Syrian Rebels Strengthen Hold Over Israel Border Region

Senior Israeli official says rebels currently don't pose a threat to Israeli security.

AFP

Syrian rebel groups strengthened their hold over the Syrian side of the Quneitra Crossing — located on the frontier between Syrian and Israeli controlled parts of the Golan Heights – over the weekend and managed to repel attacks by Syrian forces loyal to President Bashar Assad.

The rebels kidnapped dozens of Fiji soldiers, members of the UN observer force stationed in the Golan Heights and are maintaining a siege on a second UN stronghold manned by Philippine soldiers. Officials in the Israeli security services said that it is a relatively moderate militia, the Free Syria Army, that controls the Syrian side of the border crossing, and that the Nusra Front, which is affiliated with Al-Qaida currently pose no threat. Despite this, Israeli forces in the Golan Heights are on relatively high alert due to the recent developments.

Some 300 members from different groups participated in the taking of the Quneitra Crossing. This varied force was led by the Free Syria Army and with only a small number of Nusra Front members. The government forces that held the crossing before sustained losses in life and retreated to the north to areas controlled by the government. Over the weekend the Syrian army conducted several artillery barrages on the crossing area and tried to retake the area unsuccessfully. Israeli security officials characterized this attempt as "pathetic.

During the fighting, Nusra Front forces took over a stronghold manned by a Fiji UN force and kidnapped the soldiers stationed there at gunpoint, leading them on to buses and shipping them southward to an unknown destination. The UN is currently conducting a mediated negotiation to have them released. Their condition is unknown, though no information indicating that they were harmed had surfaced at this time. Meanwhile, members of the radical organization laid siege to another two UN strongholds located south of the Quneitra Crossing, both manned by Philippine soldiers. In the Breiqa encampment 40 soldiers were under siege and south of it in the Rwihana encampment 35 soldiers were under siege.

Philippine President Benigno Aquino III ordered the troops in the two encampments not to surrender and gunbattles erupted in the area. The Philippine soldiers managed to hold their ground and fight back the attempts to take their positions. On Saturday an Irish UN force arrived at Breiqa and evacuated the Philippine force stationed there into Israeli territory. The force in the Rwihana encampment also escaped the siege early on Sunday morning.

Due to the fighting in the region the UN evacuated all its forces on the Syrian side of the southern Golan Heights – from Quneitra to the meeting point of the Israeli, Syrian and Jordanian borders. The observer force still holds a small presence in strongholds on the Israeli side of the border. This is the greatest change in the UN deployment in the region since the agreement that started the deployment in the area following the Yom Kippur War was signed in 1974. The Syrian army's presence in the region is also minimal with forces only stationed in the Druze town of Khader and on the Syrian side of Mount Hermon.

A senior Israeli official told Haaretz Saturday that the new circumstances in the Quneitra region don't pose an immediate danger to Israel and that the area near the Israeli border is held by the Free Syria Army, which has reasonable relations with Israel. According to the official, except for the raising of an Al-Qaida flag on the Syrian side of the crossing by members of the Nusra Front, there were no provocations against Israel. The official assessed that in the short run the moderate Free Syria Army would restrain the more radical Nusra Front from taking any action against Israel fearing a severe Israeli response. "For now, no one on the Syrian side is pointing their guns at us, because they know that they will sustain a powerful blow if they try anything." He said, though he admitted that this may turn out to be temporary and that the frequent changes in Syria may have an effect on Israeli security in the future.