The Syrian border paradox || Rebels are weakening Assad, but Israel sees a threat worthy of utmost attention
While events unfolding in Syria do not pose an acute risk to Israel at the present time, the army units stationed along the border are working hard to convince the rest of the IDF and the government that the danger of escalation is indeed very real. A conversation with an outgoing commander.
At around noon this past Wednesday, a few hours before the end of his tenure as commanding officer of the Israel Defense Forces' 36th Division in the Golan Heights, Brig. Gen. Tamir Haiman went to the observation point at the Tel Saki outpost overlooking the southern part of Israel's border with Syria. This coming October will mark 40 years since the Yom Kippur War battle over Tel Saki, in which 35 soldiers from the Nahal Brigade's paratroopers unit and from several Armored Corps units were killed. The outpost hasn't been manned in years. A small memorial has been erected at the site.
On Haiman's last morning on the job, the media were busy with a photograph taken the previous day not far from this spot. Several Haredi families visiting the site commemorating the 1997 helicopter disaster at She'ar Yashuv, which saw two Yasur helicopters colliding and killing all 73 soldiers on board, turned the memorial pool into an improvised swimming hole, demonstratively ignoring the pleas of other visitors to show some respect for the fallen. Predictably, the incident served as fodder for a concerted attack on the ultra-Orthodox.
This week, Tel Saki was also filled with Haredi travelers taking advantage of the traditional three-week summer break from yeshiva study that lasts from the end of Tisha B'av to the beginning of the month of Elul, but no untoward incident took place here. The Haredi families listened raptly to the division commander speaking with journalists at the site, some going up to Haiman and shaking his hand.
Haiman is concluding an unusual two-year tour of duty. When he came to the north, the sector was just beginning to heat up, as a delayed reaction to the civil war raging in Syria. Two months earlier, in May 2011, the IDF was caught unprepared on Nakba Day – the day on which Palestinians commemorate the "catastrophe" of Israel's independence, declared on May 15, 1948 – when hundreds of Palestinian demonstrators from Syria broke through the rickety fence near Majdal Shams and crossed over to the Israeli side of the border. Since then, the war in Syria has, at varying levels of intensity, been knocking on Israel's northern door. IDF troops stationed in the Golan are observing the changes, prepared for the possible ramifications of the war, while also trying not to intervene in events east of the border.
The most important occurrences tend to happen outside the immediate area of responsibility of the division commander, such as anonymous air strikes on weapons convoys within Syria, attributed by foreign sources to Israel. At least four such incidents have been documented since the start of 2013. This year, the IDF established a small field hospital at one of the outposts located right on the border. More than 100 Syrians, mostly civilian victims of the fighting, have passed through the hospital's doors on their way to more extensive medical treatment in Israeli hospitals. Despite pleas from the media, the military will not allow photography, for political reasons: Jerusalem is afraid of any public documentation of involvement in Syrian affairs.
Haiman is proud of the medical assistance provided by the military: "The decision to allow injured in is made on the spot. Often, the decision is up to a junior commander in the field. The consideration is a moral one. It's good for our soldiers to know that they are helping the wounded," he said in an interview with Haaretz.
They know in their bones
In the meantime, the IDF must face a paradox in the Golan. The potential risks of the new situation are great and range from escalation with the Syrian army to the rise of an enclave of radical Islamic terror on the border. So far, none of these concerns have materialized. Haiman, and from now on Brig. Gen. Itzik Turgeman, his successor as commander of the 36th Division, are preparing for a threat they know in their bones is going to become a reality.
But as long as it isn't happening, they have to persuade everyone - the government, the General Staff, the soldiers stationed in the Golan and the civilians residing in the north - that the danger requires the utmost attention now.
The new situation is already instigating fundamental change in the division commander's schedule. The 36th Division is an especially large army division and is in charge of training some of the IDF's top brigades, including Golani and the 7th and 188th Armored Brigades. Haiman estimates that his predecessors had to devote some 15 percent of their time to border events and the rest of their time to building the force, whereas now the two tasks take up about the same amount of their time.
Recently, IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz launched an effort to erect a reserve division command center in the north. It would be put in charge of border incidents, so that the 36th Division would be free to focus on building up the force. Haiman thinks such a change is necessary, but is still trying to convince his superiors that his division should remain in charge of the border and take advantage of the knowledge the division staff have gained over the past two years.
Haiman identifies several stages in the fighting on the Syrian side of the border. Soon after the start of the war in March 2011, the citizens shed their fear of the regime. The Palestinians who came to the border on Nakba Day had not planned to engage in a confrontation with Israel; nor were they, in Haiman's view, operating at the behest of the Assad regime. Rather, they were swept up by emotion. A month later, the Syrian regime sought to exploit the success of the earlier demonstration and organized another protest on Naksa Day (the anniversary of the Six-Day War). This time, the IDF responded with massive force, taking the lives of nearly 20 Palestinian demonstrators who tried to cross the border. Damascus became nervous, also because of a violent clash at the Yarmouk refugee camp near Damascus. Since then, President Bashar Assad has generally tried to keep the border calm.
During the second stage, toward the end of 2011, the regime ramped up its use of violence against rebel organizations in an attempt to smash the urban uprisings. But Assad made a serious mistake. He neglected his nation's borders, so that the rebels were able to assume control of the border areas, turning them into a source for volunteer reinforcements, weapons and logistical help streaming in from Jordan, Iraq and Turkey.
