On the Golan, a new conflict is simmering
BEIRUT - For decades, the Golan Heights, a volcanic plateau in southern Syria captured by Israel in 1967, was the quietest of all the Jewish state’s front lines with its Arab neighbours. That was because the Syrians wanted it that way so their efforts to negotiate its return would not be impeded by military clashes.
These days, with Syria torn apart by a multifaceted civil war, the Golan is heating up again, this time as the Iranians, who seem to be calling the shots with the beleaguered Damascus regime of their ally President Bashar Assad, apparently seeking to establish a new front line with Israel.
On August 20th, a string of night raids on Israeli-held territory triggered retaliatory attacks that Israel said targeted Islamic Jihad, a Palestinian group with headquarters in Damascus and funded by Tehran.
After two rockets fell in the occupied sector of the Golan, with two more hitting Israel’s northern Galilee region, the Israelis attacked 14 Syrian Army positions, killing six soldiers in the largest such assault in decades.
None of the missiles caused casualties or damage but the ones that hit Galilee, an unusually long-range attack, were the first fired from Syria to explode inside Israel since the 1973 Ramadan war.
Islamic Jihad denied involvement but Israel said the missile firing was planned by Said Izadi, an Iranian who heads the Palestinian division of the al-Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).
At another time, rockets hitting empty fields would not have raised many eyebrows. But the action unfolded less than a week after the increasingly apprehensive Israelis conducted a brigade-size military exercise in their sector of the strategic plateau.
It was aimed at countering a possible ground operation launched from the Syrian sector, a sustained rocket attack or a coordinated, wide-ranging terrorist offensive similar to the one mounted by Islamic State’s Egyptian wing against security forces in the Sinai peninsula in July.
The Israelis believe they face a growing threat on the Golan from the al-Quds Force, which has established a significant presence on the Golan with its Lebanese Shia ally, Hezbollah.
The Iranian-led buildup around the largely deserted city of Quneitra, the region’s former capital, has been under way for months and emphasises concerns that Iran has taken control of the Damascus regime’s military strategy.
Israel believes Iran and Hezbollah are establishing a new front line against them, extending the traditional confrontation line eastwards from neighbouring Lebanon’s southern border.
Israel has been gradually reinforcing its northern front to unprecedented peacetime levels, including reactivating an army division. Two weeks after the Iran nuclear agreement was signed, Israel, fearing Tehran will have access to an estimated $100 billion in unfrozen assets with which to fund its foreign operations, deployed units of its vaunted Iron Dome air defence system in the north to counter any potential escalation.
The Israelis have conducted at least six air strikes against convoys suspected of carrying Iranian missiles to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
These have thrust Israel into direct action against the Iranians in which at least two IRGC generals have been killed. Brigadier-General Hassan Shateri, who was in charge of massively expanding Hezbollah’s missile arsenal after its 2006 war with Israel, was killed in Syria in early 2013.
The Iranians say he was assassinated on February 13th by Syrian rebels but Israel says he died in a January air strike on a convoy carrying Russian-made SA-17 surface-to-air missiles to Hezbollah.
The Israelis apparently considered it was worth risking a strike deep into Syrian territory to ensure that Hezbollah did not get its hands on weapons that would challenge Israeli’s supremacy of the air.
On January 19th, another al-Quds chief, Brigadier-General Ali Allahdadi, was killed during an inspection of the Golan sector around Quneitra in an Israeli air strike that specifically targeted his three-vehicle convoy. The Israelis claimed they had tracked him from Damascus through his cellphone.
Also killed was Jihad Mughniyeh, 25, son of the iconic Hezbollah military chief Imad Mughniyeh, assassinated in Damascus on February 12, 2008, in what was apparently a CIA-Israeli Mossad operation.
The younger Mughniyeh headed a special unit in the Golan. His killing made the Golan confrontation something of a grudge match between the Israelis and Hezbollah in particular.
In recent months, that has become even more intense. Jihad Mughniyeh’s successor is Samir Kuntar, a Lebanese Druze who spent 29 years in an Israeli prison for killing an Israeli family in a 1979 Palestinian raid. He was freed in a 2008 prisoner exchange with Hezbollah but Israel let him go only with the greatest reluctance.
“It’s clear Iran’s been behind all the terror attacks in the Golan over the past two years,” an Israeli officer told the Times of Israel. “The Iranians are using the border… they establish units — whether it’s (Jihad) Mughniyeh or Kuntar, and more — to carry out attacks.”