Dramatic things went down in Syria this week, while the people of Israel were distracted by the storm over the prime minister and his U-turn on asylum seekers. The survival of the Assad regime, with close Russian and Iranian backing, is looking like a done deal.
The week began with U.S. President Donald Trump uttering a remark that made his generals’ jaws drop: that he would remove all American troops from Syria.
The Pentagon is kicking and Trump has changed his mind before, but the likely upshot is that Moscow will remain the only power in Syria. Even the Saudi heir apparent Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman admitted this week for the first time, speaking with the Atlantic, that Syrian President Bashar Assad is there to stay — something the Saudis had invested billions (contributing to the bloodshed) in trying to prevent.
On Wednesday the leaders of Turkey, Russia and Iran met for a three-way summit. Israeli circles can hardly ignore the possible correlation of these things. It felt like a committee to draw up areas of influence in Syria, with the tacit acceptance of the Trump regime.
The beautiful friendship between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan begins with Russian acquiescence to Turkish attacks on Kurds in Afrin, north Syria; agreements for gas and oil pipelines to be laid down; speeding up the Russian supply of S-400 anti-aircraft missiles to Turkey; and even the establishment of a civilian nuclear plant, to be built by Russia in Turkey.
In other words, Turkey remains a NATO member in name only. In practice it’s approaching the Russian sphere of influence. And Turkey’s engagement in nuclear power could, like in Iran’s case, develop into acute interest in reactors for military purposes.
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These developments have another effect, more local and immediate. Media outlets associated with Assad claimed this week that in early May, the Syrian army, backed by Russia and various Shi’ite militias, will be launching a combined attack on Daraa, in southern Syria, and Quneitra, in the Syrian Golan Heights, in Syria’s southwest.
Daraa is a symbol of the rebels. The city is where the rebellion against Assad began, in March 2011. The Golan Heights is of lesser importance, but the Syrian tyrant probably ascribes value to regaining sovereignty over the border with Israel (previously his worst enemy). Even though schedules are hardly sanctified in the Middle East, and forecasts about attacks in southern Syria have failed to materialize before – the Israeli army seems to be taking these latest reports seriously.
At present the regime controls only a small part of the Golan border area, from the new town of Quneitra towards the village of Khader and the Syrian part of Mt Hermon. Its grip to the north of that is firmer – around the road connecting new Quneitra to Damascus. Israeli army maps show it this way: a narrow red strip, representing the regime, in the northern Golan; a green mass from old Quneitra southward, controlled by various rebel organizations, some friendly to Israel; and a narrow black strip in the south, in the area of the triangle of boundaries with Jordan, which remains controlled by a local arm of ISIS.
But the regime’s growing confidence is evident in the field. Recently forces associated with Assad beefed up their presence in new Quneitra, Khader and the surroundings. The Syrian army even placed ranks and cannons in the no-man’s area along the border, in stark violation of the agreement reached with Israel in 1974 following the Yom Kippur War.
Israel can be expected to complain to the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, the UN entity supervising the agreement, but since the Syrian civil war began, UNDOF has vacated most of its camps on Syrian soil in the Golan Heights. Tourists in the Israeli Golan Heights during the Passover holiday probably noticed UN soldiers in makeshift observation points, watching developments in Syria from a safe distance.
When the superpowers agreed to scale down the confrontation in southern Syria last year, neither the Russians nor the Americans heeded Israel’s demands that Iranians and Shi’ite militias be kept at least 50 kilometers from the Golan border. For the time being the Iranians can barely be seen in the area of the border – but Assad is staging a major comeback, and behind him, hides Hezbollah.
Hezbollah set up a regional command center in the Syrian Golan headed by a man nicknamed Hajj Hashem, who operates out of Damascus. Various assessments say that about 100 Hezbollah operatives are in southern Syria, and roughly 1,000 people dwelling in the area get salaries from the organization.
Most of Hezbollah’s efforts are devoted to guerrilla raids in the rebels’ home front, but Israel has also discerned mounting interest in the border with Israel, and preliminary efforts to establish operational infrastructure there. That, along with the violations by the Assad regime, amount to a creeping expansion that could become cause for worry.
The situation in the Golan isn’t like in Sinai, where Israel is letting its partner Egypt place large forces, in violation of the peace treaty, in order to fight ISIS there.
Last January, the Assad regime gained control over an area that had been held by the rebels in the village of Beit Jin, about 15 kilometers from the Israeli border, after a protracted siege, during which Syrian helicopters dropped barrels filled with explosives. More than 300 rebels were killed in the fighting; the remaining 700 or so were allowed to flee to Idlib, a city remaining under rebel control in northern Syria, after they signed a surrender agreement. The village is now controlled by a militia associated with Assad. Since the surrender, Israel has stopped supplying the village with food and medication.
Moving around southern Syria, concocting agreements of surrender to Assad, is Bouthaina Shaaban, someone Israelis may recall from the abortive Israel-Syria peace talks of the 1990s. The regime will probably continue to follow this pattern: raids from the air, attrition on the ground, then surrender, which could create difficulties for Israel because Russian planes could approach the border. In a year or two, Israeli army maps are probably going to be coloring the Syrian side of the border red again.