Syrian President Bashar Assad, who has recently been directing his citizens to move to the Golan Heights, has now started paying scores of local Golan residents official state salaries.
Israeli officials interpret Assad's latest moves as attempting to underscore Syria's "ownership" of the Heights and pressure the Jewish state into giving up the strategic territory. The officials said there are some indications Assad may stage a provocation aimed at restarting negotiations with Israel over relinquishing the Heights.
The Golan Heights is mountainous territory captured by the Jewish state after Syria used the terrain to attack Israel in 1967 and again in 1973. The Heights looks down on major Israeli and Syrian population centers. It borders Israel, Syria and Lebanon and is claimed by Damascus.
Military officials say returning the Golan Heights to Syria would grant Damascus the ability to mount an effective ground invasion of the Jewish state.
WND reported last month that Assad issued a decree urging his citizens to move to the Golan Heights, claiming the International Committee of the Red Cross would help flood the Golan with Syrians.
Assad's decree urged Syrian officials, humanitarian workers, public service providers and their families to move to the Golan with the help of the Red Cross, which has authority to operate in the area purportedly to facilitate civilian crossings into and out of Syria in humanitarian cases. Assad's signed statement said Syrians who wish to move to the Golan will be granted approval by "all the relevant authorities."
The decree affirmed the "right of the Syrian people's resistance" aimed at ensuring the return of the Golan Heights.
Israel officially annexed the Golan in 1981 and controls the territory. It must approve all cases of Syrian residents moving to the Golan. Israel is unlikely to allow any new Syrian residents into the territory.
"(Assad's) decree is seen more as rhetoric aimed at generating Syrian national feelings toward the Golan and strengthening Syrian ties to the area," said an official in Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office.
Israeli officials said the Jewish state has information Assad earlier this month started paying some Golan Heights public workers official state salaries. Currently, most Golan public workers, including teachers and local officers, draw salaries from Israel, although a few public officials have been collecting salaries from Syria since the 1970's.
According to the Israeli officials, Assad is now paying Golan teachers and has drawn plans to incorporate other Golan workers into the Syrian budget.
The Heights has a population of about 35,000 people – approximately 18,000 Jewish residents and 17,000 Arabs, mostly Druze. The Arab residents retain their Syrian citizenship, but under Israeli law can also sue for Israeli citizenship.
Israeli warning: Syria preparing for war
Assad's latest move of paying Golan residents follows a series of statements in which the Syrian president warned his army is preparing for possible confrontations with Israel. It also follows reports there are indications Syria is forming its own Hizbullah-like guerrilla organizations to fight Israel in hopes of "liberating" the Golan.
"We must remain ready at all times. We have begun preparations within the framework of our options," Assad told the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Anba. He said Israel could attack Syria "at any moment," and that Israeli leaders have abandoned the peace process and are seeking a war.
Since the war in Lebanon ended in August, Assad has given a series of interviews in which he warned of possible confrontations with Israel. He has stated several times he views Hizbullah's "victory" over Israel as proof military tactics bring results.
In an August address, Assad said members of Hizbullah used their "will, determination and faith" to counter Israeli arms, enabling the Lebanese militia to defeat Israel.
"We tell them (Israelis) that after tasting humiliation in the latest battles, your weapons are not going to protect you – not your planes, or missiles or even your nuclear bombs. ... The future generations in the Arab world will find a way to defeat Israel," Assad said.
The Israeli Defense Forces released information last week indicating that Assad has fortified positions along his country's border with Israel and is indeed preparing for a possible conflict.
"Assad is preparing his army for a confrontation with Israel," Yossi Beyditz, head of research for the IDF's intelligence branch told the Israeli cabinet this morning.
"Assad has not returned the army to its pre-Lebanon war positions," Beyditz said.
Bayditz said the estimate so far is that Syria it not preparing to attack, but to defend itself against a possible Israeli offensive, which Assad believes is imminent.
"These are artillery cannons, missiles and rockets positioned in forward positions. He is preparing for a defensive and not offensive response. He estimates that Israel would want to attack him," Bayditz said.
