Syria Cease-fire: For Israel, the Good News May Lead to Bad News

Deal backed by U.S. and Russia could halt 'accidental' fire into Israel, but with Tehran eyeing the border area it could create more serious challenges in the long term

Israeli tanks during a military excise in the Israeli controlled Golan Heights, near the border with Syria, 2015.
Israeli tanks during a military excise in the Israeli controlled Golan Heights, near the border with Syria, 2015. AP

Despite the many failures chalked up in recent years, the cease-fire in the Syrian Golan Heights declared over the weekend by Russia and the United States isn’t without potential. When the two superpowers put their weight behind an agreement, Syrian President Bashar Assad’s army and the local militias are more likely to respond positively, at least for the short term.

But from Israel’s perspective, the real problem is long term — not the halting of the gunfire (although that is a positive outcome, since that will stop the instances of “accidental” fire into Israeli territory), but the question of the presence of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Hezbollah, and the Shi’ite militias near the border on the Golan.

The forecast isn’t very optimistic regarding this point. In recent months there has been an increased presence of Hezbollah operatives in the area and apparently Iranian advisers in the corridor that connects Damascus to the town of New Quneitra on the Golan Heights. Hezbollah men have also been very active among the rebels around the town of Daraa, deep in the territory, near the border with Jordan. Israel, which officially is not a party to the new agreement, has stressed recently that it will not accept the presence of Iran and Shi’ite militias near the border. The question is who will make sure that Israel’s red line isn’t crossed.

For the agreement to be enforced there needs to be inspection in the field, i.e., a real presence of those sponsoring the agreement, or in military parlance, “boots on the ground.” But the United States doesn’t seem interested in putting its soldiers at risk in a lengthy oversight mission on the Golan. The mandate of the UN forces in the area is related solely to supervising implementation of the 1974 separation of forces agreement between Syria and Israel. Israel isn’t prepared to rely on Russian oversight, despite the open military channels with Moscow ever since Russian forces were sent to Syria nearly two years ago. Russia has said that it plans to deploy military police forces in the Golan, but Israel’s defense establishment doubts that these forces are capable of, or even want to, block Iranian access to the border area.

Iran builds its strategy slowly, over time. If, within a few months, Tehran can establish a new reality in which the Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah have direct access to the Israeli border from the areas controlled by the Assad regime in the northern Golan, it will have accomplished its goal. In Israel’s eyes this is a problematic possibility, and Moscow’s promises are not reassuring. On the contrary; it could be that Russia’s presence in the region will complicate matters because Israel will have a harder time chasing away Hezbollah.

A Free Syrian Army fighter carries weapons as he walks past damaged buildings in a rebel-held part of the southern city of Daraa, Syria July 9, 2017.
Alaa Al-Faqir / Reuters

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman on Sunday reiterated that Israel is not a party to the agreement and if necessary its military retains the right to operate freely. But despite the declarations, it doesn’t mean that Israel will be free to act as it chooses when the agreement goes into effect.

According to the Arab media, Israel and Jordan are meant to act, each in its own region, to restrain the Sunni militias with which they coordinate, in order to prevent them from attacking Assad’s forces. In the case of Israel, at issue is an organization called The Golan Horsemen, whose members are deployed in a few villages on the Syrian side of the central Golan and which, according to media reports, receive regular aid from Israel. The Wall Street Journal reported last month that Israeli aid to the rebels includes the supply of weapons and ammunition.

The agreements could collapse from below, as a result of developments in the field. But their long-term success also depends on what happens above, between Washington and Moscow.

Supporters of Lebanon's Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah chant slogans and gesture during a rally marking Al-Quds day in Beirut's southern suburbs, Lebanon, June 23, 2017.
AZIZ TAHER/REUTERS