Analysis |

Assad Returns to Israeli-Syria Border. The Big Question Is Who's Coming With Him

'It's like Stalingrad,' Israeli officers say about the fighting in southern Syria

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Syrian families return to their homes in towns and villages situated on the southern outskirts of Daraa on June 6, 2018.
Syrian families return to their homes in towns and villages situated on the southern outskirts of Daraa on June 6, 2018.Credit: AFP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

> Next Stop for Assad: The Golan Heights

The pictures of Syrian President Bashar Assad have still not yet returned to the walls of the restaurants in the Druze villages on the Golan Heights, but it seems that it is only a matter of time. Southern Syria is preparing for the return of the murderous regime that has massacred more of its citizens than any other dictatorship, so far, in the 21st century.

Israel, more or less, has also gotten used to the idea of the expected result: The reestablishment of control by Assad’s forces over the entire region along the border with Israel. “The story is over,” a senior defense official told Haaretz. The IDF’s Northern Command estimates the final push will take a few weeks, once the order is given.

The IDF’s deployment and preparations along the Syrian border focus on very specific things: reinforcing armored and artillery units, providing aid to the refugees fleeing to the border region from the horror of the regime’s bombing in the Daraa Province, and a high level of readiness for medical teams in case it becomes necessary to treat very large numbers of wounded.

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Supporters of Lebanon's Hezbollah carry flags and pictures of Syria's President Bashar Assad in southern Lebanon June 8, 2018Credit: \ AZIZ TAHER/ REUTERS

But all these steps are carefully coordinated with the red lines set by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Israel will prevent any spillover of fire into its territory and will respond with force if the Syrian army violates the Disengagement Agreement with Syria from 1974, which officially ended the Yom Kippur War. Israel does not intend on defending the villages of the Sunni rebels near the border, despite the great help it provided them in recent years – and which, according to foreign media reports, included weapons and ammunition.

The regime’s attacks around Daraa, almost 60 kilometers east of the Israeli border on the Golan, began with a force that even surprised the IDF a bit. Because Assad is dependent on Russian air support, it was thought that Russian President Vladimir Putin would not want the pictures of dead Syrian children ruining the public relations success of his country’s hosting of the World Cup soccer tournament.

But it turned out that the World Cup will not save the residents of Daraa. The artillery shelling and a few aerial bombardments led to a mass flight of tens of thousands of refugees from the villages and towns north and east of Daraa. The Syrian regime has already begun releasing video clips in which tanks can be seen rumbling down the abandoned streets.

The combined forces of Syrian army troops, local Shi’ite militias and imported militias are continually conquering towns around the city. Daraa itself is split in half, as the IDF noted this week: “A bit like Stalingrad in World War II – Assad in one part, the northern part, the rebels in the other part, the southern half, and in the middle a river separates them.”

Too late now

On orders from above, the troops of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and foreign Shi’ite militias are integrating into the forces of the Syrian army and have begun wearing its uniforms. The attack on Daraa is commanded by Syrian Brig. Gen. Suheil al-Hassan, nicknamed “The Tiger,” who already displayed his murderous abilities in earlier campaigns.

Gossip in Syria says that Hassan’s growing popularity has very much begun to bother Assad himself. The bombing and shelling have been accompanied by negotiations with Russian and Syrian generals over the terms of the rebels’ surrender, which are being held at the same time with the heads of the rebel villages.

A village that pledges anew its allegiance to Assad lays down its weapons, and the men from the village enlist in the army they have been fighting against for years. Those who refuse are transferred with their agreement on buses to the only other major area the rebels still control, near the city of Idlib in northern Syria. So far the military resistance is tiny, in Syrian terms. House-to-house fighting has not happened.

The IDF’s Northern Command is of the opinion that if the Assad regime increases the pace of its attack, after the World Cup in Russia ends on July 15, it will be able to return and conquer all of southern Syria within a few weeks. Daraa is the main target and along with it the nearby border crossing with Jordan.

After Daraa, Assad will have to decide whether to attack the ISIS branch in control of the area of the triple border point between Israel, Jordan and Syria. Some 80,000 civilians live in the area under the iron fist of about 1,000 to 2,000 ISIS fighters, who enforce the laws of the fanatic Islamist group.

Another possibility is for the regime to change its schedule and move up the takeover of the rebel areas on the Syrian side of the central Golan Heights, including a series of towns only 20 kilometers from the border with Israel. Their occupation would also bring about the fall of other villages right on the border because these towns rely for their daily supplies on the larger towns farther from the border.

Israel is less worried about the Assad regime and more about what will come afterward. IDF officers asked about it this week responded candidly: Assad is a vile murderer, but his regime is looking for stability and not a confrontation with Israel – and is aware of the balance of power between the two countries. Between 1974, the year in which the present commander of the IDF division on the Golan, Brig. Gen. Amit Fisher, was born in Kibbutz Merom Golan on the Golan Heights, and 2013, when the Assad government lost its control over southern Syria, the Golan was Israel’s quietest front.

Assad’s army will return to the Syrian Golan Heights and reestablish its bases and outposts there. If Israel had the opportunity to intervene and reduce the slaughter of Syrian civilians, it disappeared years ago – and in any case no public support existed at the time in Israel to risk the lives of its soldiers for this purpose. Now it is too late anyway.

Telling everyone what they want to hear

The main question will be: Who else will come to the Golan along with the Assad regime? Over the past few months, a growing presence by Hezbollah has been identified in observation posts not far from the border. Some of these were bombed by the Air Force on May 10, the most recent round of fighting against Iran in Syria. It is unlikely that the Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah will pass on the temptation to draw closer to the border with Israel after the recapture of the Syrian Golan.

For now, the refugees are gathering in the area of the demilitarized zone along the Syrian side near the border. Near the village of Rafid, across from Tel Fares in the southern Golan, 5,000 new refugees had arrived from the Daraa area by the middle of the week. Israel provided them with 12-person army tents, the type most Israelis used to know very well from their basic training.

International aid organizations provided smaller tents, but these tend to collapse in the strong winds. The IDF is trying to enlist larger aid groups, including the United Nations and the Red Cross, to provide more extensive help, but bureaucratic problems still exist. For example, the Red Cross can only work with the approval of the government in Syria, and of course Assad has no interest in providing any help to refugees from rebel areas. In comparison, the Israeli response is quite impressive: The Golan Regional Council is organizing donations from Israeli communities, while families are buying food baskets for their neighbors across the border.

A hungry and wounded Syrian child will always remember that Israel provided him with help, even though in the Syrian schools he and his parents were taught that their neighbor to the west was the source of all evil. The question is whether this policy will withstand its big test of fire that is coming soon. “Here you fill a bucket for years and then kick it over in a second,” explained an IDF officer this week – remembering the abandonment of the South Lebanon Army, the militia friendly to Israel headed by Maj. Saad Haddad, when Israel withdrew suddenly from southern Lebanon in May 2000.

On July 16, the day after the World Cup final in Moscow, Putin will meet with U.S. President Donald Trump in Helsinki, Finland, where . Syria will be one of the topics. Senior Israeli and American officials have expressed hope recently that as a result of the Putin-Trump summit it will be possible to reach arrangements in southern Syria, and Russia will keep its promises to keep the Iranians and their Shi’ite militias away from the border with Israel on the Golan Heights.

It is still not yet clear whether this optimism has any basis in reality. The Russians are talking to all the sides and it seems they are telling each of them what they want to hear.

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