Most Israelis have never heard of Beit Jinn, a small Syrian Muslim village situated in the foothills of Mount Hermon just a few miles east of the border at the northern tip of the Golan Heights.
But at the end of December, the rebel-controlled region capitulated to Syrian government forces following a siege. In yet another sign of how the tide of the six-year civil war has shifted decisively in the regime’s favor, forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad — for the first time — gained control of territory immediately adjacent to the border with Israel.
After years of cultivating ties with rebel-held forces across the border in the Golan, Israel now faces the prospect of the return of forces from the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah army and fighters commanded by Iran. Though the southern and central areas of the border like the Quneitra province remain under rebel control, it seems that a domino-like takeover by the regime along the border is only a matter of time, analysts say.
What will that mean for Israel’s so-called “good neighbor” policy that offered humanitarian assistance and medical care to Syrians from rebel villages? Will the return of Assad’s forces to the border make a war between Israel and its northern neighbors more likely?
“This has the potential of creating a more united front of resistance between Lebanon and Syria against Israel.”
“This has the potential of creating a more united front of resistance between Lebanon and Syria against Israel,” said Ofer Zalzberg, an Israel expert at the International Crisis Group, a think tank focused on shaping policies that will prevent war. “This is an area in which one can envisage the entry of Shiite militias — Iranian Revolutionary Guard-backed militias and Hezbollah. The main Israeli concern is that these Iran-backed forces will establish an offensive infrastructure there.”
Indeed, Israeli politicians and security chiefs have warned Russia, European officials and just about anyone who will listen that it won’t tolerate a permanent Iranian (or Hezbollah) presence in southern Syria near the border with the Golan Heights. Israel fears that Iran and Hezbollah will establish a new front on the ground near the Golan Heights to gain new leverage over the Jewish state.
“This is part of a long process where you see the Syrian regime and its allies pushing back the rebels,” said Eyal Zisser, a professor of political science at Tel Aviv University. “Now it’s happening on the northern part of the border. It’s a logical process, and I can’t see it slowing. I assume we’ll see them progressing to the southern portion of the border.
“It’s a problem, and part of the broader policy dilemma of what to do about Iran and Hezbollah,” Zisser continued. “In Syria, Israel can do very little because it can’t get involved and go and help those rebels. And if they don’t help those rebels, it means they’ll have to surrender to the regime.”
For the last few years, Israel has been sending blankets, food and medical supplies across the border into rebel-held areas. At the same time, the Israeli army has taken care of thousands of Syrians who have come to the border fence needing urgent medical care and even hospitalization. The aid is dubbed the “good neighbor policy,” but analysts doubt Israel will try to continue the policy if the regime gets control over the central and southern border area.
The regime wants to regain every part of Syrian soil, said Joel Parker, a fellow specializing in Syria at the Moshe Dayan Center for African and Middle East Studies. The problem for the regime, he added, is that its military is like Swiss cheese, and relies heavily on Hezbollah and Iranian militias.
In order to bolster the pockets of non-regime holdouts, Israel should be quietly trying to broker a cease-fire deal between Druze, Muslim and Christian areas, Parker said. Israel needs to communicate to villagers that they should avoid cooperation with Hezbollah and Iran, and focus on their local interests rather than foreign powers, Parker said.
The arrival of the regime and its Shiite allies at the border “is a threat today, but in 10 years it could be an existential threat to Israel,” Parker said.
Ironically, for 40 years, the Assad regime kept a stable and incident-free border with Israel. The years of the civil war have seen a host of border infractions, from mortar spillover into Israel from rebel groups to near confrontations in the air between Israeli and Russian aircraft. That has made the situation more dicey.
Ehud Eiran, a political science professor at Haifa University, said the Israeli army’s original defense posture on the northern border is based on a deal with one unified authority. Over the years, some in Israel preferred Assad as the “devil-you-know” whom they could rely on to maintain a stable border.
“The potential threat is a closer [Syrian] alliance with Iran. There is a potential for the Syrians to host the Iranians close to the border,” he said. “This will be a period in which the reality will be reshaped and rebalanced.’’
Despite the possibility of a new threat at the border, Eiran said he doesn’t think the likelihood of war with Israel’s northern neighbors is on the rise. Syria will be focused on rebuilding its wrecked economy, while Hezbollah will be licking its wounds after suffering thousands of fighters lost or wounded over the course of the civil war. Israel, meanwhile, has grown more formidable.
Amid the regime’s momentum, fallout is being felt in Syria from the popular upheaval in Iran over the last week and complaints about Tehran’s focus on foreign proxy wars. This is giving a shot of inspiration to rebels in Syria, Parker said.
“People [in Iran] are saying, ‘Why are you spending our money in southern Syria, fix our sewage,’” Parker said. “A lot of Hezbollah supporters are bummed about what is going on in Iran. … Syrian rebels, on the other hand, are thrilled. They are falling all over themselves with joy.”
“If the Iranian upheaval dies down in the near term, it’s unlikely to have much of an effect on Syria,” said Tel Aviv University’s Zisser. “But if protests against the Islamic Republic persist, the fallout will be felt in southern Syria — and throughout the region. If [the protests] will increase, then it’s a new story, not only for Israel but the entire Middle East.”