Analysis | Between Qusair and Quneitra |

Israel Hears Echoes of Syrian Civil War as Assad, Rebels Clash Along Border

With rebel forces launching an assault on Quneitra and the adjacent border crossing, the clashes are now closer than ever to Israeli territory.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The echoes of the Syrian civil war could be heard closer than ever to Israeli territory on Thursday, as the army of Syrian President Bashar Assad and rebel forces clashed in the city of Quneitra, near the border with the Golan Heights. In what was apparently an attempt to show some kind of quick achievement after their failure in the battle for the strategic city of Qusayr, the rebel forces launched an assault on Quneitra and on the adjacent border crossing.

The battles there have been tough. UN observers, who had already struggled to hold their positions on the Syrian side of the border, are seriously weighing pulling out and reestablishing their posts on the Israeli side, even if this would undermine what remains of their mission as a separation force between the two countries.

Austria on Thursday announced that it had decided to withdraw its men from the observer force, given the danger to their lives.

The escalation along the border gives Israel good reason to worry. The boost in self-confidence that Assad got from his victory in Qusayr, which is near the Syria-Lebanon border, is liable to motivate him later on to retaliate against Israel if Israel follows through on threats to continue attacking shipments of advanced weapons from Syria to Hezbollah. Assad certainly feels a great debt to Iran and certainly to Hezbollah, in light of the significant contribution the Lebanese group’s fighters made to his success in Qusayr.

However, senior Israeli defense officials believe it would be a mistake to overestimate the value of the regime’s victory in Qusayr. They say that the victory came after a long line of failures over the past two years, during which Assad lost control over more than half of Syria’s territory. At this point, he is nowhere near turning the tide in his favor in a way that would cause the armed rebels to flee to distant, isolated areas.

The eyes of all the parties – the Assad regime, the rebels, and the line of countries supporting the rival sides – are now focused on the international conference on Syria’s future that is to be convened in Geneva this month. Qusayr is regarded in Israel as a tactical issue, another card the regime is placing on the table, along with Russia’s increasing support and Moscow’s threat to supply Damascus with the advanced S-300 anti-missile systems.

Of course, the powers opposing the regime hold some cards of their own – like removing the European embargo on supplying the Syrian opposition with weapons, and the leaked American plan to establish no-fly zones along the borders between Syria and its neighbors.

At issue is not just the border with Turkey, but also the border with Jordan. The United States in recent days has been deploying relatively large forces and Patriot missile batteries in northern Jordan as part of a joint military exercise. It’s possible that these batteries will remain on Jordanian soil even after the end of the exercise as a first step toward enforcing the no-fly zone (even though it would also need to be enforced using fighter jets).

Jordan, like several of Syria’s neighbors, is in a bit of a panic over the progress of the civil war there. As it is, the Jordanians must deal with at least half a million refugees from Syria (this is the official number – the actual number may be double). Not to mention the one million Iraqi refugees, a figure likely to rise given the renewed wave of violence spreading through Iraq, violence that is also influenced by the situation in Syria.

But the neighbor most concerned is probably Lebanon. Hezbollah is no longer hiding its deep involvement in the Syrian conflict and is facing serious criticism from its domestic rivals over the issue.

The Syrian opposition claimed this week that the terror group has sent 15,000 men to participate in the fighting, many of them in the battle of Qusayr. This estimate sounds exaggerated to Israeli ears, but it’s possible that some of the fighters were actually volunteers from other Shi’ite militias in Lebanon who are only loosely linked to Hezbollah.

The group itself has at least 3,000 fighters from its elite units in Syria, and the prevailing view is that it has lost more than 200 men in the fighting there.

For the time being, these developments have both positive and negative implications for Israel. Hezbollah is being worn down by fighting and losing a significant proportion of its men, but at the same time is gaining valuable experience in complex urban warfare that could serve it well in a future battle with the Israel Defense Forces. Currently, it appears that the damage to the organization has exceeded the benefits, but one can’t ignore the morale boost it has received from getting credit for determining the course of the battle for Qusayr.

In the background are other surprising developments that Israel views positively. For example, the visible rift between Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas, which defected from that camp after the massacre of their Sunni brothers in Syria. Several senior Hamas men have openly called for Assad to step down, while the group has been strengthening its relations with Qatar, which is trying to act like the patron of the Muslim Brotherhood movement throughout the Middle East.

In contrast, leaders of Hamas’ military wing in Gaza, according to Palestinian media reports, are concerned by the rift with Iran and are worried that it will affect the supply of weapons to the organization in Gaza.

But the Iranians, and Hezbollah in particular, find it difficult to forgive last week's appearance in Gaza by Sunni preacher Yusuf Qaradawi, who called on his listeners to take up arms against the “sons of Satan” from Hezbollah. In the audience, by the way, sat Hamas leader Khaled Meshal, until recently a welcome guest in Damascus and Tehran.

An Israeli soldier stands atop a tank in the Golan Heights near the Quneitra border crossing, close to the ceasefire line between Israel and Syria, June 6, 2013.Credit: Reuters
Civilians and forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar Assad wave Syrian National flags as they celebrate after the forces took control of the town from rebels, in Qusair, June 6, 2013.Credit: Reuters

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