Analysis |

A Jihadist Spark That Could Ignite the Israeli-Syrian Border

The IDF is concerned that if Sunni jihadists get the upper hand in the Syrian civil war, they may turn their gaze to the Golan Heights.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Winter came to the Golan Heights on Wednesday. In the afternoon, heavy clouds descended on the Israeli army outposts near the Syrian border. At Tel Hazeka, an outpost in the center of the Golan plateau, visibility was abruptly curtailed. The view from the observation point overlooking the eastern side of the boundary line became fuzzy. The sounds, however, continued to be heard vividly: They were not an approaching thunderstorm but frequent bursts of gunfire.

The last time we were here a few months ago, control of the two villages on the Syrian side, Bir Ajam and Breika, was divided between the rebel forces and Syrian army units. Since then, the rebels have completely driven out the army forces from the two villages, which are close to the border with Israel.

Loyalists of President Bashar Assad in this region are currently concentrated in a different enclave, slightly farther north, centering on the abandoned city of Quneitra. A narrow corridor connects the enclave with the road leading north to the capital, Damascus.

Two armed rebels were patrolling the winding road on foot. Afterward, a truck sped toward the villages, apparently carrying a heavy machine gun. The machine gun fire continued sporadically, sounding like it was coming from east of the villages, close to the new positions seized by the Syrian army.

Israel Defense Forces officers told us that we should have come a day or two earlier − and not only because of the poor visibility we had to deal with now. A few days before, at a distance of only 100 to 200 meters from the Israeli outposts, the warring sides had pounded each other relentlessly for hours. That confrontation ended in a draw, though it exacted casualties. On one occasion − it’s not fully clear whether by mistake or deliberately − a Syrian soldier directed light-arms fire at an Israeli Defense Forces outpost, and paratroopers responded with accurate fire at the source of the shooting.

The Golan Heights has remained a largely neglected arena in the civil war in Syria. The southern section of the region that shares a common border with Israel has been completely abandoned to the control of jihadist Sunni rebels, who draw inspiration from Al-Qaida. Only when the Assad regime identifies tactical danger to its interests in the Golan does it intervene quickly. This has been the case on a number of occasions in recent months, when the rebels tried to take Quneitra or captured an outpost in the Syrian-held area of Mount Hermon. Syrian forces then moved quickly to regain control.

But the Syrian units that are currently deployed near the border are at a low level of fitness. They are suffering from prolonged attrition and a wave of desertions. Their primary mission is to retain the positions they still have, repulse the advance of the rebels and, where possible, hold the boundary line with Israel.

The war of attrition on the Syrian side is barely felt on the Israeli side, apart from periodic, stray light-arms fire or mortars. The quiet is being preserved. Half a kilometer from the security fence, Israeli farmers continue to work their land without interruption. The B&Bs on the Heights are filled on weekends, and many Israelis come to get a look at the border.

The fence-builder

If someone is still looking for an explanation of Benjamin Netanyahu’s lengthy survival in power − beyond the complete absence of a realistic political rival − he might check out the tourist observation point that looks out over the Syrian border from the slopes of Mount Bental. The main reason that the prime minister continues to be ahead in the popularity polls lies in his success in isolating his countrymen from the consequences of the tremendous upheaval that is taking place around them, and which began to sweep across the Middle East three years ago this month. Amid all this, Israel has remained a fairly tranquil bubble − at least for the time being.

Most Israelis share Netanyahu’s suspiciousness about making political concessions ‏(he doesn’t tire of reminding people of his refusal to agree, despite the urging by ranking IDF officers, to negotiate with Assad about returning the Golan, just before the eruption of the civil war in Syria‏), together with his relative cautiousness in regard to taking military initiatives. Not even this week’s reports of a huge water bill for the prime minister’s private home in Caesarea and the Netanyahus’ outlays for the purchase of perfumed candles − both items, along with many others, funded by the taxpayers − not to mention the deep social malaise in the country, have as yet been able to tip the scales against him.

