Analysis |

How Israel Is Preparing to Face the 'New' Syrian Threat

While the IDF no longer expects a war with Assad's forces due to its weakened offensive capacities, the chief of staff wants to create a new division in the Golan Heights to deter terrorist attacks.

Amir Oren
Amir Oren
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Amir Oren
Amir Oren

It was Syria that showed Egypt the way. Long before Gen. Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi toppled former President Mohammed Morsi, long before Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi got rid of former President Hosni Mubarak, just before then-Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser and then-Maj. Gen. Muhammad Naguib overthrew King Faourk, there was Chief of Staff Husni Zaim, a Syrian military man who in 1949 became the first officer in an Arab country to seize power in a coup d'état.

Zaim remained in power only four-and-a-half months before he was overthrown himself and later executed, but it was he who broke the dam. After him – in Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, Algeria and repeatedly in Syria – officers took to the barricades with armored brigades, battalions of gunmen and even with aircraft, in Israel and at home.

That first coup by Zaim, in March 1949, took place against the backdrop of Arab disappointment with the failed invasion of the newly established State of Israel. So it was with the Free Officers Revolution by Naguib, Nasser, Anwar Sadat (all of whom later served as president) and their friends in July 1952. A firm link between internal unrest and border tension with Israel developed. Just as the aftershocks in Egypt for the past two-and-a-half years have affected the Israeli security situation on the Sinai border, so there is tension with Israel on the Golan Heights because of the battle of President Bashar Assad’s shaky regime in Damascus against the rebels

The test of a large and conservative organization like an army is how early it can detect changes and adjust to them. The Israel Defense Forces is trying not just to keep up with events, but to be half a step ahead of them. The new realities east of the Golan – skirmishes between the Syrian army and the rebel forces, whose only common ground is a willingness to harm Israel, each side for its own reasons – have brought Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz to the brink of a decision to update the command-and-control structure in that sector, which had been moribund for decades but that could soon become an active front.

Bolstering the border

Gantz is leaning toward establishing a new division to control the Golan Heights. Today, the 36th Armored Division, also known as the Ga'ash Division, is stationed there. The larger of the IDF’s two regular armored divisions, it participated in the Gaza evacuation under the command of Gershon Hacohen, who is now a major general and commands a corps in the north. In routine times, the 36th Division is responsible for the region and the border, and also for the Golani Brigade, the regular and reserve armored brigades, artillery support units and other units. Gantz, who as head of the Northern Command during the last decade was the direct superior of the 36th Division commander for three years, believes the time has come for a change.

The plan that has been proposed to Gantz is to turn a long-established reserve division, the 366th Division, known as the Netiv Ha’esh ("Path of Fire") Division, into a regional division in the Golan. During the Yom Kippur War, this division, whose number then was 210, was the second, alongside the 36th Division (then also a reserve division) that was involved in blocking the Syrians from advancing and successfully breaking through to the east. The 36th Division commander at the time was Rafael Eitan, who was promoted to major general after the war. The commander of the 210th Division was Maj. Gen. (res.) Dan Laner. After the war, the 36th Division became a regular army division and was stationed permanently in the Golan Heights.

The 210th Division, which had been moved from Haifa Bay to the Pilon Camp only months before the war in a logistical step that had far-reaching operational implications, changed its number and its commander dropped in rank from a reserve major general to a brigadier general in the standing army. The current division commander is former Golani Brigade commander Brig. Gen. Ofek Buchris.

Command of the Netiv Ha’esh Division has become part of the training and preparation for promotion to commander of the 36th Division or other senior posts. Three major generals on the General Staff have served in this position: Deputy Chief of General Staff Gadi Eisenkott, OC Southern Command Maj. Gen. Sami Turgeman and the head of the Technological and Logistics Directorate, Maj. Gen. Kobi Barak.

The 36th Division commander is usually an Armored Corps officer, although Eitan was not, and after the end of the Yom Kippur War, Golani veterans (Uri Saguy and Amir Drori) and paratroop officers (Matan Vilna’i) also served in the post. But the ultimate task of curbing the Syrian armored corps, which has five divisions, was considered more suitable for veteran tank officers, who had been commanders of regular Armored Corps brigades and not merely retrained for the Armored Corps after commanding infantry brigades. The outgoing 36th Division Commander, Brig. Gen. Tamir Haiman, and the incoming commander, Brig. Gen. Itzik Turgeman, were Armored Corps men.

But in the meantime, the Syrian army has crumbled as an invading force facing an external enemy that has occupied its territory, i.e., Israel on the Golan Heights. Syria’s 1st Corps, basically the counterpart to Israel’s Northern Command, is struggling to hold on to Horan in southern Syria and is not free, organized or trained for a major war. It is fighting for every village, neighborhood and hill on the eastern side of the ceasefire line established in June 1974.

Gantz, the paratrooper, apparently prefers that infantry officers be in charge of the Golan Heights. Aside from Buchris, the commanders of the other two area divisions are Golani veterans. Col. Arik Chen, now commander of the Golan Division, is formerly commander of Golani’s Orev Company, a battalion commander in the Kfir Brigade and an operations officer in the Northern Command; while Col. Oren Cohen, who as commander of the 54th Battalion was wounded by "friendly fire" in Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, is now commander of the Hermon Division.

