by Aurelie Daher
On February 8, the Syrian army launched an assault along the dividing line between Damascus’s southern suburbs and villages north of Quneitra and Deraa in the southern part of the country until recently controlled by remnants of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the more dominant Jabhat al-Nusra, Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate. The Syrian army was joined by fighters of the Islamic Resistance in Lebanon (IRL, the military organization attached to Hezbollah) as well as Iranian staff. Well entrenched in both departments for several months, the FSA and al-Nusra has been supported by Jordan’s intelligence services in the southwest near Deraa, and, according to reports from the United National Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), by the Israeli authorities near Quneitra on the border with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
The opening by the Damascus regime of this new front is of major strategic importance. For President Bashar al-Assad, it constitutes part of a broader strategy to recover portions of the national territory that it had lost to rebels since the onset of the civil war in 2011. In particular, it marks an attempt to secure two key highways—Damascus-Quneitra and Damascus-Deraa—in order to dislodge al-Nusra from the two strongholds on which it depends for resupply, reinforcements, and strategic depth. If successful, the offensive would effectively cut off the rebels in Damascus’ southern outskirts from their main resupply routes and thus secure the capital and its environs.
But, just as important in a strategic sense, this new front introduces a new element in the confrontation between Israel on the one hand and Hezbollah and Iran on the other.
A New Fact on the Ground?
Seen in this light, the latest developments have provoked two extreme reactions in the media. Some have expressed extreme concern that the Hezbollah-Iranian advance to the “borders of Israel” in the Golan poses a threat against the Jewish state against which its government would likely be required to respond with a major offensive that could in turn spark yet another regional war. Others have expressed extreme happiness and have even offered delusional scenarios, especially among partisans of the “axis of resistance” (Iran/Hezbollah/Assad) who see in the current offensive and al-Nusra’s retreat no less than the imminent revival of the Palestinian struggle against Israeli occupation and Jordan’s abandonment of its alliance with Tel Aviv in favor of rapprochement with Damascus.
In fact, we are far from either scenario—catastrophe or revanche—at this point. The deployment of forces on the ground in the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah (and Iran by extension) may indeed undergo significant change. But it is very unlikely to result in a broader conflict.
Since IRL’s liberation of southern Lebanon in 2000 and the end of Israel’s 22-year occupation there, the occasional outbreaks of violence between the Israeli army and IRL were largely confined to the perimeter of a few square kilometers known as the Shebaa Farms, which is located at the convergence of the Lebanese, Syrian, and Israeli borders. The area remains occupied by Israel, which considers it Syrian territory. Both Beirut and Damascus, on the other hand, consider the area Lebanese, a perception that permits Hezbollah to argue that it has the right to continue fighting Israel until all Lebanese territory is liberated. Apart from the month-long war launched by Israel against Lebanon in the summer of 2006—a unique episode in the generation-long confrontation between Israel and Hezbollah—the Shebaa Farms region has indeed served as the focus of the conflict since 2000.
If what now in retrospect seems like a harbinger of the “War of the Syrian South,” an exception to this pattern was established January 18 when Israel’s air force attacked an IRL convoy in the Quneitra region near the Golan on the Syrian side of the border. Six fighters were killed, including a general in Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. Ten days later, IRL retaliated with an attack on an Israeli patrol, in which two soldiers were killed—albeit in the Shebaa Farms area rather than against Israeli targets in the Golan. I discussed this exchange at length in “Toward a New Israel-Hezbollah War?” earlier this month.
Since al-Nusra became the dominant rebel force in southern Syria, including the border area along the Golan Heights, UNDOF has issued a series of reports documenting contacts between Israel and the jihadist group, as noted, for example, by The Christian Science Monitor. Not only did Israel fail to support the UN peacekeepers in a number of al-Nusra attacks against their positions that included hostage-taking, but it also seems clear that Israel has opened its borders to al-Nusra militants wounded in battle and subsequently treated in Israeli hospitals. The Israeli army has also made available food aid and other kinds of “undefined” assistance to the jihadists. In all likelihood, Israel was interested in creating a “security zone” similar to the buffer it built in southern Lebanon beginning in the late 1970s via the South Lebanese Army, which operated largely under Israel’s control.
From Israel’s viewpoint, the Syrian army’s possible defeat of al-Nusra does not pose a serious problem. We should recall that, in spite of Damascus’s long-standing stance of resistance against Israel, the armistice line monitored by UNDOF has, until the Syrian civil war anyway, been perhaps one of the world most stable and quiet. Moreover, since the 1973 war, Syria hasn’t taken a single initiative to regain any part of the Golan by force. Mired as it has been in recent years in its efforts to retake territory from the rebels, Damascus is most unlikely to find the prospect of war with Israel attractive.
