Syrian Army, Hezbollah Launch Attack to Capture Territory Near Golan Heights

Iran believed to be behind move

An Israeli soldier speaks on his mobile phone at a military outpost at Mount Hermon in the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights overlooking the Israel-Syria border on Wednesday, Feb. 4, 2015
An Israeli soldier speaks on his mobile phone at a military outpost at Mount Hermon in the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights overlooking the Israel-Syria border on Wednesday, Feb. 4, 2015 / AP
February 11, 2015

JERUSALEM—The Syrian army and its Hezbollah ally launched a joint attack this week apparently aimed at capturing a swath of territory abutting the Israeli-held Golan Heights from rebel forces, opening a possible new front for the Israeli army to contend with.

Iran, which has acknowledged sending military advisers and high-ranking officers from its Revolutionary Guard to assist in the operation, is believed to be behind the strategic move. The establishment of Hezbollah bases on Syrian territory opposite the Golan would enable the Lebanese organization to strike at Israel without risking retaliation against Lebanon.

While the Syrian army is playing a major role in border battles, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the Syrian civil war, the position of the Damascus regime regarding the Iranian-inspired move is unclear. Since a ceasefire was signed by Syria and Israel in the wake of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Syria has kept its border with Israel peaceful. It has been the most peaceful of Israel’s four borders with Arab states. Neither President Bashar al-Assad nor his father and predecessor as president, Hafez al-Assad, wished to risk retaliation from Israel by permitting infiltration or harassment across the border.

However, the central role Iran is playing in supporting Damascus in the Syrian civil war, both economically and militarily, means that the Syrian regime cannot lightly dismiss Iranian interests. These interests include making Hezbollah a credible military force capable of deterring Israel from striking at Iran’s nuclear infrastructure.

This week’s battles, which included tanks and artillery on the Syrian side, are the heaviest in the area since the civil war began four years ago. The Syrian army and Hezbollah are within five miles of the border. Israel has said it will not permit the area adjacent to the border to become a Hezbollah base of operations, which raises the possibility of a direct confrontation.

After reports in the Israeli media last month of Hezbollah’s plans to begin operating from the Golan border area, Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah issued a denial. However, a few days later an Israeli air attack destroyed two SUVs reconnoitering the border area. Twelve military personnel were killed in the attack. It emerged that they were six Hezbollah fighters and six Iranian members of the Revolutionary Guard. Among the dead was Jihad Mughniye, the son of Imad Mughniye, Hezbollah’s military chief assassinated in Damascus in 2008. The younger Mughniye had reportedly been designated by the organization as commander of the Golan front Hezbollah is seeking to establish. Among the Iranians killed in the attack was a senior general. Tehran has warned that it will respond against Israel at a time and place of its choosing.

For the past three years, Israel has retained a working relationship with the rebel militias along the Golan border, including the al Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front. Some 1,000 wounded Syrians have been treated by Israeli medical personnel in field hospitals on the Golan side of the border set up specifically for this purpose and many have been hospitalized inside Israel. Israel is also reported to have supplied blankets and other humanitarian items for Syrian villages in the border area. Although shells from the Syrian side have occasionally exploded inside Israeli territory, Israeli officers describe these as mostly random overshots.

Nasrallah has attacked the Syrian rebel groups in the area, specifically the al-Nusra Front, for serving as Israel's shields.