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Syrian withdrawal from Golan alarms Israel

Israel Defense Forces' Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, far left, during a September 2011 visit to the Golan Heights. Credit: IDF.
Israel Defense Forces' Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, far left, during a September 2011 visit to the Golan Heights. Credit: IDF.

The Syrian government has reportedly withdrawn thousands of troops near the buffer zone between Israel and Syria in the Golan Heights, leaving a power vacuum that Israel is concerned could be filled with jihadist forces ready to turn their guns on the Jewish state.

Syria has redeployed divisions in the Golan to the area around Damascus to battle anti-government forces near the Syrian capital, according to a report in the British newspaper The Guardian on Sunday.

The redeployment near the Golan border was the most significant in 40 years, Western diplomats told The Guardian. Israel is concerned that the jihadist groups hostile to both Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Jewish state could move to fill the power vacuum in the Golan, creating a battlefront with Israel.

Four elite Syrian divisions made the Golan border Israel’s quietest for the past four decades, but tensions have simmered on the Golan Heights in the last few months. Last week, a mortar shell fired during fighting between Syrian rebels and loyalist troops landed in Israel. Errant explosives have landed several times in Israel-controlled Golan territory, and some cross-border incidents have prompted return fire from Israeli army patrols.

Israel is concerned that Assad’s weapons stockpiles, which include chemical weapons and advanced anti-aircraft missiles systems, could fall into the hands of either Shiite Hezbollah in Lebanon, which is loyal to Assad, has links to Iran, and is very hostile to Israel, or Sunni Islamist groups in Syria with links to international terrorist groups, which seek Assad’s ouster and are no friendlier to Israel.

On Sunday, an Israeli colonel told visiting Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird on a helicopter tour of the Golan that Israel is increasingly concerned about foreign, Sunni jihadists who have flocked to Syria to fight Assad, according to Canadian news outlet The Globe and Mail.

To show Baird the difficulty of assessing who is in control in the Golan, the colonel pointed to a Syrian village just beyond the border that is controlled by rebels but surrounded by Syrian troops who have cut off all access roads. When Israeli troops were fired on last month, Israel fired back at the Syrian position. Israel didn’t say whether the fire on its troops had come from Assad loyalists or rebels.

Syria’s southern region saw the beginning of the Syrian uprising when protesters took to the streets in Deraa in March 2011, but the Golan region, located just west of the Deraa governorate, remained largely quiet as fighting moved to Syria’s north and east. Now, fighting has returned to the south. Rebel groups took over an artillery base in Syria’s Quneitra governorate near the demilitarized buffer zone in the Golan near Israel in late January. Jordan closed a border crossing with Syria after fighting increased in the Deraa governorate. The United Nations is now predicting that there could be some 1.2 million Syrian refugees by the end of this year. More than half a million people currently reside in Jordanian refugee camps.

The U.S. has reportedly begun training Syrian rebels in order to battle Assad and subvert the increasingly powerful Islamist groups, such as the al-Qaida-aligned Al-Nusra Front, in the Golan, The Guardian reported.

As Syrian troops move out of the Golan, the future of the UN peacekeeping mission in the Golan Heights is also thrown into question. The states that make up the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force in the Golan Heights are reconsidering their commitments. Croatia already withdrew its troops last February.

“It’s clear UNDOF is having very serious problems in meeting its challenges,” an Israeli official said, according to the report in The Guardian. “But Israeli national security figures are very skeptical as to the real utility of international forces in dealing with our security issues.”

Israel has contacted the UN’s New York headquarters to discuss possible scenarios should the UN peacekeeping forces in the Golan dissolve, including sending replacements for contingents that pull out, according to the report.

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