BEIRUT: Incremental Syrian rebel gains close to the Golan Heights are threatening to rupture nearly 40 years of quiet along the contested border with Israel, as analysts warned the fallout from Syria’s civil war could result in a regional conflagration.
And, as the situation deteriorates, experts told The Daily Star that Israel, fearing an increase in hostile Islamist rebels on its border, may be drawn into the conflict.
On Nov. 11 last year, Israel struck a Syrian government artillery launcher after a stray mortar shell landed inside Israeli-occupied territory, marking the first incident of retaliation by the Jewish state since the start of the civil war in Syria two years ago.
The frequency of tit-for-tat incidents has increased, culminating most recently last Tuesday in a mortar skimming an Israeli village, which was followed by a volley of rockets back across the border.
Jeffery White, senior defense fellow at the Washington Institute, told The Daily Star such attacks from Syria were “incidental” and not meant to target Israel directly.
He warned, however, that “if a mortar shell hits anything, say a jeep, an installation or any civilian activity, that is clearly a lot more serious and would probably merit a larger scale retaliation, which would include striking not just the precise source of fire but whichever units or areas more generally Israel felt were responsible.”
The risk of such escalation is compounded by Israeli concern over precisely who the Syrian opposition fighters are. Rebels battling Syrian President Bashar Assad have made significant gains in the areas near the Golan in recent months, aided by a steady flow of weapons from Jordan.
A disparate collection of opposition brigades have pushed government forces from several key towns and bases and, although they have yet to take the crucial town of Qunaitra, numerous smaller positions have fallen into rebel hands without much fanfare – leaving substantial strips of the Golan firmly in rebel hands, according to White.
“The situation is becoming much more ambiguous every day,” White said, adding that Israel was focusing on vigilance in the region.
“They have excellent intelligence. They have tremendous capacity from their position in the Golan Heights to see people and units moving around. They can tell the difference between rebels and governments forces, but what is more difficult is to distinguish between shabbiha, Popular Committees and rebels.”
Most alarmingly for Israel, White said, Islamist fighters are gaining ground amid the diverse rebel groups.
“They [Israel’s army] see the emergence of Islamist groups on the Golan front. The main attention of those groups is on the struggle against the regime of course, although they [the Israelis] recognize that eventually jihadists may turn their attention to struggle against Israel,” White said.
Last week, the chief of general staff of the Israel army, Lieutenant Benny Gantz, said: “We are seeing terror organizations gaining footholds increasingly in the territory. For now, they are fighting Assad. Guess what? We’re next in line.”
Analysts have speculated that Israel might provide a unifying enemy for a wide collection of opposition brigades.
Anthony Skinner, Middle East and North Africa chief at London-based Maplecroft risk analysis firm, told The Daily Star “although jihadists in an Al-Qaeda model have mainly proliferated near the Iraqi border, rebels can move fairly swiftly.”
“So there is a legitimate concern that a substantial number of jihadists are gathering around the Golan area and the Israeli border. It poses a very real threat. If you look at a history of Al-Qaeda, one of its clear aims has been to land Israel a significant blow.”
Such fears fold into Israel’s broader preoccupation with hostile enemies bent on its destruction.
Under the regime of Assad and his father Hafez, there was an unspoken agreement between Damascus and Tel Aviv that volatility in the Golan suited neither side.
“They were comfortable with dealing with Hafez Assad and his son. They understood how the regime worked, what the internal play within the regime was. There was an unspoken understanding – it was a stable relationship,” White said.
Israel regarded Assad as “the devil you know,” Skinner added.
With that status quo dashed, Israel’s fears of rebels manning the border were compounded by reports that government forces have largely pulled out of the Golan region in a bid to defend Assad’s stronghold in Damascus.
Israeli media said Monday that Syria’s general command was redeploying as many as 20,000 soldiers, the equivalent of two divisions, to ramp up security around the capital.
“It appears that the best equipped battalions have been withdrawn from the Golan and they have been replaced with a weaker contingent,” Skinner said.
Meanwhile, the United Nations force tasked with monitoring the border is also feeling increasingly threatened.
In March, a rebel group calling themselves the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade kidnapped 21 Filipinos serving with the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force. Although the peacekeepers were released after three days, there is speculation that the force is mulling a pullout from the plateau, with regional diplomats telling Reuters at the time “they had halted patrols in areas where the Filipinos were taken hostage.”
A complete pullout would leave a vacuum in the buffer zone that Israeli and rebel forces might try to fill, thus dragging Israel further into a daily cycle of tit-for-tat violence.
“Their withdrawal would make the area a lot more volatile. UNDOF is essential, without them events could escalate quickly. So the situation would have to be very serious for them to withdraw completely. However, the [contingent of] Croatians have withdrawn, the Austrians – who constitute about a third of the force – are still there, but they are leaving options on the table and that includes withdrawal. So this is a major area of concern for all parties,” Skinner said.
Against the backdrop of increased tensions, it may appear surprising that Israel has chosen to award contracts for oil and gas exploration in the Golan region. In February, American-run Genie Oil and Gas won the right to conduct a comprehensive exploration program in the Golan to assess if the findings were commercially viable.
Mona Sukkarieh, co-founder of Middle East Strategic Perspectives, told The Daily Star that the decision to issue the contract was Tel Aviv’s attempt to take advantage of the security vacuum in Syria.
“The timing of the Israeli decision is directly related to the events in Syria. The Israelis are used to establishing facts on the ground. The Syrians, into their [third year of] conflict, are too overwhelmed to respond to the Israelis, beyond issuing condemnations, which explains why the Israelis believed the time is appropriate to create facts on the ground.”
“Especially [considering], from an Israeli perspective, the Syrian state might not survive the crisis unharmed.”