The Syrian civil war has been bloody and seemingly endless, but one positive aspect of the infighting among Syrian factions is that Israel’s border with the hostile Arab regime has been quiet. As the Iran-backed Syrian government forces solidify control over much of the country that fragile peace may be coming to an end.
Bloomberg reports that Syrian rebels now have only two major strongholds left in the country. Thanks to Russian intervention – and a lack of interest from both Barack Obama and Donald Trump in aiding opposition forces – it seems that the rebels’ days are numbered. Once the regime eliminates its domestic enemies, it is likely that it will turn its focus toward Israel once again.
At the height of the war, Israel used friendly relations with rebel groups to create a buffer zone near the border. The Israelis reportedly supplied rebels with aid, medical help and money for weapons and salaries. They also provide humanitarian aid to Syrian refugees camped along the border. The assistance also helped boost Israel’s image with its Arab neighbors.
“We were brainwashed for decades to hate Israel,” said a resident of southern Syria, who declined to give his name, after being treated for shrapnel wounds at Israel’s Galilee Medical Center. “I now see that my enemy isn’t Israel, but the people who came and destroyed our village.”
There have been a number of Israeli airstrikes against targets in Syria during the past few years, including a recent attack on Syria’s T-4 airbase, home to Iranian units, but now things seem to be heating up on the ground as well. Last weekend, a mortar shell from Syria exploded in the buffer zone between the two countries. Israel responded with artillery fire. This morning Israel shot down a drone that entered its airspace from Syria.
Haaretz notes that the final rebel holdouts are likely to occupy the southern part of Syria near the Golan Heights on the border with Israel. Israel captured the Golan Heights during the Six Day War of 1967 and has occupied them ever since. The two countries agreed to disengagement lines in 1974.
Israel reportedly gave the Assad regime and Russia the green light for operations against rebels in southern Syria provided that Iranian forces were kept away from the border. This agreement seems to have been honored only in part since Iranian and Hezbollah forces were spotted taking part in the fighting in Daraa, the city in southwestern Syria where the Syrian uprising began in 2011.
The immediate problem is that Syria will not be able to root out rebel fighters from the Golan Heights without intruding into the disengagement zone. Incursions without Israeli approval could lead to expanded fighting.
“Any Syrian soldier who enters the buffer zone endangers his life,” Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman told Bloomberg. “We are not prepared to accept any Iranian presence in Syria.”
But Iran is unlikely to leave post-war Syria easily and their Russian allies are unlikely to press them. Putin’s influence with Iran may be limited and he has little incentive to push too hard. Haaretz reports that Prime Minister Netanyahu may offer Putin relief from US sanctions in exchange for help against Iran.
It is possible that Iran will sit out the campaign against the rebel fighters near the Golan Heights and wait for an opportunity to insert themselves into the area to act against the Israelis directly. Iran’s ultimate goal of destroying Israel seems clear.
Last month, the deputy commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards said, “Today an international Islamic army has been formed in Syria, and the voices of the Muslims are heard near the Golan. Orders are awaited, so that… the eradication of the evil regime [Israel] will land and the life of this regime will be ended for good. The life of the Zionist regime was never in danger as it is now.”
If there is a bright spot, it is that the Sunni Arab countries in the region are no more enamored with the Iranians than the Israelis are. Saudi Arabia and Iran have already engaged in proxy wars in other countries such as Yemen and Qatar.
The Syrian civil war is winding down, but expanded Iranian influence in the region and Iranian soldiers near the Israeli border may mean that the stage is already set for the next war. Where the fighting for the last decade has been largely contained within Syria’s borders, the next Middle East conflict could be a regional war, the likes of which has not been seen for decades.
[Photo credit: The 13th Battalion of the Golani Brigade during a drill held in the Golan Heights, northern Israel. Photo by Staff Sgt. (res.) Abir Sultan/The Israel Defense Forces]