policy of providing humanitarian aid to Syrians near the Golan. Now these Syrian rebels and civilians face the regime’s tanks and Russian aircraft. “Can Israel afford spectating on the massacre of innocent civilians taking place a mere hundreds of meters from its northern border?”
Boms says if Israel appears to abandon the Syrian rebels and civilians near its border, it could feed a broader regional narrative that Israel has abandoned its allies. However, there are already reports that humanitarian aid for Syrians has been decreased recently ahead of the Syrian regime offensive.
The Syrian regime has decided to start the offensive as far away as possible from Israel in order to not complicate its attacks. This includes a major offensive against the town of Busra al-Harir, which is located on the eastern side of the U-shaped rebel enclave. Bombs, shelling and infantry attacks have targeted the rebels along the long front line with the regime and are making limited advances.
On Sunday, both the Israeli and Jordanian borders saw increased air activity. Israel fired a Patriot missile at a drone near the Golan, and there were reports that Jordanian air defenses targeted a reconnaissance plane near its border as well. This will raise tensions along the border and concerns that the offensive is already having repercussions for Israel and Jordan.