Photo: Reuters
Israeli-Syrian border
Photo: Reuters
Ron Ben-Yishai

Israel, Syria and rebels wait with guns drawn

Analysis: Assad's use of Palestinian groups to attack IDF positions does not bode well for Golan residents

Syrian President Bashar Assad is acting on his threats against Israel, but cautiously so as not to stretch the rope too hard. Netanyahu, Ya'alon and Gantz, for their part, are firing rhetorical warning messages in Assad's direction as of late, but are actually conducting themselves with added restraint and caution, without giving up on substance. The result is a tense and fragile calm in the Golan Heights.


המצב בגולן מזכיר סצנה ממערבון ספגטי. נתניהו ויעלון עוקבים (צילום: אריאל חרמוני)

Netnayhau, Ya'aalon at border (Photo: Ariel Hermoni)


Assad changed his policy: He decided to stop restraining himself and chose the Golan as an arena in which he can clash with Israel, but in a way that will not require Israel to respond with a blow that will threaten his regime's survival. In early May, heavy machine gun fire emanating from a Syrian position in the border region was directed at an IDF vehicle in Israeli territory. No one was injured in the incident and the damage caused to the vehicle was minimal, but the response was purposely disproportional: A missile destroyed the machine gun position and the soldiers manning in order to warn Syria against additional provocations. For Assad it paid off: He sacrificed three of his army's soldiers but proved he was protecting Syria's honor.


This was just the beginning. On May 15 Hezbollah terrorists in the Golan launched rockets at an IDF position in Mount Hermon. It is safe to assume that they did not have to haul the relatively small launcher – 107 millimeters – and the rockets themselves from Lebanon, but apparently received them from a nearby Syrian outpost.


The two wily veterans Assad and Nasrallah were careful not to get Hezbollah in trouble in Lebanon and used Sunni Palestinian groups that remained loyal to Assad, according to credible information received from war-torn Syria. Hezbollah recruited in Damascus a number of terrorists from Ahmed Jibril's Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command, who still remember how to launch Katyushas. It was these terrorists who launched two to four rockets toward the rock-strewn slope beneath the IDF outpost on Mount Hermon. There were no injuries or damage on our side.


Video published by Palestinian group firing mortars at Golan


Initially, the IDF believed the incident was the result of stray rebel or Syrian army fire, which has happened on a number of times in the Golan before, but an examination of the rockets' landing sites revealed that the rocket attack was intentional. For the first time in over 30 years, a Syrian president officially authorizes military action against Israel in the Golan and lays the groundwork for such an operation. This does not bode well for the Israeli communities in the Golan.


We visited the Golan last week. The weather is perfect, the scenery amazing and the cherries are ripe for the picking, but business is not as good. "We're built on tourism," said Ofer Bahat, the owner of a boutique winery in Ein Zivan. "Shells fall in the area from time to time and people cancel their reservations for guesthouses; tourist buses rarely arrive. It is not a catastrophe yet, but the story here is not over." On Saturday a siren was heard in the area, but there were no rocket landings.


Ofer is right. The "story" in the Golan is on hold. The relative quiet the Israeli communities are enjoying is the result of a complicated and absurd balance of deterrence in the area between the rebels and Assad's army, and between everyone involved in the Syrian war and Israel.


Mexican standoff

The situation in the Golan calls to mind the scene of a Mexican standoff from a "Spaghetti Western": All the participants – the good, the bad and the ugly – are standing with their guns drawn, aimed at their rivals' temple; no one dares to shoot, but no one dares to put his gun down either for fear harm will come to him or his allies.


לרוב, ידם של המורדים על העליונה (צילום: רויטרס)

Syrian rebels (Photo: Reuters)


Three villages are situated one next to the other on the slopes of Mount Hermon: Mazraat Beit Jann, Jubta Al-Hashab and Hader. The population is mixed, but Mazraat Beit Jann, which is mostly Sunni, is a stronghold of the Assad regime. The Syrian army is present there, accompanied by the notorious Shabiha militia, as well, but there is also a group of fighters from Hezbollah's special force. As soon as they arrived from Lebanon they set up in the village a branch of the "Committees for the Protection of the Homeland," a militia that is loyal to Assad whose members are considered even more ruthless than the Shabiha men. The walk around armed, in civilian clothes, but their main weapon is the knife. Their job in Beit Jann, like in other areas of Syria, is to instill terror in the non-combatant citizens so they will refrain from offering assistance and shelter to Sunni rebels.


But this is not all. The majority of the Druze residents of Hader, who are loyal to the regime, occasionally clash with the rebels in Jubta Al-Hashab. The rebels come out on top in most of these clashes due to their greater numbers and the fact that they have more weapons. They are sometimes helped by Druze from Hader who opposes the regime.


This absurd scene is played out before the fearful eyes of Israel's Druze community. No small number of them have already expressed their willingness to cross the border and assist their brethren in the case Assad's regime will indeed final fall. Israeli security sources claim that throughout the Golan and Galilee, within the ranks of the IDF's Druze soldiers and officers, there is no small number of those willing to cross the border and bare arms in case their fellow sect members from Hader or Jabul Druz are face a real existential threat.


