The spillover of Syrian fire into Israel in recent days is not a clear and immediate threat, experts say, but rather a worrying preview of what is to come in the area — when the Golan Heights joins Sinai and southern Lebanon as yet another largely lawless swath of land on Israel’s borders.
The IDF has been kept on high alert since November 3, when three Syrian tanks entered the demilitarized zone separating the two borders, leading Israel to lodge an official complaint with UN peacekeepers stationed in the DMZ.
Days later, a battalion commander’s jeep was hit by a stray bullet from Syrian territory. Several mortar shells have landed inside Israel. All told, Syrian troops, either belonging to the government or the rebels, have recently fired across the long-time-quiet border on five occasions.
On Sunday afternoon, Israel responded with an electro-optical guided missile. It was the first ground fire into Syria since 1973.
Minister of Strategic Affairs Moshe Yaalon said Sunday evening that Israel fired the warning shot in order to “defend our sovereignty.”
The guided Tammuz missile, with a range of over 25 kilometers, was meant to signal to both Syrian troops and rebels that cross-border fire into Israel would not be tolerated. “After several attempts to explain our position with words,” Ya’alon said on Channel 2, “we decided to respond with actions.”
Defense Minister Ehud Barak added that “additional shelling into Israel from Syria will elicit a tougher response: exacting a higher price from Syria.”
Nonetheless, despite the recent rash of incidents along the border and the ratcheting up of Israeli rhetoric, experts here sounded certain that, rather than a concerted effort by Syrian President Bashar Assad to drag Israel into his internal war and disrupt the rebels’ progress (or at least portray them as aiding Israel), the fire was merely an indication of the decline of Damascus’s control.
“When the neighbors fight, they throw plates and sometimes the shards can hit us,” said Mordechai Kedar, a senior lecturer at Bar Ilan University and a former lieutenant colonel in the IDF’s military intelligence branch.
Tommy Steiner, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the IDC Herzliya, said the slight leakage of fire across the border was a “reflection of the total disarray” in Syria and that the incidents in the Golan Heights are a preview of “what’s coming soon to a cinema near you.”
Steiner projected that the territorial integrity of the entire Fertile Crescent — Syria, Lebanon and Iraq — was in peril and that those three nation states could crumble along sectarian lines. The Golan Heights, he projected, would soon become “a stronghold for jihadists who have come from Iraq to join the festivities.”
The Assad regime in Syria has hosted some of Israel’s most nefarious enemies over the years and quite openly supported Hezbollah. But as Syria continues to devolve into civil war, Israel faces a new and perhaps more worrying reality: “We are becoming surrounded by lawless regions,” Steiner said, noting that the Sinai Peninsula and southern Lebanon are not in any meaningful way governed by state actors and that Syria would likely follow suit.
Former National Security Adviser Giora Eiland dismissed the cross-border fire as “insignificant” but said that perhaps in the long term, as Assad’s hold on power declines, “he’ll lose control of the area and into that vacuum will come hostile elements.”
In the meanwhile, Eiland said, Syria’s actions and Israel’s responses are not going to ignite any sort of military campaign. “There is no danger of a Syrian military move,” he said. “There is a violation of the agreement. But it has no significance. There is no intention of an anti-Israeli move.”