The headlines trickling down from Israel’s northern sector are far more dramatic than the situation on the ground: The Syrian army has yet to launch a full-scale offensive on rebel forces along the border; the influx of refugees has yet to turn into an uncontrollable flood; and the reinforcement of IDF troops on the Israel-Syria border is still relatively minor.
But make no mistake. The situation on the northern border is highly volatile and could quickly go south. Recent bombardments indicate that Syrian President Bashar Assad plans to retake control of the Daraa area on the Jordanian border, and then turn his attention to the rebel pockets on the Syrian Golan Heights, a stone’s throw away from his border with Israel.
It is likely, however, that he will not launch a major offensive before the end of the World Cup, or at least not before Russia is eliminated from the tournament. In any event, the Helsinki summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, which will focus on Syria, has been set for July 16.
In the meantime, Assad is trying to pressure the rebels, and perhaps drive them to flee or surrender. The rebels, for their part, are trying to improve their positions and the changes in their deployment can be clearly seen along the border with Israel, likely driven by the assumption that Syria will be wary of acting too close to the frontier so as not to risk a confrontation with Israel.
It is doubtful that this possibility will deter Syria, if nothing else because of the clear message Israel has sent it—we will enforce the 1974 cease-fire agreement. In other words, Israel has made it clear that the fighting is an internal Syrian issue and Israel will not fight for any rebel or refugee.
To avoid appearing completely passive, Israel deployed armored and artillery forces along its border with Syria on Sunday, with aim of deterring the Syrian army from violating the 1974 agreement by ordering the mass deployment of troops on the Golan Heights. But this move also sought to warn Iran against entertaining the idea of exploiting the Syrian army’s reoccupation of the territory to plant its militias near the Israeli border.
Recent conversations between Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and his Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu, and the meeting held by Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot with U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford in Washington sought to coordinate this issue and clarify Israel’s position—yes to the return of the Syrian army to the Golan Heights; no to any Iranian presence in the area, even if it means a military confrontation.
Israeli defense officials believe that the Syrian army’s takeover of the area will be fast, albeit not necessarily easy. Therefore, it is unlikely that the IDF would be able to remain on the fence, figuratively and literally, should intense fighting erupt on the Golan Heights, certainly if rebel groups take desperate measures to provoke the IDF into action and against the backdrop of the masses of refugees who may seek sanctuary in Israel.
The Israeli leadership has already made it clear that it will supply Syrian refugees with humanitarian aid but will not grant them entry into its territory. But as the fighting intensifies and with it the flood of horrific images from Syria, the call to do something more will surely grow louder.
It is in Israel’s interest to get through the next few weeks without military entanglement in the north. Once the dust settles, Israel will once again be dealing with one person in charge.
Assad may emerge from the fighting weaker but he still enjoys Russia and Iran’s backing. The latter is sure to look for every way possible to undermine the stability that has prevailed along the border for four decades. Israel is bracing for this possibility, knowing that the volatility in the area will peak in the near future.
Yoav Limor is a veteran Israeli journalist and columnist for Israel Hayom.