So the confrontation will be between Golani and Golani – the latter being the name chosen by Abu Mohammed al-Golani, the leader of the Al-Nusra Front, a branch of Al-Qaida in Syria, which aims to, among other things, liberate the Golan Heights from Israel.

Adopting the name "Golan" is an apparent imitation of an Israeli idea. Two Golani Brigade commanders over the years changed their family names to Golan – Nahum Spiegel and Yehuda Ashenfeld. A commander of the 36th Division, Nati Horowitz-Golan, did the same. By contrast, OC Northern Command Maj. Gen. Yair Golan carries the name from birth, although he’s a paratrooper, and his father, Gershon, was the deputy chief communications officer.

If it becomes a regional division, Netiv Ha’esh will control the new Home Front Command sub-district, which will prepare Katzrin and the other communities and villages on the Golan to defend themselves against the high-trajectory weapons expected both from the rebel forces and from the Syrian army, which are both liable to act against Israel if there are any more bombings of missile convoys or caches outside Damascus.

Seven years ago, during the Second Lebanon War, Hezbollah fired some 140 rockets at the Golan Heights; only eight hit populated areas. But the Syrian border is especially close, and launches from there are liable to be more accurate.

The inflated IDF

The assumption behind the plan is that there is need for focused attentiveness, organizational memory and regional knowledge. At present, quality regular units are positioned on the Syrian front – a select unit of the artillery corps and various infantry patrol units, each serving stints. These units are reinforced by armored corps and other artillery corps units. They are all positioned behind a mined line, which recently was fenced as well, meant, for the past four decades mainly to halt a possible invasion of Syrian tanks. It is now being reorganized to deter terrorist attacks.

Some forty years after the 1973 War, this development testifies to the changed situation. In 1973, there was only one area brigade, 820, whose commander was replaced on the eve of the war, despite the mounting tension. Colonel Zvi Barazani, currently Ramat Gan Mayor after changing his name to Zvi Bar, replaced Colonel Tzuri Sagi, both paratroopers. Golani or paratrooper units were positioned in the posts; they were aided by two armored battalions of regular brigade 188, who participated in the "Kalachat" operation against the Palestine Liberation Organization in south Lebanon. When war broke out, the region was commanded by the 188 brigade commander, the Northern Command's operations officer and Rafael Eitan, whose division 36 was not usually positioned in the Golan Heights.

Brig. Gen. Yekutiel Adam, vice commander of the Northern Command until 1972, who retired, joined the Mossad and came back to the Northern Command when the war broke out, said afterwards that due mistaken operational and budget preferences, the Golan was not prepared to face the attack on October 6th, 1973.

"We planned to use three divisions, and therefore the existing routes to the Golan weren't enough. The plan called for the construction of many routes, but we couldn't build them all. We succeeded in erecting obstacles for routine security, but not for a war. Barazani was busy in organizing the second line – the Jordan River and the bridges," he said.

After the war, the IDF saw inflation in formations and commands. Until 1973, there was only one regular division, 252, positioned in the Sinai Peninsula. One of the lessons of the war was to triple the number of regular divisions. New commands were established, numbers 2 and 3, to increase cooperation, but in fact, they were hardly used. With the involvement in Lebanon after the 1978 Litani Operation of division 91, "Utzvat HaGalil," and from the mid-1980s of the Lebanon Liaison Unit, regional divisions were the new trend.

Later, because of the first intifada, the Gaza division and then the Judea and Samaria division were established, followed by the Arava division, division 80. When conditions changed, some were cancelled. The Lebanon Liason Unit, whose last commander was Gantz, was disbanded after Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 and a division headed by Amos Ben Avraham was created. It was responsible for Judea when the Judea and Samaria division concentrated on Samaria during Operation Defensive Shield.

In effect, the new Gantz plan will replicate in the Golan the developments in the West Bank at the end of the 1980s when the first intifada broke out. The immediate solution at the time was to make Ze'ev Livne's armored division 162 responsible for the West Bank. It was later agreed that the division must return to focus on its prior objectives, mostly facing the Syrian threat, and it was relieved of all its duties in the area, which were assumed by a new regional division, the Judea and Samaria division.

Gantz's plan is an attempt to avoid the classical mistake of preparing for the last war – in this case the war that never happened, the armored attack resembling the 1973 War, a scenario that is unlikely in coming years. Gantz prefers to prepare for the next war, waiting behind the fence. The plan has a weak point that never bothered the IDF in past decades, but is now capable of thwarting even good ideas: It costs some NIS 200 million at a time when budgets are difficult to come by and existing plans are being pared down. For this reason, some generals in the General Staff have reservations about the proposed regional division. They believe division 36 is strong enough to handle the developing threats.

On the other hand, immense funds are spent following events in neighboring states where regime changes might cause new security threats; one day of fighting could escalate to an exchange of rocket fire costing tens of millions. Gantz has yet to make his decision, but if he insists on establishing a regional division in the Golan, his request will probably be granted. Meanwhile, Golani Brigade commander Brig. Gen. Ofek Buchris can take pride in the promotion of his fellow classmate from the 2005-2006 class of the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania: the outstanding military commander of the week, the head of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces in Egypt, General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi.

IDF troops on Israel-Syria border, June 25, 2013.Credit: AP

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