For over 40 years, the Golan Heights has been one of Israel’s quietest regions. Israel liberated the Golan Heights during the 1967 Six-Day War and successfully repulsed a Syrian attempt to retake the Golan six years later. Since that time, Israel has transformed the Golan into an oasis of sorts, drawing tens of thousands of tourists yearly.
Those fortunate enough to visit the region marvel over its natural beauty and tranquility. But the outbreak of violence and civil war in Syria has resulted in periodic spillover with errant shells, fired by pro and anti-regime forces, landing in open spaces across the border. In some circumstances, the fire is purposeful though this only occurs on rare occasions and those foolish enough to engage the Israel Defense Forces usually pay for their misdeeds with their lives.
In November 2016, an ISIS cell which opened fire on Israeli troops patrolling the Golan Heights border was liquidated in short order by accurate tank and aircraft fire. At least four ISIS terrorist were reportedly killed. ISIS got the message (it has been reported that they even apologized) and since that occurrence, there have been no repeat incidents initiated by the terror group.
Since the start of Syria’s civil war, fire directed from the Syrian side of the border has claimed one fatality, a 15-year-old Israeli Arab youth who was travelling with his father near the border. The incident occurred in June 2014. His father, a civilian contractor who was working in the area, was injured. Immediate counter fire quickly dispatched those responsible.
Israel has informed the Syrian government through indirect channels that it will not tolerate violations of its territorial sovereignty whether purposeful or not, and would respond forcefully to any violation, however slight. This robust Israeli doctrine was put into practice on June 24 and June 25.
In the first occurrence, several shells landed on the Israeli side of the border after fighting broke out between Assad loyalists and Sunni insurgents. Hikers near the vicinity were evacuated as a safety precaution. Israel’s response was immediate and devastating. Two Syrian tanks and a heavy machine gun outpost were obliterated. The IDF released aerial surveillance of the strike and accurate hits were clearly visible. Syria acknowledged the death of two of its soldiers during the attack.
Less than 24 hours later, several Syrian projectiles landed on the Israeli side of the border drawing once again, a furious Israeli military response. Two Syrian artillery pieces and an ammunition truck were destroyed in the second Israeli strike.
In response to Israel’s defensive measures, the Assad regime issued a banal threat incorporating the usual hysterical rhetoric stating that Israel would be held responsible for any repercussions that may ensue. The Syrian army announced that Israel would face “serious consequences if it repeats similar aggressive actions under any pretext.”
But it is difficult to take Assad’s threats seriously. His army is a mere shell of its former self. Attrition, defections, draft-dodging and desertions have taken their collective toll on Syrian troop strength. It is believed that the Syrian army consists of roughly half of its pre-war strength of 300,000. Without the presence of Russia and Iranian-backed proxies like Hezbollah, the Assad regime would have collapsed long ago. Given his mounting problems, the last thing the embattled regime needs now is a war with one of the world’s strongest militaries.
Nevertheless, some Israeli experts believe that Syria’s threats should be taken seriously. They argue that Assad, emboldened by the presence of Russia and recent victories against insurgent groups, might actually adopt a more aggressive posture vis-à-vis Israel. This position reflects the viewpoint of the former deputy commander of the IDF’s Galilee Division, Brig. Gen. (res.) Nitzan Nuriel. As evidence of its emboldened stance, Nuriel highlighted Syria’s recent firing of SAM-5 antiaircraft missiles at Israeli fighter jets undertaking a strike mission against a Syrian airbase known as T4 near the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra. Though all the missiles missed, the very fact that the Syrians reacted may evidence a more belligerent position.
Regardless of Assad’s threats, it is clear that Israel has adopted a zero tolerance policy regarding spillover and errant shells and will respond forcefully to each incident, holding the Assad regime responsible for any breach of peace. In addition, Israel has also made clear that it will not tolerate the creation of Iranian or Hezbollah bases near the Golan border.
For Israel, this is a red line that cannot be crossed. Underscoring this point, the IDF has acted resolutely on numerous occasions to thwart Iranian or Hezbollah efforts to alter the status quo on the border. This includes a devastating Israeli airstrike in 2015 that liquidated a mixed cell of Iranian and Hezbollah operatives reconnoitering along the border. Among those killed was Iranian general, Mohammad Ali Allahdadi and Jihad Mughniyeh, a ranking Hezbollah operative who was also the son of Hezbollah’s former special operations commander, Imad Mughniyeh. The elder Mughniyeh was killed in 2008 in an operation widely attributed to the Mossad.
The Iranians and their Hezbollah allies got the message and it is likely that Israel’s rather forceful response to recent Syrian border transgressions will prevail upon Assad to be a bit more careful. Nevertheless, Israel’s enemies are anything but rational compelling continued Israeli vigilance along the border.
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