The joint flyover maneuvers carried out by Russian and Syrian planes at the beginning of the month were interpreted in Israel primarily as a signal from Moscow about tensions with the United States over Ukraine. It’s possible, however, that the flights – one of which was carried out not far from the Israeli border in the Golan Heights – were designed to serve an additional purpose.
Like the Syrian army’s growing use of antiaircraft missiles during Israel Air Force attacks, they convey a show of force on the part of the Assad regime. Nearly 11 years after the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, the regime is restoring its control over broad swaths of the country’s original territory.
Thanks to huge quantities of assistance that the Russians and Iranians have provided him, and after a series of decisive battles between 2015 and 2018, Syrian President Bashar Assad has remained in power.
In the years since, the fighting has ebbed in most parts of Syria (although violent incidents still occur at times in large parts of the country, particularly in the south). And the international effort to depose the Syrian dictator, who at the moment is at the top of the list of mass murderers of the 21st century, has abated entirely.
Assad is projecting renewed self-confidence and is rather effectively in control of what the regime calls “essential Syria.” It’s a reference to the relatively large strip of land from Latakia in the west through Aleppo and Homs to the capital, Damascus, and from there to the Dara’a district in the south of the country.
Instead of what Syria originally was, now there are four areas, each with its own influence: Assad’s Syria; the Turkish area in the north; the Kurds of the northeast; and the eastern deserts near the borders with Iraq and Jordan, where sporadic rebel activity remains, including extremist factions identified with ISIS and Al-Qaida.
According to an Israeli army source, as of the beginning of this year, the war in Syria has ended, for practical purposes. “After the dust of battle settled, the cards were reshuffled. In front of our eyes, Assad has been shaping the new Syria.”
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The change isn’t only geographic, but also demographic. According to intelligence assessments in Israel, about a third of the Syrians now under the control of the regime are Alawite – more than twice their proportion before the outbreak of the war. And close to 10 percent are Shi’ite Muslims, compared to 3 percent prior to the war.
That’s a real shake-up that will have a major impact on how things develop in the country. The millions of Sunni Muslim refugees who fled during the war, mainly to neighboring Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan and to several countries in Europe, will mostly not be allowed to return.
The alliance with the Shi’ites, in addition to the ties with other minorities, enables the regime of Assad, an Alawi, to count on the ethnic loyalties of nearly half the population under his control. The regime is cooperating with the Iranian effort to direct a flow of Shi’ites from throughout the Middle East to Syria, sometimes involving families of Shi’ite militiamen who took part in the war on the side of the regime.
At the same time, following the mass flight of refugees during the war years, Sunni citizens who don’t see a future in the new Syria are leaving now too. The Dara’a area, about 50 kilometers from the Israeli Golan border, was the cradle of the revolt against the Assad regime in 2011. In 2018, it was subdued almost without a fight after the Russians threatened to carry out carpet bombing, such as the bombing that destroyed the cities where the rebels holed themselves up in the north of the country.
The regime is making a special effort to settle populations in the areas that are identified with it. In the past year, between 8,000 and 10,000 young Sunnis are estimated to have left the Dara’a area. Most of them emigrated to Europe.
Shi’ite residents have recently taken over at least two Syrian Golan villages not far from the border with Israel. With Iranian assistance, religious institutions and schools identified with the Shi’ite community have been set up throughout the south for years.
At the same time, Hezbollah has established an array of observation points and intelligence-gathering bases in the vicinity of the border with Israel, with assistance from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and networks of area residents.
In addition to the many aerial attacks attributed in foreign reports to the Israel Air Force, from time to time there are attacks along the border using short-range missiles or sniper fire against these positions. Hezbollah is overseeing the activity on the border through two command centers, one of which is responsible for building up the force over the long term and the other for engaging in terrorism against Israel. With relative frequency, the attacks from rebel organizations against army forces and Shi’ite militias are continuing in southern Syria.
Over the past decade, the events on the other side of the border have also had an impact on the relations of the Golan Heights' Druze with Israel. The first signal that something had changed came perhaps with the speed at which pictures of Assad disappeared in the restaurants in the Druze villages on the Israeli side of the border following initial reports of acts of slaughter by the regime.
