Golan tensions threaten new clash in old war zone

Sunday 02/04/2017
Under the volcano. An Israeli soldier from the Golani Brigade takes part in a military training exercise in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights near the border with Syria. (AFP)

Beirut - Rising tensions over Iran’s involvement in the Syr­ian conflict could turn the Golan Heights, a high volcanic plateau occu­pied by Israel, into a flashpoint of violence between Israel and Hez­bollah.

Mostly annexed by Israel in 1981, the Golan has served as a battlefield of empires since biblical times. Is­rael has repeatedly warned that the presence of Iranian and Hezbollah forces there is a “red line” it would not tolerate.

Iran and its Lebanese ally, how­ever, have already gained a toehold on the northern tip of the strate­gic escarpment, most of which has been in Israeli hands since the 1967 war. Iran and Hezbollah are looking to expand their reach in the area.

The recent military escalation suggests that a clash in the Golan is all but inevitable. Such a clash could trigger a war fought on the territories of Israel, Syria and Leba­non.

“The big question now is to what extent Israel can remain deter­mined to maintain its red lines and prevent the build-up of Hezbollah and the other Iranian proxies in Syria and the deployment of these forces near the border in the Golan Heights without destabilising its special relations with Moscow and without causing wider escalation in the northern arena,” observed an analysis published by Israel’s Insti­tute for National Security Studies.

In May 2000, after Israel with­drew from its 22-year occupa­tion zone in southern Lebanon, it faced a similar problem. Hezbollah moved its forces up to the border and began building its military ca­pabilities in anticipation of a future war with Israel.

As Hezbollah gained strength on the border, Israel was reluctant to take pre-emptive action and dis­rupt the longest period of calm enjoyed by residents of northern Israel in three decades.

Hezbollah’s presence in the northern Golan goes back to at least 2013. In December that year, a road­side bomb hit an Israeli army vehi­cle near Majdal Shams in the north­ern sector.

The attack came four days after a top Hezbollah military official and a key figure in its clandestine weap­ons programme, Hassan al-Laqqis, was assassinated in Beirut, appar­ently by Israeli agents.

Three months later, Israel bombed a Hezbollah-controlled military zone in the eastern Bekaa Valley, the party’s stronghold in Lebanon. There were three un­claimed attacks in the next three weeks — all bearing Hezbollah’s fingerprints — on Israeli forces in the Golan. Israeli troops in the oc­cupied Shebaa Farms area on Leba­non’s south-eastern border were also bombed.

Sources close to Hezbollah said that in 2014 it began building a network of bunkers and tunnels in areas of the northern Golan it con­trolled. One Hezbollah source, who has served several combat tours in Syria, said the infrastructure was completed by early 2015.

On January 18th, 2015, two Israeli drones attacked a convoy in the northern Golan, killing an Iranian general and two senior Hezbollah commanders who were apparently inspecting the new facilities.

The following month, Hezbollah launched an offensive in the Golan alongside Syrian troops and Shia paramilitary forces. The assault was meant to restore control of the volcanic plateau to Syrian forces but ran out of steam.

Recent battlefield advances by the Syrian regime have prompted Hezbollah forces to reconsider re­taking the Golan.

In February, the Hezbollah al-Nu­jaba Movement, an Iranian-backed Iraqi Shia militia, announced the establishment of a new unit called the Golan Liberation Front.

“This is a trained army with spe­cific plans,” Sayyed Hashem Mous­sawi, the group’s leader, said. “If the government of Syria requests, we and our allies are ready to take action to liberate the Golan.”

While it is difficult to gauge whether the group poses a threat, some reports indicate it has already deployed forces in the Golan.

Still, most analysts say any seri­ous effort to drive out Israeli forces is unlikely for now.

For Israel, a Hezbollah-Iranian presence on the Golan is not only a strategic threat but a logistical headache that requires it to devote more military resources to a front that has been dormant since 1974.

If Hezbollah does expand its hold on the Golan, Israel will face some unpleasant choices.

Attacking Hezbollah’s forces in the area could prevent the organi­sation from establishing a strong presence but would risk igniting a war with its old enemy that nei­ther side wants. Such a manoeuvre could also anger Russia, especially if fighting in the Golan were to spread and threaten Moscow’s in­terests in other parts of Syria.

On the other hand, doing nothing would allow Hezbollah and Iran to strengthen their position against Israel, effectively expanding the battlefront from Lebanon into the Golan and possibly to other parts of Syria.

Given the growing unease with which Israel is viewing the conflict in Syria, the Golan has the potential to become one of the region’s most dangerous flashpoints.

Israel launched a string of air strikes in March against suspected Hezbollah weapons stores around Damascus and further north. Syria has been relying on Russian-sup­plied air-defence missiles more than ever. Conditions are growing increasingly restive on all sides.