March 15 marked the third anniversary of the beginning of unrest that led to the ongoing Syrian civil war. As the conflict drags on into its fourth year with no end in sight, Israel — which shares a contentious United Nations-patrolled border with Syria in the Golan Heights region — finds itself in a precarious situation due to new threats such as al-Qaeda-affiliated rebel terror groups as well as old foes such as Hezbollah, Iran, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“None of the sides are capable of a decisive victory to end the war and rule over the entire country,” explained Amos Yadlin, a retired Israeli Air Force general and former head of the military intelligence directorate of the Israel Defense Forces. “It has been a moral disaster.”
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the conflict has resulted in more than 146,000 deaths, and more than 2.5 million Syrians have fled abroad and another 6.5 million have been internally displaced, resulting in the worst humanitarian disaster of the early 21st century.
Despite the massive humanitarian toll and the use of chemical weapons against his own people, Assad has seen his fortunes improve over the last year, as Western and Arab countries have been unwilling to directly intervene in the conflict or to successfully end the conflict diplomatically.
Lebanese-born Middle East analyst Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, blamed President Barack Obama for indirectly strengthening Assad’s position with his handling of the chemical weapons situation last fall.
“The Obama administration, by brokering this chemical weapons deal, has strengthened Assad’s position,” said Badran, “because Assad now understands there is not going to be any threat of direct involvement of outside powers against him. It also validated him … and gave him free reign to pursue all avenues of destruction up to weapons of mass destruction.
“The direct threat to Assad that existed a year ago, thanks to the Obama administration policy, it has been taken off the table for now,” he added.
Despite the massive civil war raging to its north, Israel has maintained a strict policy of neutrality in the conflict, not wishing to be drawn in like it was during the 15-year Lebanese civil war in the 1970s and 1980s.
Nevertheless, Israel has shown it is willing to become involved on a limited scale when its direct interests are threatened, such as when it reportedly launched airstrikes against advanced weapons convoys destined for the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah.
“The way Israel has been involved in Syria up until now has been exclusively through the Iranian angle, specifically to the procurement and transmission of strategic weapons systems [from the Syrian government to Hezbollah],” said Badran.
But as the Syrian civil war has dragged on, al-Qaeda-affiliated terror groups have become increasingly dominant within the rebel ranks, worrying Western and Israeli officials. The two main groups, Jabhat al-Nusra and its main competitor, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, have displaced the relatively moderate and secular Free Syrian Army as the main rebel group fighting the Syrian government.
Despite these concerns, southern Syria, even with the losses by the Syrian government, has not seen the large influx of jihadist fighters that have affected northern Syria.
“The only group in the south that might become a problem is the Jabhat al-Nusra, which has a limited presence in the area. However, the makeup of the groups down there is mostly locally oriented tribal groups that have ties with Jordanian and Israeli intelligence,” explained Badran.
Yadlin echoed Badran’s assessment, arguing that he does not yet consider the jihadist groups to be a serious problem for Israel.
“I don’t belong to the group that believes that the terrorist threat in Syria is very serious at this time. While it does pose a problem [for Israel], Israel knows how to handle terrorists, especially when it is coming from a well-defined border such as the Golan Heights,” said Yadlin, head of the Tel Aviv University-affiliated Institute for National Security Studies.
Last month the IDF announced that it was deploying a new division to the Syrian border in the Golan Heights to maintain “operational readiness,” according to IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz.
The newly created 210th Regional Bashan Division replaces the 36th Armor Division, which had patrolled the Syrian border for nearly 40 years and was designed to fight conventional military threats such as a Syrian land invasion.
But with the Syrian military severely weakened by the civil war and the loss of control of large swaths of southern Syria, the threat of a conventional ground war — as seen in previous conflicts such as the 1973 Yom Kippur War — has severely diminished, forcing Israeli military planners to recalculate the emerging threats in the region, such as terror groups like Jabhat al-Nusra.
Gantz said the restructuring of military forces in the Golan Heights is part of a shift toward providing a faster response from “air, sea and ground threats to Israel’s security.”
Yadlin said that Israeli military officials are on top of the ongoing changes in the area and are preparing the IDF to meet these emerging challenges: “Israel has a topographical advantage there [in the Golan Heights], very good intelligence and new highly trained military support in the area.”