Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Security Cabinet members get a tour with the North Front Command in the Golan Heights on Feb. 6, 2018. Credit: Kobi Gideon/GPO.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Security Cabinet members get a tour with the North Front Command in the Golan Heights on Feb. 6, 2018. Credit: Kobi Gideon/GPO.

The challenge of keeping the Syrian Golan from becoming South Lebanon 2.0

The commander of the Golan Division, Brig. Gen. Amit Fisher, talks about the difficulties involved in ensuring that the Golan Heights remain Israel’s quietest border despite the efforts of Iran and Hezbollah.

People in the Golan Heights are more optimistic than ever these days. Not only because of the rainy winter, a blessing for both agriculture and tourism, but also, and mainly, because of U.S. President Donald Trump’s declaration of America recognizing Israeli sovereignty on the Golan Heights, which removed any doubt about a continued Israeli presence there.

The calm that has returned to the area after many years has also been good for the Golan. While the Syrian war only rarely spilled over into Israeli territory, it has been a constant concern for Golan residents, Jewish and Druze alike. The knowledge that the war, with all its horrors, was raging not far off kept civilians worried—and the Israel Defense Forces even more so.

But while civilians went back to their routines, the IDF is still concerned. The Syrian army has retaken the southern part of Syria, including the Syrian Golan Heights, though a variety of hostile entities still active there continue to be a headache. According to recent reports, Iran and Hezbollah have been involved in open and clandestine activity in the Syrian Golan as part of their efforts to create an additional front against Israel.

Commander of the Golan (Bashan) Division, Brig. Gen. Amit Fisher, says that after Trump recognized the Golan Heights as Israeli, Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah said that the way to “liberate” the Shebaa Farms area and the “occupied Golan Heights” was through “resistance.”

“Even the Syrian defense minister said that, and I have no way of understanding that other than that they are giving themselves legitimacy for terrorist actions against us in the Golan Heights,” says Fisher, who adds that the challenge facing the IDF is to keep the Syrian Golan from become South Lebanon 2.0.

“As a first stage, they are collecting intelligence. They have dozens of outposts that look toward Israel. In the second stage, they will try to build up operational capabilities here. Only recently we exposed Hezbollah’s secret ‘Golan file,’  devoted to precisely that: attempts to take what it knows how to do—anti-aircraft [capabilities], sniping, bombs—and bring that to the Golan Heights,” says Fisher.

The brigadier general explains that Hezbollah’s activity in the Golan is two-pronged. One is the southern command under Munir Ali Na’im Shaiti, aka Hajj Hashem, which advises the Syrian army and collects information about Israel. The second is the “Golan file,” whose purpose was to create an operational infrastructure that would allow it to attack Israeli civilians or soldiers.

“It’s challenging, because Hezbollah doesn’t seek to take immediate action. It has time. It wants quiet to build up its capabilities, enlist cells built on local residents and its contacts with the Syrian army.”

Q: Do you think the regime in Damascus knows about this?  

A: “To understand the full picture you need to go back to 2000, when two things happened whose results we are seeing now—the IDF withdrawal from South Lebanon and the death of [former Syrian president] Hafez Assad. For Hezbollah, our withdrawal was proof that resistance was effective, and after the death of Assad Sr., the organization grew very close to his son [Syrian President Bashar Assad]. In my opinion, when Bashar asks himself what to do with the problem of the Golan, his answer is that Hezbollah is the only force in the area that knows how to put up resistance.”

Q: Does that mean Assad is a partner in Hezbollah’s attempts to entrench itself there?

A: “The picture is never black and white. There are close ties between the leaders … and because Hezbollah and the Syrian army also spent four or five years fighting shoulder to shoulder, with Hezbollah spilling blood for Syria—2,000 casualties and 10,000 wounded—those ties are very close. The Syrian army, as I understand it, sees Hezbollah as an advantage and also feels in its debt.”

Q: So when Hezbollah members come to the Golan, they are guests of the Syrian army?

A: “Hajj Hashem’s southern command is legal in Syria. The regime has invited them [Hezbollah], and they operate closely with units of the Syrian army and even advise them as far as the border. We see Hajj Hashem touring here with the Syrian army. It’s no secret.”

