New Enemies Across Syrian Border

IDF no longer facing Syrian army, but Nusra Front - and behind it, Islamic State.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Druze men look at smoke rising on the Israeli-controlled side of the line dividing the Golan Heights from Syria following fighting near the Quneitra border crossing, August 27, 2014.
Druze men look at smoke rising on the Israeli-controlled side of the line dividing the Golan Heights from Syria following fighting near the Quneitra border crossing, August 27, 2014.Credit: Reuters
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The battalions of the Golani Brigade, which lost 16 of its troops in the hard fighting in Gaza’s Shujaiyeh neighborhood last month, went up to the Golan Heights this week. While members of the security cabinet are still arguing about the need for a new ground operation in Gaza to defeat Hamas once and for all, Golani has returned to its original mission, which it began even before the battles in Gaza: soldiering on the Syrian border.

The reservists, who were called up to replace the Golani troops when they went to the Gaza Strip, saw the border sector on the Golan Heights change before their eyes over the past month and a half. Troops are being replaced on the Syrian side of the border as well, but there it is being done in more arbitrary and more violent manner. Fighters of the Nusra Front, the radical Islamist group linked to Al-Qaida in Syria, recently arrived en masse in southern Syria, and some of them proceeded to the southwest part of the country, near the Israeli border. Hundreds of Nusra troops have been sweeping away members of the more moderate groups in the opposition camp that has been fighting to overthrow the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Since the Nusra troops are also using tanks they plundered from the Syrian army, including advanced models, the other groups are not trying all that hard to block their passage.

Nusra approaching Quneitra crossing

The Nusra fighters, most of them natives of Syria, are not a new sight from the Golan Heights. As early as 2012, they came close to the Israeli border, reaching the area near the Quneitra border crossing. But the reinforcements they received recently have to do with deeper processes taking place in Syria, first among them the rise of Islamic State, which was formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the most radical group in the Islamist camp. The members of Islamic State, who in late June announced the establishment of an Islamic caliphate in the broad stretches of territory in eastern Syria and western Iraq, are not only massacring troops of Assad’s army and ethnic minorities in areas they control, but are also expelling every other opposition group.

Over the past few days, Islamic State, which is too extreme even for Al-Qaida, has completed its takeover of the airbase in the town of Ar-Raqqah in northeastern Syria. Its operatives have been hunting the Syrian troops trying to flee the area like ducks in a row, filming it for propaganda. Ar-Raqqah has been declared the capital of the new caliphate. All traces of any other competing group were removed from there, and from large areas south of there. As a result, more Nusra fighters have been streaming southward and westward, some of them reaching the border region of the Golan Heights.

The members of Nusra Front, who also treated the local inhabitants with an iron hand when they arrived on the Syrian section of the Golan Heights more than two years ago, have moderated their behavior since then. Charitable organizations and civilian infrastructure that the group established in southern Syria filled some of the void that was left when the Assad regime fled. Yet a strict Islamic code has been gradually enforced in the villages near the Israeli border — from modesty rules for women to a prohibition on smoking.

The lines of control in the border area are fluid and change frequently. It is likely that Nusra Front fighters will be facing a new challenge later on, even in the region they now control.

According to officers of the Israeli army’s Northern Command, Islamic State is already knocking on the door of the Golan Heights. While only a few operatives identified with the movement have been spotted so far in areas near the border, religious leaders in several villages have been making statements in support of the organization, and its flag, or that of groups associated with it, has been seen flying from spots in the distance. As happened in Iraq, alliances based on mutual interest are likely to be made with towns and villages that do not necessarily object to Islamic State’s bloodthirsty ideology.

“It has not been seen on our immediate front line yet,” a senior officer told Haaretz, “but a strong Islamic State presence is already being felt in the entire area. Everything here changes and simmers, including among the opposition groups. There is a strong trend here that is trying to take Syria and Iraq a thousand years back in time. The radicalism has made itself felt: The Syrian side of the Golan Heights is already painted in fifty shades of black.”

Actually, and in a way that is hard to digest after more than 65 years, there is almost no Syrian army presence along the Israeli border. The Syrian army’s 61st Brigade, which held one of the sectors, has simply vanished after suffering heavy losses in battles with the opposition. The civil war continues to rage throughout Syria. The regime has managed to hold onto most of the areas it deems important, from the Alawite region to the coast of the Mediterranean Sea in the north, through the large cities in the center and as far as Damascus. It has abandoned the peripheral areas and the border regions almost entirely except for the border with Lebanon, which is important to it because of the relationship with Hezbollah. The rise of Islamic State is useful to it to an extent because Assad seems the lesser evil by comparison.

Last year, in light of the understanding that the Syrian border was facing a profound change, military Chief of Staff Benny Gantz did two things. He upgraded the border fence substantially, and he established a new army division, the Bashan (210th) Division, which specializes in dealing with the border.

Also, the 36th Division, which had previously been responsible for the Golan Heights, has withdrawn from the area and will continue to engage in training regular and reserve forces and deploying them in other sectors, as it did during the war in Gaza.

Heating up

The logic in these actions is now proving itself in light of the lack of stability on the border. Since the year began, several explosive devices have been detonated at troops, rockets have been fired into Israeli territory, the most recent instance being five rockets on Saturday night. An Israeli Arab teenager, Mohammed Karaka, was killed by an anti-tank rocket that hit a truck near the border fence on June 22. Some of the incidents appear to be deliberate terror attacks perpetrated by the Assad regime via proxies, apparently as the response of Assad and Hezbollah to attacks in Lebanon that they attribute to Israel. Other incidents are the results of errant rockets as the regime and rebels continue to clash.

On Monday, during exchanges of gunfire between Assad’s army and the rebels south of the Quneitra border crossing, several mortar shells struck the ground of a UN outpost on the Israeli side of the border. Israeli army officials warned the Syrian army, and the firing stopped. During that time, several hundred meters away, Israeli farmers continued cultivating the apple orchards of Kibbutz Ein Zivan. And on Wednesday, an IDF officer at an outpost was wounded by Syrian Army fire that was apparently an accident.

In the meantime, the Israeli army has succeeded completely in preserving a buffer zone between the civilians on the Golan Heights and the tumult that is going on east of the border. But in the longer term, Israeli army officials know they also need to be alert for attempts at ambitious terror attacks against Israeli targets by the Nusra Front, Islamic State or other radical groups.

Rebels from Al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front, as they sit on a truck full of ammunition, at Taftanaz air base, captured by rebels in Idlib province, Syria, Jan. 11, 2013.Credit: AP

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