He said Assad supports terrorism and the path of violence:
"Assad continues to support Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hizbullah. We have unequivocal proof on his direct involvement in smuggling weapons to Lebanon. In the past there was no proof," he said.
"Bashar Assad continues his wave of equivocal messages. Once he speaks about sticking with a peace strategy and simultaneously speaks of a confrontation and about us as not ready for a political process and he in fact means both options: a political arrangement according to Assad's known conditions, but prepares that army for a confrontation with Israel," the officer said.
Israel on alert for Syrian attack
Israeli officials here claim the IDF alert level in the Golan Heights has not been raised in response to Assad's statements and to the new Israeli intelligence estimates.
"We have not made any significant changes in the Golan in recent weeks," said an IDF spokeswoman.
But military officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, told WND earlier this month the IDF has fortified their positions in the Golan, including increasing security at checkpoints and the stationing of larger troop numbers at key areas throughout the territory.
Also, the officials said, the IDF has reinforced security fences on the Israeli side of the border.
The IDF has not moved in additional heavy weaponry, tanks, or troop divisions for fear of startling Syria, the officials said.
"We are taking Assad's threats very seriously and are cautiously increasing our level of alertness for a possible provocation by Syria," a military official said.
The official said Israel placed troops in the Golan on heightened alert during the 34-day war against Hizbullah in Lebanon that began July 12, but the alert level was raised in recent weeks following militant statements by Assad and Israeli intelligence warnings of indications Syria may be bracing for a conflict.
Jewish residents in the Golan told WND the heightened IDF status was plainly visible. They noted larger troop numbers and improvements made to border installations.
'Damascus prepping public for war'
Security officials here told WND there have been indications the past few weeks Syria is seeking to launch a provocation. Besides Assad's statements, the officials say state-run Syrian media have been broadcasting regular warlike messages unseen since the 1973 Yom Kippur War, in which Syria and Egypt launched invasions from the Golan and the Sinai desert.
"The tone (in Syria) is one of preparing the public for a war," said a senior security official.
He said any Syrian provocation would likely be coordinated with Iran. Tehran and Damascus, which both support Hizbullah, have signed several military pacts.
Reuven Erlich, a Syrian expert and director of the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center at Israel's Center for Special Studies, told WND Assad's threats "are to be taken seriously."
"Assad's support for terrorism, for the insurgency in Iraq, for Hizbullah and his alliance with Iran are all indication of the direction in which Syria is headed. Assad needs to demonstrate he is willing to sue for peace, but everything seems to indicate the opposite. Especially following the war in Lebanon," Erlich said.
Reports: Syria to form own Hizbullah
In July, WND first reported Syria is forming its own Hizbullah-like guerrilla organization to attack Israeli positions in the Golan Heights, according to a senior Baath party official.
The Baath party official told WND Syria learned from Hizbullah's military campaign against Israel that "fighting" is more effective than peace negotiations with regard to gaining territory.
Hizbullah claims its goal is to liberate the Shebaa Farms, a small, 12-square-mile bloc situated between Syria, Lebanon and Israel. The cease-fire resolution accepted by Israel to end its military campaign in Lebanon calls for negotiations leading to Israel's relinquishing of the Shebaa Farms.
The official told WND Syria's new Front for the Liberation of the Golan Heights was formed in June, and that the group consists of Syrian volunteers, many from the Syrian border with Turkey and from Palestinian refugee camps near Damascus. He said Syria held registration for volunteers to join the Front in June.
One week after the WND article detailing the claimed group was published, state-run Al-Alam Iranian television featured an interview with a man who identified himself as the leader of the new Front for the Liberation of the Golan
The man, whose features were blocked out, said his new group consists of "hundreds" of fighters who are training for guerrilla-like raids against Israeli positions in and near the Golan. He claimed the Front has opened several training camps inside Syria.
Last month, Amos Yadlin, head of the IDF's intelligence branch, told the Knesset Syria is in the early stages of forming a Hizbullah-like group.
Reprinted by permission of WorldNetDaily