The Israel Defense Forces has raised its alert level in the Golan Heights in light of the recent escalation in the fighting in southern Syria between the Assad regime and rebel militias and the Syrian army’s increasing proximity to the Israeli border.
Israel isn’t expecting a direct confrontation with the Syrian army, but it is preparing for possibility of spillover effects from the regime’s attack, with Russian and Iranian assistance, on the Daraa region, which is just sixty kilometers from the Israeli border.
IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot flew to Washington on Thursday for a quick meeting with his American counterpart. On Sunday, the security cabinet will meet to discuss the home front’s preparedness for a war in the north.
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The Syrian media reported that tens of thousands of people have fled the Daraa region due to heavy airstrikes against the rebels by the Syrian and Russian air forces. Many residents have headed south to the Jordanian border, but Jordan isn’t letting them enter.
Media outlets reported on Thursday night that hundreds of Daraa residents had also gone westward, to the Syrian portion of the Golan, which is fairly close to the Israeli border. In some places, they already set up tents.
Israel also doesn’t plan to allow masses of refugees to enter its territory. But it will consider aid in specific cases of humanitarian need.
At this stage, the IDF sees no need to significantly increase its forces in the Golan. But both the army and the government will conduct frequent situation assessments of developments in Syria.
Eisenkot’s meeting with the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford, was arranged over the past few days. The two will mainly discuss events in Syria, as well as their countries’ joint effort to restrain Iran’s military intervention in the region.
Over the past two weeks, the international media reported at least two Israeli airstrikes in Syria on targets linked to Iran. The first, near the Syrian-Iraqi border, killed dozens of members of a Shi’ite militia funded by Iran. The second targeted a cargo of weaponry at the Damascus Airport shortly after it was unloaded from an Iranian plane.
Eisenkot is expected to tell Dunford what Israel views as red lines which, if crossed, would lead it to intervene militarily in events in southern Syria.
Israel won’t accept any violation of the 1974 Separation of Forces Agreement in the Golan, which was signed following the previous year’s Yom Kippur War. The IDF won’t open fire on every tank that strays too close to Israel’s border, but it also won’t accept violations of the agreement, and certainly not the introduction into this area of heavy weapons that could threaten Israel. It also continues to insist that all Iranian forces and all Shi’ite militias leave Syria entirely.
Eisenkot and Dunford are also expected to discuss what will happen after the war. Israel won’t oppose the Assad regime’s return to the Syrian Golan, but it insists that no foreign forces be present there, even if they are technically made part of the Syrian army.
Israel expects Washington to relay these demands to Russia, even though Jerusalem is also talking to Moscow directly about this issue.
“The aggression by Iran and its satellites in our region isn’t declining,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Thursday at a graduation ceremony for pilots at the Hatzerim airbase. “We’ll continue to act with all our might against the Iranian plan to turn Syria into a deadly missile base aimed at us. The departure of businesses from Iran and the mass demonstrations there show that our effort is bearing fruit.”
Israel, he added, will continue “to act forcefully against Iranian targets in the region... We’ll continue to operate both near and far.”