(July 5, 2018 / JNS)
The Syrian Army is preparing to conquer the country’s south, including territory bordering the Golan Heights, in the coming weeks, if not days.
Israel’s initial assessment was that it would take some time for government forces to conquer southern Syria from rebel forces, due to, among other things, Russia’s desire to ensure global attention remains on the World Cup.
In recent days, however, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the Syrian army has been given the go-ahead to act immediately so that the redeployment of forces in the area can be completed before winter arrives.
Government forces are now focusing their operations on the area around Daraa province, on the border with Jordan. The Syrian army has already regained control over almost all of the territory between Daraa and Damascus. With the army now surrounding Daraa and bombing it from the air, the assessment is the province will quickly fall to government forces.
From Daraa, the Syrian army will move toward the Golan Heights, first to territory controlled by organizations with ties to the Islamic State in the south and then northward, advancing up to Mount Hermon.
The Syrian army is expected to continue with this method of surrounding the towns and villages and “drying them out” and later engaging in negotiations for their surrender. The working assumption is that a majority of these areas will opt to surrender rather than fight the army, and that a majority of rebel fighters will surrender their weapons in the hopes of being granted immunity from Damascus, as has been the case in other areas where the Syrian army has operated in recent days in areas and met with little opposition.
Nevertheless, fighting could still break out in villages like Jubata al-Khashab, which has been held by rebels since the civil war first broke out in the country in 2011.
The assessment is that the Syrian army will try to avoid fighting near the border with Israel, out of concern the war could trickle into Israeli territory and trigger a response from the IDF, as has happened in the past. In recent days, the IDF deployed reinforcements, particular from artillery and tank units, to the border area in an effort to deter the Syrian army but also to prepare for a situation in which the fighting in the Golan does not evolve as expected.
Israel has also made it clear to Damascus, via messages to the U.N.’s Disengagement Observer Force, that it would not allow any violation of the 1974 Israel-Syria Disengagement Agreement in the demilitarized zone in the Golan Heights. If Israel observes Syrian activity there in violation of these agreements, in particular the deployment of armored forces or Syrian air strikes near the border, it will act. It remains unclear, however, just how Israel would respond if Syria were to use Russian planes to carry out the attacks.
The Syrian army is expected to try to complete its conquest of the Golan Heights presently, and quite possibly ahead of a July 16 meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
issue will also likely be the focus of talks between Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu next week, given Israel’s demand the Israel-Syria cease-fire agreement be upheld and its opposition to Iran exploiting the new reality on the ground to send forces into the Golan Heights, thereby forming a new front against Israel.
Last weekend, tens of thousands of Syrians fled to the border with Jordan and Israel. While the Israel Defense Forces delivered humanitarian aid and food, it made it clear refugees would not be allowed entry to Israel, with the exception of medical emergencies. As the Syrian army advances, this policy is expected to remain in place. Once the territory in its entirety has fallen to Assad, Israel believes that a majority of the refugees will return to their homes.
IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot was joined on July 4 by a number of senior officers on a visit to the Northern Command’s 210th Division, stationed on the Syria. According to the IDF, Eizenkot held a briefing on the fighting in Syria and the Northern Command’s readiness for what is to come. He was also briefed by GOC Northern Command Maj. Gen. Yoel Strick and 210th Division Brig. Gen. Amit Fisher.
In a statement, the IDF said it was “monitoring developments in Syria and is prepared for a variety of scenarios in order to preserve the security situation in the border area. The IDF will continue to provide humanitarian assistance in Syrian territory while preventing the entry of refugees to Israeli territory.”
Yoav Limor is a veteran Israeli journalist and columnist for Israel Hayom.