In the years since, the local Druze ties with Israel have become closer and sometimes have even been publicly visible, for example with the flying of Israeli flags over some school buildings. And for the first time, the coronavirus pandemic has brought a permanent presence in the Druze villages of Israeli soldiers in uniform, from the Home Front Command. After two years of the pandemic, the ties between the Home Front Command and local governments in the Golan are now taken for granted.
The Bennett government, like the Netanyahu government before it, regularly releases public statements pledging allegiance to the Golan. About two months ago, after a festive cabinet meeting in the Golan Heights, Bennett announced his intention to double the Israeli residential presence there.
It seems that the horrors of the Syrian civil war, particularly in the period during which members of ISIS and Al-Qaida manned the positions in the vicinity of the border, boosted public support in Israel for the Golan Heights remaining under Israeli sovereignty.
But the Assad regime’s renewed momentum in southern Syria could be followed by attempts by Damascus to again boost its influence among the Druze in the Golan. In time, the question of who is really dominant behind the scenes there – Israel or Syria – can be expected to come up again.
The Druze connection
Despite the waning of fighting in Syria, serious distress among the civilian population continues to be felt throughout the country. That’s also the backdrop to a crisis that recently surfaced over the situation of the Druze in the Druze mountain region, Jabal al-Druze in Arabic, in southern Syria, about 70 kilometers from the border with Israel.
During the civil war, Druze in Syria tried to avoid being publicly identified with the regime, though some of the young people from the community served in Assad’s army. Assad himself related to them with suspicion and on more than one occasion took steps that worsened their economic situation in the Druze communities.
Recently there has been renewed unrest in the Druze mountain region and in the capital of the enclave, Sweida, over the economic situation and the government’s decision to cut subsidies on essential food products. Druze in Syria are also bothered by other moves the regime has taken, including a refusal to open the border crossing into Jordan from the area and increased Iranian presence, which has been accompanied by violent incidents.
There have been several large demonstrations against the regime in the Druze mountain region in recent weeks. Similar protests have been held in other parts of Syria over economic issues.
Concern over the fate of their relatives in Syria has led Israeli Druze to collect large quantities of food and supplies for the winter, in addition to cash contributions, in the hope that they can be sent to the Druze mountain region in Syria. The effort is also related to disagreements within the Druze community in Israel and is viewed by many as an attempt to embarrass the community’s spiritual leader in Israel, Sheikh Moafaq Tarif.
As Jack Khoury reported in Haaretz, last week Tarif went to Moscow, where he met with two senior members of the Russian Foreign Ministry. Another member of the Druze delegation was a former Israeli cabinet minister, Salah Tarif. The visit, which was known to the Israeli Foreign Ministry, was intended to influence the Assad regime via the Russians to restrain steps it has been taking against the Druze in Syria.
Sheikh Tarif had made two prior visits to Moscow, in 2018 and 2020, in connection with the situation of the Druze in Syria.
Here, the internal tensions within the Israeli Druze community become intertwined with the situation of the Druze in the Golan and in Syria, along with efforts at meddling from Syrian intelligence and the opposition to Assad and Hezbollah on the part of the Lebanese Druze leader, Walid Jumblatt. Hezbollah, for its part, has published several statements of condemnation against the Druze in Israel, attacking Tarif’s visit to Moscow as well as the effort to send in food and equipment.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz has received requests from Druze Knesset members to open the Quneitra border crossing between Israel and Syria to send in the shipments. However, the Israeli army and Shin Bet security agency have had reservations over the idea, in part also due to concern that the Syrians and Iranians would take advantage of the opening of the border to sow subversive activity among the Golan Heights Druze.
As it stands, there has been no progress on the shipment of the food and equipment. And beyond expressing its good will to Tarif, Moscow has not intervened in the matter. An Israeli security official expressed skepticism this week about whether the Assad regime would accede to pressure and agree to have the shipments sent to the Druze mountain area, and whether the supplies would actually reach their intended recipients.
“At most,” he quipped, “these shipments would improve the breakfast served to the officers of the 7th Division of the Syrian army, which is stationed in the south of the country.”