The Syrian mess and the strategic importance of the Golan Heights in the war against global Jihad

By Gideon

November 19, 2015

I  visited the Golan Heights last September. I stopped in an observation point on the Israeli Syrian border. The sounds of explosions and the smoke just few miles away on the Syrian side of the border were a reminder of the relentless battle for control on the Syrian controlled area on the Golan Heights.  It was too far to see with a naked eye who was attacking who. Syria is a mess and the Golan is a reflection of it.The Syrian Golan is occupied by numerous opposing forces with their own agendas. Most of the time one cannot be certain who is bombarding who. These are the forces who operate in the region:

  • Assad forces – Allawi muslims who try to hold on to power in Syria
  • Hezbollah – The Iranian controlled Lebanese Shia muslim terrorist organization who  fights alongside Assad forces
  • ISIS – The Sunni muslim terrorist organization who fights against Assad
  • Al Qaeda – The international Sunni muslim terrorist organization who fights against Assad
  • The Free Syrian army – A Sunni muslim rebel organization who fights against Assad. This organization is titled “moderate” although this definition is subjective and relative to the more extremist organizations in the area.   
  • The Russian air force who fights alongside Assad forces
  • American airplanes who are bombing ISIS forces in Syria and Iraq.
  • Israeli airplanes who bomb Hezbollah weapon depots in Syria. Israeli artillery who respond to stray artillery shells that fall on the Israeli side of the Golan. Israeli ground forces who fight Hezbollah attempts to infiltrate into Israel 
  • Druze militias who mostly fight alongside Assad forces
  • French airplane who joined the battle against ISIS after the attack on Paris

The Golan Heights rise from 400 to 1700 feet in the northeastern section of the country. Israel’s highest mountain, Mt. Hermon, is located in the northern part of the Golan Height. The plateau was once actively volcanic and the northernmost points remain weathered and desolate. The Golan is a strategically important region, extending like a finger between the borders of Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and Syria. When Syria won its independence in 1946 it emptied the region of the sparse population of Bedouin and Druze, and turned it into a military encampment from which to harass Israel. In 1967, during the six days war, Israel took control of the western part of the Golan Heights. Today it is used as a military buffer zone, heavily fortified, between Israel and Syria. There are few Israeli and Druz villages on the Israeli side of the Golan Heights. The Syrian side is sparsely populated. In the past, the Golan Height was crucial in preventing  Arab armies from flooding Israel. Some of the most difficult battles between Israel and Syria were fought on the Golan Heights during the Yom Kippur war in 1973.

The Golan Height is the bridge to Jordan and Israel. Jordan is the landbridge to the rich oil fields in Saudi Arabia and the holy city of Mecca. Israel is the second most hated country after America in the eyes of extremist Islamic organizations. Israel existence is a constant threat to the global Jihad movement. The road to these two strategic countries goes through the Golan Heights. An area which is mostly flat, and easy to travel through. The Syrian side of the Golan is lower on Assad’s priority list in his war to remain in power. Without the presence of a dominant force in the region, it became a chaotic place where everyone is fighting everyone else for control.  

For the longest time the US avoided intervening in the war in Syria because of Putin’s threat to come to Assad’s aid if the US interfered. This was enough of a threat to keep the Obama administration (if for no other reason) out of Syria. However, to quite the political opposition at home, President Obama authorized a symbolic air raids on ISIS strongholds, and sent 50 US military personnel as advisors to Syrian rebels. Certainly, not enough to tip the balance of power by any stretch of imagination.

In the void that was created, ISIS continued to expand and grow in Syria and other Middle Eastern countries. It forced Putin to send military units to Assad’s aid. The aid was in the form of bombers and anti air missile defense system, which brings up the question against whom exactly Russia protects Assad. Why Assad needs anti-air missile defense system? ISIS does not have aircrafts. Is it against the Israeli air force which is attacking Iranian and Syrian weapon shipment to Hezbollah? Is it a deterrent against US airplanes, Putin’s way of signaling to the US to leave Assad alone.

