The Golan Heights, where al-Qaeda fights Hezbollah

While the border with Israel is mostly held by Islamist rebels, pro-Assad forces maintain pockets of control

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Hezbollah fighters salute during the funeral procession of Hassan al-Laqis, a senior commander of Hezbollah, who was gunned down at his hometown in Baalbek, Lebanon, on December 4, 2013, (photo credit: AP/Hussein Malla)
Hezbollah fighters salute during the funeral procession of Hassan al-Laqis, a senior commander of Hezbollah, who was gunned down at his hometown in Baalbek, Lebanon, on December 4, 2013, (photo credit: AP/Hussein Malla)

The latest news coming out of Syria is not what Israeli residents of the Golan Heights want to hear. The same goes for Syrians on the other side of the border fence.

Most of the Syrian Golan has fallen to the opposition. Along the entire Syrian-Israeli border, there are only two areas still under the rule of the Assad regime in Damascus — Quneitra in the central Golan; and Khader, the Druze area in the northern heights.

Groups affiliated with al-Qaeda maintain a strong presence here. What’s more, Jabhat al-Nusra, the group created as the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda in Iraq (until it began fighting with the leaders of The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) now controls the southern Syrian Golan Heights.

From the Israeli side of the border, one can make out Jabhat al-Nusra’s black flags waving over the homes in the village of Kudna.

But not every area in opposition hands is controlled by Islamists. In this respect, the Golan is no different than the rest of Syria. On the heights, there are a range of groups fighting the regime, with no overarching hierarchy or central command. In some areas, the Islamists are dominant, and in others more moderate groups are in charge. What they share is a common hatred for Bashar Assad.

In a speech earlier this week, Assad claimed that the military campaign against rebel forces would end this year. It’s not likely he had anything to base that claim on, except perhaps the international apathy toward his actions. In recent weeks, the Syrian army has used chemical weapons, though less deadly than that used to kill between 1,400 and 1,700 people last August.

Still, they’re chemical weapons.

The Syrian president understands that, given his Russian-Chinese support at the UN Security Council and the US weakness in the international arena, he can continue doing whatever he wants. US President Barack Obama’s policy in the wake of the Syrian chemical attack on the suburbs of Damascus — to refrain from military conflict at any cost — has led Damascus and Moscow (and to some extent, Jerusalem and Ramallah) to the inescapable conclusion that there is no one in charge.

There will be books written on the (il)logic of US foreign policy under Obama, but in the meantime, Syria continues to burn. It is hard to estimate the number of dead in the conflict, but it has likely passed 150,000. The local economy has been destroyed and will take decades to rebuild, and millions of people have lost their homes and been turned into refugees.

The war is far from its conclusion. The situation in the Golan underscores how much Assad’s statements about regime territorial control from day one have been more of a wish than reality. Most Syrian territory is still in opposition hands. The rebels have achieved significant successes across the country, including the crossings on the Turkish border and even in the Alawite region of Latakia. In Kurdish areas, the regime doesn’t even dare challenge its adversaries.

And despite all this, to Assad’s credit, his army has chalked up several successes in recent weeks, primarily on the border with Lebanon. Regime supporters, with the help of Hezbollah fighters, cleared out most of the border area of rebel strongholds. This week, the army captured Maaloula, a well-known Christian town on the Qalamoun mountain range on the border. The main goal of the Syrian and Hezbollah forces in capturing the Qalamoun ridge was to cut off the rebels in Syria from Lebanon, to prevent the flow of Lebanese jihadists, and to cut into the support opposition fighters near Damascus receive from the border area.

In other areas, the regime is content to simply maintain control, as it has done in the Quneitra area on the Israeli border and in Khader opposite the Israeli-controlled Druze town of Majdal Shams. The Druze on the Syrian side, perhaps out of fear of the Islamists, established local militias that fight on Assad’s side, and even battle neighboring opposition-held Sunni towns.

When the tail wags the dog

The military presence of al-Qaeda supporters on the Syrian Golan on the one hand, facing Syrian army units reinforced by Hezbollah on the other, presents an explosive, delicate front for Israel. Hezbollah has already declared publicly that its theater of struggle against Israel will now be the Golan.

The working assumption of Israeli forces on the Golan is that Hezbollah’s recent attempts to harm IDF soldiers using IEDs are not the last. The Shiite terrorist organization has apparently taken advantage of Syrian aid in order to place new IEDs whose location is unclear (and they might not exist at all), and they may be activated if Israel tries to attack Hezbollah convoys in Lebanon again.

Hezbollah has turned the Golan Heights into a playing field against Israel should it act in Lebanon. In the meantime, the energy and resources it dedicates to the Syrian civil war are only increasing. An AFP exclusive this week claimed that 5,000 Hezbollah fighters are operating on Syrian soil. The organization has enlisted significant numbers of young fighters just over the age of 18 to fight in Syria, sending them to months of training, at first in the Bekaa Valley, followed by advanced training in Iran. The same report said that because of the large number of new recruits to fight in Syria, enlistment of new soldiers has been halted.

Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria has brought about a drastic change in the organization’s modus operandi. From guerrilla warfare, Hezbollah has adopted fighting tactics of a regular army. Ironically, Hezbollah fighters told AFP that the Syrian soldiers show a lower level of skill than the organization’s trained warriors.

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