Israel’s deployment of reinforcements to the Golan Heights is a message to Syrian dictator Bashar Assad as his forces draw closer to the Israeli border, an Israeli analyst said Sunday.
“Now that your army is coming south, don’t send them into the demilitarized zone established in the 1974 [ceasefire] agreement. Israel will see this as a serious violation,” was how Hadashot television news’s defense analyst Roni Daniel couched Israel’s apparent message.
Israel’s army sent tanks and artillery cannons to the Syrian border on Sunday morning amid a renewed offensive by Assad’s forces and the Russian military against the remaining rebel holdouts in Syria’s southwest.
The IDF then announced the move to the media.
“This was a message to Assad,” Daniel said. “When the IDF deploys reinforcements and announces the reinforcement, there’s only one address: Assad.”
The move is not unexpected. Since the renewed ground campaign by Damascus began last month against rebel-held towns in the Daraa province, complete with aerial support from Russia and ground assistance from Iran-backed militias, some 160,000 Syrian nationals have fled their homes and traveled to the Israeli and Jordanian frontiers seeking refuge.
Several hundred of the fleeing Syrians have settled in several tent encampments adjacent to the Israeli border, within the demilitarized zone established after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, apparently in the hope that Israel would act to enforce the separation agreement and prevent Syrian military forces from entering the area.
According to Daniel, Israel is not limiting itself to sending its message indirectly via military maneuvers: Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman reportedly called his Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu to ask him to deliver the message to Assad explicitly.
Israel’s Sunday reinforcements were sent to bolster the capabilities of the IDF’s 210th Bashan Division, which defends the Golan Heights, the IDF said.
An army statement explained, “This was [done] as part of IDF preparations and readiness in light of developments on the Syrian Golan Heights near the border.”
The army vowed it would offer a “determined response” to any fire — deliberate or accidental — that hit Israeli territory from Syria.
“The IDF sees great importance in maintaining the armistice agreement between Israel and Syria from 1974,” the army statement said, adding: “The IDF will continue to uphold its principle of non-involvement in what is happening in Syria, alongside a policy of delivering a determined response to violations of the sovereignty of the State of Israel and threats to its citizens.”
Both Israel and Jordan have stated that they will not accept refugees, but have provided humanitarian aid to the displaced people.
Last week, the IDF announced it had delivered several tons of humanitarian aid — food, clothes, medicine — to southern Syria in light of the deteriorating situation in the hastily erected displaced person camps near the border.
Israel on Friday night also brought in six injured Syrians, four of them children orphaned in the Syrian-Russian attacks, for medical treatment in Israeli hospitals.
“Israel has been giving humanitarian aid for years and will continue now in light of the need for it,” the army said.
On Sunday morning, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reiterated that Israel would provide assistance, but not allow refugees into Israel.
“We will continue to defend our borders. We will extend humanitarian assistance to the extent of our abilities. We will not allow entry into our territory and we will demand that the 1974 Separation of Forces Agreement with the Syrian army be strictly upheld,” Netanyahu said at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting.
The prime minister added that he, the defense minister and the IDF chief of staff were all in constant contact with the United States and Russia — the two main powerbrokers in Syria — about the fighting in Syria’s southwest.
Since June 19, backed by Russia, the Damascus regime has carried out a deadly bombing campaign in southern Syria as it pushes to retake the strategic area bordering Jordan and the Israeli Golan Heights.
As of Saturday, government forces controlled more than half of Daraa, up from just 30 percent at the start of the operation, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor said.
Eight towns in the province returned to regime control under Russia-brokered deals, the Observatory said.
That came “after talks in each town between Russian generals as well as local notables and remaining rebels,” Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said.
The so-called “reconciliation” deals for the towns’ surrender are the latest in a string of such agreements across the country that have seen the government retake opposition-held areas, often after devastating air and ground offensives.
Retaking the whole of Daraa province would be a symbolic victory for the regime, as it is seen as the cradle of the anti-Assad uprising seven years ago that spiraled into civil war.
Regime forces bombarded other parts of Daraa province on Saturday, with airstrikes killing at least 15 civilians, according to the Observatory.
Unidentified airstrikes killed 10 civilians including five children in the rebel-held town of Al-Sahwa, the Britain-based monitor said.
The recent escalation comes despite Daraa and opposition-held parts of neighboring Quneitra province being included in a so-called “de-escalation zone” agreed on by Russia, the United States and Jordan last year.
Syria’s main opposition group, the Syrian Negotiation Commission (SNC), implored the international community to speak out against the violence.
“We call on the international community to condemn the brutal breaching of the de-escalation zone… and take all possible measures to halt this assault on our people,” SNC spokesman Yahya al-Aridi said in a statement.
In total, 115 civilians have been killed in regime bombardment on the province since June 19. In that same period, 96 pro-regime fighters and at least 59 rebels have lost their lives.
The refugees fleeing the areas under assault include around 20,000 who left for areas near the Naseeb border crossing with Jordan, a country that already hosts more than 650,000 registered Syrian refugees and says the actual figure is closer to 1.3 million. Thousands more have fled to the border with Israel on the Golan Heights.
Amman has said it cannot open its frontier to any more Syrians fleeing the seven-year conflict, but on Saturday announced it had sent aid across the border to the displaced.
More than 350,000 people have been killed in Syria since the war started in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.
AFP contributed to this report.