Golan tensions threaten new clash in old war zone
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.