For more than four decades—since the disengagement of forces following the 1973 Yom Kippur War—the Syrian border was unquestionably the quietest of Israel's frontiers. Despite its periodic saber rattling, rejectionism, pan-Arabism and support for Palestinian terrorist organizations, the Assad dynasty—Hafez and then son Bashar—strived to keep Syria out of direct military confrontation with Israel—particularly after the trouncing of the Syrian air force during the 1982 First Lebanon War. Contrasted with the recurring rocket fire, snipings, kidnappings and outright wars that remain the norm along the Israel-Lebanese border—first with Palestinian terrorist organizations and then with Iran-back Hezbollah—the Israeli Golan was the epitome of pastoral tranquility, Israel's veritable Switzerland, with the Israel Defense Forces’s (IDF's) eavesdropping devices on the winter-snowcapped Hermon Mountain keeping watchful eye as far as Damascus and its environs.
As 2016 commences, this long-enduring serenity is being threatened by Iranian intensions to take advantage of the presence of its proxy for foreign adventurism and terrorism—Hezbollah—in Syria to shore up Bashir Assad against Daesh (the Islamic State), to ignite the Israel-Syria border too.
The Iranians are striving to use Hezbollah to bring about the collapse of the two main principals that have guided Israeli policy since the beginning of the civil war in Syria: 1) That it will not allow weapons that could tip the strategic balance in the area to be shipped into its fronts with Syria or Lebanon. To this end, Israel reportedly launched 10 air attacks between January 2013 and October 2015 against convoys in Syria and even as far as Somalia carrying weapons to Hezbollah; and 2) To prevent the Syrian Golan from becoming a zone for launching offensive operations against Israel, as is the Lebanese border already. This, ostensibly, was behind the elimination of the Lebanese Druze Hezbollah terrorist Samir Kuntar, reportedly by Israeli Air Force jets that attacked a building in Damascus from Israeli airspace on Dec. 15, killing Kuntar and eight others including Farhan Essam Shaalan, a senior commander in the Syrian anti-Israel resistance militia.
Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah has vowed to avenge Kuntar's death, putting the IDF on high alert along the Lebanese border. Kuntar already had a record of terror, having kidnapped and murdered the policeman Eliyahu Shahar and the Haran family in 1979, which earned him notoriety as one of the most ruthless terrorists in Israel’s history. Since being released from an Israeli prison in 2008 in an exchange with Hezbollah for the bodies of two Israeli soldiers, Kuntar had been at the forefront of efforts to establish a Hezbollah clone in the Syrian Golan. Iran's attempt to ignite the Syria-Israel border will probably slowdown in Kuntar's absence, but experts expected that it will remain a strategic goal of the Iranian regime.
The limited scope of Israel’s offensive posture in Syria to weapons transfers and terror infrastructure directed against Israel, has led it to a hands-off policy regarding the much broader issue of the dissolution of the Syrian state and the ascendance of numerous other players, international, national and local, in the Syrian arena since the start of the civil war in March 2011.
Speaking recently to Makor Rishon, Gen. (res.) Amos Gilad, the long-serving director of Policy and Political-Military at Israel's Ministry of Defense, reiterated this position in referring to the tragedy in Syria and its possible spill-over into the Golan Heights: "There is no such thing today as Syria. A human tragedy of major proportions is taking place there. Hundreds of thousands of dead, millions of refugees, fine cities with tremendous historical significance destroyed. Bashar Assad controls only a quarter of Syria and he is completely dependent on Iran and Hezbollah. At this juncture the only exit from the war is political, as was seen in the talks in Vienna. Some say that if Assad is out an arrangement could be found, but the truth is that there are not a lot of people jumping for the job of President of Syria. There are no quick resolutions, everything is complicated. Syrian is erupting lava, with partition on the horizon."
In a new paper entitled “Syria: New Map, New Actors Challenges and Opportunities for Israel” published (in Hebrew) this month by Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, Brig. Gen. (res.) Udi Dekel, former head of Strategic Planning in the IDF’s General Staff and researchers Nir Boms and Ofir Winter argue that, considering the multitude of state and non-state actors (estimated at 1,500 groups of widely varying political leanings, according to a February 2014 estimate by James R. Clapper, U.S. director of National Intelligence), now vying for territory and power in what was once Syria, it is time for Israel to abandon this no-interference policy and to actively engage ‘positive’ local and foreign elements with which it has common interests.
These players impact on the current reality in Syria and are expected to play a significant role in the stabilization and redesign of the Syrian space if the Assad regime falls or if the current entity still known as Syria breaks up into Alawite, Kurdish, Druse and Sunni enclaves. The writers argue that Israel should consider adopting a more robust policy, in coordination and partnership with positive elements in the Syrian arena that will promote both its long and short term goals.
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Identifying such extant elements, the writers contend that “This policy will be part of a broad strategy that will allow Israel to build more effective leverage on the Syrian arena, create a region of influence in southern Syria (including the Syrian Golan – A.S.) and to promote its vital tactical and strategic interests – first and foremost keeping the peace on the Golan Heights and preventing ‘negative’ forces from becoming entrenched on the Syrian side…At this juncture, Israel should engage in deep consideration about the impact of changes in Syrian and the danger that pro-Iranian or Salafist-Jihadist elements will feed into southern Syria, the only area free from their overbearing sway, and to consider the possibility of establishing an area of influence in the arena adjacent to the border in cooperation with relevant Syrian, regional and international players...Despite their relative military weakness and the limited influence in the current reality, the ‘positive’ players represent the ‘silent majority’ in the Syrian people that despises both the Assad regime and the Jihadist forces, and are interested in the end of the war, rehabilitation of the country and the creation of a new political reality that will afford the citizens of Syria stability, security and prosperity after years of displacement, destruction and pain. The significant presence of relatively moderate and pragmatic elements in southern Syria in general and near the border with Israel in particular, makes the question of cooperation with them significant and concrete due to the immediate and future impact of Israel’s actions (and its inaction) on the security situation in the Israeli Golan Heights.”
