Syria treads carefully amid Russian airstrikes near Golan

Tensions escalate as Syrian rebels report dozens of Russian and Syrian regime airstrikes within kilometers of the Israeli border.

An old military vehicle can be seen positioned on the Israeli side of the border with Syria, near the Druze village of Majdal Shams in the Golan Heights (photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)
An old military vehicle can be seen positioned on the Israeli side of the border with Syria, near the Druze village of Majdal Shams in the Golan Heights
(photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)
Tens of thousands of Syrians are fleeing a Syrian regime offensive and  Russian air strikes that are targeting the Free Syrian Army in southern Syria near the Golan Heights and Jordan. As the regime offensive picks up pace and air strikes increase near the border with Israel, Damascus and Moscow face the prospect of accidental spillover that could threaten the Jewish state.
Since Tuesday, the number of Syrian civilians reaching areas near the border fence on the Golan has increased, according to numerous accounts and photos posted online from the Syrian side. The open data-driven Liveuamap that tracks conflict in Syria, among other sources, showed 14 towns and villages hit by air strikes between Tuesday and Wednesday afternoon.
Nawa, one of the largest towns held by the FSA near the Golan was hit by numerous Syrian Air Force and Russian air strikes, according to local activists who posted photos of plumes of smoke. The town is only a dozen kilometers from Israel’s side of the Golan and the community of Keshet on the Golan Heights. Air strikes also targeted ISIS fighters near the Golan in a small enclave the group has controlled for several years.
The picture that is forming on the Golan is that the Syrian regime has so far been hesitant and cautious as it seeks to destroy the rebels in the south.
This part of the Syrian rebellion has been in control of areas near Jordan and the Israeli border for six years, and the area has seen relative quiet and a cease-fire since July 2017.
Russia, the US and Jordan were parties to that cease-fire, and prior to that there was a de-escalation zone in the area near the Golan, all of which meant that major air strikes and artillery fire were rare. However, the Syrian regime, in the wake of victories in Damascus and consolidation of gains in the north, has set its sights on the south.
WASHINGTON HAS condemned the offensive but will not intervene. This leaves the rebels on their own. Israel and the Syrian rebels near the Golan enjoyed relatively amicable relations over the years, with thousands of wounded Syrians, many of them civilians, coming to Israel for treatment. All that is now at risk as thousands flee the fighting and seek shelter near the Israeli border, knowing that the regime and Russian airplanes will not operate directly on the border.
The Syrian regime has used a carrot-and-stick combination its relations with many rebel areas. It frequently sought out “reconciliation” agreements in civilian areas where the civilians would return to Syrian regime rule. Any fighters who didn’t want to lay down their arms would be bused somewhere else. But the Syrian rebels in the south have nowhere to go. Jordan has said it does not want more Syrian refugees, after taking in around a million over the last seven years.
A key question is what the Syrian offensive near the Golan might eventually look like.
Some Arabic websites such as Ar-Rakeeb and Al-Dorar suggested Wednesday that tensions with the Syrian regime would lead to Israeli air strikes. They blamed Israel for an alleged air strike in Damascus earlier this week. But the reality on the ground is different.
In Beit Jann, a village on the Hermon close to the Israeli border, the regime was able to successfully get a “reconciliation” deal in late 2017 that saw the village revert to the regime.
Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi noted in a May 2018 piece that the local rebel leader nicknamed “Moro” agreed to work with the regime again and even got a salary. Although some people remain displaced from the village, the area is being reincorporated into the Syrian regime. Widespread reprisals did not take place. Rumors that Iran and its Shi’ite militias in Syria want to cleanse Sunnis, who are the backbone of the rebellion, from recaptured areas did not prove accurate in Beit Jann, Al-Tamimi showed.
Two major issues now facing the Syrian regime and its Russian ally is how to proceed in areas near the Israeli border and, to a lesser extent, near Jordan. As the number of displaced people reach more than 45,000 and they move towards the border for protection, an increasingly volatile situation will emerge. That includes civilians and fighters packed into a small area, as well as extremists from ISIS further south along the Golan.
The second major concern is the movement of any Iranian- backed militias or Hezbollah units. In the last month, they have been accused of changing uniforms to blend in with local militias, and some Iraqi militias operating in the Euphrates valley were even hit with an air strike, shedding light on how Iranian-backed groups in Iraq use the border to reach Syria.
Israel has said it will not accept Iranian bases in Syria, and that any hint of Iranian encroachment behind the offensive could result in escalating tensions. Since 2015 Russia and Israel have been in constant contact about southern Syria and have sought de-confliction in the skies over the area. With the Russian Air Force operating more closely, even if it claims to be striking extremist groups, the chances for a misunderstanding grow, which might be prevented if the Syrian regime treads carefully.