The dramatic stage of actual fighting on the Golan Heights started in the summer of 2012. The rebels gradually conquered a large part of the buffer zone near the Israeli border, establishing three growing enclaves, one in the southern Golan (the largest of the three, where the most radical of the rebels, described as Al-Qaida inspired global jihadists, have gathered), and two in the center and north, on both sides of the border town of Quneitra. The northern enclave is already nibbling at the foothills of the Syrian part of Mt. Hermon, bordering on the Druze village of Hadarm whose residents are still aligned with the regime. Lately, the conflict has spilled over into Lebanon, too, where Israel, Syria and Lebanon meet: Syrian rebel forces have attacked Hezbollah operatives at Mt. Dov.
At the third and current stage, the balance between the sides is fairly even, though its exact nature is something of a mystery. The rival camps are digging into their strongholds, emerging from time to time to attack. According to Haiman, the Syrian army has gained a great deal of experience in fighting, even though in terms of conventional warfare (operating tanks, divisions and brigades), it is weaker than the Israeli military. "Friction results in learning, and the Syrians are better fighters today than they were two years ago. At the beginning, the army was calcified and rigid. Today, both sides are more flexible. Quneitra is a good example. A few weeks ago, the Syrian military lost the town in a battle that lasted two hours, and then recaptured it within 30 minutes. At the end of the day, each side tells the story of its victory [there], which may or may not have anything to do with physical reality on the ground."
Among the rebels in the Golan, the capability of global jihad organizations has risen. This is a mishmash of groups, Syrians and Sunni Muslims from various countries, including professional terrorists and Al Qaeda veterans of the war in Iraq, as well as Syrian teenagers who identify with them, although they lack any outward sign of being jihadist fighters and not necessarily committed to the idea of an Islamic revolution. According to Haiman, the number of global jihadist rebels in the southern Golan has gone from a mere 300 to almost 10,000. "They have a clear set of priorities: toppling the Assad regime and making sharia, religious Muslim law, the law of the land in every location of which they wrest control. Israel is currently fairly low on their agenda, but who's to say they can't operate simultaneously and target us too? It's important to keep an eye on them."
Israel's preparations have included rebuilding the border fence (more than 60 of the 84 kilometers have already been completed), the addition of observation posts other and intelligence-gathering means, and upgrading the quality of the forces deployed along the border. One may also assume that Israel has increased its intelligence activities in the region. Every few weeks or so, there is a "trickle of fire," with the Syrian army shooting at rebel positions and hitting Israel instead, usually by accident. "When the intensity becomes questionable, we shoot back proportionately," says the outgoing division commander. This happened both in May and in June this year, after Assad threatened to open "an opposition front" in the Golan in response to Israeli air force attacks. Currently, the border is calm. "I very much hope that President Assad understands the potential harm that could come to him should he decide to attack us here," says Haiman.
Last summer, when most of Israel's intelligence community still shared former Defense Minister Ehud Barak's view forecasting the rapid demise of the Syrian regime, the Northern Command maintained a healthy dose of skepticism. In the north, the impression was of a brutal, resolute Syrian dictator who is managing to maintain control of most of his forces despite having lost his grip on more than half of Syria's territory. Haiman is cautious, but he doesn't foresee the collapse of the regime anytime soon. The map of control is still spotty, with each side entrenching itself in the areas it controls.
"A forecast of this kind is a little bit above the pay grade of this division," says Haiman. "I'm speaking on the basis of what I can actually see." There has been a clear increase in the number of deserters from the Syrian military, and the mandatory draft is taking in only 15 percent of eligible youngsters. But the regime conducts itself with horrific yet fairly effective force, making use of Hezbollah forces and armed civilian militias, mostly Alawi, serving as a cruel expeditionary force in areas where the regime has retaken control.
"The Syrian army is alive and well. It is not breaking up, and it is still too early to write its obituary. We love American stories: Stuff starts and then it's over in an hour and a half or two, a done deal. But the predictions about Assad's imminent collapse were all based on a Western interpretation of a Middle Eastern economy. It's still an agrarian society dependent mostly on water supplies and the preservation of tradition. The devaluation of the currency doesn't concern most Syrians very much and wouldn't necessarily lead to the collapse of the regime. There is a much deeper narrative at work, one that provides the foundation for mutual blood vengeance that can last for decades. Tens of thousands of people have died in these battles. There isn't going to be peace and quiet there anytime soon."
Haiman is 46; in the last two years, his hair has grayed a lot, not surprising for someone in charge of the sector that rapidly went from including the calmest border to being the place with the most worrisome potential for a crisis. He is an armored corps commander who found himself having to deal primarily with infantry fighting. It's not the first time it hs happened to him. He served as a territorial brigade commander in the West Bank during the Second Intifada. In another three weeks, he will start his new job as head of the doctrine and training brigade at the General Staff. If all goes well, he is expected to be promoted to the rank of major general at some point in the future. As for the last two years, Haiman says his feelings are mixed: "The challenge keeps you up at night, but there are tremendous professional rewards. Events develop in surprising directions and do so very quickly, and you have to be skilled enough to respond rapidly and correctly."