On Friday, a local confrontation between the Syrian army and extremist rebels in the northern Golan Heights created serious tension on the Syrian-Israeli border. An attack on Khader by Sunni rebels, apparently led by the radical Nusra Front, led to a rare Israeli threat to use force to protect the village.
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The Israel Defense Forces spokesman released a statement on this decision after Israeli Druze leaders appealed to IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot. They also spoke with National Security Council Chairman Meir Ben-Shabbat, who is currently in London with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The Syrian side of the Golan is divided into three main zones of influence. The northern section, from the new city of Quneitra northward, is controlled by the Assad regime, while the nearby village of Khader is defended by a local Druze militia with the help of the Syrian army.
The central and largest section is controlled by the rebels. The villages near the Israeli border are held by local militias that receive extensive humanitarian aid from Israel, and according to foreign media reports, also weapons and ammunition. But these militias also cooperate with the Nusra Front, whose fighters usually remain in the eastern villages farther from the Israeli border.
The southernmost section is controlled by a local affiliate of the Islamic State that is fighting the other rebel groups.
Friday morning, the Nusra Front led an attack on Khader from the south and east and set off a car bomb that killed nine people – Syrian Army soldiers and several local Druze. The army unit then retreated from the village, and the Nusra Front exploited the opportunity to bring its forces closer to Khader from several directions – including from the north, on a road under observation from Israel – and open fire on the village.
These developments worried Israeli Druze, and hundreds of them came to the Druze town of Majdal Shams, on the Israeli side of the Golan, to observe what was happening on the Syrian side. Several dozen Druze even broke through the border fence to the Syrian side until they were brought back by the IDF.
The leader of the Israeli Druze community, Sheikh Muwafak Tarif, phoned Eisenkot to request military assistance for the people in Khader. Eisenkot then sent the head of the army’s Northern Command, Yoel Strick, to meet with Druze leaders at an IDF base on Mount Hermon.
This is what led to the spokesman’s statement that the IDF is “ready to help the villagers and prevent harm to or an occupation of the village, out of a commitment to the Druze community.” A few hours later, the rebels retreated from the positions they had seized that morning.
The IDF statement came shortly after Netanyahu said in a speech at the Chatham House think tank in London that Israel isn’t intervening in the Syrian fighting. But Khader is an exceptional case. Israeli Druze are very worried about their brethren, and the IDF sought to make clear that it wouldn’t stand aside.
Still, it has no intention to send soldiers to fight and die in Syria because of a local conflict. Rather, it correctly assumed that a public statement carrying an implicit threat to use “counterforce” – attacks by planes, tanks or artillery – would suffice to deter the Nusra Front from continuing its advance on the village.
Two years ago and again last year, under similar circumstances, the IDF also sent warnings to the Nusra Front when its fighters neared Khader, and they retreated. But this time, the warning was more public.
This incident is another reflection of the growing tensions on the Syrian front stemming from the Assad regime’s increasing confidence. The rebel attack on Khader was probably intended to head off any attempt by the Syrian army to exploit its momentum in other areas to advance southward. And on Wednesday, according to Arab media reports, a Syrian antiaircraft battery fired on Israeli planes above Lebanon after they attacked a Hezbollah arms depot in Syria.
The pace of incidents involving Israel in the north is picking up, and with it, so is the nervousness on all sides.