To preserve this security achievement, at least as long as the Arab Spring isn’t encroaching on the West Bank ‏(although former Shin Bet security service chief Yuval Diskin warned on Wednesday that this is a concrete danger‏), Netanyahu is continuing to surround the country with walls and fences. The man in charge of this project is an officer largely unknown to the general public, Brig. Gen. Eran Ophir. During the past few years, Ophir, most of whose army career was spent as a logistics officer, has specialized in the quick building of fences.

When the building of the separation barrier in the West Bank tapered off after the waning of the second intifada, Ophir was given the task of building the fence along the border with Egypt in Sinai. The Egyptian fence is Netanyahu’s baby. His aim was to block the border to migrants from Africa, but he leveraged the serious terrorist attack at Ein Netafim, near Eilat ‏(when eight Israelis were killed, in August 2011‏), into funding for the completion of the fence.

The Sagi Territorial Brigade, which is in charge of the border with Egypt, a formerly obscure operational arena, became used to bimonthly visits by the prime minister to check out the progress of the project. The fence was completed at the end of 2012 and has put a complete stop to the entry of migrants. By then, Ophir was already busy with his next project: sealing the border with Syria. The two cases in which Palestinian demonstrators breached the fence at Majdal Shams in 2011, with the encouragement of the Assad regime, led to a decision to rehabilitate the dilapidated barrier running along the border. The new fence, which is quite high, outfitted with equipment used for observational purposes, and runs along about 100 kilometers of borderline on the Golan, will be completed by the end of the month.

The new fence in the Golan Heights spares the IDF problems in the short term and reduces the probability of terrorist infiltration from Syria. In the longer term, though, the army is concerned about the jihadist organizations, which, even if they are now bent on toppling the regime of the infidel Assad, will eventually turn their gaze westward, to the Israeli settlements in the Golan Heights. Even the infrequent incidents that have occurred, with firing into Israel ‏(usually accidental‏) taking place once every month or two, has been enough to prompt the army’s elite units − Egoz, Maglan, and the reconnaissance units of the regular brigades − to ask to be posted on the Syrian border for operational duty.

At present, paratroopers are stationed on the Golan, apparently for the first time in a few decades. The IDF recently established an intelligence-collecting unit that focuses on this area. Next year, operational

responsibility in this sector will pass to the headquarters of a reserve division, which will specialize in routine ‏(ongoing‏) security. The headquarters of the huge 36th Division, which was permanently stationed on the Golan Heights for decades, will move to Galilee and go back to concentrating on training its brigades, both regular and reserve.

Jihadist challenge

The IDF is also preparing for more serious, ambitious scenarios in the spirit of Al-Qaida: Large-scale terrorist attacks, along the lines of the Ein Netafim incident two years ago. According to a report in The New York Times on Wednesday, the experts in Washington, in both the administration and the independent think tanks, agree with this prognosis. Messages sent from Pakistan by Ayman al-Zawahiri, the successor to Osama bin Laden, and intercepted by U.S. intelligence, suggest that Al-Qaida considers Syria its most promising arena.

The Sunni jihadist groups− many affiliated with Al-Qaida − are hugely atomized, but their influence is spreading. Intelligence officials estimate that about 1,200 European Muslims and a few dozen Muslims who are citizens of the United States are currently taking part in the war to topple Assad. The experience gleaned back in the war fought by Muslims against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s shows that these fighters undergo an accelerated radicalization process and then return to operate in their own country under the same inspiration, or move to new targets of the global jihad. It is unlikely that Al-Qaida has been as severely weakened as U.S. President Barack Obama has claimed since the assassination of bin Laden two-and-a-half years ago.

The heads of the intelligence committees of the U.S. Senate and House told CNN this week in a joint interview that American citizens are less secure today in the face of terrorist threats than they were in 2011. Some experts told the Times that in their view, in light of the jihadist threats, the United States should renew coordination with Assad’s murderous regime, but while keeping a low profile.

