Israel-Syrian Border Heats Up as Assad Pounds Rebels

Smoke rises above opposition held areas of the Daraa province during airstrikes by Syrian regime forces

Smoke rises above opposition held areas of the Daraa province during airstrikes by Syrian regime forces / Getty Images

As Bashar al-Assad retakes southwestern Syria, Israel is concerned. On July 1, the IDF moved tanks and artillery to the Golan border, a signal to the Syrian president to proceed with caution. To ensure the message was received, the Israeli army uncharacteristically announced the military reinforcement. The Jewish state seeks to ensure several red lines: 1) that Iran and its proxy Hezbollah leave Syria; 2) that Assad honors the 1974 Agreement on Disengagement; and 3) that a horde of refugees doesn't storm its border.

The first is the most important. Israel views as intolerable an Iranian presence stretching from Syria across Lebanon. Preventing it may be easier said than done. Iran sees itself as a dominant regional player. "Tehran wants its seven-years' worth of money and blood in Syria to be acknowledged," says Middle East Analyst Abdulrahman Al-Masri. "It has achieved some levels of dominance in Syria, and it does not want to be excluded from the big picture."

Tehran ignored the July 9, 2017, cease-fire agreement brokered by the United States, Russia, and Jordan, which covered southern Syria. It continued to strengthen its position in the region through supporting local militias—in Israel's mind, mini-Hezbollahs in the making.

Israel desires to get what it wants without stepping on toes. Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman spoke with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoygu last week, stressing: "Israel's goal is the eviction of Iranian forces and Hezbollah from all of Syria." Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will fly to Russia next week for further consultations with President Vladimir Putin. He will likely affirm Israel's determination to see Iran thrown out of Syria, in return for Israel's acquiescence to Assad's rule.

Reportedly, Israel's first choice for post-civil war Syria was to see it broken up into statelets. Russian support for Assad has scotched that idea. With the collapse of the ceasefire negotiations last week, the Russians and Assad renewed their offensive on the city of Daraa in southwestern Syria, launching over 100 airstrikes and dropping numerous barrel bombs in a 24-hour period. A spokesman for the rebel holdouts, the Free Syrian Army, told the Arab press, "We will fight the Assad regime and its partners until the last drop of our blood." If they don't yield, that may well be the result.

Assad's looming ascendance is what led Israel to call up its reserves of tanks and artillery. It wants to make certain its second red line isn't crossed—that Assad respects the 1974 U.N. disengagement agreement. The accord set up a 15-mile demilitarized zone on either side of the border. "We have a Separation of Forces Agreement with Syria from 1974; this is the guiding principle. We will adhere to it very strictly and so must others, everyone," Netanyahu said on July 3. Syria has rejected a recent United Nations request, to which Israel had agreed, to install high-tech monitoring devices in the zone.

As to its third red line, preventing a mass influx of refugees, Israel has taken proactive steps. For the last two years, it has supplied an impressive amount of humanitarian aid to Syrian refugees. It started with medical supplies. (The Syrians burned other Israeli goods. But after this initial period of ingratitude, they began to warm to Israel's generosity and requested more items, starting with baby food.) Israel now sends 200 tons of food a month, tents, and baking ovens. It even answered a request to send donkeys. Over 6,000 Syrians were brought to Israel for medical treatment. Israel says the aid serves its interests by letting the refugees know they're not alone and assistance is coming. Hence, no need to rush the border.

However, the refugee issue has grown acute with the recent fighting. An estimated quarter-million people have fled Daraa and its vicinity. Some have camped a football field away from Israel's security fence.

For Israel, ensuring its three red lines on the Golan will clearly remain a challenge. Al-Masri is pessimistic that Assad will have the strength to enforce his rule in southwestern Syria. He describes his forces as a "chaotic kaleidoscope" of groups with different ideologies and commanders. If true, it will be a bitter pill when Israel discovers that the strongman it bet on can't deliver the stability that it craves.