GOLAN HEIGHTS – Amid all the surreal talk of “Pakistani gentlemen,” “Hillary’s servers,” and “witch-hunts” earlier this week in Helsinki, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin did both address one concrete policy issue: Syria, and in particular, a possible looming confrontation on the Israeli-Syrian border.
The Syrian civil war may be reaching its wretched denouement, but concern in Israel is only increasing as the Syrian regime and its allies – Iran, the Lebanese Hezbollah militia, along with other Iranian proxies – draw ever closer.
Even before Trump’s show in Helsinki, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traveled to Moscow last week to meet with Putin, the third such summit in the last six months. There was only one real agenda item: Syria. Adding greater urgency to the proceedings, at the exact same time, a Syrian military drone was shot down over northern Israel (with another fired at days later), drawing reprisal strikes by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) against Syrian army targets.
This latest phase of the Syrian war began last month, with the Syrian regime offensive against one of the last bastions of the rebellion, the southern province of Daraa. With Russian jets bombing from the air and Iran and its proxies fighting on the ground, rebel villages fell in quick succession – often through negotiated capitulations – culminating in the capture of Daraa city, the birthplace of the uprising. Tens of thousands of civilians have fled for the relative safety of either the Israeli or Jordanian borders.
In the last few days Bashar Assad and his allies have moved on Quneitra province, adjacent to the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. As Ron Ben Yishai, a veteran Israeli military correspondent, recently put it, “The Syrian [side of the] Golan will now almost certainly fall – like a ripe fruit – to the Assad regime.”
Once the decision is made, Israeli analysts contend, the Syrian regime could take back the region in short order.
When I stood on the border line last week with a senior IDF officer responsible for the Golan, the overriding message was one of readiness coupled with uncertainty. “What was happening here in previous months isn’t what it’ll be tomorrow,” the officer, Lt. Col. Itzik Alfasi, told me. “The window is closing – with an agreement or not, the area will go back to the regime.” Despite Israeli wishes, that likely won’t mean a return to the status quo from before the Syrian war.
The IDF, for its part, has reinforced the Golan division with additional heavy firepower – armor and artillery – and is prepared to uphold the two red lines the government has set: no Iranian or Hezbollah military entrenchment (either in the region or the entirety of Syria), and upholding an old Israel-Syria ceasefire agreement from 1974.
The first red line is already, apparently, being crossed. In the Syrian Golan itself, Alfasi told me, the “Iranian-led axis,” as it’s referred to here, is attempting to set up sleeper cells, with an eye to turning Syria into another front against the Jewish state.
Commenting on the “terrorist infrastructure” being laid at its doorstep, Israel’s defense minister.i Avigdor Lieberman,said on a recent visit to the Golan: “We are determined to not allow that. Period…Everyone will take responsibility, everyone will pay the price, including the [Assad] regime.”
Israel has for years targeted Iranian and Hezbollah assets inside Syria from the air, in an increasingly visible shadow war that has escalated since the start of this year. One such strike attributed to Israel hit the T-4 airbase in northern Syria last week – it was at least the fourth time in as many months that the base, known to be a staging ground for Iranian forces, was struck. Three days ago, another Syrian military base was also hit from the air, reportedly drawing casualties at an Iranian logistics facility.
With respect to the second red line – the 1974 ceasefire deal, officially known as the Separation of Forces Agreement – this is where the abstract concepts discussed in Helsinki crash against the reality on the ground. The agreement, brokered by Henry Kissinger in his day, helped keep the Israel-Syria frontier quiet for nearly four decades; it was, indeed, Israel’s most stable border until the eruption of the Syrian civil war in 2011.
The agreement established a sliver of a demilitarized zone all down the Golan Heights – from the peaks of Mount Hermon to the plains where Israel, Syria and Jordan meet. An “alpha line” to the west and a “bravo line” to the east marked the limits that Israeli and Syrian military forces could reach, and in the middle a United Nations deployment – UNDOF (UN Disengagement Observer Force) – made sure both sides were holding true to the deal. In practical terms, the demilitarized zone was Syrian-administered, which in peacetime was fine. In recent years, however, various rebel factions took over the region, driving out the regime.
One such rebel-held settlement, Breiqa, has expanded rapidly over the past month. Looking down on it from an abandoned IDF bunker on the border, we could see tents and other temporary structures erected right up to the international ceasefire line with Israel (“alpha line”) – that is, deep inside the demilitarized zone. According to one source in the camp who spoke to The Daily Beast this week, approximately 10,000 internally displaced Syrians, many from Daraa, had been drawn here due to its relative safety, although official numbers provided by the U.N.’s Relief Web put the figure at over 20,000 people.
