Beit Jinn, Syria – between Israel’s dilemma and Iran’s opportunity

The complex regional and international arena adds to the risks and dangers of all options for Israel.

IDF soldiers look over a border fence between the Israeli side of the Golan Heights and Syria (photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)
IDF soldiers look over a border fence between the Israeli side of the Golan Heights and Syria
(photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)
There was a prevailing belief in the first years of the Syrian war that the sides would exhaust each other, apparently beneficially, and that the Assad regime would emerge from the fight weakened. In fact, Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, to prevent the collapse of his regime and to protect himself from international courts (he was a prime suspect in the international tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination of Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri) tied his fate to the rogue Iranian state.
Now, seven years later, many seem certain that Assad and his Iranian allies control the war and are steering it to achieve their long-term goals. Indeed, they have imposed this asymmetrical war on the Syrian people, and determined the time and place to instigate it, after preparing for it for many years in the military, security, economic, political, diplomatic and communications arenas.
Now the mullahs are using the lessons learned from eight years of fighting Iraq, and have decided not to fight a state-tostate war with Iran’s regular army, and not to allow the fighting to start on Iran’s borders. Iran has instead opted for infiltration, the creation of division and sectarianism, undermining the status quo in Arab countries by pumping in money and weapons to fight Arabs with Arab youths on Arab soil – and even worse is that they are mobilizing the survivors to fight against their enemies to fulfill their historic nationalist dream.
Although the theocratic state (wilayat al-fiqh) seeks to eventually dominate the wealthy Gulf states, it does not dare attack Saudi Arabia directly because it is home to the Two Holy Mosques, which are close to the hearts of 1.5 billion Muslims – the same hearts the Iranians would like to win over to Shi’ism. Naturally, the shortest and easiest way to these hearts and minds is through the removal of Israel and the liberation of Jerusalem.
Therefore, we find that they are fully immersed in preparation for that battle.
It is certain that Iran has many effective and active plans to use against Israel, but I will mention just mention one of them, one which can be neutralized relatively easily in comparison to its danger: Regardless of how things transpired at the start of the revolution, and who is to blame for the way it turned out, shaping the way we see it today, it is clear that the regime has managed to transform a conflict of loyalists vs opposition into a sectarian struggle. This can be seen clearly in the area surrounding Mount Hermon, a patchwork of Sunni, Druse and Christian villages, and in particular along the southern slopes of the mountain.
Beit Jinn sits in the mountain passageway connecting Syria, Lebanon and Israel, and together with five villages and their farms has suffered under a regime-imposed siege for four years.
However, recently the regime managed to coerce three of the villages (Kafr Hawar, Beit Tema and Beit Saber) into normalization and incorporation into the Iranian-financed Fawj al-Hermon,** as a precondition to the lifting of the siege to avoid famine this winter.
Previous experience has established that by means of inciting events in the ranks of the Syrian Druse, the Assad regime can incite a significant part of the Druse sect in Israel and consequently create internal confusion that could lead to a headache for the Israeli home front.
In addition, pro-Assad media spreads fear by portraying Israel as a supporter of Jabhat al-Nusra (now Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, HTS ), as part of a grand conspiracy against Syrian stability and resolve.
For instance, in the summer of 2015, Syrian intelligence leaked to the Druse of Majdal Shams that Nusra agents were being transferred for treatment in Israel.
Subsequently, several Druse youths attacked an Israeli military ambulance with two Syrians in it near Majdal Shams, killing one of the wounded passengers and severely wounding the other. They even attacked the Israeli soldiers driving the ambulance, two of whom were lightly wounded. Then, just a few weeks ago, a number of Druse sheikhs in Israel threatened to take their sons out of the IDF and other state institutions in opposition to alleged Israeli state support of HTS “takfiri” fighters, and for treating them in Israeli hospitals.
Currently, there are various militias fighting around the Beit Jinn area. The area along Israel’s border that has been controlled by the rebels for more than four years has narrowed considerably in the past 100 days, following intense government shelling and a fierce campaign.
Our battle is against the criminal regime and not against our neighbors; the rebels are ready to completely hand over the Druse Shrine of Abdullah to Druse control, in order to take it out of the arena of battle. I can assure readers that there is no one in Beit Jinn who wishes to infringe on the Shrine of Abdullah or any religious symbol of any other sect. That said, we would have offered the Druse of Hader access to this shrine near Beit Jinn in exchange for free passage of civilians and essential supplies between Beit Jinn and Jubatha al-Hashab, which is currently cut off by Hader and the pro-Assad militias.
Israel is of course now in a very uncomfortable situation, because Iranian- backed militias now control Beit Jinn as well as the mountain passages linking Lebanon, Syria and Israel. Their incursion into the rough terrain of Mount Hermon constitutes a real threat to Israel’s national security. On the other hand, because the Druse of southern Syria look to these militias for protection, Israel would have a difficult time defeating them without also harming the Druse of Druse Mountain (Jabal al-Arab), whom Israel has vowed to protect.
So far, Israeli humanitarian initiatives have altered stereotypes of Israel in the eyes of the Syrian citizens revolting for the sake of freedom. Israel’s good-neighbor policies have dispersed all the allegations against Israel put forward by the Syrian media, its educational institutions and even its politicized religious podiums, which have been brainwashing people for generations. However, the recent Israeli declaration of commitment to protect the Druse population has surprised many, since it comes just as these same Druse invite in Iranian militias and even rush to join them to protect Assad and the Iranian project.
We are increasingly worried that Iran will attack a Druse holy site and blame it on the rebels of Beit Jinn, or bomb a school or some civilian gathering in Hader or one of the other Druse villages in the area, casting the blame on “Israeli- backed” HTS in the Iranian media.
This will lead to more confusion and a complication of the rebel position to the benefit of Iran, which is now very close by, and a policy of complacency and reacting will no longer be useful.
The complex regional and international arena adds to the risks and dangers of all options for Israel. On the other hand, the least dangerous, costly and closest to reality would be if the Israeli government were to use its influence to coordinate with reasonable Druse sheikhs in Israel to implement a non-aggression pact between the Druse and Sunni villages in the Golan, with the supervision and the guarantee of the IDF, which is a neutral party able to ensure the success of this endeavor. By neutralizing the threat both to and from within the Druse communities of southern Syria, Israel would be taking a card from the Iranian hand.
We already have international agreements that can come back into force, or even be modified, to ensure the full implementation of a demilitarized zone under the auspices of the UN. We, for our part, will likewise ensure that all the military and civilian elements of the opposition in the area fully comply with any agreement, in order to restore tranquility between neighbors and to stop this crazy war which has no benefit for anyone other than Iran and its allies, enemies of humanity and civilization.
Now is the time for Israel to take a moral and historic stand, and finally face the Syrian tragedy head-on, to help stem this cascade of blood that has been flowing for seven years. The best way to for Israel to advance the cause of protecting the honorable Druse sect is to rescue them from being mobilized into fantastic Iranian wars of domination.
**Translator’s Note: Though technically part of the Syrian regime, not an Iranian proxy force, the Fawj al-Hermon militia receives financing supported through economic ties to Iran. Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi wrote in Syria Comment that its financing comes from Bashar al-Assad’s cousin, Rami Makhlouf, who is a target of EU and US sanctions.
Issam Zeitoun is an independent member of the Syrian opposition, based in Germany.
Translated by Dr. Joel D. Parker is a researcher at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University.