In a New Challenge to Israel, Syria's Assad Sets His Sights on Golan Border Area

After the conquest of Aleppo, Dir a-Zur and Raqqa, the regime is ready for its next move. Israel will now have to rethink its policy

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Members of the Syrian Democratic Forces during a battle against ISIS in Raqa, September 28, 2017.
Members of the Syrian Democratic Forces during a battle against ISIS in Raqa, September 28, 2017.Credit: BULENT KILIC/AFP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The Assad regime is gearing up to expand the area it controls in southern Syria, near the border with Israel.

The Syrian army and the militias supporting it are likely to start their attack on the rebel forces in the vicinity of the border with Lebanon, by the Syrian Mount Hermon. Later they may try to advance southward, along Israel’s border in the Golan Heights.

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Israel has taken a harder line against the Assad regime in recent years. Now it will have to rethink its policy, mainly after hundreds of people from radical Sunni organizations, identified with Al-Qaida and ISIS, reached the area.

The Syrian side of the border with Israel in the Golan has been relatively stable in the last year. The Assad regime controlled the northern part, returning to outposts on the Syrian Hermon and in the new town of Quneitra. There were also two enclaves, a Druze one in the village of Khader, which is controlled by a local militia that maintained contact with the Assad regime; and a Sunni enclave in villages along the Lebanon border.

Rebel organizations controlled the main part of the border, from the old town of Quneitra and southward. This area was mainly the fiefdom of local Sunni militias, some of which accepted aid from Israel in the form of food, clothing, medicine and medical care in Israeli hospitals. Arab-language media claim that Israel also supplies these militias with arms and ammunition. Farther from the border, extreme organizations identified with Al-Qaida, first and foremost the Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formerly known as the Nusra Front).

The southern enclave, by the triangle of borders with Israel and Jordan, is controlled by a local arm of ISIS, today called the Jaysh Khalid Ibn al-Waleed Army. The Jaysh army is embroiled in battles for control with other rebel organizations north and east of it, and is barely involved at all in the war against the regime.

The dramatic turns in the Syrian civil war seem likely to affect developments on the border with Israel. Abetted by Russian might in the air and Shi’ite militias sent to him by Iran, Bashar Assad is racking up more and more successes. The conquest of Aleppo last December, followed by the conquest of Dir a-Zur and Raqqa in eastern Syria from ISIS frees the Syrian army, and Shi’ite militias, to resume their interest in other areas that had been considered less critical to Assad. The regime’s next move, presumably, could happen near Israel, though when that might be is not clear, and as usual with Syria, it could be delayed – meaning that the Syrian army would first aim to reconquer the southern part of the Syria-Lebanon border, cutting off supplies to the rebels in Lebanon once and for all. If that works, Assad might later try to shoo away the rebel organizations from the southern Golan as well.

Meanwhile, ISIS’s rout has other implications for the area near Israel’s border. Lately several hundred fighters arrived at the southern enclave, by the border with Jordan. These were refugees from the battles in areas that ISIS lost. About 1,000 armed rebels are estimated to be operating under the auspices of the local ISIS branch. Another Al-Qaida arm beefed up with fighters fleeing the war in the country’s east is increasing its presence in the central section of the border with Israel.

During the last year, as the Assad regime scored its gains, and Shi’ite militias and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard stepped up their involvement in the fighting, Israeli leaders have been warning about Iranian influence in Syria, and mainly its approach to the Israeli border. But the situation is now a little different. Firstly, the gathering of extremist rebels, whose organizational ideologies are supremely hostile to Israel, could create the potential for terrorism near the border.

Secondly, there is a question whether giving humanitarian assistance to the local Sunni militias won’t put Israel on a direct collision course with Assad and Iran, who, in any conflict with the rebels, would probably win.

On this matter, opinions in the defense and political establishments diverge. One opinion favors maintaining humanitarian aid to the Sunni villages and notes the concern that if the regime expands its influence near the border, the Iranians and militias associated with Assad will show up too.

Others suggest that the regime’s return could actually stabilize the border, staving off the organizations associated with Al-Qaida, and mainly with ISIS.

In any case, the resumption of internal strife within Syria near the border would plainly require Israel to be especially alert and to reconsider its positions.

Israel repeats assurances to the Druze

Last week Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot and other top defense officials talked with leaders and military officers belonging to the Druze community following the crisis that began in early November.

Back then, as Sunni rebel organizations advanced toward the Druze town of Khader, in the northern Syrian Golan, the clan’s leaders in Israel claimed the Israeli government was collaborating with the rebel factions and imperiling the lives of the people in Khader. Following the protest, Israel warned the rebels that it might intervene on behalf of the Druze in Khader. The rebels retreated to their positions near the village.

The latest developments in southern Syria reawakened fear among Israeli Druze leaders that members of the community in Syria will get caught between the rebels and the regime. At their meeting, Lieberman and Eisenkot again stressed Israel’s commitment to the Druze community, and presented the defense establishment’s opinion of events in Syria.

The instability in southern Syria continues to worry Jordanian circles too. The journalist Bassam Badareen, who has many a source in the Jordanian establishment, wrote this week in the Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper that Jordan feels abandoned despite the understandings achieved between it, the U.S. and Russia in an agreement signed last month for the establishment of regions to reduce friction in southern Syria.

Badareen writes that Major General Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Quds force in the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution, continues to encourage Shi’ite militias to “seep” through to the town of Daraa by the border with Jordan, thereby endangering the security of the Hashemite kingdom, and the superpowers are leaving it to deal with the problem by itself.

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