Recent developments in the war between the Syrian regime and rebel forces show that the relative comfort zone that Israel has long enjoyed along its northern border is narrowing. The recent pummeling of the notorious Islamic State group makes an escalation in hostilities between Israel and the forces of President Bashar Assad along with his staunch ally, the Iranian-backed Hezbollah terror group, increasingly likely.
The terrible civil war ravaging Syria has for several years forced Hezbollah, deployed to the battlefield on Assad’s behalf, to limit the resources and energy it expends on confronting Israel. Some 2,000 Hezbollah fighters have been killed and 6,000 injured fighting in Syria — about a third of the organization’s fighting force. The same has been true for Syria’s standing army, which looked exhausted, almost defeated, until Russia swooped in to turn the tide.
In recent weeks, the cumulative effect of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s efforts has helped swing the pendulum in favor of Assad, Hezbollah, and other Shiite militias active in the arena on behalf of Iran. The battle against the Islamic State group in Mosul, Iraq, is drawing to a close, and it is clear that next in line to fall will be Raqqa, the group’s stronghold in Syria.
In other fronts, too, the Syrian army is scoring major victories, including in the Deir Ezzor region in the country’s northeast, where Assad’s forces, aided by Shiite militiamen, have broken through to the area of Abu Kamal, on the Iraqi border. It is a region where Kurdish and other forces that receive US support have been very active. Hence the recent rise in friction between the US army and Syrian forces that led to the downing of a Syrian jet last week.
The various military factions in Syria – both pro-Assad and against – are fighting over the scraps of territory from which the Islamic State is withdrawing. Naturally, the area that most worries Israel – and its neighbor to the east, Jordan – is around Daraa, in the country’s southwest. It is where the civil war broke out in 2011, and it is a likely spot for a future last stand by Syria’s moderate opposition.
The battles raging in that area, and on the nearby Syrian Golan Heights, are the ones from which errant shells occasionally fly over the border into Israeli territory. But there is no deliberate Syrian fire, and anyway Israel’s main concern isn’t misdirected shells.
The most significant danger is that Shiite militias backing Assad will approach and gain control at the borders with Jordan and Israel. While Jerusalem and Amman are cooperating on the matter, it is doubtful such cooperation can stem the advance of pro-Iranian forces, be they Hezbollah or other militias emanating from Pakistan, Iraq or Afghanistan.
The Shiite axis is on the march, and the Islamic State is no longer in the breach, where it was keeping the Shiites occupied. The unofficial Israeli approach to the Syrian conflict, a prayer for the success of both sides, is becoming increasingly irrelevant as one side — that of the regime — pummels the other.
The consequences of the latest developments in Syria and Iraq are echoing in Lebanon in the form of belligerent declarations by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. On Friday, Nasrallah vowed that his group’s next war with Israel will pave a path for “thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of fighters from all the Arab states and the Islamic world” to fall upon the Jewish state.