The regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad has reestablished effective control over the past month of the northern portion of its border with Israel on the Golan Heights.
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After the surrender of the rebels in eastern Aleppo at the end of December, the Syrian regime began to apply pressure on villages that were under rebel control in various parts of Syria, including the northern Golan Heights region.
Many villages agreed to a cease-fire and, in practice, a surrender in the war with the Assad regime. Now the Syrian army and militias that support it have managed to establish nearly contiguous control in the area north of the road from the city of Quneitra, in the Syrian Golan, to the capital, Damascus.
The move on the part of the Assad regime was anticipated by Israeli defense officials, during the final phases of the surrender of Aleppo. Assad is indeed working to stabilize and expand his control of a number of areas bordering territory that he already controls, but it appears that the Golan Heights is a relatively high priority for him.
With its current capabilities, the Syrian army is not able to restore the situation along the border fence to what prevailed before the beginning of the outbreak of the civil war in 2011. It appears, however, that the regime is seeking to establish a more stable military presence in the vicinity of the fence, to wrest control from local rebel militias and to show that the sector is under Assad’s control in a way that will make it impossible for outside forces to operate there.
Israel was bothered at first by the gradual entry of rebels into the area in 2013 and 2014, particularly by the established presence of two extremist groups, the Nusra Front, which is identified with Al-Qaida, and the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade, an ISIS affiliate controlling an enclave in the southern Golan Heights. Over time, however, it learned that there were advantages to the new situation.
The rebel groups, even the extremists among them, have generally refrained from any confrontation with the Israel Defense Forces, and the fact that Assad’s regime was pushed back from the border also led to an end to the presence of Hezbollah militia forces and of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, which previously appeared near the border from time to time.
Now it seems that the renewed entry of the Assad regime in the Syrian Golan will gradually lead to the establishment of new rules, as the Syrian army also continues its efforts to push the rebels out of the southern half of the Golan.
Israeli defense officials believe that the Assad regime’s chances of survival have improved as a result of the victory achieved by the Russian air force’s bombing of Aleppo, coupled with Western reluctance to get into a confrontation with Russia. The change in administration in the United States is also a contributing factor.
The Obama administration had declared that Assad was not a legitimate ruler, but did almost nothing to overthrow him. In recent years, it focused its efforts on a largely ineffective campaign against the Islamic State group. It’s unlikely that the Trump administration will even bother to pay lip service to the idea that the Syrian president lacks legitimacy.
Step by step, the Assad regime is reestablishing its control of the southern Syrian Golan Heights through a systematic campaign of pressure against every village or group of villages. Representatives of the regime have been reminding local leaders of the destruction that Assad unleashed in Aleppo with Russian assistance and threatening them that their fate in the Syrian Golan Heights could be similar. Regime representatives have been calling on village residents to lay down their arms and to swear renewed allegiance to Assad, with vague assurances that no revenge will be taken against them. At times the threats are accompanied by artillery shelling of the villages by the Syrian army, to underscore the message. Close to 10 villages in the Syrian Golan region have already issued commitments of this kind to the Assad regime, and the regime’s efforts continue. At this stage, neither Israel nor any other country is intervening to put a halt to Assad’s resumption of control. It’s doubtful that Israel is interested in getting into a public confrontation with Assad on the matter.
In the meantime, a new reality is taking shape primarily on the northern portion of the Israeli Golan Heights border, from Quneitra northward. In the vicinity of the border in the southern Golan, local rebel militias still have control. The steps being taken by Assad in the northern Golan will probably also be accompanied by an attempt to rehabilitate the units and command structure of the 1st Corps of the Syrian Army, which had responsibility in the past for the border sector.
Most of the corps’ military capabilities were wiped out over the past six years of civil war. The Syrian regime has also withdrawn a considerable portion of its weapons systems from the border area with Israel, since it needs them for battles against the rebels in other regions of the country. As far as is known, the Lebanese Hezbollah militia organization and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards have not renewed their presence near the border, despite the gradual return of Assad’s army to the region.