Since it is reported that the Israeli air force recently attacked a Hezbollah weapon depot  on the outskirts of Damascus, it seems that either Russia and Israel have some type of coordination, or that Russia doesn’t want to get into a military confrontation with Israel, accepting the fact that the Israeli air force is the dominant air power in the region, and for that reason, Russia stays out of Israel’s way as long as there is no direct attack on Assad’s power centers. 

Inaction by the West in general, and lack of leadership by the US in particular, led to an ISIS attack on Paris. As a result, France joined the bombing campaign on ISIS, while pressuring the US and other European country to join the fight. There are voices in the US and Europe that say that as disgusting as it may be, it is better to support Assad, Iran, and Hezbollah, than to let Isis take over Syria.

The Assad regime lost its appetite for a direct military confrontation with Israel after the Yom Kippur War of 1973. For forty years the Golan Height was one of the most uneventful borders in Israel. Unfortunately, as it looks now, these days are over. Israel is sitting on the sideline, not sure whom to support. In the meantime, it provides medical aid to Syrian rebel forces who are injured on the Syrian Golan and make their way to the Israeli side of the border asking for help. As stunning as it may be, Al Qaida fighters and soldiers of other extremist organizations, who call for the destruction of Israel, are treated in Israeli hospitals and then sent back to Syria.

Not everyone is happy about it: Few months a go an Israeli ambulance was attacked by Druzes who live on the Israeli side of the border. The Druzes murdered the injured Syrian rebel soldiers because they belonged to a faction that fights against Assad and the Druze militias on the Syrian side of the border.

It is not clear what Israel is trying to get out of it, beyond the humanitarian aid. My feeling is that Israel is interested in building some trust and some bridges of communication with the forces who operates along its border, to have dialogue that will ensure that the war does not spill over into Israel. 

It is bad enough that the Obama administration paved the way for Iran to acquire a nuclear arsenal, making a mistake in Syria, the kind that was made in Libya, will destabilize Israel’s and Jordan’s northern borders in a way that will be ten times more challenging than the problems Israel is facing along the border with Gaza. It may also bring to the collapse of the Jordanian kingdom.

In the case of Jordan, the Golan Heights is the shortest distance between Syria and the heavily populated Palestinian areas in northern Jordan and Jordan’s capital Amman. If ISIS or Hezbollah becomes the dominant force in southern Syria, it is almost certain that the winning side will use the Golan Heights as a jumping board into Jordan in order to overthrow the king with the help of the large Palestinian population that lives there.

In the case of Israel, there is nothing more attractive for a terrorist group, whether it is ISIS or Hezbollah, than to justify a confrontations with Israel under the claim that they are fighting to free the Golan Heights. A claim which will most-likely attract both financial support from terror financiers, and extremist Islamic volunteers, who are looking for action. Neither Hezbollah, nor ISIS has strategic assets in the Syrian side of the Golan Heights.They have very little to lose when and if Israel responds to provocations with artillery. Syria is not Gaza: Israel has no way of preventing heavy weapon from getting into the hands of terrorists on the Syrian side of the border, nor can it destroy houses and infrastructure in a way that is meaningful and impactful.

Israel and Jordan are too passive in their response to the developing situation on their respective Syrian  borders. They are basically taking the approach of “watch and  wait”. The Obama administration  has no vision or ideas on how to solve the Syrian problem. Russia and Iran are fighting to keep Assad in power. France is mostly interested in destroying ISIS.

Without a unified and clear vision for the Syrian problem it will remain a chaotic pace where everyone is fighting everyone else. Neither Assad, nor ISIS or Hezbollah is the solution. Afghanistan and Iraq, taught us that the Western democratic model of government doesn’t work in the Middle East (except Israel). It might be beneficial to have a moderate autocratic government in Syria based on the Jordanian, Saudi, or the Egyptian models. 

The Syrian Golan is a good place to start changing the balance of forces:  Under the protection of an Israeli and Jordanian umbrella, a moderate government can be put in place. A safe zone can be implemented. From there, the moderate government’s influence  zone could be expended north, deep into Syria to bring the country under control.

Why Israel should not intervene in the Syrian civil war

Frozen in time: The Golan Heights – What in its future?

The Battle on Mount Hermon in the Yom Kippur War of 1973 – The courage of the Golani soldiers under fire

Israel and the civil war in Syria