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Syria Making Gains in Bid to Regain Golan, With Help of Hezbollah and Iran

The operation reflects an attempt by Syrian President Bashar Assad to push the rebels out of areas they took control over in the second half of 2014, as well as his fear that the opposition’s progress serves Israel.

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Fighters loyal to Syria's President Bashar Assad ride on military vehicles and tanks after regaining control of Deir al-Adas, a town south of Damascus, Feb. 10, 2015.
Fighters loyal to Syria's President Bashar Assad ride on military vehicles and tanks after regaining control of Deir al-Adas, a town south of Damascus, Feb. 10, 2015. Credit: Reuters

A joint offensive by the Assad regime, Hezbollah and advisers from Iranian Revolutionary Guards in southern Syria has registered some early successes, as regime forces were apparently able to retake several villages and towns from the rebel groups, which are led by the Al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front.

The area being targeted runs from the town of Daraa to the southern part of the border with Israel on the Golan Heights. The operation reflects an attempt by Syrian President Bashar Assad to push the rebels out of areas they took control over in the second half of 2014, as well as his fear that the opposition’s progress serves Israel.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem announced a few days ago that Syria will not allow the rebels to establish a “security zone” for Israel near the border between the two countries.

Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon told Haaretz in an interview last October that “Israel has understandings with the more moderate rebel organizations, whereby they keep the peace in the border area and keep away extremist organizations like the Nusra Front, which is affiliated with Al-Qaida, in return for Israeli humanitarian aid, including hospital treatment, the supply of blankets in the winter, and baby food for the residents of the border villages.”

The Syrian regime and Hezbollah have long claimed that the ties between Israel and the opposition organizations are much deeper, and that Israel is actually supporting the Nusra Front to help overthrow the Assad regime and open a front through which Sunni extremist groups could attack Hezbollah in Lebanon from the southeast. Jordan has also been accused of being part of the same broad front trying to bring down the Damascus regime.

Hezbollah and Iran, which had previously denied their presence on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights, admit it now, following the January 18 operation, attributed to Israel, that killed six Hezbollah operatives and a general of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. Now they say their activity in the Golan has a dual purpose – to help Assad remove the rebels from the border, and to challenge Israel by opening another front of “resistance” along the Syrian border, in response to acts of aggression that they and Syria attribute to Israel in Syrian and Lebanese territory.

According to Syrian and Lebanese media reports, thousands of regime soldiers are taking part in the southern Syria offensive. Hezbollah forces are also playing a major role, as they did over the last two years fighting in Qusayr and other areas near the Syrian-Lebanese border. However, Israeli defense officials believe that Assad’s forces are now encountering difficulties that include problems of motivation and the inability of the Syrian army, which has been battling the rebels for four years, to absorb heavy losses since it is suffering from a lack of resources, ammunition and soldiers. And although Hezbollah gained valuable battle experience during the years of fighting in Syria, it has also lost hundreds of fighters and this may be affecting the performance of its field forces.

A source close to the Assad regime told Haaretz that the aim of the broad offensive in southern Syria is to secure the capital Damascus from the west and south, due to the intensification of attacks from that front, and mainly due to what he called Israel’s stated support for rebel organizations. In recent weeks, the rebel groups have shot missiles and rockets from the south toward Damascus several times. It seems the regime’s offensive seeks to also take advantage of the fact that the strongest opposition organization, ISIS, whose presence in the south is limited in any case, is on the defensive because of the extensive air campaign being waged against it in Syria and Iraq by the international coalition.

Meanwhile, the newspaper Al-Arab al-Jadid, published in London, reported on Wednesday that Hezbollah had tried to assassinate former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in retaliation for Israel’s February 2008 assassination of Imad Mughniyeh, who had been considered Hezbollah’s military leader.

According to the report, the plot was foiled by information leaked to Israel by Mohammed Shorba, a senior operative in Hezbollah’s operations branch, who the organization recently revealed had been arrested and had confessed to serving as an Israeli intelligence agent. According to Arab media, information provided to Israel by Shorba helped foil dozens of attempted Hezbollah revenge attacks against Israeli targets abroad after the Mughniyeh assassination. (Mughniyeh’s son, Jihad, was among those killed in the January 18 bombing in the Syrian Golan Heights.)

This explains the enhanced security around Olmert that began over a year ago and only now is being explained. While Hezbollah’s original motive was apparently revenge for Mughniyeh, in December 2013 the plot was given another incentive when another senior Hezbollah figure, Hassan Laqis, was ambushed by gunmen in southern Beirut – an operation also attributed to Israel.

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