The Syrian Wars: A New Chapter Opens in the Golan Heights

This article was originally published in The Jerusalem Post. 

The sounds of war have again echoed over the Golan Heights this past week. However, the drums of war have changed their course. Until last summer, we could clearly hear and witness the Syrian war with Syrian and Russian planes bombing rebel positions, occasionally “stray mortar” hitting the Israeli Golan. 

However, this week those were Israeli tanks allegedly shooting to Quneitra, just across the Alpha Line and last month it was the roar of Iranian surface-to-surface missiles, flying above the heads of Israeli skiers who surprisingly saw the rendezvous of Israeli Iron dome interceptors.

The sounds of Israeli fighter jets – operating to dismantle Iranian positions, ammunition depots and shipments to Hezbollah have replaced the Syrian ones – have added additional drums of war to the northern horizons. The Syrian war episode may have entered its concluding chapter, but the Israeli-Iranian confrontation is opening a new one.

In the summer of 2018, the Assad regime reestablished its control over the Syrian side of the Golan Heights, restoring Syrian sovereignty and redeploying Syrian Army elements to their pre-war positions.

However, a deeper look at the developments across the Syrian-Israeli frontier reveals that the new reality is different from pre-civil war Syria. Today, Syrian military bases host a number of new actors, which include pro-Iranian militias, Russian military police, and reconfigured Syrian units. The local leadership and elements identified with the opposition – who informally governed these areas before the Assad regime reestablished control – have fled or been killed. In their place, stands a new security architecture that is based and supported, in part, by foreign actors.

Eight years of war have dramatically changed the face of the Syrian state. The Syria of the past no longer exists. Demographic and social changes have rearranged the country, which numbered 23 million people before the war. 

Today, there are more than 5.6 million Syrian refugees living outside the country, the vast majority of whom are Sunni. 

The numbers of those killed is reported to be at least 511,000. The Syrian army, which numbered some 200,000 soldiers before the war, quickly eroded and Assad remained in power, supported by mobilized militias that filled the ranks of his army. 

At its peak, some 80,000 militias filled the Syrian military ranks. Iran played an important role by providing support, intelligence and training.

The regime’s victory – with Iran and Hezbollah’s support – has created several changes in southwest Syria. The Syrian military is no longer the sole authority on the ground. The Russian Military Police deployed on the Bravo Line aim to enforce a series of “reconciliations” to restore stability on the Golan by removing non-Syrian forces, as agreed upon in the Astana Process.

The Syrian Arab Army is no longer the same. In the south, the 61st Regional Brigade was completely wiped out. The 90th Regional Brigade returned, but has been reinforced with various militias, such as the NDF. The 112th brigade was deployed in the southern Golan Heights, ten kilometers from the Israeli border to fill the vacuum left by the destroyed 61st Brigade. It is probable that a local Hezbollah force may have been stationed under its auspices. 

Mustafa Mughniyeh, the eldest son of Imad Mughniyeh reportedly attempted to revive an Iranian cell in the Druze village of Hader. 

As outgoing chief of staff Lt.-Gen. Eisenkot detailed in an interview with The New York Times, Hezbollah developed a three-pronged strategy to confront Israel: building factories in Lebanon to manufacture precision-guided missiles, digging attack tunnels under the Israeli border, and setting up a second front from Syria on the Golan Heights. Furthermore, a Hezbollah intelligence position was recently struck by the IDF, less than two kilometers from Israel’s border.

Defying the understandings reached between Russia, Israel and Jordan, Iran continues to increase its presence in southern Syria. 

Several opposition sources detailed the military activities of pro-Iranian militias on the ground, among others the Iraqi al-Imam al-Hussein, Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Brigades, and Hezbollah’s elite “Radwan” unit. To conceal their activities, these militias use Syrian military bases, and some are embedded in regime forces, reportedly wearing Syrian army uniforms, and carrying Syrian IDs and flags.

Today, even those who are skeptical understand that Iran has reached beyond the Golan border. The missile fired into the Hermon by Iranian forces was launched from an area near Damascus that Israel was assured would not contain an Iranian presence.

Iran uses the promotion of Shi’ism as a tool to buy loyalty among Syrians from poor areas. These activities intensified in post-2011. Public expressions of Shi’ite practices, which were limited during the time of Assad, are now common, including in the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus.

THE ASSAD REGIME’S promises to restore pre-war stability seem to be a delusion. A weakened and exhausted population, a lack of leadership and basic services, and the loss of Israel’s rebel partners who had been working to stabilize the area over the past few years have resulted in a broken society. 

IDF Operation Good Neighbor was shut down, leaving a significant vacuum of supplies and support in the southern Syria. There is still high tension between the opposition groups that reconciled with the regime and the Syrian Security Forces in Daraa and Quneitra. Assassinations and explosions are still common in the government-controlled areas. The lack or loss of stabilizing forces leave the stage open to new destabilizing forces such as Iran.

Demonstrations are still going on in southwest Syria. Frustrated at the regime and Russia for not observing the terms of the deal, protesters continue to gather at the Al-Omari Mosque, calling for the regime to uphold its commitments. 

Furthermore, locals still protest the regime in Jasim, Da’el, al-Karak. Frustration over punishments in the area continues to grow: many have protested the forced military conscription and condemn the Syrian intel services raids of their homes. They call for the regime to abide by the terms of the reconciliation agreement signed last summer, in which opposition forces surrendered control of the area in return for the safety and security of the citizens who live there.

Following an intelligence operation, a new Iranian military position was uncovered in northern Israel recently, buried under piles of sand and debris. That is not a new cross-border Hezbollah tunnel or an Iranian intel position.

It is a 2500 years old outpost, established by the forces of Persian King Cambyses II at Tell Keisan, during his expedition to conquer the Levant, all the way to Ethiopia. The Ethiopian king understood the imperial and deceitful intentions and decided to reject the diplomatic overtures, and was prepared to defend his kingdom. Some 2500 years later, during increasing Iranian entrenchment in the Levant, Israel may be compelled to do the same.

Nir Boms is a Researcher at the Moshe Dayan Center (MDC) for Middle Eastern and African Studies.

Stéphane Cohen, is a former IDF Liaison Unit Commander to UN Forces in Syria and Lebanon. He is a member of the MDC’s Syria Forum.