GOLAN HEIGHTS — The different rebel groups in the Golan Heights, controlling 90 percent of the Syrian side of the border region, have not once, in more than three years of war, fired a shot at or taken other military action against Israel, a senior Northern Command army officer said Monday.
The officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, did not rule out the possibility of Israeli action east of the border, within rebel-held Syria, should the need arise. But he stressed that for now, despite the presence of al-Qaeda elements all along the border, “all of the vectors are [pushing] toward Damascus.”
He described a gradual process of destruction that led to the rise of the rebel forces and said that once the fighting has been finished in the villages south and east of Quneitra, in al-Madeira and Ahmadiyeh, and in the last regime “pocket” on the flanks of the Hermon, in the Druze village of Khader, the rebels will use the highway linking the border city of Quneitra to Damascus, a mere 40-kilometer stretch of road, to take the fight to the capital — swiftly, he predicted — and not to march on Jerusalem, as some have suggested.
“I am convinced of this,” he said.
Practically speaking, he said, the Israeli army has not seen a single al-Qaeda-related action against Israel. “During the entirety of the past four years, we have not seen so much as a single rebel from this group with the intention or the operational plan facing in this direction.”
Instead, he said that during the surge in border violence aimed intentionally at Israel, from December 2013 to March 2014, the series of attacks along the fence were all carried out from within the regime-controlled enclaves, and that when mines were used, they all bore the signature marks of the “Hezbollah-Iran production house.”
The war in Syria, beginning in March 2011 with unrest in the southern town of Dara’a, has claimed more than 150,000 lives and forced five million people — roughly a quarter of the population — to flee. It has become the eye of the storm in the battle between Sunni and Shi’ite Islam and is being waged, on the Sunni side, by increasingly radical forces.
In June, Brig. Gen. Itai Brun, the commander of the Military Intelligence Directorate’s Research Division, said that 80% of the 120,000 men fighting against the regime are Islamist rebels, sharply changing the face of Syria in the years to come.
Former national security adviser, Maj. Gen. (ret) Uzi Dayan, said in a phone interview that this reality — and the way it has taken shape along Israel’s northeastern border — may well require future Israeli military action on the Syrian side of the Golan. “I do not rule out the possibility that Israel, in an indirectly coordinated move, will act to restore the Syrian army to the border,” he said. “Otherwise, what happened in Gaza can happen in the Golan.”
The officer did not reject the statement out of hand. Pointing to the tank ramps on an old and seldom used army post in the central Golan, and the concrete-enforced infantry trenches being reclaimed by nature, he said that the construction of the post is evidence of a different era, when Israel’s primary threat was the standing army of the Assad regime. Today, looking just north to Quneitra, a large Israeli flag was visible in the stiff wind; opposite it, on the Syrian side of the border fence, was a bare pole where Assad’s flag once flew. Syrian sovereignty in this border region, the closest border to the capital, is nearly as absent as the flag, he said, noting the total defeat of Syria’s regional southern brigade and the partial collapse of its northern one.
This has several implications. The United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), which has presided over the 1974 armistice agreement, is “unequivocally” in the process of collapse, he said. The observer posts along the southern half of the Golan have been abandoned and at present all of the UN peacekeepers are in Israel, on account of the violence.
This has prompted a sea change in the Israeli military posture in the Golan Heights. Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, the commander of the IDF General Staff, ordered a major shift last fall. He relieved Division 36, one of the army’s only conscripted armored divisions, of its duties in the Golan Heights — the threat of a Syrian ground assault seems to have expired — and assembled, on the sloping plateau, a newly reconfigured regional division. These troops are focused not on ground maneuvers and firepower, the ingredients necessary to win wars, but rather on perimeter security, intelligence gathering, and careful surveillance.
Nonetheless, the officer said, a spate of attacks could provoke cross-border action. “If we have to act on the other side, if we have no choice, we’ll take that action. Will we stay there? I don’t think we will stay there. We’ll hit whoever is hitting us and we’ll return.”
For the time being, though, the rebel forces clearly visible from Post 106 continue their combat operations unabated. The officer looked down at a nearby Syrian village where the mosque was charred and the school toppled. He spoke of the Nusra Front and how they have become the dominant force along the border, buying the loyalty of villagers with religious schools for the children and food for the people. Their loyalty, he said, “has nothing to do with ideology.”
The town, for all intents and purposes, has been transformed into a rebel military base, he said, pointing out a pick-up truck filled with apparent Islamist rebels; artillery barrages in the distance produced plumes of smoke and dull explosions. “There is no such thing as an al-Qaeda member who lives in peace with Israel,” he said. But for now “what he’s interested in is changing the reality from here to Iraq.”
The next stage, he allowed, might be Jordan or Turkey or Israel. “We are developing capabilities not for the day they take Damascus, but for the day after they take Damascus,” he said. “We’re preparing the area for a situation in which they turn what they used against the Syrian army toward us. That’s what interests us. That’s what we’re preparing for.”
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