In the movies, the Mexican standoff ends in a massive bloodbath of mutual destruction. In the northern Golan there is still a chance that this mutual balance of terror will actually prevent further bloodshed, preserving the uncanny calm for a period of even a number of years. It all depends on how things will play out in other fronts of the conflict. Despite its neutrality and its publically stated policy of non-intervention, Israel has and will continue to have the upper hand in the Golan, and will continue to have its finger on the trigger. Israel's cabinet-approved policy is based on four guiding principles:


1. No military or civilian interference in favor of any one of the sides. Strategically the preference is that Assad's régime will fall, but there is a serious concern that the vacuum left by his ouster will be filled with radical Islamist forces.


2. Israel will not allow Syria's chemical weapons stockpile or its army's advanced military systems from falling into the hands of either Hezbollah or radical Sunni organizations.


3. Israel will responds quickly and fiercely to any attack in the Golan or along the Lebanese border, regardless of whether the initial attack originated from Assad's forces or from the rebels'.


4. Israel will grant humanitarian aid as much as it can and as much as is required. The goal: To foster positive relation and preserve them with the population which will remain in the territory after the fighting is over regardless of who comes out victorious.


Instrumental coexistence

Let us go down one level, from strategy to tactics. At this level, both rebels and the Syrian army are prepared to cooperate with Israel to preserve the quiet in the Golan. Absurd? Even absurd situations have an underlying logic to them – as is clear from IDF Golan Division commander Arik Chen's comments in this regard. According to him, a large part of the Sunni rebels active in the Golan have managed to take over small enclaves of forestry terrain and villages near the Israeli border, specifically because they know that the Syrian army is unable to operate tanks and light artillery in the area.


Even Assad's old tanks in the Golan are more efficient against the lightly armed rebels with their short range weapons. The rebels do not have anti-tank missiles and the RPG missiles have a range of only 100-200 meters, while the canon of a T-55 tank can destroy a rebel radar position from a kilometer away.


However, according to the armistice agreement between Israel and Syria, the latter's army is not allowed to bring tanks or artillery to the area adjacent to what is called the "purple line" (the armistice lines drawn in the wake of the 1973 Yom Kippur War). Hence, rebels stand with their backs to IDF border outposts, sometimes at a distance of only a dozen odd meters, and are thus relatively protected and can easily launch small raids and attacks on Syrian army positions and checkpoints.


The Syrian army has attempted to disregard the armistice agreement and operates tanks, light artillery and mortars in the area where such activity is verboten. However, Israel was quick to reiterate that it would not accept any such infringement on the two states agreement. IDF tanks have already fired on a Syrian army mortar launcher firing on Syrian rebels within the demilitarized zone. The Syrian army, which still holds the majority of the territory in the Golan, got the hint and has since begun coordinating its movements with Israel through the UN.


למורדים עדיין לא הגיע נשק נגד טנקים (צילום: MCT)

Rebels await arms (Photo: MCT)


Thus for example, a month a ago when the Syrian army decided to retake control over the Syrian side of Quneitra crossing – the sole crossing connecting Israel to Syria – after it had fallen into rebel hands, a 10 strong column of tanks began making its way from Old Quneitra to New Quneitra. In the same time a soothing message was passed onto Israel through UNDOF, silently requesting Israel's clearance for such a move. Israel agreed as it has little to no interest in allowing rebels, in this case Sunni radicals, to become their official neighbors and partners in regulating the border. The Syrian army, which gladly received the Israeli response through the UN force, spread its tanks out and successfully overtook the border crossing.


In is worth reminding that unlike other radical groups forming the Syrian rebels, the Golan based rebels have yet to receive Saudi and Qatari funded anti-tanks arms. Hence, Assad's forces have been wiping the floor with them. If the rebels were to receive advanced 'concourse' missiles or the anti-tank arms promised to them by the Americans, the Golan balance might just tip in their favor.


Thus the situation in the Golan – in which Israel is coordinating, if not downright cooperating, with both the Syrian army and civilians – came about. With the Syrian army the coordination is mediated through the UN peacekeeping force in a bid to preserve the armistice between the two states; for the rest there is medical assistance in the form of a field hospital set up by the IDF along the border fence. In extreme cases the IDF chief of staff – and only him – can authorize the transfer of a wounded Syrian civilian to the Ziv Medical Center in Safed. Thus a form of local multiple party coexistence between Israel and the two conflicting sides was born.


This is a situation which all sides enjoy, and there is a chance that the coexistence will bear fruit once the situation in Syria stabilizes.


It is no simple task balancing between the need to deter and the desire not to be pulled into the destructive and violent Syrian hurricane. IDF commanders in the Golan Heights need to maintain their cool while walking a perilous tight rope devoid of any real ability to predict the overall regional developments.


It is true the IDF succeeded in preparing itself and thus placed elite forces along the Golan and built an advanced border fence similar to that built along the Egyptian border. Nonetheless, however, the region's brigade commanders, as well as the newly appointed division commanders, Brigadier General Itzik Turgeman, need to exhibit professional level diplomacy skills combining soft and hard force – to promise the safety of Golan settlements without forgetting Israel's long term interests.







פרסום ראשון: 07.07.13, 20:05
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