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Despite Netanyahu's Weekly Warnings on Iran, Syria Is More Imminent Danger

The IDF views Iran as a problem for the 'international community,' but worries that the Syrian Golan could became a new version of the Gaza Strip.

Aluf Benn
Aluf Benn
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Aluf Benn
Aluf Benn

“The collection of threats against Israel is greater than in the past,” said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday. But he quickly tried to instill calm: “The IDF and our security services are stronger than ever before.” Netanyahu releases a weekly warning about the nuclear threat from Iran, and quite often raises the matter in front of foreign leaders; and on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day he promised that Israel would not leave its fate in the hands of others − not even those of our best friends.

The memory of the Holocaust is no less important to Chief of Staff Benny Gantz than it is to Netanyahu, but things look a little bit different at the top echelons of the IDF than they do in the Prime Minister’s Office. Far-off Iran is viewed as a problem of the “international community” − in other words the United States. The dangers across the border seem much more concrete, with the threat of them blowing up in our faces much more imminent.

The main danger is brewing in Syria, where the 40 years of quiet that began in the wake of the Yom Kippur War have come to an end. Bashar Assad is still in his palace, but the post-Assad era has already started. The army has deteriorated to the status of the leading militia among a whole array of forces fighting over the future of Syria. No one knows if it will survive as a single country or disintegrate into tribal enclaves. No one knows how long the interim period and internal struggle will last.

The worrisome scenario in the north is that after Assad is gone Israel will be attacked, and the Syrian Golan will turn into a new version of the Gaza Strip, with southern Lebanon serving as a base for launching rockets and missiles. This is what is concerning the IDF’s top brass. Assad’s control of the Golan is disintegrating as his forces are being drawn into the decisive battles around Damascus and the fight for the city’s international airport. The shooting incidents from Syria into Israel over the past few weeks are just the opening scene in this threatening scenario.

What can Israel do? First, the country must internalize the fact that the separation of forces line on the Golan is no longer the quiet border we have known for the past four decades. This understanding has yet to trickle down into the public’s consciousness. Last year the military preparedness was strengthened along the border, reservists were replaced with regular troops, observation devices and barriers were upgraded with the help of the lessons learned from building the fences along the borders with Lebanon, Egypt and the West Bank. When the youngsters from the ultra-Orthodox cities of Bnei Brak, Modi’in Ilit and Elad are drafted in the spirit of “sharing the burden,” they will be designated for ongoing security operations along the borders.

The second level is political and diplomatic. Israel has reinforced its alliance with Jordan, whose own border with the Syrian Golan is much longer − and the flood of refugees from the north is worrying Amman’s leaders. King Abdullah, who has harshly attacked Netanyahu in the past, now describes him as someone who is contributing to stability. The meetings between the king and Netanyahu are still being held secretly, which the Jordanians justify because of the frozen negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Israel also apologized to Turkey over the Marvi Marmara affair, in which Israeli forces killed nine Turkish activists aboard the Gaza-bound flotilla. The two countries explained that the thawing in relations was due to their shared fears over the situation in Syria. But the apology has yet to be translated into practical steps of security cooperation.

The more daring step was making contact with the Syrian rebels in the hope of guaranteeing there will be someone to talk to in Syria after the fall of Assad, and to reduce the risk of a military entanglement. Israeli officials deny the claims published in the Arab media that Israel has provided the rebels with weapons.

But all these actions are not enough. Israel may find itself facing the same dilemma it has faced along the Gaza and Lebanese borders: How to achieve quiet and deterrence without invading and conquering territory across the border, and without allowing the situation to deteriorate into a broader conflict. The IDF has little desire to establish a “security zone” on the Syrian side of the Golan. The army prefers to find a local force that will impose quiet on the area and prevent the launching of rockets and missiles on Israeli territory. We can assume that this matter is at the heart of the discussion in the Israel-Jordan-U.S. triangle. It is clear that it will take a central place in the discussions of Netanyahu’s new cabinet.

Stray mortar shell lands in Israel's northern Golan Heights.Credit: Gil Eliyahu (Archive)
Smoke rises after shells fired by the Syrian army explode in the Syrian village of Bariqa, close to the cease-fire line between Israel and Syria, Nov. 12, 2012.Credit: AP

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