The presence of IRL and Iranian fighters along the border, on the other hand, is more problematic. First and foremost, the IRL had already shown in the 2006 war that its rocket fire could bring normal life across northern Israel to a virtual halt. As I noted in the previous post, the so-called April Accords between Hezbollah and Tel Aviv that ended Israel’s 1996 Grapes of Wrath campaign stipulated that the two belligerents should confine themselves to making war in occupied Lebanese territory. After the 2006 war, that agreement was effectively reconfirmed: so long as Israel refrained from attacking civilian areas in Lebanon and restricted its operations to the Shebaa Farms area, IRL would not launch rockets into Israel. But, with the arrival of IRL fighters in the Quneitra area close to the Golan and the possibility that they may be permanently deployed there alongside Syrian troops, a whole new region of Israeli territory could come under threat. And the “rules of the game” that could govern their presence there have yet to be defined. The big question now, at least theoretically, is what Hezbollah wants and/or what it could do against Israel from the southern Syrian border.
Israel’s anxiety, its officials admit, is enhanced by the fact that, for the first time in its history and against all the odds, Israel could now find at its borders …Iran. The identity of the fighters sent by Tehran is unclear. While they have been dubbed “Pasdaran” in a number of reports, they are described by official sources as “volunteers authorized by Revolutionary Guide Ali Khamenei to fight in Syria.” Still, it remains undeniable that they fight under the Iranian flag and presumably according to directives issued from Tehran. In other words, their presence could win Tehran a source of direct pressure against Israel (without going through Hezbollah) by deploying its “volunteers” along the border on the Golan.
Israel thus appears to find itself in an uncomfortable position. But ultimately it has no reason to despair, since it is not really as threatened as its government suggests.
According to some analysts, the situation could provoke a large-scale Israeli response that would, in turn, inevitably trigger a reaction by Hezbollah and Iran and thus escalate into a regional conflagration. But several factors argue against this scenario.
First, relations between U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are not good, to say the least. When the latter issued a series of threats against IRL following its attack on the Israeli patrol in the Shebaa Farms area earlier this month, Washington made clear that it opposed any escalation. If Israel wants a new war in the region, it will have to do without U.S. support.
Second, the United States and its western allies have been reassessing their own positions in light of the threat posed by the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) and its ability to dominate the headlines with its gruesome executions. Not only is Assad undergoing a kind of international rehabilitation—on February 13, the UN and Arab League Envoy to Syria Steffan de Mistura said that Assad should be considered “part of the solution in Syria”—but the Obama administration also appears determined to reach an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program not only as an end in itself, but also to advance cooperation in a common effort to defeat IS in the Levant. In that context, Israel’s de facto support for al-Nusra—as well as its efforts to sabotage the nuclear negotiations and thus frustrate prospects for regional cooperation against Sunni jihadists—is increasingly unappreciated, certainly in Washington and other western capitals.
Perhaps there will be an operation targeted exclusively against Hezbollah and IRL? But that would risk putting Israel’s settlements in the Golan, not to mention northern Galilee as in 2006, under IRL’s rocket fire. And looking back at what happened last month when IRL responded to the Israeli army attack against its convoy, it appears that Israel would prefer to avoid this scenario in any case.
And we should not forget that Israel is in the middle of an election campaign. The risks of a war whose trajectory might not turn out the way Netanyahu and his national-security advisers anticipate are very real, as we also saw in 2006. The political costs may be exorbitant as they were for Netanyahu’s predecessor, Ehud Olmert.
In other words, Israel indeed finds itself in a difficult position. But, as noted above, it need not despair. In reality, its Iranian-Hezbollah foes have no more desire to attack Israel than the Assad regime has. The way IRL responded to the Jan 18 attack on its forces—by limiting its response to the traditional Shebaa Farms battleground—illustrates the point. If Israel doesn’t want to see rockets rain down on either the Galilee or the Golan, IRL is not in the mood for undergoing a new round of large-scale violence in which Lebanon pays the bill. As for Iran, despite official rhetoric that is less than friendly towards Israel to say the least, it too has no reason to engage it in a war. Not only would Tehran’s war aims prove difficult to define, but a war would necessarily threaten its two top priorities—defending Assad in Syria and concluding a nuclear deal that would lift international sanctions against it.
In the end, the possibility and duration of the deployment of IRL/Iranian forces along the Golan has, for now, more to do with the effort to defeat al-Nusra and allied forces in the region than with preparing for the next regional war with Israel. Of course, it may indeed give them an edge in the psychological war waged against the Jewish state, which may now have to learn to live with Hezbollah on its eastern frontier as well as its northern border.
Photo: Israeli soldiers at the Quneitra Overlook on the Golan Heights