Breiqa was only one of over a dozen such encampments in the region, which in total have absorbed nearly 250,000 internally displaced Syrians. There was much to recommend Breiqa. A glimmering water reservoir was located on its southern flank, which itself sat in the shadow of a strategic hilltop IDF outpost (across the heavily fortified border fence but still in Israel’s jurisdiction). More to the point, Israel was still providing humanitarian aid to Syrians across the border, as part of the IDF’s “Good Neighbor” policy.
Begun in mid-2016, the “Good Neighbor” unit run out of the IDF’s Golan division has conducted over 700 operations, moving everything from food, clothing, baby diapers, and fuel into Syria, and wounded Syrians – including, allegedly, rebel fighters – into Israel for medical care. A health clinic run by an American NGO was also established across the border fence, with the IDF guaranteeing its security (the clinic as of this writing is still in operation).
According to various foreign press reports, Israel has even provided rebel groups with weapons and money (a claim the IDF denies). As the commander of the Good Neighbor operation told me late last year, there was a moral imperative to provide aid to these people caught up in a vicious civil war, as well as a security rationale, playing for the “hearts and minds” of what had been an enemy population. “If we weren’t doing this, someone else would be,” Lt. Col. E (as he’s identified per Israeli military guidelines) said then, alluding to the yellow and green flag of Hezbollah. “There’s no such thing as a vacuum in this region.”
And in fact, Israel in recent weeks has increased the amount of aid, as the nearby rebel villages have been cut off from their other economic lifelines in southern Syria. Nevertheless, “Israel would not intervene in the Syrian civil war – not for either side,” E told me earlier this month, “and the rebels know this.” Short shrift for the desperate Syrian opposition, but also an untested proposition.
In the distance due east from Breiqa, seven kilometers away, the imposing Tel Hara peak rises up from the dark brown Golan plains like something out of a Tolkien novel. Tel Hara fell to Assad-backed forces mere days ago, and is one of several regime-held pockets closing in on the rebels. Every so often, regime forces and rebels exchange stand-off fire from mortars, artillery pieces and tanks held by both sides. Every so often, errant regime shells cross the border into Israel, drawing reprisal fire from the IDF. And therein lies the rub.
“It’s not a coincidence that Assad and Iran left this area for last,” Alfasi told me. “It’s sensitive, and they know they can’t easily take it by force” because of the 1974 agreement. The Israeli government has clung desperately to the terms of the deal, with Netanyahu and other officials now raising it at every turn. The phrase “buffer zone” has even been floated – if not with respect to the Syrian rebels per se (as a proxy force) then the territory itself.
“In our view, any Syrian soldier who finds himself in the buffer zone is endangering his life,” Lieberman stated flatly.
The strategic contradictions are obvious. Bereft of their favored tactics – indiscriminate aerial bombardment, siege methods, chemical weapons – how will Assad and his Iranian and Russian partners force the rebels to submit and ultimately retake the region (especially if Israel continues to supply aid)?
And how can Israel favor a return of Assad to its border – which it does – while knowing full well that the Syrian army is backed to the hilt by Iran and its militias?
Indeed, as Phillip Smyth and Hanin Ghaddar of the Washington Institute have shown, Iranian-backed Shia militias simply switch uniforms, thus integrating into Assad’s formal military.
According to Aymmen Jawad al-Tamimi, an analyst of the Syrian war, perhaps as many as 80 percent of the forces fighting on behalf of the Syrian government are Iranian-backed. Hezbollah officers are even helping command the southern offensive, “a fundamental participant in planning and directing [the] battle,” according to one pro-Assad official quoted by Reuters.
“Hezbollah isn’t just a puppet of the regime,” Alfasi told me. “They have their own interests and don’t just do Assad’s bidding.”
On the Golan, the IDF waits and prepares for the enemy’s move, while Netanyahu flies to Moscow looking for Putin to broker a deal that will remove Iran from Syria and Trump banks on Putin to “create safety for Israel.” No one is quite sure whether Putin even has the power to enforce such an arrangement, even if he were so inclined. Iran and its proxies, after investing so much in the Syrian charnel house, are unlikely simply to pack up and leave.
With regime airstrikes and shelling reaching outlying parts of Quneitra province, Syrians housed in the Breiqa camp are growing nervous. On Tuesday, for the first time, hundreds marched on the border fence, demanding Israeli protection. As one opposition activist in the camp told The Daily Beast, “If the regime does invade the buffer zone, then we will cut the fence and cross into Israel.” It’s a nightmare scenario for the IDF, and “not imaginary,” as Alfasi told me: tens of thousands of desperate civilians seeking sanctuary. Israel has made it clear, however, that it won’t allow such a mass breach.
The Syrian civil war may be coming to a close, but for Israel, things are likely only getting started.