Three years into Syrian civil war, neighboring Israel faces familiar and emerging threats

Click photo to download. Caption: On August 21, 2012, Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz visits the Golani Battalion exercise in the Golan Heights. Last month, the IDF announced that it was deploying a new division to the Syrian border in the Golan Heights to maintain “operational readiness,” Gantz said. Credit: Ori Shifrin, IDF Spokesperson's Unit.

By Sean Savage/JNS.org

March 15 marked the third anniversary of the beginning of unrest that led to the ongoing Syrian civil war. As the conflict drags on into its fourth year with no end in sight, Israel—which shares a contentious United Nations-patrolled border with Syria in the Golan Heights region—finds itself in a precarious situation due to new threats such as al-Qaeda-affiliated rebel terror groups, as well as old foes like Hezbollah, Iran, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

“None of the sides are capable of a decisive victory to end the war and rule over the entire country,” Amos Yadlin, a retired Israeli Air Force general and former head of the Israel Defense Forces Military Intelligence Directorate, told JNS.org. “It has been a moral disaster.”

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the conflict has resulted in more than 146,000 deaths, while more than 2.5 million Syrians have fled abroad and another 6.5 million have been internally displaced, resulting in the worst humanitarian disaster of the early 21st century. 

Despite the massive humanitarian toll and the use of chemical weapons against his own people, over the last year Assad has seen his fortunes improve as Western and Arab countries have been unwilling to directly intervene in the conflict or to successfully end the conflict diplomatically.

Click photo to download. Caption: On Sept. 6, 2011, IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz visits a company and battalion commander course exercise in the Golan Heights. Last month, the IDF announced that it was deploying a new division to the Syrian border in the Golan Heights to maintain “operational readiness,” Gantz said. Credit: Ori Shifrin, IDF Spokesperson's Unit.

Lebanese-born Middle East analyst Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, blamed U.S. President Barack Obama for indirectly strengthening Assad’s position with his handling of the chemical weapons situation last fall.

“The Obama administration, by brokering this chemical weapons deal, has strengthened Assad’s position,” Badran said. “Because Assad now understands there is not going to be any threat of direct involvement of outside powers against him. It also validated him as a partner and gave him free reign to pursue all avenues of destruction up to weapons of mass destruction.”

“The direct threat to Assad that existed a year ago, thanks to the Obama administration policy, it has been taken off the table for now,” he said.

Despite the massive civil war raging to its north, Israel has maintained a strict policy of neutrality in the conflict, not wishing to be drawn in like it was during the 15-year Lebanese Civil War in the 1970s and 1980s.

Nevertheless, Israel has shown it is willing to become involved on a limited scale when its direct interests are threatened, such as when its has reportedly launched airstrikes against advanced weapons convoys destined for the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah.

“The way Israel has been involved in Syria up until now has been exclusively through the Iranian angle, specifically to the procurement and transmission of strategic weapons systems [from the Syrian government to Hezbollah],” said Badran.

But as the Syrian civil war has dragged on, al-Qaeda-affiliated terror groups have become increasingly dominant within the rebel ranks, worrying Western and Israeli officials. The two main groups, Jabhat al-Nusra and its main competitor, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, have displaced the relatively moderate and secular Free Syrian Army as the main rebel group fighting the Syrian government.

Despite these concerns, southern Syria, even with the losses by the Syrian government, has not seen a large influx of jihadist fighters that has affected northern Syria.

“The only group in the south that might become a problem is the Jabhat al-Nusra, which has a limited presence in the area. However, the makeup of the groups down there is mostly locally-oriented tribal groups that have ties with Jordanian and Israeli intelligence,” Badran explained.

Yadlin echoed Badran’s assessment, arguing that he does not yet consider the jihadists groups to be a serious problem for Israel.

“I don’t belong to the group that believes that the terrorist threat in Syria is very serious at this time. While it does pose a problem [for Israel], Israel knows how to handle terrorists, especially when it is coming from a well-defined border such as the Golan Heights,” said Yadlin, head of the Tel Aviv University-affiliated Institute for National Security Studies.