Q: And the “Golan file”?

A: “I think the terrorist activity hasn’t been formally approved by the Syrian regime. But it chooses to ignore it. It’s improbable it [Damascus] doesn’t know about it.”

Q: Are the Iranians involved?

A: “In my opinion, yes, unquestionably. The ‘Golan file’ is an Iranian name. Iran has a command center in Syria and representatives in Lebanon, and its ties to Hezbollah are very close. What they are doing, very cleverly, is drawing their forces back to a distance of 80 kilometers [50 miles] from the border, like Israel wanted, but sending Hezbollah to be [their] vanguard.

Q: In other words, at this stage they have dropped the idea of setting up Shi’ite militias along the Golan border fence?

A: “Along the fence, yes, but not in Syria. There are Shi’ite militias to the east and north of Damascus. They are the ones that fired on us in May 2018, and toward the Hermon in January—a heavy missile that we luckily intercepted, but it could have ended differently. Right now, they’re supposedly operating in response to our actions, but their ability exists—missiles are missiles—and it exists for all ranges. So to pose a threat to us they don’t need to be in the Golan Heights, they just need to be a few dozen kilometers away.”

Bashan was established as a regional division at the start of the Syrian war, prior to which responsibility for the border had fallen to the IDF’s 36th Division. It was the realization that something fundamental had changed in the region, especially after thousands of unarmed Syrians attempted to cross the border in May 2011, which led Israel to make five rapid-fire decisions: erect a new border fence, like the one constructed along the Egyptian border; set up a variety of technological and intelligence tools in the area; replace the reservists that had been assigned to the border with regular army forces, including elite units and reconnaissance personnel; launch activity throughout the area under Israel control, including outcroppings of territory that lie between the border and the fence itself; and build a regional division on the foundations of a long-established reservist division.

Fisher arrived as commander at the start of 2018. The sense of security in the Golan, he says, runs deep. That is certainly true in comparison to the communities that sit flush against the Gaza Strip, but also, he says, compared to residents of the Galilee, who see Hezbollah and live with the constant sense that someone could dig a tunnel under the border or fire on them.

“The battlegrounds are etched into the consciousness of people in the Galilee. Not here,” says Fisher.

Q: Recent years notwithstanding?

A: “From 1967 to 1973, this was a battleground, but starting from the summer of 1974 this has, hands down, been our quietest border, and that’s how we want it to stay—with a Syrian army that is both strong enough to prevent any terrorist activity in our territory, but also sufficiently deterred to not plan any attacks against us.”

For now, the quiet is holding. The Syrian army is in control, and residents have mostly gone back to the villages they abandoned in the last few years of the war, even though there is no rehabilitation work taking place. The Golan Heights has never been of any particular interest to the government in Damascus, and today it is certainly not a priority. The result is that the poor, neglected residents of southern Syria are seeking solutions after years of living off Israeli aid in direct or indirect forms.

Some of these solutions come from Iran, which is investing in civilian projects, and—as part of its efforts to gain a foothold in the region—trying to convert the locals from Sunni to Shi’ite Islam.

Fisher says the Syrian government is keeping its promises to not harm the rebels, or even those who sought aid from Israel.

“We were surprised by that, because we were certain they would get even with anyone who received medical treatment in Israel or was in any kind of humanitarian contact with us,” he says.

“I don’t know for certain. I assume that they were questioned, but we haven’t seen arrests and certainly not executions,” he adds.

For the most part, says Fisher, from the moment the Syrian regime reoccupied southern Syria it tried to calm things down in the Golan Heights. It demanded—and received—the rebels’ heavy weaponry, but left light weapons with civilians. Some were drafted, others took part in local militias that operated under the auspices of the army, reporting to it and receiving payment.

The Syrian army deployment has also gone back to its pre-war state. It has no lack of weapons, even after long years of war, during which the army acquired capabilities it did not previously have, mainly in the areas of intelligence and precision strikes.

The return of the Syrian army also chased rebel groups away from the border. Some were friendly to Israel (there are even claims Israel was arming them), while others—especially the Islamic State—were hostile. Nothing remains of either side. Fisher thinks that there still might be cells that went underground and remained in the field, but nothing like the numbers or threat level that were in place a year ago.

