(September 8, 2016 / JNS) Well into its fifth year, the Syrian civil war continues to show no signs of dissipating. While the conflict has drawn in a number of regional and global powers including the U.S., Russia, Turkey and Iran, Israel has largely remained on the sidelines. Yet for the Jewish state, the conflict does have profound consequences, notably from the threat stemming from Iran and its Lebanese terror proxy Hezbollah.
Hezbollah is in the final stages of launching “large-scale” operations in the Quneitra in the Golan Heights region in southern Syria, a Sept. 5 report from the Iranian semi-official Fars News Agency shows.
“The Syrian army and Hezbollah fighters have been working on a joint plan to end militancy in Southern Syria, particularly near the Golan Heights,” the report states. “Hezbollah has deployed a large number of its forces at Quneitra passage which has connected the Syrian territories to the occupied Golan.”
David Daoud, research analyst at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD), told JNS.org the situation along the Golan Heights was “troubling.”
“Ostensibly, the Hezbollah operation is aimed at rooting out Sunni jihadists from the area bordering Quneitra,” Daoud said. “Assuming the operation succeeds, it’s unlikely Hezbollah and allied forces will simply withdraw from the area. They will take up new positions bordering Israel.”
The Golan Heights has long been a flashpoint within the larger Arab-Israeli conflict, owing to its geography sitting high above northern Israel.
After years of Syrian-sponsored terror attacks and threats to Israel’s north, Israel gained control of the Golan Heights during the 1967 Six-Day War. After Israel briefly lost the territory during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Israel and Syria established a United Nations-monitored cease-fire line in the region, with Israel taking control of the western two-thirds of the area. In 1981, Israel essentially annexed the Golan when it extended Israeli civil law to the territory. Now, the Golan is a popular destination for outdoor enthusiasts and tourists, and is famous for its wine production, hiking, and skiing.
Despite being firmly under Israeli control, the Golan Heights has not been immune to fighting in nearby Syria over the course of the civil war. Mortar fire and rockets have sporadically landed in Israeli territory as a result of fighting between factions inside of Syria. While most of these shells have not been directed against Israel, the Israeli Defense Forces holds the Syrian government responsible and has occasionally hit targets on the Syrian side.
As the chief terror proxy of Iran, Hezbollah has been deeply involved in the Syrian civil war since 2013 where they have fought in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government forces. Hezbollah’s decision to involve itself in the neighboring civil war has profound consequences for the terrorist organization both strategically and militarily.
Late last year, it was estimated between 1,300 and 1,500 of its fighters were killed in Syria, according to the Times of Israel. The terror group also lost one of its most senior military commanders, Mustafa Badreddine, under mysterious circumstances at the Damascus airport in May.
More recently, Hezbollah fighters have been heavily involved in operations near Aleppo in northern Syria, where the terror group has sustained significant causalities, with 26 fighters being killed in June alone. Nevertheless, with the support of Iran and Russia, Hezbollah and the Syrian government have made progress against rebel groups near Aleppo.
Mordechai Keder, PhD, a former IDF military intelligence officer, who now serves as a senior lecturer at Bar-Ilan University, told JNS.org that Hezbollah and Iran see Syria as an opportunity to further enhance their regional ambitions.
“Hezbollah and Iran see no future for Syria, which is disintegrating, and decided to do exactly what the others do, take part of Syria for themselves,” Kedar said. “The Eastern side of the Golan is on territorial contiguity with Lebanon, so since Hezbollah is on Israel’s border with Lebanon, Hezbollah can be also on Israel’s border with Syria.”
“With the Iranians backing them it is much safer than without Iran,” he added.
Hezbollah has significantly bolstered its weapons arsenal since its last conflict with Israel in 2006. According to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Hezbollah went to war with Israel in 2006 with around 13,000 short-range and medium-range rockets, but today “it could have over 100,000 rockets and missiles, including a number of long-range systems as well as systems with improved accuracy, allowing it to strike throughout Israel and with increased precision.”
Daoud, of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, said, “Israel is concerned about Hezbollah’s build-up in Syria, namely using the chaos of the conflict to acquire so-called ‘game-changing weapons,’ but also its entrenchment opposite the Israeli-held Golan Heights. Israel calls this it’s ‘red line’ in Syria and has even raised its concerns over this with Moscow.”
As such, over the course of the civil war, Israel has also frequently hit targets related to Hezbollah, striking weapons shipments or targeting Hezbollah leaders, in order keep the terror group from using the civil war to further grow its arsenal.
“Israel has repeatedly taken direct action against Hezbollah crossing these “red lines,” by striking weapons shipments to the Shiite organization while they are still in Syria,” Dauod said. “They have also carried out strikes against Hezbollah and IRGC commanders – like Jihad Mughniyeh, Mohammad Issa and Samir Kuntar, and most likely also Mustafa Badreddine – who were attempting to build a second front against the Israelis in Syria.”
While the threat of Hezbollah opening up a second front against Israel in the Golan Heights remains serious, there are also active groups operating in the area, such as the anti-government Free Syrian Army, the Islamic State (Yarmouk Brigade) and the Southern Front.
FDD’s Daoud also cautioned that the report of a Hezbollah buildup in the Golan Heights region must also be “treated with skepticism” given the fact that pro-government forces, including Hezbollah, have been tied up as a result of heavy fighting in the Aleppo region.
“Just last month, there was another report that Assad would be sending Hezbollah forces southward,” he said. “But with the critical Aleppo operation not proceeding as smoothly as the regime and its allies would like, and with their high casualty rate, it’s doubtful they would take away forces from that area to send them southward.”