The fragile situation on the Golan Heights is described very well in the videos shown below. Armed gangs of different anti-Israeli and anti Assad militias are roaming the Syrian side of the border. Their immediate goal is overthrowing the Assad regime, however, ideologically, their long-term goal is destroying Israel. These militant groups include the radical Lebanese terror organization Hezbollah, the cruel Islamic terror organization ISIS, a militia associated with Al-Qaeda, and the nationalistic Free Syrian Army.
At this time, none of these organizations is powerful enough to attack Israel in an all-out war, but they are capable of inflicting casualties and disturbing life in Israel in a similar manner to Hamas in Gaza strip and Hezbollah in Lebanon.
The civil war in Syria is in its fifth year. It is unlikely that the Syrian civil war will end in the foreseeable future. It will continue as long as the Iranians and the Russian support the Assad regime, the Saudis and other Sunni Arab states support militias opposing the Assad regime, the US provide non-direct support to the Kurds and other Syrian militias, and the Turks are letting massive amount of ammunition and volunteers to cross their border into Syria.
The war is fueled by the chaos in Iraq, by Iran’s ambition to expand its influence, by Russian and Turkish ambition to return to their glorious days as superpowers, by the indecisiveness of the United States, by the European Union luck of interest, by Sunni Arab states who fear Iran, and by the Israeli interest to keep Syria as weak as possible.
In this chaotic place, ISIS is spreading like a cancer. In the foreseeable future the country will be broken apart into smaller geographic entities, identified by their ethnic, political, and religious affiliation. A place where each entity is controlled by a different armed militia.
There are two common unifying characteristics for the various militant groups in Syria:
- Militant groups define themselves as Syrians and see themselves ruling over the entire country.
- They see Israel as an enemy, an occupier of Syrian land (the Golan Heights).
If no victor rises from the Syrian civil war, eventually they’ll reach a practical truce. Syria will follow the Lebanese model, where the country is defined on world maps as one entity and represented internationally by a single representative, but in reality, the country is divided into geographic regions, each one has its own militant militia, which is defined by religion and political affiliation.
If no new development occurs (i.e. sudden death of Assad and assembly of a coalition government, Iran goes through a regime change and stops supporting Assad, or the West decides to intervene in the civil war), Southwestern Syria, just as Southern Lebanon before it, could become a launching pad for terror attacks against Israel.
One day, armed Syrian militias may be manipulated to use their combat experience, their weapons, and their energy against a softer target; the Israeli civilian population on the Golan Heights. The Israeli side of the Golan Heights is a place where Syrian militias do not have to worry about killing Syrian civilian population when launching undiscriminating artillery attacks .
While Southern Lebanon is controlled tightly by Hezbollah, which for its own survival reasons keeps the Lebanese-Israeli border quite, southwest Syria is a free-for-all region where any organization who wants to gain popularity and prestige can use the area for launching terrorist attacks into Israel.
So far Israel is keeping a low profile. Israeli soldiers watch closely what is happening on the other side of the border. They provide humanitarian medical aid to injured civilians and Syrians militants associated with groups opposing the Assad regime (what a paradox), and they collect intelligence. Occasionally, when stray artillery shells fall in Israeli territory near a military post, or a civilian settlement, Israeli defense forces fire back at the source (usually a single artillery shell).
Israel has no interest in intervening in the Syrian civil war. The Assad regime was never friendly to Israel, but it was stable and ensured that no direct attacks on Israel were launched from the Golan Heights. Instead, Assad financed, armed, and housed terrorist groups who attacked Israel through Lebanon. If it was up to Israel, it would have preferred to see a different regime in power. However,the available potential replacements, are risky choices. No one knows for sure how a different regime will behave.
In the 1980s Israel attempted to create a buffer zone of a friendly Christian militia in Southern Lebanon in order to stop terror attacks from Lebanon. This attempt failed miserably. It is unlikely that Israel will attempt to intervene in Syria the same way.
Without strong central Syrian government to maintain order on its border, the likely Israeli model of operation will be similar to how Israel defends itself against attacks from Lebanon by using its air force to inflict unbearable pain on hostile organizations, and supplementing the airstrikes by limited ground incursions when things get out of control. The war in Gaza in May 2014 is an example of that.
If attacked from Syria, Israel is likely to respond forcefully and aggressively. Israel is likely to be accused by UN observers as responding disproportionately. However, Israel’s primary concern is to send a clear message to its enemies about the heavy price the’ll have to pay for attacking Israel. It worked in Lebanon and in Gaza. It will work in Syria. Hopefully the Syrian militias know that and will keep the border quite, and focus their attention on rebuilding their country.