Who does remain in the area are the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) and Russian military police. The Russians are active far from the border, and coordinate with Israeli forces through liaisons attached to the respective chiefs of staff. Fisher says that the Russian are here to help the Syrians restore governance.

UNDOF is a different story. Its troops were forced out of Syria after they were chased, attacked, and some even taken prisoner during the fighting there. Now they are gradually returning, but Israel sees their presence as important, both to keep things calm and to ensure Syria does not violate the terms of the cease-fire, and to prevent advanced weaponry from entering the area.

Q: Can they be trusted?

A: “We opened the Quneitra crossing expressly for them, and every morning they cross over to Syria and patrol there. In the afternoon, they come back. We offer them all the help we can so they’ll return and man the outposts on the Syrian side [of the border] as soon as possible.”

Q: And if you were to give them information about Hezbollah activity in the rural areas?

A: “They wouldn’t take action. That’s not their mandate.”

Q: Would the Syrian army take action?

A: “Because we’ve defined Hezbollah as the problem, we need to take action against it in every way possible—starting from direct actions and including cooperation with the Syrian army.”

Fisher, 44, is married, a father of three, and lives in Ness Ziona. He succeeded Brig. Gen. Yaniv Asor, who succeeded Brig. Gen. Ofek Bucharis. It’s no coincidence that all three are Golani soldiers who spent most of their service in the North, going back to the days of fighting in the security buffer zone in southern Lebanon and against Hezbollah.

Fisher is very familiar with Hezbollah. The methods the organization is using in Syria today are exactly the same as the ones it used in Lebanon: to disguise its fighters as civilians or get civilians to work for it. Because Fisher has no idea if someone who approaches the border fence is a shepherd, a terrorist operative, or a shepherd who reports to terrorists, his main goal is to simply not allow anyone near the border.

Q: What kind of border do you foresee in the future?

A: “The answer is complicated, because that has to do with the strategic element of whether Israel will manage—through the Russians or the Americans or with Syria directly—to prevent Iranian and Hezbollah activity in Syria. Like I said, I have no problem with the [Syrian] army being here. The opposite: that’s the good scenario as far as I’m concerned.”

Q: And the bad scenario?

A: “That we don’t succeed in terms of strategy, or tactically, and Hezbollah goes on with its plans and increases its number of outposts and the number of its anti-aircraft units and then, in the next stage, which isn’t happening yet, brings in bases for rockets and ground forces, commandos, like there are in Lebanon.”

Q: Does it already have weapons stockpiles here?

A: “The amount of weapons in Syria is insane. They exist. What Hezbollah is trying to do right now is find the people who until recently were part of the civil war [in Syria] and pay them so they’ll start working for them. If it needs to, it can supply them with weapons and training.”

Q: Does that already exist … Hezbollah cells that will fire on Israel if ordered to?

A: “I don’t know if they have the capability right now, but they’re working on it. That’s exactly what the ‘Golan file’ is about—creating operational ability here. You could debate whether they would use it regularly or as an emergency measure, but as far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t matter.”

Fisher thinks that there are currently Hezbollah operatives in the Golan Heights: “dozens of Lebanese and hundreds of Syrians.”

The Lebanese, he says, are mostly professionals, senior officials and advisers, while the Syrians are paid salaries to collect information, patrol, and man the lookout posts, as well as work on infrastructure.

“For me, the Golan Heights must remain a quiet, secure border that separates countries, not a battleground. Our lesson from Lebanon should be that we do not allow a terrorist organization to use Syrian sponsorship to build capabilities that will someday blow up in our faces.”

Q: That can’t be done through diplomacy and defense alone.

A: “We aren’t refraining from offensive action. In the end, Hezbollah needs to feel penetrated, vulnerable and exposed.”

Q: Is ousting it once and for all a realistic goal?

A: “I’ll know I’ve succeeded the day Hezbollah says there’s nothing for it to do in the Golan Heights. If we’re determined enough on the tactical level, and successful on the strategic level as well, I think it’s realistic. It’s a big challenge, but it’s possible.”

This article originally appeared on Israel Hayom.

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