In covering events on the Syrian border, the local media have focused on two worrisome developments: the presence of militants associated with Al-Qaida only hundreds of meters from the border fence and the risk of errant shells, fired in exchanges between rebels and the Assad regime, landing in Israel. Last week there were photos of the black Al-Qaida flag fluttering near the Quneitra border crossing. On Sunday, aerial defenses intercepted an unmanned aircraft that flew over the Golan from Syria, following several mortar rounds and gunfire directed at Israel earlier.
At the same time, there is a historic process unfolding in the area that has far greater significance than these individual developments. In the past, the Assad regime managed to expel rebel forces from the Quneitra area after they had temporarily taken control, but this time it is proving to be more difficult to do so. UN observers on the border are abandoning their posts following the abduction of Fijian soldiers and the threats to the lives of other UN soldiers. The bottom line is that Syria’s military presence on the border is dissipating, and being replaced by that of new more hostile and unstable forces. UN supervision, established after the Yom Kippur War of 1973, is, for all intents and purposes, about to end.
If it does not reconquer the Quneitra crossing, the Syrian army will be pushed into a corridor lying northeast of it, connecting the area to Damascus. Assad’s forces will retain control mainly of the Mount Hermon area and the Druze town of Khader, which is controlled by a Druze militia that views the Assad regime favorably. Rebel groups now control all areas south of Quneitra, up to the border with Jordan, as well as several enclaves north of Quneitra.
Under these circumstances UN observers can no longer help. Over the weekend the Irish battalion, possibly with Israel’s help, quickly extricated Filipino soldiers at two observation posts, who were at risk of being abducted by the Al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front. Reports by these observers regarding violations of earlier agreements with Syria are now pointless. Israel still uses the UN to transmit protests and warnings to Damascus in cases of errant firing into the Golan, as is happening more frequently these days, but otherwise the UN forces have lost their importance. The risk of another UN condemnation, after all the accusations of war crimes and the emergence of the Islamic State (IS), now perceived as a global threat, will not cause Assad to lose any sleep. The Philippine government had already announced that it would remove its forces from the area, even before they were surrounded and threatened with kidnapping. Other countries with soldiers in UN units may follow suit.
Israel’s defense establishment does not foresee an immediate danger due to the border crossing’s falling into rebel hands. According to Arab media, Israel has been improving its relations with villagers east of the border over the last two years, by, among other things, opening a field hospital nearby. Hundreds of injured Syrians have been treated there. The crossing is now held by an alliance of groups considered to be more moderate and not keen on a confrontation with Israel. Nusra Front, which helped them take control of the crossing, was subsequently moved away from the border.
However, the shattering of the last remnants of stability on the Golan Heights over the last few weeks should concern Israel. The immediate concern is the spilling of the fighting into Israeli territory – this includes mortar rounds, light arms fire and the unmanned aerial vehicle intercepted on Sunday. Events are unfolding so rapidly that it’s difficult to assess when they will have an impact on Israel’s security.
The defense establishment has prepared well for these changes. The border fence has been repaired and upgraded, with new intelligence-gathering measures put in place. High quality units have been stationed along the border. The regional division command has been replaced by a division designated specifically to deal with the border areas. However, Israel still doesn’t know what to expect. So far no jihadist group fighting Assad has attempted an attack on Israel. The few cases of deliberate incidents, such as the explosive device which injured four paratroopers and the missile which killed a teenager, were apparently instigated by Assad forces.
A look at what happened in Sinai may shed light on what’s to be expected on the Golan. Following the weakened control by Egypt, Al-Qaida-affiliated organizations carried out ambitious attacks in 2011 and 2012. In one case eight Israelis were killed and in another a stolen Egyptian armored vehicle was used to penetrate the border, with no ensuing casualties. In both cases dozens of terrorists took part, some of them infiltrating into Israel. Such attacks are common in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. It is likely that attacks by suicide bombers or car bombs will be attempted on the Golan as well.
The shock caused by extremist Sunni organizations is again being felt in Lebanon as well. In the town of Arsal in the Beqaa valley, less than 150 kilometers from Israel, fighting between the Lebanese army and Nusra Front has resumed, with a possible return of the Islamic State as well. These two organizations fought each other in bloody confrontations in Syria but may now be collaborating. The Lebanese army is partly aided by Hezbollah, as well as by some Western countries which, before the surge of IS, were opposed to Hezbollah and the Assad regime.
Last Friday, American transport planes landed at Beirut airport, unloading arms shipments consisting of rifles and anti-tank missiles, intended for the Lebanese army. The U.S. ambassador to Lebanon said at the airport that more shipments will arrive soon, including ammunition and heavier weapons. He added that the United States decided to send these shipments after extremist groups overran Arsal at the beginning of August.
While Nusra Front is on the Golan, the Islamic State is not far behind. It’s not the end of the world, but Israel must remain alert.
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