The imperative for Israel to review its policy vis-à-vis southern Syria now is reinforced by research published by the Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point that found that Islamic State is currently looking to build on what it has already accomplished since it restarted in southern push a year ago.
Another new element in the region is Russia's direct intervention on behalf of Assad with the deployment of fighters to the Syrian airbase in Lattakia on Sept. 30, that by now have flown hundreds of missions against Syrian rebels and ISIS. The Russian deployment ostensibly came in response to an appeal by Assad for help and to hit radical Islamist terrorists so it does not permeate and reach Russian territory.
Some believe, though, that these have provided Russia with the opportunity to once again stake a claim in the region it had left to the Americans in 1973. Ironically, the downing of the Russian jet fighter by Turkey has provided Russia with justification for introducing into the battlefield their most advanced anti-aircraft systems—the
S-300 and S-400—that Israel had successfully blocked from going to Iran for years.
Now these systems are on our doorstep. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had the prescience to visit Moscow just 10 days before the Russian deployment in Syria and to conclude with Russian president Vladimir Putin parameters for the IAF’s freedom of action. Israeli Russian expert Yasha Kedmi, head of "Nativ,” Israel's outreach organ to Russian Jewry, has said that Putin's intervention in Syria is much more global than the conflict in Syria. "The conflict there is merely a demonstration of the huge military moves that Russia has made in recent years," he told Israel Defense in late November. "They reached an assessment that in the current reality, the American will accept any solution the Russians impose on Syria," Kedmi said. Former head of IDF Intelligence Gen. (res.) Amos Yadlin has clarified that while the rationale of the Russian move, its strategic objective, scope and duration are not yet sufficiently clear, “it is obvious that the move places Israel in a new reality that requires reconsideration of the ways to confront the challenge and opportunities brought on by the new reality.
Yadlin says that the real threat of the Russian gambit in Syria for Israel is that Hezbollah could be strengthened should Russian arms trickle into its arsenals or be intentionally supplied to the organization. Furthermore, if Assad survives, Russia’s involvement is liable to provide a seal of approval for Iranian activity in Syria in years to come, as well as or Hezbollah forces armed with the best of Russian’s weapons on Syrian soil, Yadlin warns.
Despite this, Israel has avoided making moves that could have contributed to the efforts to topple Assad and thus undermine Iran and Hezbollah presence in Syria. He concludes that in the case of failure in moving the Western coalition into concurrent action against Assad and ISIS, “Israel should strive to realize…an Assad-free Syria as an arrangement reached in partnership with Russia. In any case, Israel must gear up for active efforts to topple Assad, based on the understanding that beyond the moral imperative, Assad’s ouster will lead to a strategic loss for Iran and Hezbollah in the bleeding Syrian state.”
As 2015 drew to a close, Israelis received a chilling reminder that although they had largely been spared ISIS-inspired violence until now, they were my no means off the Caliphate’s radar. In a new audio statement released last Saturday and attributed to the Islamic State leader al-Baghdadi, he warns that "ISIS will soon be heard in Palestine. The Jews thought that we forgot to Palestine and that they had diverted our attention from it. Not at all, Jews. We have not forgotten Palestine. Allah will not forget it. Soon soon, with Allah: Listen to the boiling emotions of jihad fighters. We will soon meet in Palestine. Israel will pay a heavy price. Palestine will not be your land or your home, but for you it will be a graveyard. Allah has gathered you in Palestine so that the Muslims may kill you. The leaders of the jihad fighters will surround you on a day you think is far, but we see it as close. We are coming closer to you day by day,” Al Baghdadi vowed.
Although this is not the first threat against Israel from the militant group, it is the most specific regarding ISIS plans to attack Israel military. Analysts believe that while its assets in the Sinai might be in easier striking range against Israel in order to put this threat into effect, it is not impossible that the Syrian Golan will be al-Baghdadi’s preferred staging area for an attack.
According to reports that appeared at the end of the year, the ISIS-affiliated Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade is operating in the border area and although it is relatively small, with 600 fighters, the group controls a significant 15-kilometer stretch of border with Israel and some 40,000 civilian residents (out of the 750,000 residents of the Syrian Golan). Like other terrorist organizations operating in the area, such as the far larger Jabhat al-Nusra, Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade, conquered posts abandoned by the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force and has been using them as bases for numerous types of weapons, most of them captured from the Syrian army, including light guns, heavy machine guns mounted on trucks, anti-tank missiles and even a few tanks and Armored Personnel Carriers.
With all this in mind, 2016 will undoubtedly be a pivotal year for Israel’s relationship with all the actors in the Syrian catastrophe—from the great powers to local militias—and the government will be called upon to utilize all of its assets—intelligence and analysis alongside overt and covert hard power—in order to steer Israel through this complex matrix.
Alan Schneider is the director of B’nai B’rith World Center in Jerusalem, which serves as the hub of B'nai B'rith International activities in Israel. The World Center is the key link between Israel and B'nai B'rith members and supporters around the world. To view some of his additional content, Click Here.
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