After witnessing some three years of fighting in Syria, the West now appears to abhor both sides almost equally. There is no doubt that Assad has perpetrated extensive war crimes, including the killing of 1,500 civilians using chemical weapons in August. But the YouTube clips showing armed Sunnis clad in robes executing Alawite truck drivers who strayed accidentally across the lines have also left a deep impression. Viewed from the outside, the opposition is becoming increasingly identified with Al-Qaida, not with secular organizations aiming to bring liberal democracy to Syria.

The agreement to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons stock, which is being implemented quickly and with surprising efficiency, made two things clear: the unwillingness of the United States and Europe to use military force to topple the Assad regime, and their readiness to strike deals with Assad, even if indirectly, through Russian mediation, in order to spare themselves deeper involvement.

The civil war in Syria continues to rage in the meantime, without the rebels having a foreseeable prospect of victory. At the moment, the opposition’s major opportunity to turn the situation around depends on whether they will devise a successful plan to assassinate Assad, along the lines of the mission that killed half of the Syrian army’s ranking personnel in Damascus, in July 2012.

Horrific cases

Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, visiting the Golan this week, said that Israel is extending extensive humanitarian aid to the civilian population on the Syrian side of the border. This is taking the form of medical treatment for hundreds of wounded civilians in an IDF field hospital, with some of them sent on to hospitals in Israel for further treatment.

Northern Command officers tell about horrific cases of children whose insides were ripped apart by mortar shells. The army has drawn up plans to transfer food and take in refugees, should the need arise. “With each winter, the situation there grows more dire,” Northern Command officers say. “The villagers who held out in the forests during the summer will now return to their homes to find shelter and will risk injury and death.”

Assad himself is holding on, for the time being. Prof. Eyal Zisser, from Tel Aviv University, who has been saying for the past two years − at first contrary to all the intelligence organizations − that Assad is strong and can be expected to survive, this week published an article in a journal of the Institute for National Security Studies that tries to analyze the secret of the dictator’s relative success. According to Zisser, the Syrian regime has displayed cohesiveness and strength, attesting to the resilience of the apparatuses of the Ba’ath Party, the high command and the country’s governmental systems. The regime’s roots, he writes, extend across many sectors and ethnic groups in Syria that are still invested in the regime’s survival. Beyond this, it is the story of Assad himself, who is demonstrating uninhibited aggressiveness in his effort to survive.

Assad’s success, in Zisser’s analysis, is based on wielding a strong, murderous hand domestically, while manifesting restraint externally. Thus the regime absorbed Israel’s bombing of its nuclear facility in 2007 − before the civil war − and thus Damascus was ready to agree to any compromise over the chemical-weapons issue last summer, provided it survived. Betwixt and between, Assad became a mass murderer who is waging a war of extinction against rival ethnic groups and organizations.

In the past it was claimed that the president lacked the “killer instinct” possessed by his father, Hafez Assad, whom he succeeded in 2000. According to Zisser, the civil war has proved the opposite: Bashar Assad is astonishingly coldblooded and is ready to sacrifice an entire country to ensure that he remains in power. Zisser quotes a speech that Assad delivered in the Syrian parliament in the summer of 2012, in which the ophthalmologist from Damascus spelled out his brutal doctrine: “What sane person likes blood? Obviously there is no such person. But when the surgeon enters the operating room, he is often compelled to open the bleeding wound and even to amputate, slice or cut out an organ from the body. In that case, do we say that his hands are covered with blood, or on the contrary, do we congratulate him for saving the patient’s life?”

Thus spoke Assad in defense of a war that has already taken 120,000 lives, most of them of civilians.

Israeli tanks drilling near the border with Syria.Credit: Gil Cohen Magen
Defense Minister Ya'alon with Israeli army soldiers along the northern border. The war of attrition on the Syrian side is barely felt on the Israeli side. December 2013Credit: Ariel Hermoni / Defense Ministry

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