Israel Needn't Worry: Spillover From Syria Is Not a Real Escalation

It is tempting to see the security-related events in the last few days as connected, but it seems, this time, it seems to be just a chance accumulation of events.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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A mobile artillery unit deployed near the border with Syria, April 28, 2015.
A mobile artillery unit deployed near the border with Syria, April 28, 2015. Credit: AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The series of incidents over the past few days on the northern border could be misleading. First, on Saturday morning, Arab media reported an attack on weapons stores at a Syrian military base near the border with Lebanon. The attack was attributed to Israel, which neither confirmed nor denied it. On Sunday evening the Israel Air Force killed four terrorists who were placing an explosive device in the Golan Heights, near the Israel-Syria border. A few hours later, on Monday, came the report of an attack on a Syrian camp near the Lebanese border. This time, too, the attack was attributed at first to Israel. The latter took the very unusual step of denying its involvement, and later it emerged that a Syrian opposition group was responsible for it. On Tuesday afternoon mortars fired from Syria landed in Israeli territory on the Golan, near the border town of Majdal Shams.

It is very tempting to see these events as a chain of action and reaction, but this time it does not conform to reality. Israel's opposition to the transfer of advanced weaponry from Syria to Hezbollah is known and according to foreign media this is not the first time the IAF has acted over it. But Hezbollah does not usually respond as quickly as the mere 36 hours between the bombardment of the Syrian base and the laying of the explosive device.

The squad who laid the explosives, all of whose four members were killed, appears to have been fairly amateurish. The connection of the four to the Assad camp is clear - two of the men killed were the sons of a Druze supporter of the Syrian regime who moved from Majdal Shams to Syria, and all four came from the area under the control of the Syrian government - but they could have also been dispatched by either Iran, Syria or Hezbollah.

Meanwhile the mortar that fell on Tuesday in the Golan turns out a case of exchanges of fire between Assad's army and the rebels on the Syrian side of the border, accidentally “leaking” a few hundred meters into Israeli territory.

The bottom line is that this seems to be a chance accumulation of events, which does not signal unusual escalation, but merely illustrates how complex, dangerous and difficult the situation is to understand, not to mention to predict. Sometimes Israeli intelligence needs a few days to ascertain who is behind a certain incident and what their considerations were. The problem is that when so many elements are involved in the civil war in Syria, which sometimes slips into Lebanon, it is difficult to keep Israel entirely isolated from the implications of the fighting.

The more dramatic news in Syria is that in recent months, when it seemed that for the first time President Bashar Assad was stabilizing his position, his regime has been struck with failure after failure. After the defeat in the northern city of Idlib last month, the nearby, tactically significant town of Jisr al-Shughour fell on Saturday to insurgent forces; in southern Syria the regime, aided by Hezbollah, failed in its attempt to mount a major offensive. Damascus itself, from the airport right to the presidential palace, is ever more threatened by rebels and recent days have seen expanded fighting with more extreme elements, Islamic State and Nusra Front, in the area of Qalamoun, near the Lebanese border.

The Washington Post on Tuesday went so far as to say that the regime is facing the greatest danger to its existence in the past three years. According to the paper, additional escalation in the face of a weakening Assad might require the United States (which officially continues to criticize the Assad regime) to once again divert efforts against ISIS from Iraq to Syria.

Israeli security officials who were asked about this on Tuesday chose a more cautious approach. According to those officials, the continuous erosion of Assad’s over the years has grown somewhat worse recently. However, they believe that Assad has already proven that he can survive despite all predictions. And so there is no reason to eulogize him now although his government is losing its grip on more areas of the country and effectively now rules only about a quarter of Syria.

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