Last month the IDF announced that it was deploying a new division to the Syrian border in the Golan Heights to maintain “operational readiness,” according to IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz.

The newly created 210th Regional Bashan Division replaces the 36th Armor Division, which had patrolled the Syrian border for nearly 40 years and was designed to fight conventional military threats such as a Syrian land invasion.

But with the Syrian military severely weakened by the civil war and the loss of control of large swaths of southern Syria, the threat of a conventional ground war—as seen in previous conflicts such as the 1973 Yom Kippur War—has severely diminished, forcing Israeli military planners to recalculate the emerging threats in the region, such as terror groups like Jabhat al-Nusra.

Gantz said the restructuring of military forces in the Golan Heights is part of a shift towards providing a faster response from “air, sea, and ground threats to Israel’s security.” Yadlin told JNS.org that Israeli military officials are on top of the ongoing changes in the area and are preparing the IDF to meet these emerging challenges.

“Israel has a topographical advantage there [in the Golan Heights], very good intelligence and new highly trained military support in the area,” Yadlin said.

While jihadist groups have seen their fortunes rise amid the chaos in Syria, the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah, who has joined the war to support its long-time patron Bashar al-Assad, has seen high casualty rates and shrinking support in the Arab world due to its participation.

“No doubt that Hezbollah has suffered a number of setbacks, not only on the military side, but also on the political and moral side,” said Yadlin.

He added, “Hezbollah used to be the hero of the Arab street, an organization that fought with Israel successfully and defended Lebanon. Now everybody sees that they are a proxy of Iran and partners with Assad, who is butchering his own people. Their prestige in the Arab street is very similar now to a criminal gang.”

Hezbollah has been mainly been involved in Syria on two fronts—defending Shi’a populations along the Syrian-Lebanese border, and defending the Sayyida Zeinab shrine near Damascus. The shrine is the traditional burial place of the Prophet Mohammed’s daughter and is highly sacred for Shi’a Muslims.

Additionally, Hezbollah has been involved in recent heavy fighting against the al-Qaeda-affiliated rebels groups in the Qalamoun region along the Lebanese border. According to Lebanon’s Daily Star newspaper, Hezbollah has lost nearly 500 fighters in the civil war so far, including more than a dozen in the recent fighting in Qalamoun.

The Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Badran explained that Hezbollah is feeling pressure in a number of areas besides the high casualty rates. Badran told JNS.org that Hezbollah is facing domestic pressure from the Sunni opposition in Lebanon that has been bolstered by the influx of Sunni refugees from Syria, domestic attacks such as a January car bombing in south Beirut, and economic pressure from its base support of Shi’a Muslims who are fleeing to other areas from south Beirut.

Nevertheless, despite the setbacks for Hezbollah and the growing jihadist threat, Badran argued that Hezbollah and Iran are still the top enemies for Israel.

“The Iranians are a state, a state on the threshold of a nuclear program, with vast resources. [Meanwhile] the Sunni jihadi movement doesn’t have a state anywhere near the capabilities of Iran that is supporting them,” he said.

Badran added that the only way to truly weaken Hezbollah and Iran is to remove Assad from power.

“The only way you can truly weaken Hezbollah as well as Iran is to get rid of Assad. If you get sidetracked by focusing on the Sunni Jihadist threat, and look at ways to cooperate with Assad to attack them, then you have completely conceded the strategic advantage to the Iranians,” he said.

With hundreds of thousands dead and millions fleeing, the Syrian civil war has become one of the most pressing humanitarian disasters of the early 21st century. Yadlin said, “It is an unacceptable fact that in the 21st century, 20 years after Rwanda and Serbia, that we have something very similar to a genocide once again. The world is basically doing nothing.”

But from a strictly military point of view, he said, Israel “in a way finds itself strategically benefitting from the situation in Syria, even though morally we are very unhappy to see it.”

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Posted on March 17, 2014 and filed under Israel, News, Features.