An incident with ISIS in the southern Golan Heights ended with success for the Israel Defense Forces despite a possible miscue at the beginning. Either way, the potential danger on the Israel-Syria border is now apparent.
For the first time openly, a force from the Islamic State group’s local branch engaged an IDF force. If the friction in the southern Golan morphs into a frequent occurrence from a one-time incident, Israel might find itself with a headache.
The incident Sunday morning began with an ambush by a force from the Golani Brigade’s reconnaissance battalion east of the Golan border fence. This area is under Israeli control; at some points the fence is west of the border so that Israeli forces can take advantage of better topography.
It seems the Israeli ambush force was spotted by the forces on the other side, who started firing – first their rifles, then mortar shells. Basically, this was a glitch. The soldiers conducting the ambush should have reached their deployment position secretly; the idea is to surprise the opponent, not the other way around.
No one was wounded in the exchange of fire, and the armed men on the Syrian side fled. An Israeli aircraft called into the area struck the vehicle in which the men were fleeing, which is thought to have carried a heavy machine gun.
The IDF believes that the four men in the vehicle, members of the Islamic State’s local branch, were killed. The army can say with satisfaction that the danger was averted. No soldiers were hurt and the Islamic State fighters who opened fire on the ambush squad were taken out.
In the longer term, Israel will now consider whether this was a turning point in the situation on the border. It’s more than five and a half years since Syria’s civil war broke out, and over the past three years rebel groups have taken almost complete control of the area near the border.
The Syrian army is only in three places on the borer: the city of New Quneitra, which is slightly beyond the border, the Druze village of Khader, and the eastern slopes of Mount Hermon. In most areas, certainly from Quneitra south, local militias are in control, some of which are said to have unofficial understandings with Israel.
The militias keep the border quiet and keep the extremist rebels away, above all the Al-Qaida-linked group formerly known as the Nusra Front. And Israel sometimes sends medication, clothing and food to the people in nearby villages.
The exception is the southern enclave near the Israel-Syria-Jordan border triangle, where the organization known as the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade (though recently it actually changed its name again) holds sway. Over the past two years it has transferred its loyalty to the Islamic State.
The Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade, which is also fighting other militias, is of course hostile to Israel, but so far it has usually maintained the quiet near the border. The majority of incidents at the fence in recent years have been between the Syrian army (sometimes with Druze terror groups fielded by Hezbollah) and the IDF.
In most cases these incidents stemmed from stray fire by regime forces, mostly mortar shells aimed at rebel strongholds that miss their mark by a few hundred meters and land in Israel. The IDF has responded with a sharp warning to the Assad regime and with attacks at some positions and command posts belonging to the Syrian army in the Syrian Golan Heights.
But this time, whether the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade planned a strike or simply spotted an opportunity because of the IDF forces’ exposed presence, a full-fledged incident happened.
Israel ended with the upper hand, but a new ledger in blood has been opened. The Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade is thought to have about 600 fighters in the Syrian villages in the border triangle. That’s nothing compared to what the IDF can field, but it’s a force that can harass the IDF and Israeli communities near the border.
In the near future it will become clear whether this was a lone incident or the first signs of a new front in the southern Golan. It’s an area where Israel has known how to maintain the quiet in recent years.
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