The civil war in Syria has become a strategic draw. Neither camp is able to defeat its rival and the fighting is focused on local battles for control, which cannot bring victory to either side.
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For the foreseeable future President Bashar Assad’s regime will make do with Lesser Syria - the capital, Damascus, and the corridor connecting it to the major city of Aleppo and the Alawite region in the northwest.
The regime is not interested in a direct military confrontation with Israel, but the danger is growing that in both camps the hawks - Hezbollah on the side of the regime, jihadi organizations on the side of the rebels - will try to initiate attacks on the Golan Heights.
That in essence is the Israeli intelligence assessment of the situation in Syria, where March will mark four years of a war that has caused the most severe humanitarian crisis in the region in recent decades.
Unofficially the number of dead is 200,000, most of them civilians. About 6.5 million Syrian civilians have been forced to leave their homes and wander the country; another 3.5 million refugees have fled, mostly to neighboring countries.
One of the main reasons for the paralyzing draw is that the Western countries have reversed their position: from an American threat in August 2013 to attack the regime and punish Assad for using chemical weapons; to the announcement of an aerial attack against his most dangerous rival, Islamic State, a year later.
Even if the U.S. doesn’t admit it, its policy is now effectively to strengthen Assad’s position vis-a-vis his enemies.
In hindsight, the point where the anti-Assad attacks began to slow down was the July 2012 assassination of Assef Shawkat, the head of Syrian intelligence and the president’s brother-in law, and three other senior officials.
The Wall Street Journal theorized that the attack was not the work of the opposition but rather an internal plot by the regime to get rid of Shawkat, who was still trying to find a peaceful solution to the conflict.
Israeli intelligence doesn’t support this theory, but the assassination is important because it led Iran and Hezbollah to sharply increase their support for the Assad regime.
Iran sent intelligence and guerrilla experts, Hezbollah sent fighters and Russia accelerated arms deliveries, due to their assessment that without that immediate support for Assad, the Sunni rebels would take control.
Defending Lesser Syria
Gradually, in 2013, the Assad camp successfully halted the rebels’ progress and began focusing on defending Lesser Syria, the site of Assad’s most important assets. Even if Assad now effectively controls only one-quarter to one-third of the area of the country, it’s enough to ensure his survival.
In summer 2013 the regime was in extreme danger after the massacre of citizens with chemical weapons, which aroused the fury of the U.S. But once again Russian intervention saved Assad.
The agreement between Russia and the U.S., to dismantle the chemical-weapons supplies in exchange for canceling the planned U.S. attack, eliminated the danger.
The rise of the Islamic State in the past year in Iraq and Syria, which focused international interest on the executions of Westerners, mainly helped Assad, as the West abandoned its already hesitant effort to bring down his government.
U.S. attacks against ISIS are helping Assad survive, even if that wasn’t what the Americans intended to do.
The conflict in Syria continues to affect its neighbors, mainly Lebanon and Iraq, since there is no physical barrier between them and Syria.
The caliphate that Islamic State declared extends on both sides of the border, in northern Iraq and eastern Syria. On the Lebanese border Hezbollah has built a line of outposts to prevent Sunni jihadists from Syria from entering the country. The outposts, which are patrolled by armed Hezbollah fighters, were a reaction to the wave of attacks in Lebanon over a year ago.
Hezbollah’s losses in the Syrian battles are estimated at about 550 dead and hundreds wounded. The organization regularly has about 5,000 fighters in Syria, where they focus on protecting assets essential to Assad.
A small force was sent from Lebanon to Iraq to help defend the Shi’ite population there from Islamic State. The IDF detects a clear operational improvement in Hezbollah due to the combat experience acquired in Syria.
Nature of threat has changed
The conventional military threat to Israel from Syria has dramatically declined.
More than 80 percent of the Syrian army’s missile arsenal has been used against rebel targets. There is almost no artillery aimed at Israel in the Golan itself. Syria cannot carry out military maneuvers in Israeli territory. The chemical threat has been largely removed. Therefore, the balance between Israel and the country that was its fiercest enemy for four decades has changed.
The danger of ambitious attacks on the Golan Heights from both camps has greatly increased. Extremist Sunni organizations identified with Al-Qaida are present near the border more than in the past and are liable to imitate such attacks launched in other regions. Hezbollah has also built terror infrastructures in the Golan area with help from Iran and Syria.
Two people whose names are quite well-known in Israel are responsible for operating these networks. The more senior of them is Jihad Mughniyeh, whose father, Imad, was assassinated in 2008, a killing widely attributed to Israel. The junior member of the team is Samir Kuntar, a Lebanese Druze who was sentenced to life in prison in Israel for murdering the Haran family of Nahariya in 1979, but was released in a prisoner swap with Hezbollah in 2008 in exchange for the bodies of two kidnapped soldiers, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev.
Hezbollah-related infrastructure fired 107mm Katyusha rockets at the Golan during the war in Gaza this summer. Israel believes that with Assad’s consent, Hezbollah will exploit the small area the regime controls in the northern Golan Heights to initiate attacks against Israel as revenge for the aerial attacks attributed to Israel in Lebanese and Syrian territory.
Although Assad has survived the terrible civil war for now, Israel’s attitude toward the northern front has fully reversed.
Two decades ago the immediate concern of the generals of the Northern Command was an attack by Hezbollah in Lebanon, but they were more worried about a possible war with Syria.
Today, the head of the Northern Command, Aviv Kochavi, is concerned about a possible attack on the Golan, but he’s planning for the possibility of a conflict with a more problematic enemy, Hezbollah in Lebanon.